Introduction To New Series, Index And Bibliography

Index Of Posts In This Series

The Danger Of Stupidity
Understanding Suicidal Americans
David Brooks Says Smart People Caused Trumpism
Why I’m Angry At David Brooks
A Somewhat Charitable View Of Vaccine Refusers
Symbolic Violence In Politics


I’ve spent a lot of time going through The Public And Its Problems by John Dewey, and now it’s time to move on. That series led me to the conclusion that there are people pushing hard to create two separate communities in the US. Democracy isn’t possible in a society of two communities. One plausible way forward is to think about division: who is pushing it, and why and how they do it.

My tentative answer: there is an oligarchy inside our democracy that can seize power by creating a divided electorate. They use their wealth to weaponize the lines of division. They hire people to creat propaganda and other means of blunting the ability of people to understand their material, emotional and spiritual needs, and the steps that might improve them. Oligarchs do this to cement their own power and material wealth. They are joined by other people who think they benefit from helping the Oligarchs. Then there are the religionists who want to impose their morality on the rest of us at any cost. There are others who aren’t much more than nihilists.


The Oligarchy. The theory that there is an oligarchy in the United States is based on the work of Jeffrey Winters and Benjamin Page, in a paper titled Oligarchy In The United States?, published in 2009. Winters and Page see Oligarchy in terms of “power resources, particularly material power resources as manifested in wealth”, as well as political and cultural power. They argue that possession of great material resources gives owners political power, and

… carries with it a set of political interests: interests in preserving and protecting that wealth, interests in ensuring its free use for many purposes, and interests in acquiring more wealth. That is, highly concentrated material wealth generally brings with it both enormous political power and the motivation to use that power in order to win certain kinds of political-economic outcomes. Possession of great wealth defines membership in an oligarchy, provides the means to exert oligarchic power, and provides the incentives to use that power for the core political objective of wealth defense (which, depending on the national and historical context, means property defense, income defense, or both).

The three interests identified by Winters and Page are shared by all members of the Oligarchy. They all seek those ends in their own ways but their ggals are the same. Their individual actions reinforce each other in ways that hammer the rest of us. To be quite clear, I don’t think there’s some vast conspiracy among the Oligarchs or anyone else. It’s just that their interests converge. I think of it as a self-organizing limited Oligarchy.

The Ideology. Money alone isn’t enough. The rest of us have to consent, to accept the outcomes as fair. That’s where neoliberalism comes in. It tells people that this is a fair system, that it rewards people for their natural merit, their hard work, their persistence, and their good behavior. It also tells people that if they aren’t well-off, if they are in debt, too poor to pay for health care, unable to give their children a decent life, it’s their own fault, and there’s nothing to be done but suffer.

Neolliberalism became the dominant ideology of both legacy parties beginning in the late 70s. Successful people called it meritocracy, so it didn’t bother Democrats. Republicans used its laissez-faire component to dismantle the safety net and the regulations the Oligarchy didn’t like and Democrats did little to stop them.

Then the Great Crash crushed that ideology into dust for everyone who could think clearly. That, of course, didn’t include politicians. With Obama in charge, Democrats tried to restore the previous regime. Republicans blocked even Obama’s miserly proposals to help regular people, while throwing money at the Oligarchs. Then Trump. Anyone who can think at all can now see that the entire system of neoliberalism has wreaked havoc on the vast majority of us.

As a palliative, Republicans offered racism and nationalism, first quietly, and as the visible economic and cultural damage grew, more and more overtly. Now they’ve added authoritarianism in the Trumpian vein, and weirdo fantasies in the Qanon vein, and the Big Lie about stolen elections as a combo meal.

Divisions. We are a complex nation. There are many ways of dividing us from each other: race, class, wealth, income, education, and location and more. Or we might be divided along the lines suggested by the theory of moral foundations, or by other differences in moral concerns.

Target audience. There are a number of us who are ready to burn it all down in the hopes of restoring white supremacy or some other regime in which they are the dominant power. They are easily manipulated by propaganda from the Oligarchy. Here’s a good description from Thomas Edsall in the New York Times.

Sadly many people truly believe the gunk Trump and the Trumpists spread, the Qanon fantasies, the racist crap, the moral terror of Critical Race Theory, lies about crime, and the Big Lie. We all know Republicans we thought were connected to reality who believe some or all of the garbage. How did we get to be so absurd? One possibility is suggested by something Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in The Fixation of Belief (1877):

The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief. It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject every belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure this result. … [T]he sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.

There’s a lesson for all of us here, and it applies to me as much as followers of Q. Bad habits of thought inflate people’s perception that other divisions are crucial to their self-perception. And, the large number of divisions gives those who want two tribes fighting each other have plenty of choices.

One other group seems problematic: the religious zealots. This group wants to impose its morality on all of us, and will stop at nothing, including absurd unconstitutional laws, to do so. The Oligarchs can easily make promises to this group, because their wealth means they won’t be bothered by whatever laws the zealots want.

The Results. The ultimate result of the internecine wars in the majority is an impasse in government. Nothing can change because democracy doesn’t work when there are two distinct groups with nothing in commmon. The Oligarchs are able to influence what’s left of government with their lobbyists and campaign cash. They cement their power and protect their wealth and statues.


So there’s my story as of today. In this series, I’ll take up these points and try to find support and contradiction. I’m not going to take a particular book for this, but I’ll use those I’ve read and new material. I’ll update this page with new posts, and add a bibliography section to keep track of the new material.

Philip Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

Joshua Rothman, Why Is It So Hard To Be Rational. This article describes several theories about rationality and the difficulties we face in trying to be rational. Look for the charming reference to Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas.

Nicole M. Stephens and Sarah Townsend, Research: How You Feel About Individualism Is Influenced by Your Social Class This article in the Harvard Business Review discusses some research on the difficulties faced by working class people trying to enter the meritoracy. I didn’t read the underlying materials.

Democracy Against Capitalism: Liberalism

In Chapter 7 of Democracy against Capitalism Ellen Meiksins Wood sets out an historical analysis of the politics of the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, starting with England. In Wood’s telling, two of the major steps along the way were Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Both events temporarily settled the relations between the nobility and centralizing state in the person of the monarch. Neither event had anything to do with the establishment of democracy in the sense of rule by the people. The settlements assume the continued servility of the masses, and continued domination by the aristocracy. The power of the nobility was based on their economic domination through non-economic means, military, juridical, and ideological, and on control over the power of the nascent state.

As feudalism morphed into capitalism, domination was split between two forces, the centralizing state and increasing economic power, mostly held by the aristocracy and by the rising merchant class. The latter were threatened by growing centralized power, and reacted to it by working to increase the power of the Parliament which they controlled. Capitalism helped make this possible because the economically dominant class was able to extract surplus from the productive sector through economic power, only somewhat aided by the power of the state.

Liberalism became the dominant ideology among the dominant economic class. This use of the term “liberal” has a specific meaning: it refers to a set of values including limited government, constitutionalism, individual rights and civil liberties. Kindle Loc. 4499. The pre-condition for this kind of liberalism is the existence of a centralized state, one that has to be limited by these ideological constructs. Kindle Loc. 4502.

The dominant classes were willing to extend civil protections from the central state to the multitudes. What they were not willing to do was to allow any intrusion on their rights of property. That led to a search for legal and constitutional protections of their property rights. Capitalism provided the economic framework for this project. Citizenship relates to the State, and a growing right to select representatives to govern. Citizenship is irrelevant to the economy, where the economically dominant class controls everything. Legal and ideological structures protect that division.

Wood looks at US history, and sees a somewhat similar process. In the US, a limited form of democracy existed in the States at the time the Constitution was written, and the Founding Fathers could not displace it. Still, the same solution emerged. The Constitution protects property interests. Theoretically, all citizens share in that protection of property, but the emphasis is on political freedoms, the liberal freedoms of individual rights and civil liberties, and limited government. The principle limit on government was to prevent it from imposing restrictions on the free use of property. The dominant class, first merchants, then industrialists, and then financiers, controls the economy.

The idea was that all citizens would be represented by their elected officials. Wood says that the representatives are removed from the people at large, both spatially in the sense that the central government was isolated; and in the sense that the representatives are few in number compared to the number of citizens.

In ‘representative democracy’ rule by the people remained the principal criterion of democracy, even if rule was filtered through representation tinged with oligarchy, and the peoplel was evacuated of its social content. Kindle Loc. 4436; ital. in orig.

The term “social content” means the natural social context in which people live, relations of home, work, church, community. This idea of representation is natural according to Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 35, quoted by Wood

The idea of actual representation of all classes of the people, by people of each class, is altogether visionary…. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades…. they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by merchants than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless…. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community. Kindle Loc. 4240.

These words could have come from Plato, substituting a different elite for merchants, or from any other elitist theorist. This obviously is not rule by the people, as in the original meaning of democracy. As I type this, we can see our elitists in action, busily confirming a known liar and a sexual creep to join four other conservative hacks on SCOTUS, where they will decide just how much majority rule we are allowed.

The political sphere is the home of limited government, the home of civil liberties, the home of individual rights. That sphere is separate from the economic sphere, which is put into the hands of the oligarchs, the rich, and their minions. The economic sphere is the area that provides us with the means to live, mostly by selling our labor. The idea is that the political sphere is not supposed to interfere with the economic sphere, insuring that every part of our productive lives are at the disposal of the rich, including our ability to provide our families and ourselves with food and shelter.

Wood sees liberalism as “democracy tinged with oligarchy”. As I explain in this 2013 post at Naked Capitalism, we live in an oligarchy inside a democracy. This and similar posts at FDL are based on Oligarchy in the United States? by Benjamin Page and Jeffrey Winters and on Winters’ book Oligarchy. They argue that Oligarchs share three interests:

1. Protecting and preserving wealth
2. Insuring the unrestricted use of wealth
3. Acquiring more wealth.

Oligarchs differ on what we call social issues (the carceral state, abortion, gay rights, guns and so on), which in Wood’s telling are the domain of the political sphere. Consequently some legislation on those issues is possible. Their views on economic issues are almost identical. A threat to one rich person is a threat to all. Therefore they unite on economic issues and generally prevail when legislation or regulation threatens any of them. Or when they really want a SCOTUS nominee to be confirmed.