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American Oligarchy

I’ve not posted for a good while for two reasons: first, I’m exceedingly weary of the finger-pointing and the character assassination going on in the political arena and second, I’m weary of trying to enlighten otherwise reasonable people of the truth of what is going on these days. That is, until I ran across this article by Michael Ventura. In it, he “nails it”, in my humble opinion. His first indictment, regarding a professional military, struck a harmonic note after I had listened, as I do every year at this time, to Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant. And his second indictment, regarding the sad state of affairs in education, will not be contested by any classroom teacher, I don’t think. The article just makes so much sense and delves very deeply into what is wrong with this country. Few would disagree with me that this country is seriously off-track; what stirs emotional responses is just what it is that has caused our present situation. The bottom line, folks, is that we in this country are no longer pulling together (if we ever did) towards a common goal. Instead, we have classes of people who are solely concerned with their own future, to their own long-term detriment. Read the article and think about it. Michael Ventura’s article was published in The Austin Chronicle on May 7, 2010.

Letters at 3AM: Of Tiers and Tears

By Michael Ventura

Oligarchy is an American fact. It cannot be accurately described with antique categories such as upper, middle, and lower class. Oligarchy divides society, with deadly effect, into rigid strata or tiers. (Does “deadly” seem too strong a word? It won’t when I’m done.) To recap briefly:

In the Top Tier are the oligarchs themselves, defined in a Paul Simon lyric as a “loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires.” Beneath the Top Tier is the Professional Tier, which most directly serves oligarchs: politicians (up to the highest level), financiers, lawyers, doctors, top-scale entertainers, think-tank thinkers, and academics and specialists as varied as physicists and fashion designers. Oligarchy pays the Professional Tier so well that its affluence isolates it socially from the lower tiers. These professionals believe they’re paid well for their merit, but, as we shall see, they’re paid to be isolated.

Below the Professional Tier are three descending tiers: the Skilled Service Tier, which includes people whose functions cannot be outsourced, such as cops, nurses, middle management, and techs; the Unskilled Service Tier, such as clerks and waitresses; and Spare Parts, a tier in constant flux between desperation and the lowest levels of employment. (There is also what I call the Marginal Tier, a complicated bunch that, I’m afraid, needs its own column.)

Each tier lives in a different country, with different laws, customs, education, assumptions, and drastically different options. What the tiers have in common is that they’re isolated from one another. People tend to socialize and identify with those in their own tier. A tier not one’s own becomes “other” and, like every “other,” easily stigmatized and dehumanized.

In the United States, the greatest single victory for capital-“O” Oligarchy was the deregulation of the financial industry under President Bill Clinton. Re-regulating that industry effectively would be an important step in subverting Oligarchy and restoring our republic. But that’s only one step. Far harder to remedy is the most pernicious element of Oligarchy, without which it cannot exist: the isolation of those in the Professional Tier. Their isolation is the single most destructive element in American society today.

Excellent services, private schools, fairly luxurious homes, international vacations – circa 1975 and earlier, only wealthy Americans lived that way. Now the Professional Tier takes such privileges for granted, as it takes for granted a potent degree of insulation from the nation’s nastier troubles. People of the Professional Tier, whether conservative or liberal, understandably act to keep their gains. But look at the long-term results of the Professional Tier’s isolation in just two spheres of American life: the military and education.

Every stratum of America fought World War II. Norman Mailer, a Harvard graduate, was drafted and plunked into a rifle platoon beside Texas farm boys. Sons of doctors, lawyers, and bankers served with sons of mechanics, cabdrivers, and bakers. It was called “total war,” and it worked, defeating in less than four years far worse enemies than we now face.

By the 1960s, the Professional Tier was powerful enough to keep most of its kids from being drafted into the Vietnam War through college deferments and the like. Finally, as that war went on and on, the injustice of Professional Tier deferments became intolerable. A just draft was instituted. You were assigned a number; if your number was called, you went, unless you had a physical disability or your service constituted an intolerable hardship for your family. After the Professional Tier’s children became eligible for the draft, the war wound down. Professional Tier conservatives didn’t want their kids in that war any more than Professional Tier liberals.

The Vietnam War proved that most in the Professional Tier wanted no part of the military. So the draft was ended and the military was restructured. It ceased being the citizens’ army that the Founders envisioned and became instead a major job opportunity for the Unskilled Service and Spare Parts tiers. They are the core enlistees who fight for our privileges now.

The Professional Tier was and is delighted. Only in the direst emergency would they or their children be called upon. (That’s how you know that most of this “war on terror” is bunk. If the United States was seriously under military threat, do you think the government would hesitate to call up as many as might be needed?)

One result: An anti-war demonstration in which a possible draftee burns his draft card directly threatens military manpower. Government reacts. But, as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have proved, government need not pay attention to demonstrations led largely by Professional Tier people who have no military stake and whom the military no longer needs. If the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, and financiers were eligible to be drafted, everyone knows we would not have fought the wars of the last 10 years. These wars are possible only because the Professional Tier, in effect, bought its way out of service. But in so doing, the Professional Tier also bought its way out of power. Their elected representatives, liberal as well as conservative, may support any war they choose because the Professional Tier knows it’s safe. War won’t derail their kids’ careers. Do you think Congress would support a war if Professional Tier financial supporters were screaming about it?

Thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, have died and are dying as a direct result of the Professional Tier’s isolation and its hunger for safety. But you won’t see anti-war Professional Tier liberals or pro-war Professional Tier conservatives work to reinstate a just draft, even though the price they pay for safety is political impotence.

That’s how the tier structure of Oligarchy works.

Look at education. “Thirty million Americans have ‘below basic’ literacy and one quarter fail to graduate high school in four years” (The Week, April 9, p.5). “At least one in five adult workers in New York City lacks a high school diploma” (The New York Times, Feb. 22, p.A5). Yet until circa 1970, our public education was among the best in the world. What happened?

As the public-school system became more and more troubled, overwhelmingly the Professional Tier sent its kids to private schools. A few did so out of sincere belief in other modes of learning. Most were simply buying their way out of the struggle to uphold America’s standards of education. The lower tiers hadn’t the political sophistication or the financial clout to make the fight. The result? Thirty million American illiterates and a 25% high school dropout rate. And the result of that? A massive number of Americans without the tools to cope with the 21st century, vulnerable to demagoguery, incapable of informed opinion.

Soon the Professional Tier will become the Professional Caste. Advanced education, necessary for the top professions, now costs too much for any but the Professional Tier to afford. American affluence is fast on its way to becoming an inherited privilege. That is Oligarchy.

The Top Tier plots and schemes for power, but the collective impact of individual choices makes or breaks a decent society. A collective move is essential for change. No matter their individual motivations, collectively the Professional Tier has protected itself out of power and influence while it plops its wealth into real estate and stocks, which in turn redistributes its moneys back up to the Top Tier.

The Professional Tier is magnificently oblivious to its actual function in Oligarchy. It opts out of the military and creates wars. It opts out of public education and creates an ever more dangerous mass ignorance. Unawareness of its function as a collective assures that the children of the Professional Tier will live in an ever more insecure and savage land.

8 Comments on “American Oligarchy”

  1. #1 Matt
    on Feb 21st, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    As someone who opted out of the Professional Tier, but yet has regular exposure to this group, this rings true for me. This is a group that is not interested in hearing about Peak Oil, etc. Eventually the hard times many are experiencing these days will trickle up to this group. But until that time, they can be expected to go along their merry ways. This is a group that buys their “indulgences” through charitable giving. They are led in this effort by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

  2. #2 Jeff
    on Feb 21st, 2011 at 5:09 pm

    Wow, Matt, you really nailed it with the comment on indulgences. Not being Catholic, I never thought of it that way, but you are exactly right. Any ideas on what it would take to get everyone back in the same row boat?

  3. #3 Matt
    on Feb 21st, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    I first came across the term “indulgences” when researching carbon offsets back when they became the rage. A British eco think tank came up with the analogy. It can be used as a way to frame many contemporary schemes…

    We have a chance — albeit narrow — to make some progress once collapse is well under way. Right now, most are still in denial and refuse to consider an alternate way of life. Bread and circuses rule. I’m of the mind that we can re-structure and live much better but have not had any luck with selling my fairly detailed ideas. It seems that it is easier to grab attention with productions like the Zeitgeist series.

    Thanks for the Morris Berman link. I’ve read most of his stuff and been to his blog before, but had not been there in a while…

  4. #4 Jeff
    on Feb 21st, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I have a good friend who thinks very highly of the Zeitgeist series. I watched the first episode and thought it was a bunch of crap. My friend also thinks that the Federal Reserve and fractional reserve banking should be abolished. I’m not keen on either of those, but if that is the goal, then there should be a long transition period. But that isn’t going to happen. I’ll have to go to your web site to read about your “fairly detailed ideas”. I’m not surprised that you haven’t had any luck selling them – I’m working on a post about how ideas backfire. Denial is a powerful emotion and it will take a real crisis to change the direction of our culture.

  5. #5 Matt
    on Feb 22nd, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    I think that Peter Joseph (producer) of the Zeitgeist Series has hit the high points on the causes of our imminent demise. If we don’t alter the system — including abandoning the Fed — we will be unable to get through the bottleneck with some semblance of grace.

    Re: details

    Over the years, the description of my method of “saving the world” has evolved and a review of my site will likely be confusing. While it involves a new form of property rights, radical education system, and other things that would be considered radical by the general population, all of the components individually exist today. You have to envision an integration of the Jesuit system (vow of poverty for leadership and campuses) and Steve Case’s http://exclusiveresorts.com (shared ownership of property) and http://zipcar.com (shared use of cars). Life can be simple.

  6. #6 Jeff
    on Feb 22nd, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    My introduction to the Zeitgeist Series was via the Addendum and I thought it was rather simplistic in its view of the world. What particularly offended me was the idea that debt is created by fractional reserve banking. No, debt is created by human beings in their incessant desire for oneupsmanship and the “need” for the latest toy. The idea of getting rid of the Fed bothers me because what are the alternatives? The most common one is that the State should issue currency so that the evil bankers are put out of business. What, pray tell, guarantees that the State will do a better job than the Fed? I’m supposed to put my faith in politicians?? I don’t doubt that the components for a decent standard of living exists, but the stumbling block is the stupidity of the human race. How else do you explain people consistently, election after election, voting against their best interests? The people of Wisconsin are finding out the consequences of being stupid, right now, aren’t they?

  7. #7 Matt
    on Feb 23rd, 2011 at 11:06 am

    It took me years of research to reach the conclusion that the Fed was structured to serve only a small portion of the populace. As someone who was more indoctrinated than most as the result of a Finance/Real Estate education and career, I simply could not wrap my mind around something that was always taken for granted. Have you watched Chris Martenson’s Crash Course?

  8. #8 Jeff
    on Feb 23rd, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Yes, I’ve watched Chris Martenson’s Crash Course and I thought it was quite good.

    I never gave the Fed a whole lot of thought until my friend started railing about it and then I did a bit of research. Yes, the Fed favors the elite, just as every institution in this country does. But what is the alternative? Have you looked at the links listed under the category of Money? There are some interesting ideas there, but none that are terribly practical unless a surge of interest in the ideas manifests itself. Unlike the ever-optimistic Socialists, I don’t think that the day when the working class will defeat the bourgeois will ever arrive.

    One other thing about the Fed: very, very few of those who call for the abolition of the Fed realize that every country in the world has a central bank. Even Islamic countries. In a complex society, there has to be an institution that maintains the value of fiat money (and gold can be fiat money also – there is nothing that prevents its debasement) and ensures that the monetary supply keeps up with population growth. Now, we may very well disagree with the policies of the Fed, but that is an entirely different thing than calling for its abolition. People who call for the abolition of the Fed are crackpots, pure and simple. Scratch them hard enough and you will find lots and lots of conspiracy theories bubbling beneath the surface.

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