America's Collapsing Middle Class, Capitalism, Class Consciousness, Corporate State, Differential Accumulation, Financial Elite, Gross Inequality, Karl Marx, Maldistribution of Wealth, Morris Berman, Offshoring, Poverty, Rentier Class, The Elite 1%, Trailer Park Boys, Wage Slave, Wall Street Fraud
I’ve never seen such an avaricious society……John Adams
Far from the valorized notion of job creators, father figure capitalists and the land of milk and honey, Morris Berman rightly points out the roots of a system that demands one sell their labor power for substinence wages must of necessity- at some point- redirect to a swindle.
The mandate of selling one’s own labor power in a system that requires exploitation to function reduces the calculus of survival to one of two options:
1.) The availability of plentiful jobs with wages ratcheting upwards over the years, allowing the worker to attain financial independence through an eventual participation in rent seeking retirement.
2.) Hitting the big payoff, the mother lode, striking it rich-in other words achieving success at the envied goal of rich accumulation, usually through starting their own business, day trading or some other similar scheme of differential accumulation.
I suppose there is a third option, which is the life of crime, e.g. using criminal means to achieve sufficient accumulation to attempt to satisfy, in perpetuity, the need to sell one’s labor power for substinence. This is also the thesis that professional gamblers prefer, but as we shall see from this post, there is not much difference from these options and option # 2 above.
Great wealth unexplained is often the accumulation of a series of crimes and illegalities undiscovered, from insider trading to market manipulation, monopolies and official corruption, occasionally mixed in with sheer dumb luck and ruthless disregard for the law.
That is why the wealthy are rarely the great artists, athletes, or inventors who they hold up as the example of excellence to which they can hardly presume. The modern wealthy generally create nothing except a climate of injustice, fraud, and corruption.
When times are good, as in the period of most of the 19th and early/mid 20th century, when labor is relatively scarce and wages relatively high, option 1 provides passable solace to the American middle class worker. From about 1970 onward, roughly coinciding with the onset of neo-liberal capitalism, we have toggled to a relative surplus of workers with the onset of cheap labor in the Far East. Now we have too many workers competing with a highly discounted foreign labor pool, with entire industries “offshored” to China with the easily anticipated resultant of a hollowed out community structure left behind, with insufficient tax base to support itself.
In addition, the capitalist mode of production has at the same time affected a massive maldistribution of wealth, wherein entire segments are using accumulated profits for rent seeking endeavor, extracting as much money from the economy as fast as possible with no regard to the consequences. So we have vast numbers of affluent and wealthy individuals with no place to invest with consistent returns, as the low hanging fruit of reliable investment opportunities for this class has been consumed by simply too much wealth chasing too few investment opportunities.
The intersection of these two phenomena goes a long way to explain our current situation, how we got here and why we are not likely to leave. Of course, all of this has been written and discussed previously ad nauseum, but for me, the puzzling question is why do people go along with what must now be for most, a clear case of cause and effect?
Even a cursory look at income and wealth distribution shows a 3σ distribution of income, in statistics this means that 99.6% of all income is captured with average value of some $22,500 in annual wage earner income. None of the values within this 3σ distribution of income is sufficient to satisfy the basic objective of achieving enough of a “nest egg” to catapult oneself into a comfortable retirement, given the current FDIC insured interest rates typically used for most retirees.
The conclusion- you must be a statistical outlier to achieve financial independence, you must somehow, against all odds, land in the 4σ-6σ range of incomes, which is to say .4%-.0001% of total wage earners. These are the probabilities of lotteries, hence my declaration to “The Lottery of the Middle Class”.
Why do vast numbers of people accept a system of forced exploitation with such small numbers of possible positive outcomes? It is a near statistical certainty that you will die with insufficient money to take care of yourself and family-even after 30 or 40 years of labor- why roll the dice on this almost certain bust?
The answer lies partially in Marx’s theory of class consciousness, and to be sure, if times are good and sufficient standard of living upgrades are provided, usually through technology, then people are not likely to dig too deeply into the underpinnings of probabilities. But when times are not good, when a labor surplus is apparent, and when even so called “guaranteed” rates of return are fast evaporating, what then?
Sociology has shown us that class consciousness is not all it was cracked up to be, it turns out Americans don’t necessarily begrudge others –in fields other than their own- the realization of outsized incomes, profits, and wealth. On a street where all the residents are plumbers, the house on the end of the street owned by an attorney is not criticized, under the presumption that he has more education, more experience, and has taken more risk-supposedly- to the furtherance of his “well deserved” wealth. After all, each plumber had the option to choose a field in law, goes the rationale, and instead went in to plumbing, and you reap what you sow, so to speak.
So this is part of it. And class consciousness is also a part of it too.
But increasingly, it is becoming evident that other factors are influencing the relative success of others within our immediate frame of reference. Many freshly minted law school graduates can’t get a job. Many “blue chip” trades and vocations cannot get work- at all. So something is wrong with this narrative, and this specter of doubt and confusion intersects nicely with the emergence of pop culture figures in professional sports, reality TV shows, and other public spectacles of wealth and accumulation.
This leads us to the lottery mentality, the barely conscious realization that we had better come up with some huge and rapid “winnings” if we are to propel ourselves into the outlier category, and achieve financial independence.
The specific reaction to this notion varies by income stratification, but the underlying themes are always the same, get rich, get rich quick, and get it at the expense of someone else. But for this to work, we need the lottery equivalent of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, we need a tacit acceptance of the necessity of exploitation, as we need to allow it’s existence- at our expense-until such time as we can harness the very same exploitative skill sets against someone else to benefit ourselves.
For those in the middle to upper middle class, this usually means some type of business scheme, a Walter Mittyesque flight of fancy that the intrepid entrepreneur will someday cook up a batch of Kettle Korn or beef jerky to sell at the local swap meet, or who has an invention of a Pet Rock or similarly useless contrivance with no redeeming social quality. These fanciful daydreams are part of the illusion, the faintly obscure vision that within all of our grasp is the Big Reveal, that golden idea that will launch us into the glorious world of senseless accumulation.
But statistics are unkind to the dreamer, the probabilities of any of these “ideas” propelling the prospective entrepreneur into the outlier categories is slim indeed. In a world were aggregate demand has been obliterated by a near complete loss of disposable income, and private debt has choked off any semblance of borrowing for such trinkets, the “market” for many of the useless doodads is non existent. And of the more substantial contributions to society that might garner realistic revenue, such as a new pharmaceutical compound or medical device, the squadrons of scientists needed and tens of millions of dollars of capital required relegate any substantive ideas to the universe of monopoly scale corporations.
Like the gleam of the Powerball Lottery MegaMillions, the pull is too great and the desperation too profound to ignore. So the Faustian bargain of turning a blind eye to the accelerating exploitation intrinsic in the capitalist mode of production is undertaken with a sigh and a shrug of indifference, for someday, it will be your turn. To deny the exploitation is to quit 5 minutes before the miracle has happened, to close off any avenue of the Walter Mitty fantasy, because if no one else gets it, than neither do you.
At the other end of income stratification, the lower class, we see a strikingly similar protocol, these actors are quite a bit more likely to buy an actual lottery ticket, preferring to dispense with the tedium of writing a business plan. Or perhaps it is to aspire to professional sports, or a reality TV show, or perhaps a rap star. All with statistically similar outcomes. But surprisingly, the mnemonic of the Donald Trumps of the world, haranguing and extolling those to bootstrap themselves off the dole into the riches that capitalism offers does trickle down to the trailer parks and tenements of the world.
Nowhere is this sad and pathetic prophesy more humorously portrayed than the outrageous Canadian television show (now off the air) Trailer Park Boys. Filmed as a faux “mockumentary” this show, which ran 7 seasons in Canada (and sporadically on American cable) was brilliant in its over the top portrayal of life in a trailer park. Dismissed by some as just crude humor (and be warned it is crude and profane in the extreme) the opening scenes of bucolic wonder with golden sunsets and neatly manicured yards, children playing on the swings all goes very, very wrong. The characters represent what it looks like when a community either cannot- or will not- sell their labor power and cannot exist in a normative society. The characters are perennially down market, no education, no social mobility and no future, they bond together under a thick haze of alcoholism and drug use, the show uses side splitting humor as salve to an extremely pathetic covalence, with the characters unable to differentiate between petty crime and legitimate commerce, as the differentiation is reduced to shades of barely discernable grey.
At this level of stratification the difference between a “business” that involves stealing shopping carts for scrap metal is no more or less noble than a Harvard graduate selling financial derivatives.
Stripping away any overture of intellectual loftiness, absent any academic commentary, the Trailer Park Boys reduce those bucolic sunsets into the banal vision of life on the fringes of Capitalism- and expose a nation of swindlers and hustlers, relying on a lottery to survive.