Saturday, 15 August 2015

Plutocracy: a lesson for citizen education

Let us begin with a quotation from a politician who embodied the plutocratic approach to government. US Senator Boies Penrose (Republican) told his big business supporters how it was going to work:

"I believe in the division of labor. You send us to Congress; we pass laws under which you make money ... and out of your profits, you further contribute to our campaign funds to send us back again to pass more laws to enable you to make more money."

That was back in 1896, and in the subsequent century, Penrose’s strategy has become entrenched in the operations of political parties on the Right in the US, the UK, and many other countries too. The aim is to concentrate wealth more and more in the hands of the corporate elite. To do that, the earnings and job security of everyone else must be curtailed as much as possible. And to deflect public attention from the endemic exploitation, unions, immigrants, the poorest and the jobless are to be routinely vilified as scapegoats.

Instead of teaching how democratic ideals are supposedly upheld or how myriad government institutions function, each new generation of citizens should be taught how plutocracy has taken over the running of our state and society, and how the many will be made to serve the narrow interests of the wealthy elite until the relentless manipulation is finally exposed and overturned.

A historical case study is always handy: if we go back to Senator Penrose, we find him showing the way for others to follow in subsequent decades. In the run-up to the Presidential election of 1920, he discovered that the candidate in the lead to secure the Republican Party’s nomination was Leonard Wood, an advocate for profit sharing and employee share ownership, and supporter of Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting policies [Note 1].

Penrose sent a message to Wood, offering to swing the remaining delegates behind him, provided Wood would in return give Penrose and his oil interest friends control of three business-related posts in his cabinet. After Wood refused, Penrose used his connections in the party to push enough votes in the direction of Warren G. Harding to get him the nomination.

Harding went on to win the 1920 election, and led a presidential administration mired in scandals, resignations and corruption. Every major policy was designed to please big business, with taxes cut for the rich, and workers enduring numerous wage reductions. Harding was followed as President by Calvin Coolidge, and then Herbert Hoover. Together their 12 years of plutocratic Republican Presidency brought the US and then the world into the Great Depression.

In response to Democrats’ efforts from F.D. Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson to correct the de-stabilising bias of the Right’s plutocratic policies, the Republicans dedicated themselves fully to the Penrose doctrine of capturing government institutions solely to serve the superrich. In Britain, their ideological kin, the Conservative Party, has since the 1970s adopted exactly the same approach.

And these parties will go on convincing many people to buy into their exploitative agenda unless we begin to explain why in fact not all parties respect the interests of all citizens regardless of their wealth, and teach everyone about the dangers of plutocracy as a growing and highly corrosive force.

[Note 1: Although Teddy Roosevelt became US President for one term as a member of the Republican Party, his progressive policies proved too much for the party and when he sought re-election, he stood as the candidate for the Progressive Party.]

Saturday, 1 August 2015

O Humanities, Where Art Thou?

The revival of interest during the Renaissance in what came to be referred to as the Humanities led to a watershed in how we think about the world and our place in it. Down the centuries since, it has been through the Humanities that we learn about our own potential as human beings – discovering why we can strive for a better future and how we must avoid the mistakes of our past.

So why is there a relentless move against the teaching of Humanities? Why do so many people in powerful positions want to see funding and time allocation cut for Humanities subjects? There are three inter-related reasons.

First, the rise of global plutocracy has fuelled the desire amongst those who have amassed the greatest wealth through rigged markets, to preserve the status quo. They do not want money to be ‘wasted’ on enabling people to think critically about how human interactions and social priorities may be altered.

Secondly, since only certain subjects are expected to contribute to the strengthening and expansion of corporate wealth and power, plutocrats want investment to target only these subjects.

Thirdly, instead of challenging the ideology of Mammon, all too many in the field of Humanities have simply retreated. Some have sought survival by mimicking the scientific-technological disciplines by conjuring up contrived quantification and equation. Others have shrunk their attention to micro-specialisms so they can have something ‘original’ to get published and make a claim for research funding.

The net impact is that the ineffectuality of the Humanities becomes more and more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of enriching our understanding so we can reflect on how we should live, any attempt to address that very question is deemed too broad to merit academic consideration, which must have a tightly disciplined focus.

But what can be done? One long overdue move is to bring forward intellectual perspectives that offer alternative conceptions of how we should respond to life’s threats and opportunities, and relate to one another in ways unbound by the prejudices of outmoded traditions or the free-for-all of contemporary plutocracy.

In order to do this, we need to draw on the resources of philosophy, literature, history, sociology, etc to develop ideas on how we should live. One such set of ideas, often termed ‘progressive communitarianism’, synthesizes insights on the value of reciprocity, the nature of reasoning and consensus building, and the connections between community bonds and inclusive decision-making, into a cogent alternative for reviewing human interactions.

What progressive communitarian ideas offer, is not a definitive theory, but a possible model for how we can rethink and re-organise human relationships in diverse institutional and societal contexts.

The only antidote to plutocrats filling people’s minds with the false notion that their Mammon-centric system of society is the sole option for humanity, is to present the world with a different vision. To see what such an alternative may entail, take a look at ‘Reciprocity & Progressive Communitarianism’.