by Robert Nichols
[1/30/17 – image: Medical students stage die-in outside Fox News in NYC protesting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act – via DemocracyNow]
The United States has always used war and theft to build its power and wealth. There has never been a single decade of US history in which this hasn’t been true. For Native Americans and African Americans, this has always been pretty obvious, since they have been the primary targets. Their labor and their land have fed the nation for centuries.
This plunder has had ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ versions. In the fast version, state power (usually the military and police) has been used to kill people and steal from them. In the slow version, people have been forced into unequal and unfair working and living conditions. When people cannot effectively control the conditions of their own employment, they can work their lives away and find themselves no better off in real terms because, for every dollar they make for themselves, they are making two for their bosses.
This system has historically been held together, in part, because the wealth that has been generated by this dual-track plunder has been distributed outward and downward to a significant section of the middle class white population. Middle class white people (such as myself) find that, while we always have something to complain about, our experience of the United States isn’t so bad. It seems like a relatively stable, fair, prosperous country, with a decent system of laws and government.
However, over the last few decades, the unspoken agreement amongst the white middle class and the very wealthy has been breaking down. The wealth that is generated by the hundreds of millions of working people is no longer reaching even the middle class white world. It is shifting upward to an ever-smaller group of super billionaires. For example, we now know that only 8 men control the same wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people on earth. People have an intuitive sense that this is unfair. These ultra wealthy oligarchs do not work billions of times harder than the average store clerk, teacher, or factory worker.
Whom have we blamed? The political class. There is now a widespread crisis across the liberal-democracies of the ‘West’, because people no longer trust their political elites to work in their interest. They see these political elites as removed from the reality of the average person, and as trying merely to benefit themselves. By and large, they are right.
The ultra wealthy oligarchs of the world have picked up on this and are doing something very smart— they are getting on the bandwagon. They are using this as an opportunity to simply remove the middleman. Whereas the political class used to mediate between the middle class and the ultra rich (constraining them somewhat, while distributing some of the wealth back downward to us), the billionaire class has used this crisis as an opportunity to simply remove the ‘politicians’. They are working to totally merge the corporate and political worlds, and will now rule directly, no longer needing the ‘politicians’ as their managers.
In my view, this is what the Trump administration represents: a coup d’état by the ultra elite billionaire oligarchs, who have effectively eliminated the political-managerial class that used to sit between us and them. (Trump’s cabinet, the wealthiest in history, is staffed almost exclusively by billionaires and millionaires).
There are (at least) two consequences of this: The old ‘war and theft’ system is (1) speeding up, and (2) widening.
They are shifting from the ‘slow’ mode of plunder to the ‘fast’ one. Despite all the talk about ‘small government’, this administration is building up the massive state power that is needed to forcibly control, arrest, and deport the millions of poor and working-class people. They have to do this because, no matter how wealthy they are, a few hundred people cannot rule over the billions of humanity without direct force. So the war is moving back into its ‘fast’ phase.
In doing this, however, they are also catching a larger and larger segment of the total population in their net. As I said, the United States has always been in a kind of low-level war against Native Americans and African Americans, but this has been spreading to include Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, migrants and refugees, environmentalists, feminists, even scientists and journalists. All of these groups now face direct suppression and control by the Trump administration.
Here is where a great opportunity can be found. Now that the war and theft is speeding up and spreading outward, it is catching up many more people, including many of the white middle class people who used to think that they were safe from all that kind of thing. The big question will be: what will we middle class white people do? Will we fight only to return to the old system, that is, to return to the ‘slow war’ period, the time when people of color were exploited and dominated, with (some) of the benefits trickling down to us? Or will we stand with those people who have always been fighting this system against the authoritarians and oligarchs in order to produce a new and more universally just system? What side are we on?
About the author: Robert Nichols is a professor of political theory at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.