Class warriors are lighting matches in a powder keg
August 20th 2011
Paul Krugman, the great liberal economist, wrote on his blog yesterday, “things are looking really terrible, And crucially, they’re looking terrible in the wrong way, at least if you wanted to believe that political and policy debate over the past year and a half made any sense at all.”
Krugman was restricting his comments to the state of the economy, with considerable cause; he fears that the tight money policies that “serious people” advocate will result in an economic perfect storm that will combine the worst of Japan’s lost decade with the 1937 recession. The term “serious people” doesn’t appear in this blog, but it’s the term he uses frequently to refer to conservative economists and politicians who have pushed for the disastrous austerity programs that are dismantling Europe and stalling any hope of recovery in America.
The scary bit is that Krugman isn’t a merchant of doom; he’s a responsible journalist who is careful not to instill extraneous fear in people. If he says there’s a serious problem, it’s because there’s a serious problem, and not because he’s stuck for something to say in his blog.
On the same day, OpEd News had a cheery column by Chaz Valenza entitled “America’s 14 Most Ready to Riot Cities ”. Valenza identified these cities based on such criteria as “unemployment, education, income, crime, housing and homelessness. ” A lot of people looked at the English riots last week and asked if it could happen here. Not only are conditions rapidly becoming grimmer in England, but there’s a lot of free-floating anger, some of which exists aside from the increasing sense of financial desperation people feel. While Valenza lists the cities in descending order, the fact is he isn’t offering odds on which one will blow first, or at all: he’s simply listing the cities by severity of conditions in each city, and it should be no surprise to anyone that Detroit is considered the worst city in the country.
The riots in England were sparked by a shooting. It wasn’t that Scotland Yard did the shooting as much as it was that they lied about it. The people who demonstrated were outraged by the unfairness and inequality of the situation, the blasé assumption by Scotland Yard that they could lie about the shooting and get away with it, because that is the role of the servants of the privileged when dealing with the non-privileged. The demonstrations quickly disintegrated into riots, and then orgies of looting, and the right-wing media on both sides of the Atlantic tried to paint the disturbances as people just looking for an excuse to steal and burn. To be sure, some of the looters were just that.
But contented people don’t demonstrate, and they certainly don’t riot. People with a reasonable standard of living are more likely to conclude that what they can gain from looting is more than offset by losing the quality of their lives. The riots were inexcusable. That they were inevitable is even more inexcusable.
Conditions are worse in America. About 15% of the population were already living in near third-world conditions before the main-street economy began to collapse, and with a very weak safety net that is now being rapidly dismantled. Krugman believes the economy is about to take a sharp turn for the worse, and I have no reason to dispute him.
Even with Republicans refusing any legislation that might increase economic activity, and the ideological stand against revenue increases that caused the S&P downgrade, the paralysis in Washington isn’t the main problem. Europe is on the verge of collapse.
Nobody’s quite sure if the Euro will even exist by year’s end, and the French and Germans made the extraordinary suggestion the other day that the Eurozone should fully merge their economies into one in hopes of propping up the Euro. American exposure to a collapse of the Euro is high, because with vast amounts of liquidity, US banks have been investing heavily in European hedge funds and the like. And, like most large bureaucratic entities, they have no clear idea of the extent or nature of that exposure, and so are totally unprepared for what may happen if unknown billions in investments stop returning, or vanish altogether.
The old line used to be “If America sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.” A more up to date version of that might be, “When the rest of the world runs a high fever and delirium, America begins coughing up blood.”
For tens of millions of Americans, America is already a cold and cruel place. Imagine what will happen as a major economic slowdown hits, especially with a Republican government anxious to punish the poor in order to perpetuate the sins of the rich? While the Democrats are busily assuring everyone that the cuts they agreed to don’t touch Social Security or Medicare, and aren’t “very large” to begin with, the fact is that most of them are in the form of cuts to states—nearly all of which are already strapped—and they will cut funding at the state and local level for schools, roads, general assistance, and such vital things as in-home health care and Meals on Wheels. The “Misery Index” which is already the highest it’s been since 1979, is about to go up sharply.
It doesn’t help that public faith in institutions is crumbling. Congress is widely seen as worse than useless, with a 13% approval rate. Obama’s approval rating is plummeting. Consumer confidence is dropping like a rock. In the background is footage of a BofA stooge whispering to Rick Perry that “we’ll take care of you,” done with all the subtlety of a grade-school drug deal. A major story just broke: that the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is supposed to be the watchdog of Wall Street, has been deliberately destroying evidence of investigations for years.
There went what little credibility Wall Street had left.
Not only is the game crooked, but it’s devoted to ripping off the neighborhood in order to keep the players happy. Millions are homeless, and millions of homes stand empty, and banks still sit on billions of tax dollars meant to remedy that.
Writing about the Watts riots in 1965, Kurt Gentry mentioned the response to an ad campaign that was running at the time. An entity known as the “White Tornado,” meant to represent some cleaning product, would sweep through a neighborhood, turning everything that was dingy and dark gleaming white. African-Americans watching on TV were known to chant, “Do me next!” The story might be apocryphal, but the lesson is not: American entertainment takes as the norm a lifestyle of opulence that simply does not exist for most Americans.
Social unrest is a derivative of the GINI index, which measures the disparity between haves and have-nots, and America’s is already amongst the highest in the world, which is bad. Having this inequality rubbed in peoples’ faces 24/7 only raises the level of resentment. It’s hard to sympathise with characters on TV who moan they can’t afford to eat at a restaurant more than three times a week, when the food stamps are only lasting your family for three weeks a month, and the only options available are to steal or go hungry.
Most countries with the sort of poverty America has now, at least have some sort of underground economy going so people can live, albeit poorly. In America, the corporate-dominated government has worked very hard to destroy that, and is clearly hoping to eliminate cash, making an underground economy impractical. So there is no escape from the trap millions of people are finding themselves in.
Finally, there’s the blatant and extraordinary class war being waged against poor and working Americans. On Fox News, sleek and well fed swine sneer over and over that the poor, “who pay no taxes,” are nothing but parasites on the “productive class”–their name for the idle rich. We get jerks in the conversation areas of the web who talk like that, and there was a time when I wondered if these were agent provocateurs, out to incite and foment class rebellion. Nobody in the monied class could possibly be that openly stupid, vicious, and contemptuous.
Well, it seems I was wrong. They really are that stupid, vicious, and contemptuous. Fox News apparently believes they can SHAME people into accepting that their fate is to be cheated, lied to, and screwed. And they beat their breasts piteously and moan about how rough the poor rich have it, having to deal with all these parasites.
This isn’t a recipe for social unrest. This is a recipe for a French Revolution. I’m not sanguine about the country’s near-term future. American riots tend to be very bloody and vicious, partly because all sides are heavily armed, and because there’s a lot of anger above and beyond that which stems from the desperation of poverty, anger that stems from racism and class distinctions in a country that is supposed to be free of such. In a land of equality, the rich want everyone to accept being inferior.
Police will overreact here. They have become ever more militarized, behaving more and more like the SS or the Religious Police of Saudi Arabia. Bastard offspring of Dirty Harry and Robocop, they see it as their duty to punish anyone who gets out of line, and there will be incidents where they will fire into crowds—even, as happened in England, into a crowd that was just demonstrating peacefully.
One spark is all it will take, and we have the madmen of the right taunting the country by throwing lit matches at it.