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Frank writes: "I've been writing about what we politely call 'inequality' since the mid-1990s, but one day about ten years ago, when I was traveling the country lecturing about the toxic curlicues of right-wing culture, it dawned on me that maybe I had been getting the entire story wrong."

 (photo: janecat via iStock)
(photo: janecat via iStock)

Plutocracy Without End

By Thomas Frank, Salon

31 March 14


There are more of us than them. But income inequality keeps getting worse -- and there is sadly no end in sight.

’ve been writing about what we politely call “inequality” since the mid-1990s, but one day about ten years ago, when I was traveling the country lecturing about the toxic curlicues of right-wing culture, it dawned on me that maybe I had been getting the entire story wrong. All the economic developments that I spent my days bemoaning—the obscene enrichment of the CEO class, the assault on the regulatory state, the ruination of average people—were very possibly not what I thought they were. When I talked about these things, I assumed they were an outrage, an affront to the affluent nation I still believed we were; once the scales fell from our eyes and Americans figured out what was happening, I argued, we would yell “stop,” bring this age of folly to a close, and get back to middle-class prosperity as usual.

What hit me that day was the possibility that my happy, postwar middle-class world was the exception, and that the plutocracy we were gradually becoming was the norm. Maybe what was happening to us was a colossal reversion to a pre-Rooseveltian mean, and all the trappings of ordinary life that had seemed so solid and so permanent when I was young—the vast suburbs and the anchorman’s reassuring baritone and the nice appliances that filled the houses of the working class—were aberrations made possible by an unusual balance of political forces maintained only by the enormous political efforts of its beneficiaries.

Maybe the gravity of history pulled in the exact opposite direction of what I had always believed. If so, the question was not, “When will we get back to the right order of things,” but rather, “Would we ever stop falling?”

Today, of course, the situation has grown vastly worse. The subject of inequality is discussed everywhere; there are think tanks and academic conferences dedicated to it; it has become socially permissible for polite people to wonder about the obscene gorging of those at the top. Sooner or later the question that everyone asks, upon discovering just how much of what Americans produce goes to the imbeciles in the penthouses and executive suites, is this: How much further can this thing go?

The One Percent have already broken every record for wealth-hogging set by their ancestors, going back to the dawn of record-keeping in 1913. But what if it all just keeps going? How much fatter can the fat cats get before they hit some kind of natural limit? Before the invisible thumb of history presses down on the other side of the scale and restores balance?

That we are very close to such a limit—that the contradictions inherent in the system will automatically be its undoing—is an idea much in the air of late. Not many still subscribe to Marx’s dialectical vision of history, in which inevitable worker immiseration would be followed, also inevitably, by a revolutionary explosion, but there are other inevitabilities that seem equally persuasive today. We hear much, for example, about how inequality contributed to the housing bubble and the financial crisis, how it has brought us an imbalanced economy that cannot survive.

It reminds me of the once-influential theory of inequality advanced by the economist Simon Kuznets, who thought that capitalist societies simply became more egalitarian as they matured—a theory that is carefully debunked by economist Thomas Piketty in his new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” It also reminds me of the theories of the economist Ravi Batra, who in 1987 predicted a “Great Depression of 1990” because (among other things) inequality would have by then had reached what he believed to be unsustainable levels.

It is an attractive fantasy, this faith that some kind of built-in restraint will stop all this from going too far. Unfortunately, what it reminds me of the most are the similar mechanisms that Democrats like to dream about on those occasions when the Republican Party has won another election. As the triumphant wingers stand athwart the unconscious bodies of their opponents, beating their chests and bellowing for some new and awesomely destructive tax cut, a liberal’s heart turns longingly to such chimera as pendulum theory, or thirty-year-cycle theory, or the theory of the inevitable triumph of the center. Some great force will fix those guys, we mumble. One of these days, they’ll get their comeuppance.

But the cosmic cavalry never shows up. No deus ex machina will arrive to rescue the middle-class society, either. The economic system is always in some sort of crisis or another; somehow it always manages to survive.

One of the ways it manages to survive, in fact, is by working the public into paroxysms of fear at those who proclaim the inevitable destruction of the system. I refer here not only to the Republicans’ routine deploring of “class war,” by which they mean any criticism of plutocracy, but also to the once-influential right-wing radio host Glenn Beck, who in 2009 and 2010 was just about the only one in America who thought to take seriously the obscure French anarchist tract, “The Coming Insurrection.” Night after night in those dark days, Beck would use the book to terrify his vast audience of seniors and goldbugs—anarchy was right around the corner!—and to this day you can still find the tract on the reading lists of 9/12 clubs across the country.

Let us not forget that it was thanks to the energetic activity of those 9/12 clubs and the closely aligned Tea Party that the obvious and conventional — and maybe even inevitable — response to the 2008 catastrophe was not the response the public chose. According to an important recent paper by the sociologists Clem Brooks and Jeff Manza, the orthodox poli-sci theory of economic downturn holds that voters “turn away from unregulated markets and demand more government in times of economic downturn and rising unemployment.” But in the downturn of the last few years, people reacted differently: “Rather than the recession stimulating new public demands for governent, Americans gravitated toward lower support for government responsibility for social and economic problems.” And they swept in the Republican Congress of 2010, a result that, according to Brooks and Manza, has much to do with the hyperbolic conservatism of partisan organizations like Fox News.

A second irony, worth noting in passing, is that the right-wing offensive against public pensions, which began as soon as the Republican wave landed, has been carried on under the banner of historical determinism, with everyone agreeing that the rich are going to get their way with the unions and that no alternative exists. (“Detroit pension cuts were inevitable, city consultant testifies,” screams a typical headline on the subject.)

None of this is to deny, of course, that concentrated wealth will have certain predictable social effects, in addition to the brutal primary effect of screwing you and yours permanently. Inequality will most definitely bring further corruption of our political system, which will in turn lead to further deregulation and bailouts, which will eventually allow epidemics of fraud and failure. It will definitely bring an aggravated business cycle, with crazy booms and awful busts. We know these things will happen because this is what has happened in our own time. But that doesn’t mean the situation will somehow cease to function as a matter of course, or that leading capitalists will be converted to Keynesianism en masse and start insisting on better oversight of Wall Street.

The ugly fact that we must face is that this thing can go much farther still. Plutocracy shocks us every day with its viciousness, but that doesn’t mean God will strike it down. The middle-class model worked much better for about ninety-nine percent of the population, but that doesn’t make it some kind of dialectic inevitability. You can build a plutocratic model that will stumble along just fine, like it did in the nineteenth century. It requires different things: instead of refrigerators for all, it needs bought legislatures and armies of strikebreakers—plus bailouts for the big banks when they collapse under the weight of their stupid loans, an innovation of our own time. All this may be hurtful, inefficient, and undemocratic, but it won’t dismantle itself all on its own.

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+43 # Yakpsyche 2014-03-31 09:21
I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
-2 # calltoaccount 2014-03-31 09:52
"stupid" loans?

why are you afraid to call them fraudulent loans when the evidence of fraud every step of the way is overwhelming?

makes one wonder whose side you're really on.
+32 # Seadog 2014-03-31 11:53
I've spoken with Banker and Real Estate Mortgage brokers I know about what happened prior to 2007/8 and the New Depression still ongoing and here's what they say about fraud. So what? Nobody forced all these people to sign. If they didn't read the fine print fuckem. They applaud the return of a Buyer Beware society, where the average person is an easy mark and they are the winners. They don't see it as fraud in the inducement as we do. They see it as clever marketing and greedy customers who just get what's coming to them. In other words its OUR fault we got crushed in the traps they set for us. When they talk about deregulation this is what they meant. They want and got back the right to cleverly cheat and steal from the rest of us and to do it legally.
+8 # Kootenay Coyote 2014-03-31 15:42
Yes, the loans were indeed fraudulent, but they were also stupid.
+16 # Citizen Mike 2014-03-31 10:19
Where do these armies of strikebreakers come from? What kind of people are not taught the morality of worker solidarity from childhood? What kind of parents do not make clear to their children that it is evil to be a scab?
+18 # memary10 2014-03-31 11:21
Unfortunately there are plenty of people who are already hungry and desperate enough to do any kind of work under any kind of conditions. Worker solidarity and working class consciousness are not a part of American life any more.
+3 # Benjamin Franklin 2014-03-31 23:36
Uh, lots of people, unfortunately. Remember what Jay Gould said back in the 19th century: "I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other."
+2 # RLF 2014-04-01 06:09
The asshole govenor of NY passed tax cuts for the rich yesterday...Cuo mo! What a dick...when at HUD under Clinton he gave money for redevelopment of abandoned buildings in Harlem and real estate people took the money and left the buildings burned. I'm sure cuomo got his chunk for turning a blind eye! Billions stolen!
+21 # Adoregon 2014-03-31 10:26
I would refer the reader to "The Rich and the Super Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today" written by Ferdinand Lundberg in the late 1960s. Pay particular attention to the chapter "The Cleverness of the Rich." Those with wealth and power have long been honing their skills to manipulate the non-rich into acting against their (the non-rich) own best interests.
The rich will do whatever is possible to protect their own wealth and power.
The real question is why the vastly less wealthy majority is unable to organize and act in ways that promote greater income equality and social parity.
+11 # firefly 2014-03-31 11:03
The reason the majority cannot do as you suggest is the same reason the people of other countries cannot do so...they do not have access to the proper weaponry. The armies and weapons belong to the rich, too.
+3 # Anarchist 23 2014-03-31 13:25
Revolutions are never won; they are only lost. either we unite in our consciousness and understand that our common good is our personal good, or the Monsters win and destroy everything: land, water, air, food, climate, oceans,biospher e, all. Game Over. I do what I can, and for the rest, I make some pop-corn, sit out and enjoy the view, and wonder how this thriller will end. We are all Navi.
+8 # Diane_Wilkinson_Trefethen_aka_tref 2014-03-31 15:38
I disagree. It doesn't take armies and weapons. It takes thinking and conscience. Only when people stop voting for the best ads or the best deals and start voting for people who have shown they are principled will we climb out of the hole we've dug for ourselves.
+1 # RoseM 2014-04-01 07:07
Right! We have the power in our vote and in political education.
+2 # 6thextinction 2014-04-01 15:41
You two are blaming the victims. Don't be naive. Money has corrupted our politics; our "representative s" are bought and paid for by the 2%.
The power we have is in our numbers.
+10 # Seadog 2014-03-31 12:00
"The real question is why the vastly less wealthy majority is unable to organize and act in ways that promote greater income equality and social parity." According to my wealthy faux friends its because they are smart and we are lazy and dumb. I prefer its because they are criminally predators insane and the rest of us aren't.
+13 # spiritcallsus 2014-03-31 12:33
"" The real question is why the vastly less wealthy majority is unable to organize and act in ways that promote greater income equality and social parity.""

The reason is that "their" trick is the Divide and Conquer trick ... they have divided us into Two Parties and tricked us into blaming each other and/or the Government ... we fight each other and ignore the B$M that actually controls us all.

IMnsHO and E.
+12 # candida 2014-03-31 10:42
Great article, but please don't insult the pigs by using them as illustration for the plutocrats! Instead, you might use the art of Posada, Bortelo and others who illustrate the excesses and banality of the wealthy.
+17 # memary10 2014-03-31 11:26
Unless there is a massive effort to increase class consciousness and educate people to what is really going on in this country, there will continue to be little or no reaction to the wholesale rape of the economy by the plutocrats. The United States has a population that is singularly ignorant of history and the workings of the political economy. This is not by accident it is by design.
+8 # PaineRad 2014-03-31 12:07
And cynical and complacent. The sad state of affairs is that liberals, progressives, lefties of all stripes have ignored macroeconomic issues. The general population has bought into the plutocratic technocratic argument that economics is just way too complicated for "ordinary people." As a result, we/they have concentrated on narrowly defined social causes that are easier to understand and explain and have abandoned the arena of big economic ideas.

Well, economics is not that difficult if you read a little and realize that, contrary to orthodoxy, it is not a hard science like physics or mathematics despite all the algebraic equations and Latin expressions used inappropriately .
+3 # Doubter 2014-03-31 12:28
I'm sorry to admit I've spent years unsuccessfully trying to understand the Federal Reserve. (not uninterruptedly of course)
+7 # JHoward 2014-03-31 12:05
Free market capitalism has provided a bounty of material goods for the large majority so that several generations now take for granted the comfort and well being inherent in that abundance as the natural order of things. We have a way to go before perceptions of the inevitability of the good life for any and all who work for it adjusts to the reality of the forces controlling the closing gates of those opportunities for prosperity.
0 # coberly 2014-03-31 12:23

you could be right about the political slogan needed, but i think you may be playing into the hands of the criminal rich scare tactics. most people, includingworker s as well as the honest rich, do not want to see "class warfare." calling for it just scares the honest rich and the still reasonable workers into siding with the criminals.


i wouldn't credit free market capitalism for the bounty of material goods... the new deal and government regulation contributed a great deal to that. sadly, i think, "material bounty" has become the new religion and you end up with poor people and the reasonably well off who think the choice is between welfare capitalism and "free markets" with mo' money as the reason for living.

we need to find a way to fight the criminals, not join them. or scare the moderately well off into joining them.
+2 # Shorey13 2014-03-31 12:39
As Jered Diamond demonstrated in "Collapse," societies that fail do so because those for whom enough is never enough inevitably deplete resources and alienate enough of the rest of us until the whole thing implodes.

Marx was wrong about the inevitability of revolution, but he was 100% right about the inevitability of unregulated predatory Capitalism (which has returned almost intact from his time!) falling on its own sword.

The only thing we (the powerless) can do is to plan for what kind of society we want when that "Collapse" occurs. Pathological growth will "inevitably" end then. Sustainable economic activity with equitable distribution of the fruits of that activity can be achieved,

But, lest we forget history, if we don't plan now, some eloquent despot will move in to pick up the pieces.
+2 # Pipester 2014-03-31 13:05
JHoward (above)is right about what happened to the middle class. For the those who understand the larger issue, quibbling over the finer points is an academic exercise. Commit yourself yourself to political involvement, be active, forget the academic arguments.

Yes, I read "The Rich and the Super-Rich back in the 60's as suggested by Adoregon, above, when I was a young man. It was an eye-opening experience similar to first reading "Manufacturing Consent." I have been active ever since. We need young people and the truly committed to become active. I hope the parsing will cease and the action will begin.
+1 # janla 2014-03-31 13:21
We need to develop a vertical movement that sees the super-rich at the top hogging everything with the rest of us, all of us at the bottom. Instead of fitting each other, or perceiving each other as enemies, we need only look up to see who and where they are. We need a movement that encompasses all of us in some kind of commonality - something like 'the blue jeans' movement.
+2 # janla 2014-03-31 13:42
That would be, instead of fighting each other -
+4 # Buddha 2014-03-31 16:54
There is a reason the Oligarchs, through their bought-and-paid -for politicians, have been instituting policies that will come in very useful if they intend on fighting mass dissent: widespread surveillance, militarization of our police forces, provisions to detain those the State calls "supporting terrorism" indefinitely without trial, etc. If they can keep the plebs distracted by the panem et circenses of the Kardashians, and confused by deliberate misinformation spewed by their corporate media, then all is good. If the plebs rise up, well, gotta have Plan B waiting in the wings...
+3 # Shorey13 2014-03-31 17:48
With all due respect, you are all living in la-la land. There will be no uprising. Too many people are either comfortable with the status quo or scared to death that any real change will leave them out on the street.

The bad news is that things have to get much, much worse before there will be any change, and that change will take the form of complete bankruptcy or environmental disaster or both. The good news is that things are getting worse at an increasing rate of speed.

Forget "Plan B." We need Plan A. A well thought out agenda for a new Constitution and a sustainable economic system, with equitable distribution of the "fruitss."

Talking about utopian ideas is worse than a waste of time; it is a distraction that prevents us from the planning we need to do.

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