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Let's Please the Rich!

Chris Wayan's journal, 1998/6/24

WHAT PROVOKED ME

I've been reading some essays by Nawal El Saadawi. She believes capitalism provoked and still encourages the fundamentalist resurgence. After all, it's not unique to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Hindus are doing it, and tribes around the world are reviving traditional religions. They all see tradition as an alternative to capitalist materialism, but is it? She suspects capitalists LIKE fundamentalism: most traditional religions suppress women and progressives and dissenters generally. So fundamentalists circling like vultures make for sober, scared, obedient workers who don't dare oppose even the crassest secular capitalism, when the alternative lurking in the wings is so much worse: religious nuts. Who do you want as your boss, Nike Corporation or the mullahs? Good cop needs a bad cop to look good.

Saadawi could be right.

But she's dead wrong on overpopulation--she thinks it's all a Western bugaboo. Sure, if everyone lived as simply as wonderful me, the world could sustain a big population, but they don't, and won't, and the strain on natural systems is terrible--and growing. She actually says "there are vast areas of unused land and sea." Now this is just foolish. We're overharvesting worldwide; humans now use over 25% of the energy stored in plants on the whole planet--over 1/4 for ONE SPECIES out of millions. No ecological system can stand that kind of bloodsucking long--not unless that energy is returned in some clean, usable form for creatures downstream. It ain't. This isn't an isolated flaw in her worldview, either--Saadawi never mentions any forms of life but humans and their crops. No mention of wild species at all. I don't know if this is due to Islam-Judaism-Christianity's exclusive focus on humans (only bald apes have souls, you know) or her upbringing in Egypt, where it's either farm, city or desert, with almost no wildlife left. She's an astute social critic but she seems dead ignorant of ecology. City life will do that to you, I guess.

Saadawi criticizes both her native Egypt and the West, but never really spells out what she'd like to see instead. I wish she would. So many social and political activists do the same these days--focus on the appalling evils of the existing systems. Can't we spare a little time to propose alternatives that might work long-term?

Can I? Here I sit, criticizing. All right. Here goes...

WHAT'S WORKED?

It seems clear to me what we need--a system that allows individual freedom yet arrives at responsible group policies, especially long-term ecological ones. A society can survive some injustice, unrest, even war, but exhaust your resources and poison your land... those are fatal.

Yet no social system in history is a proven ecological success--

Of course, the long, ecological view isn't enough. You need a social system people also LIKE, day to day; individual freedom. The only three systems I know of that people endorsed with their feet (when given free choice) are:

WHERE TO GO?

So history suggests that the simplest course toward a workable system would be to allow capitalism for small business but require large enterprises to be co-ops or unions or networks of small independent modules. The anarchists have a simple and elegant rule to create a flexible ceiling for small business: just ban wage-labor. You work for yourself or you work as a partner in a group enterprise. No one can truthfully say "I just work here." No jobs at all!

Anarchist co-ops suit me fine (I've lived and worked in them most of my adult life) but I'm not everyone. I think a lot of folks prefer work they can put aside at the end of the day. That's one advantage of a wage system. And some people just want to be leaders. With atrocious role models all around us, a lot of radicals are tempted to suppress this particular human hunger as a deadly one. It's not my thing and I've never understood it well, but I think it needs to be accomodated somehow. Many entrepreneurs create businesses that realize their personal dreams, and the relatively dreamless hitch along by working for them. It seems to work for these people; most big corporations started this way--though they don't end up like it. Their hierarchies have so many layers no one's really accountable, and they're legally obliged to maximize short-term profit "for the shareholders", even if those shareholders might individually disapprove of corporate misbehavior. It's an insane legal structure. Taxing stock trades would help force longer-term planning by both investors and corporate leaders; so would changing corporate law to require more feedback from stockholders and requiring consumer, labor and environmental reps to balance stockholder reps on every board.

Why not go on allowing wage labor per se, but require it to be personal--allow wage labor by individuals ONLY. A firm may have an owner or partners plus some more temporary, less committed wage-workers hired by and directly responsible to the owner(s)--no middle managers to cloud accountability. This allows capitalism up to the size of large families or small villages--but get any bigger, and you have to develop some kind of co-op just to coordinate subgroups.

Of course such changes sound impossible to implement because the rich will never go for it, but let's face it--at this point ANY social plan that will let both us and the planet live decently HAS to change (or disempower) the rich, and they'll fight it tooth and nail. So why not be impractical and utopian? Any useful change has to pass the roadblock of the rich, and no one has a clue how to do that, unless we just shoot them all. As they get crasser and more feudal and less responsible, that's looking more likely to me--revolution a generation from now, when it's really too late to salvage much either socially or ecologically. They've lost all social accountability--worse than their ancestors in the Great Depression, who at last faced reality and accepted the New Deal.

But while y'all try to come up with a peaceful, political way to kick out the fat cats, I'm trying to design structures I'd like to live in after the revolution. And it's not easy.

For example, banning jobs doesn't address Saadawi's often-repeated point that women worldwide do something like two-thirds of the work and get one-tenth of the money, and only own one percent of the wealth! How do you credit the work of daily living, running households, holding neighborhoods together? Is it even possible without turning daily life into a punch-clock factory job? And if you don't measure this immeasurable work but give some kind of flat credit for self-care or to anyone supposedly caring for another (no matter how badly), wouldn't you encourage population growth, welfare scams and nursing home scandals and having babies just to get a meal ticket?

What if you eliminate money entirely and just refuse to economize daily life at all? Sounds absurd in the US, but much of the world is so poor, you could do it. Money measures what's basically not measurable: social benefit. It fails dismally, as Saadawi points out. Women (and lots of working men) don't get credited for their real contributions, and this is NOT due to capitalism. Tribal people, socialists, Mao's rural communes, oligarchic owners, and big corporations ALL recognize work away from the home but are relatively blind to home work, especially women's work; they all underpay women. Subjective measuring is biased. Is it all due to patriarchy? Yet objective measuring of home labor is incredibly difficult and tedious to implement--we'd all be factory chickens. Can't we just give up on money? Or... change what money IS? Why not declare...

ALL MONEY IS TOY MONEY!

The rich who cause most of the damage here in America already use money mostly in abstract ways--they either buy toys/trophies, or abstractions like stocks or companies--in both cases the purpose seems to be more to raise social status than to consume. Perhaps money should be explicitly reserved for what it's already implicitly becoming--a status tool for male primates' dominance games, good only for luxury items and abstractions. If food and basic shelter and medical care and transport and items for daily living were all free, the savings would be vast, after all; such simplicity! The change-over will be disorienting, but think how streamlined the economy will be!

Would this largely welfare state really lead to lazy, greedy consumers, as conservatives assume? I'm not so sure. As for laziness, people LIKE to work--especially if others appreciate their contribution. The wage/job system makes it hard for them to work at what they really want--without it, we might actually release a lot of frustrated energy. Don't you know people who won't quit a job they hate to follow a dream because they're worried about money, or insurance, or health plans?

Let's suppose the worst! What if we had a generation of lazy people? So what! Beats warmongers any day. Their kids would grow up adapted to the new system. Some will have strong internal motivations--a passion that'll be expressed in any society. Some will care more about their social status--family and community standing. Others will be lazy. Others will be busy but homebodies, contributing greatly in ways we ALREADY devalue and ignore. Is the worst-case scenario really so different from now? Except we have elaborate, time-consuming systems monitoring this fantasy stuff, money, that so inaccurately measures social benefit. It's worth repeating that injustice ISN'T the only problem with money; tracking it so obsessively wastes a lot of our time, too.

Would a money-as-luxury world lead to more greed, more consumption? A person can only eat so much food, have so many toys. What fuels a lot of American consumption is precisely the wage-job system, not play, not free time. First they want you to commute, and wear special clothes, and then you're stressed out so you buy relaxants and distractions from drugs to movies, and time is short so you buy plastic food... Without these external pressures, people might overindulge some, but how much? Would they fight and die for toys, the way they're forced to now for oil? What really gets nasty is fighting over abstract wealth, representing power and social status. It's ambition to climb in the rankings, not hunger for a mountain of toys, that twists the rich into monsters.

What the rich and ruling classes want is NOT what Marx assumed (their material power base) but something emotional, something we share with all social animals: status. A sense that they're movers and shakers, leaders, really in the know. And they don't crave wealth and power in absolute terms, only relative to others. Their own actions show it; they pursue policies that lead to greater crowding, pollution, and poverty, which in the long term make owning huge estates and vast resources steadily more difficult in a depleted world. But they increase their share of the shrinking, polluted pie--or if they don't, they at least keep up with the Rockefellers. That's what matters--being a bigger, more impressive frog than the neighbors, not the size of the pond (or its water quality).

So reforms that allow people obsessed with competition and social status (the rich and their wannabes) to exercise their cravings harmlessly will lead to less resistance from the ruling classes than you'd expect from Marxist or capitalist economic theory. What they dread most is not losing money, but being forbidden to play economic games, or having their winners' rankings tampered with! Economic games vary greatly, but the winners all want social rewards like respect, publicity, and symbols of luxury far more than specific material rewards. Heavy taxes (carbon or not) would get screamed about, but (if I'm right) they'll be tolerated in the end, IF said taxes don't disturb the pattern of winners--because proving you're cleverer than your rivals (and money is the default measure of this, for these people) matters more than the exact amount won. Among other things that implies international taxes on international business or at least national coordination on tax rates, not a race to the bottom. Tax-rate cartels?

Whatever it takes. We MUST emphasize that it's in their interest to protect their playing field--not just a healthy earth from which to derive wealth, but ALSO a society that will admire them. Admirers are a vital natural resource. Their game is no fun without an audience--indeed it's about impressing others.

The long-term alternative, which can already be seen coming, is a worldwide hatred of the rich. It's explicit in religious fundamentalism, and is creeping even into American TV, compared to a decade or two ago, and of course is ubiquitous in leftist thought everywhere. But I think my fellow leftists are mostly noncompetitive people alarmed by the deteriorating texture of daily life; we generally want an egalitarian society but fail to fully grasp some folks' need for status and hierarchy. I know I don't get it.

But I no longer believe hunger for status is entirely an artifact of capitalism or patriarchy. Some people, mostly but not exclusively men, just plain want this. A social structure that restrains them is probably wise. But not suppression! We won't get far if we don't give them a way to meet their need, however senseless it seems to us. And again--we don't have much choice. The rich and their wannabes can block us. We have to figure out if their true needs can be met in a livable society. If not, no reform will happen; nothing short of worldwide class war will work. And do you really think that would turn out well? Working people might win in the end, but would we inherit more than ruins? Too many weapons.

We have to look harder at what people really get out of money--not what our old economic theories say they get, not even what they think they get. Can we offer them a world where ambitious, competitive, status-conscious people can still play their games, and let the rest of us get on with our lives? And remember that the present rich are a small group of winners; their power and support comes largely from players hungry to enter the club. If these people, far more numerous and with less to lose, can be reconciled to serious reform in exchange for guarantees they'll remain free to play competitive games (just not with vital or polluting resources), might we have a chance to change things?

It sounds naive. But given the global triumph of the rich, I don't much care. The Marxist, materialist approach hasn't served us well at all. The capitalist approach is unsustainable. Religious fundamentalism would be laughable if these imbeciles weren't so bloody serious. So why not a strategy based on ape behavior? I'll grasp at straws.

Or, well, bananas.

Hey, I snuck Orwell's name in! A nice note to end on. He too thought the rich and powerful were basically emotion-driven--he argued they hurt people and pursued bad policies to prove to themselves they have power. Making people do what they already want to is mere persuasion, so they set up situations where sacrifice is called for (or forced on people, sometimes brutally) to prove you have REAL power: coercive power. Schoolyard bullies! I think he's wrong in most cases; bullies, like chimps, usually hurt others for specific rewards, not to prove their own power. They want status, sex, territory (i.e. food), or to vent anger at others they dare not touch. Usually. He may be right in some cases, but not in all. Most big men just want to be big men; they're not fussy whether they get results via arm-twisting or bribery or persuasion. As long as the result is acknowledgment that they're alpha males.

But in the broad sense Orwell's right--look past profit and power, look at the feelings beneath. Marx and modern economists share the delusion that money matters. Only to the very poor! After you've hauled yourself out of poverty, status and feelings matter far more. And for the rich, being seen as a winner is the whole game.

We have to accomodate that game harmlessly somehow, or these game-players will ensure that everyone loses. They are now. Including themselves! Intent on the game, they don't want to hear that they're wrecking the board. At base capitalism is no different from any gambling addiction--playing's so much fun you neglect basics!

WHERE WE HAVE POWER

We own the most basic of basics, in the game. They need us. They need us to admire them. To be an audience.

What we have to offer or withdraw is more vital than oil. Attention, admiration, the game itself! What we offer, in our utopian schemes of shifting tax-burdens to corporations and rich individuals, but being careful not to disturb social ranking, is nothing less than the only path that lets them keep playing the game they love. We have to present this reform not as a bad-tasting medicine but as what it truly is; protecting the integrity of their game, their rankings. By altering it so it doesn't destroy the world.

So... let's please the rich. Beating them with a stick sounds so satisfying, but they aren't donkeys; they can hit back. Offering a carrot will work; it fits their mindset. Incentives, people, incentives! Pleeeeease?

--Chris Wayan, The World Dream Bank--



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