Friday, January 7, 2011

Democracy Dies

Last night, I read a sobering article by Henry A. Giroux on truthout's website titled, "In the Twilight of the Social State: Rethinking Walter Benjamin's Angel of History." It details the decline of American, if not global, democracy, and the transcendence of individual greed over sacrifice for the greater good -- witness the latest extension of the Bush tax cuts. It chronicles a few other nasty and brutish trends, too. Read the whole thing, and you'll see. It's pretty long, though, so I clipped two paragraphs that leaped off the page:

One measure of how the economic elite is destroying America and waging a war on the poor, working class and middle class can be seen in the fact that, despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United States has the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world. Over 44 million people or one in seven Americans live below the poverty line.(37) In recent years, the steepest rise in poverty has taken place among children, with some experts predicting that six million kids will be living in poverty in next decade.(38) In addition, over 50 million people cannot eat without food stamps, and a stunning 50 percent of US children will use food stamps to eat at some point in their childhood. Regarding health insurance, a staggering 50 million have none, a figure that becomes even more disturbing when a runaway unemployment rate of 20 percent is factored into the equation. If we count all the "uncounted workers - 'involuntary part-time' and 'discouraged workers' - the unemployment rate rises from 9.7 percent to over 20 percent."(39) On top of this, we have three million people who are homeless, while over five million have lost their homes; by 2014, it has been predicted that this last figure will rise to 13 million. The standard of living for the average American plummeted during the economic crisis - "the median American household net worth was $102,500 in 2007 and went down to $65,400 in 2009."(40) Meanwhile, against such staggering poverty, loss, human despair and massive inequality in wealth and income, the top 1 percent of the population has massively increased its wealth and power. For instance, Matt Tiabbi claims that the top 1 percent has seen its share of the nation's overall wealth jump from 34.6 percent before the crisis in 2007 to over 37.1 percent in 2009. The top corporate executives collect a salary that gives them $500 for every $1 earned by the average worker. The wages of the 75 wealthiest Americans "increased from $91.2 million in 2008 to an astonishing $518.8 million in 2009. That's nearly $10 million in weekly pay!"(41) As Robert Reich points out, "The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us."(42) In addition, the top 1 percent owns 70 percent of all financial assets, an all-time record. In light of these trends, it is hardly surprising to read that "the 400 richest families have a combined wealth of $1.57 trillion more than the combined wealth of 50% of U.S. population"(43) and that "the top 1% took in 23.5% of nation's pretax income in 2007 - up from less than 9 percent in 1976."(44) In spite of the fact that every 34th wage earner in America in 2008 went all of 2009 without earning a single dollar,(45) Wall Street handed out $150 billion to its executives.(46) As David McGraw points out, "100% of these bonuses are a direct result of our tax dollars, so if we used this money to create jobs, instead of giving them to a handful of top executives, we could have paid an annual salary of $30,000 to 5 million people."(47) And as the "'bonus culture' of greed, ambition and excess"(48) continues, middle- and working-class families are ending up in food pantries, homeless shelters or worse. Yet, Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, claims that the "bonus culture" produced by the current crop of financial zombies is "doing God's work."(49) Without any irony intended, Blankfein publicly asserts this arrogant comment knowing full well that, under the grip of the recession caused by those "doing God's work," teachers are experiencing massive layoffs; public servants are taking salary and benefit cuts; schools are hemorrhaging under a lack of resources; and the war in Afghanistan endlessly siphons off financial resources needed by the federal and state governments to address the nation's housing, employment and economic crises.
If you don't read the whole piece, you should read the last two paragraphs of the article, too:
Not only has the American public lost its ability, perhaps even its will, to talk about public values such as sharing, caring and preserving, but it can no longer distinguish between a market-driven society and a democratic society. As Sheldon Wolin has insisted, the supportive culture for a viable democracy - "a complex of beliefs, values and practices that nurture equality, cooperation and freedom"(61) - is incompatible with the market-driven values of neoliberalism and their emphasis on a crude consumerism, over-the-top materialism, brutal competition, a culture of lying, a possessive individualistic ethic and an aggressive battle to privatize, deregulate and commodify everything.
The promise of democracy and economic justice and social rights necessitates a new language of public purpose, rationality and formative culture embedded in democratic public values, collective struggles and a social movement willing to fight for a new kind of politics, democracy and future. We don't need privatized utopias, but models of a democratic society and social state in which public values and democratic interests are expressed in a range of economic, political and cultural institutions. We need a new army of critical and passionate winged messengers alert to the need for progressive social solidarities, social agency, collective action and a refusal to stare hopelessly at the rotting corpses, gated communities and the walking dead that turn the promise of democracy into an advertisement for global destruction.
If you do read the whole thing, don't be put off by the slightly obtuse academic speak in the first dozen or so paragraphs. Get through it, it's worth it. If you want to be discouraged and depressed, that is.

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