Democrats and Republicans are engaged in a con game in which each party expresses horror at the other’s supposed undermining of “American values.” The resulting fear and anger generated by these performances of opposition are meant to divert attention from the single, shared philosophy which underlies both parties.
Democratic and Republican politicians believe that the wealthy and the powerful – the corporations, the CEOs, the banks and Wall Street, and the politicians themselves – are America. The rest of us are viewed as replaceable cogs. This delusion of aristocracy (rule of the “better”) obscures the brutal reality of oligarchy (rule of the wealthy) which structures both parties.
The Republicans and the Democrats will never change the political and economic structures which have resulted in economic inequality. They have, together, assiduously built those structures over the years, disguising their complicity with simulations of difference and performances of disagreement.
The 1% controls the 99% not through force or oppression, but by creating a falsity of choice. This requires that significant political change must always appear to be within the grasp of voters even though nothing ever fundamentally changes.
It is optimistic to think that the political parties are corrupted by the wealthy. Claims of corruption give the illusion that the politicians and the wealthy are actually separate entities, with money being the tie that binds. But politicians aren’t corrupted by the 1%, they are part of it. The parties function as the political arm of the powerful. Even if politicians are not part of the 1% in terms of wealth, they share the same devotion to wealth accumulation and a patronizing disdain for the non-wealthy.
Voters have been constructed to believe there are differing fundamental principles distinguishing the two parties. But the dissimilarities are merely political strategies designed to give the appearance of difference and the illusion of choice. Principles are fundamental and enduring; strategies are malleable and contextual.The conflicting strategies are not goals in themselves but function to obscure the singular, shared principle of economic inequality.
The wealthy and powerful don’t want resolutions to social and cultural battles; they use the differing strategies to promote, continue, and often exacerbate, these fights as elements of distraction. They don’t care which side of the duopoly is in power. Both parties serve the same function – continuing to drain the 99% of wealth for the continued benefit of the few.
Neither of the parties actually cares about the horrors from which they are pretending to protect their constituents, nor do they believe that these horrors would ever take place. By protecting their followers from non-existent threats, each party can then claim to have saved this country from something that was never going to happen.
The border wall was never a substantive policy; it was a diversion useful to both parties. The political Right could claim they were protecting the country from the lowly hordes and the Left could cry out against the degradation of these people. In actuality, Biden has continued many of Trump’s immigration policies and the wall can be climbed in six seconds.
But the wall was a useful strategy – it reinforced the pretense of differentiation through the trope of horror/protection while distracting voters from bipartisan policies supporting greater wealth accumulation and continued economic inequality.
The Republicans cried out that the Democrats were going to defund the police and the Democrats countered that only they would save people of color from police brutality. A great deal of energy and anger was generated, as was a large amount of fund-raising, as each party exhorted their faithful to support the different sides of this crucial battle. Then the Democrats took a photo of their elders kneeling, draped in Kente cloth, and that was pretty much it.
Democrats exhort their followers around the issue of voting rights, claiming they are saving democracy from the tyrannical Republicans. But Democrats have tried to kick third party candidates off ballots, they’ve promoted a bill which makes it more difficult for third party presidential candidates to obtain funding, and they have gone to court to win the right for party leaders to ignore the results of their own primaries. The goal is to promote a seeming opposition to Republicans through a disagreement over voting access while simultaneously limiting voters’ available choices to the status quo favored by both parties.
If both parties explicitly declared they were going to limit future presidential choices to only the two existing parties, and that party leaders could ultimately choose the nominees, there would be an outcry from those on the Left. Instead, both parties benefit from the illusion that the Democrats are truly fighting for the rights and freedoms of all voters regardless of their political affiliations or viewpoints. Political energy on behalf of giving more power to the people is diverted into the con game and a strengthened oligarchical duopoly is disguised as a battle for democracy.
It is not possible to bring about actual change, or any significant alteration of economic hierarchies, by supporting either party in the con game. The oppositional duality is an illusion; there is only one side – the philosophy of wealth. The appearance of opposition is a strategic performance which structures the game and choosing sides within it simply allows the game to continue. As the supercomputer in the film WarGames finally figured out, “the only winning move is not to play.”
Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org
Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; email@example.com
Richard W Goldin; Lecturer in Political Science; California State University; firstname.lastname@example.org
There was a time, when the world was younger, that I believed there was a kind of justice in the universe by which good people would be rewarded for their goodness and bad people would be punished.
The methods and means by which this universal justice would be implemented was always a bit unclear in my thoughts, though I think there was some element of material rewards or deprivation. My belief system wasn’t robust with specifics; it was grounded more in a hazy hope that those people who consistently treat others badly would ultimately be faced with some dimension of universal balance. It was an ambiguous yearning that the people who regard others as a shared humanity would ultimately live the better lives, while the narcissistic egoists – or, to use a term as evocative as it is crude, the “dicks” of the world – would be faced with material failure.
Dickishness is the purgatory that lies between decency and evil. Though it usually doesn’t by itself reach the level of evil, it can often serve as its ground. Context is important; the dickishness love of hierarchy can easily mutate from mere vanity and disdain to far more insidious applications. Though we may encounter the truly evil at few points in our lives, dickishness is often the daily environment in which so many are forced to live.
Many of us are frequently compelled to consume a smorgasbord of other peoples’ dickishness. We are fed a massive salad of “I’m better than you” topped with an “and I’ll treat you with contemptuous arrogance to prove it” dressing, followed by a heaping mound of self-importance with an oozing side of condescension. All of this is served to us on a grotesquely huge platter of insecurity, ego, and rationalization.
Dickishness can often be found in politics, but it isn’t based on particular political philosophies or policies. It crosses the aisle entwining itself into all facets of political life. It’s Donald Trump mocking the disabled and Amy Klobucher tossing binders at her staff’s heads. It’s the smugness and pomposity that power breeds.
Dickishness is the assertion of a delusional superiority which often seeps from institutional hierarchies into valuations of human worth. In my own situation – a university adjunct for almost two decades – I have been forced to deal with tenured professors, many of whom attempt to cling to an imagined slightly higher rung on the academic ladder by demeaning adjuncts and the work we do.
Assistant Professors, become Associate Professors, become Full Professors, each move bringing with it increased material benefits. Adjuncts stay as adjuncts, contingent and vastly underpaid – mere cogs in the machine. Tenured professors often regard this inequality with either a condescending indifference or as a useful symbol of their own supposed grandeur, while at the same time they populate CNN and MSNBC weeping for the downtrodden.
While this particular hypocritical form of dickishness is rife amongst the tenured, dickishness is certainly not limited to the sanctimony of academia. If you met someone who proclaimed that their boss was a giving, humane person who always treated everyone with exactly the same amount of respect they want in return, you might be inclined to ask, “Is your boss a unicorn?”
Having witnessed the resplendence of dickishness that is academia, I came to realize that there is no universal disseminator of justice which rebukes the narcissistic and ultimately rewards those that treat others with respect. Perhaps it is dickishness which allows one to rise to the top of a hierarchy; perhaps it is the ascension itself which transforms one into dickishness. Either way, the dicks will win and the winners will be dicks. Even having attained a Ph.D., this is probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from the university.
In the end, I can’t help but occasionally glance nostalgically over my shoulder at what I once thought. The belief in some kind of just order may have been misplaced, but there was comfort in being naive. But I have come to realize that there is no universal arbiter against dickishness; we can only as individuals commit ourselves to never becoming what we abhor. To refuse to do onto others as has been done onto us. The material rewards of dickishness can be many, but they are always an insufficient compensation for our humanity.
The U.S. court system is government funded. Each citizen, whether or not they are ever party to a judicial proceeding, contributes to the financial sustenance of the system. Through constitutional interpretations, every citizen is entitled to a basic level of legal representation in all criminal cases, free of charge.
These are very much the same principles embodied in most proposals for Universal Health Care. Yet it is only Universal Health Care which is framed in our politics as a kind of Trotskyite Trojan Horse intent on destroying the moral fibers of the American social fabric.
Why is Universal Health Care constructed as the spearpoint of a leftist insurgency, while the court system, for all its problems, has not been the focus of a similar “let corporations run everything” approach? Why haven’t Democratic and Republican politicians banded together to decry our court system as a Socialist menace and extolled the virtues of efficiency and innovation that would emerge from a corporate-run system of justice? Just as they’ve done with Universal Health Care.
Why aren’t there insurrectionists draped in Trump flags and moose antlers storming the Supreme Court demanding that the courts be run by Anheuser-Busch? (“One sip of our new limeade cooler and you’ll yearn for the death penalty.”)
The political differences between the court and health care systems are not based on substance; they’re strategic. The Constitutional creation of our court system, unlike the current proposals for Universal Health Care, was not whipsawed through, and torn apart, by the contemporary political fun-house of meaningless labels and empty categories.
When the Founding Fathers constructed this country, the role of the courts, and the crucial importance of a fair and impartial system of justice, was foremost in their minds. The interference of the British government in the workings of colonial juries was a strong impetus for the American Revolution.
However, despite evidence of the British government’s malfeasance in colonial courts, the colonists didn’t turn away from a government-established court system. Instead, they gave Congress the power in Article III of the Constitution to establish the Supreme Court and any lower federal courts deemed necessary. The founding fathers were drawn from the wealthiest class in America, yet they didn’t construct the federal courts as a profit-making enterprise.
A government-run hierarchy of courts was put into place because it represented the most rational, reasonable way to develop an impartial judicial system; amplified by the Constitutional protections afforded by the Bill of Rights to those accused of crimes.
The greater fairness of a government-run, rather than private-enterprise maintained, court system seems clear. If someone you know is falsely accused of a crime and their attorney indicates they need three days to present an adequate defense, you don’t want the judge responding “Sorry, Pepsi only allows for one-day trials.” The Miranda Warning stating “if you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you” is not followed by an asterisk declaring “your lawyer is only free after you pay for the first 4 hours of their time and twenty-minutes of every hour thereafter.”
As a nation, we don’t want profit-making entities such as Pepsi structuring our courts system and dictating whether or not we will be physically free. Yet, this is exactly what we do in terms of our health care system where our physical well-being and very existence is at stake.
All developed nations other than the U.S. have some form of Universal Health Care. This unanimity isn’t the effect of ideological trench warfare but, rather, a recognition across the political spectrum that government-run insurance is the most efficient means of providing health care.
But American politics is not about efficiency because it isn’t based on substance – the pre-requisite for any reasoned debate. Instead, every proposal, every program, is dragged through the chopper-blade of contemporary politics in which it is given a label and then twisted and contorted to fit into a constructed political category.
In our politics, terms such as “left,” “right,” “center,” “Socialist,” “liberal” are fervently embraced by adherents and hurled as invectives against opponents. But even as the labels fly across social media they have been emptied of any substance. They are strategic placeholders, pointing to nothing other than a vague emotional attraction to the words themselves.
The labels and categories are not based on reason or rationality and shouldn’t be engaged as though they are. They are like paintings in a museum; we are aesthetically attracted to some labels and not to others. If someone invokes a label as though it has some real meaning – “I could never support Universal Health Care. It’s too leftist and Socialist for this country” the response should be ”I like Starry Night. It’s very blue.”
We are like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave; unknowingly chained to the ground, staring at, and arguing over, the shadows on a wall. We fight over terms and labels which are meaningless. Behind us, are the politicians, projecting the shadows, diverting our attention with hollowed-out ideological categories and a vacuous topography of left, right, and center.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, one of the prisoner’s breaks free and ultimately leaves the cave and the world of shadows. But most stay; the shadows are comforting and familiar. Presumably, they continue to argue and wage political warfare over nothing until the cave is completely enveloped in flames.
Image: William Brown / Op-Art
I believe Donald Trump’s policies are evil. I also believe the person who selfishly won’t let me into their lane on the freeway is evil. Both of these are what I would call “disfavored actions.” But what is it that propels the first belief into a national discussion on the nature of immorality and the latter into unsolicited referrals for counseling?
If we consider locking children in cages to be evil, what do we say about the killing of six-million Jews? Is it possible for evil actions to be ranked comparatively? Is Hitler “more” evil than Trump? If so, by what standard?
How do we decide which actions are “wrong” – selfishness, lacking empathy, etc. – but not necessarily “evil.” The freeway driver may embody these negative qualities, but we wouldn’t say they rise to the level of immorality. What is the calibration – the measurement – that forms the line of demarcation?
For large swaths of social media, there seems to be little question as to whether Donald Trump’s policies reach a level they denote as “evil.” This certainty usually emerges from a calculus which evaluates Trump’s specific actions against an abstract set of “moral principles” – equality, liberty, justice – which have no definitive meanings.
But “evil” is not a compilation of policies, measured and compared to politically malleable tenets of “natural law.” Evil is a strategy; it is the refusal to acknowledge the worth of others and to exclude them from the processes which determine the quality of their lives. Evil is not a hierarchy of disfavored actions; it is, at its core, the insidious belief that there are differences in human value. Evil seeks not only to divide, but to erase.
This strategy infuses all levels of our social, economic and political lives. It is a Hydra; the face it displays – the policies it produces – depends on the context in which it functions. Evil is a highly adaptable shape-shifter on a constant search for unguarded spaces and unseen opportunities.
The killing of six million Jews and locking children in cages are based on the same strategy; the erasure of the “other.” One action is no more or less evil than the other; in each case, the strategies of evil expanded into the social and political spaces allowed to it.
The Trumpian erasure occurs on many levels. In its most overt form, erasure shapes Trump’s views on immigration in which non-whites are rendered invisible by imperious exclusion and contemptuous rhetoric. The Trumpian constructions are not merely hierarchical; they generate a distinct dichotomy of human value.
The Republican agenda is premised on the delusion that there are two different kinds of people; the very wealthy and everyone else. This economic division becomes the marker for differences in intrinsic worth. The non-super wealthy, comprising over 99% of the population, are considered to be less fully human than the very well-off. Respect and dignity are based on a sliding scale of net-worth.
In the Right’s strategies of erasure, one group – extremely wealthy, white, heterosexual males – dwell on a higher plane of existence; while all others – the poor, people of color, the LGBT community, anyone immigrating from a non-Nordic country – tumble into an abyss of nothingness. Unrecognized and unacknowledged, with a potentially dwindling ability to participate in processes of self-determination.
Within the strategies of erasure which constitute evil, individuals with power validate their own sense of intrinsic worth; not merely through hierarchy but through the forced non-existence of others. That is why these strategies are so prevalent and so difficult to dislodge.
Strategies of erasure are not eliminated from our lives by outlawing specific actions and relations. But rules and regulations do provide barriers against these strategies; they ultimately construct the maze through which evil slithers. Change the laws on sexual harassment – alter the walls of the maze – and the strategies of erasure will quickly adapt, finding new unguarded venues and targets. The more de jure rules deflect it, the more de facto openings it will seek.
It can be comforting to point at Donald Trump and scream “EVIL!” In the cathartic moment, immorality is contained within a singular orange-tinted vessel; the product of a particular warped psyche.
But even the most egregious displays of evil shouldn’t blind us to the strategies of erasure which course through our social fabric. We must continuously churn the soil of social and economic relations, rooting out those strategies wherever they occur. Trump may be the not-so-bright light of erasure, but his glare should not obscure the micro-fissures of indignity which twist through so many of our lives.
The leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties share a belief that the institutions of corporate capitalism are America. The institutions are like well-worn buildings with deep metaphysical foundations.
The vast majority of people are ephemeral. We are temporary. We are moved through some of the buildings, and not others, or sometimes denied entry to all of them, by forces over which we have little to no control. We are separated from those who guard the institutions and who are allowed to traverse them at will. We are told that this separation represents the “free” part of free market.
The Republicans work assiduously to make sure the majority of people have as little access to the buildings as possible. The Democrats decry this exclusion and then spend years debating whether they should open a small room in one of the outer structures. Neither question the origins, or supposed immortality, of the buildings themselves.
The leadership of both parties believe that institutions of finance are eternal – they precede us and will outlast us. When the Big Bang occurred, out flew leptons, quarks and free-market capitalism. But the masses are eternal only as an abstraction; collectively we are viewed as an endless shuffle of easily replaceable parts.
The Republicans delight in taking billions of dollars from the many in order to enlarge and embellish buildings most people will never be allowed to enter. Republicans imagine themselves as the reincarnation of Khufu, the Egyptian pharaoh who subjugated tens of thousands to build the Great Pyramid. The Democrats have the same goals, but they are convinced they’re the new Plato, aligning the masses with the Truth of neo-liberal capitalism.
Plato was a philosopher in ancient Greece who believed that an ideal society should be ruled by an extremely small, select group of Philosophers who were capable of understanding metaphysical Truths embodied in what he called the Forms and the Good. Philosophers should be kings.
The vast majority of people had no philosophical abilities. No matter how much they learned and studied, they would never become Philosophers, and shouldn’t attempt to do so. Plato, didn’t hate the people, he simply didn’t care much about them. They were his version of the endless shuffle – an indistinct gray mass which needed to be directed and constrained.
Through their Platonic prism, Biden, Pelosi, and Schumer aren’t blindly attached to a deadened, morally bankrupt, economic system which has been a cudgel of marginalization and pain throughout history. Instead, they’re 21st century Philosopher-Kings, excreting the Truth of wealth, opportunity, and free-markets onto the masses.
Plato believed that the people should be told a story that they are all born from the earth. Some are born with gold in them (philosophers), some with silver (soldiers), and some with iron (the masses). An individual’s place in society was determined by innate attributes and limitations present at birth. In Plato’s ideal society, inherent inequalities in philosophical capacity result in a rigid, hierarchical society.
Economic inequality now serves the same purpose as Plato’s philosophical disparities. Capitalism sorts out the masses. There can be no “winners” without “losers.” Financial stratifications allow political leaders to point to wealth as a reflection of innate differences in intellect and work ethic.
Free-market capitalism is premised on the claim that “everyone has the qualities to succeed” while at the same time its resultant inequalities are rationalized as “nothing wrong with the system, must be something lacking in the people.”
The Capitalist Noble Lie has transformed capitalism from historical effect into metaphysical certainty. The ravages of plunder and conquest out of which capitalism emerged, and the structural inequalities which maintain it, disappear into the conviction that neo-liberalsim, like the Forms, was “always there,” in its perfection, waiting to be revealed. The forces which direct, and limit, access to the buildings of capitalism are subsumed into a glorification of the buildings themselves.
The Capitalist Noble Lie is a torrent of water inundating desert sands. It moves in unexpected directions, forming intertwined tributaries as it covers, and drowns, all that is beneath it. The river is self-maintaining; it thrives by re-interpreting, mocking, or pushing aside, any attempts to divert its course.
For Democrats, the free-market is a manifestation of a Truth which they will not allow to be challenged. Any small amelioration of the effects of capitalism must never fundamentally alter the system itself.
One political party revels in force, the other claims knowledge. But they both end up in the same place.
The certitude of Truth is far more dangerous than the love of power. Once Truth is invoked, the poor are no longer subjugated; they become the flawed discards of a race to enlightenment.
It is difficult to argue individuals out of their metaphysics. You can’t point to the actual lives of the majority of people because capitalism-as-Truth isn’t negotiable. The effects of neo-liberalism will only dissipate when we take power away from Plato and the Pharaohs.