“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
When Charles Dickens wrote the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities it was in reference to London and Paris during the French Revolution, but his epochal depiction could well be America in 2017.
Indeed, our country has devolved into two separate but unequal entities, where it’s the best of times, while simultaneously the worst of times.
Matt Stoller has an important new post examining ex-President Obama’s decision to accept $400,000 for a speech on Wall Street at Cantor-Fitzgerald’s annual healthcare conference, where wealthy investors and for-profit healthcare corporations network in pursuit of mutually advantageous deals.
“For virtually his whole Presidency, President Obama operated according to a Hamiltonian worldview in which social justice and concentrated capital went hand-in-hand, where technocracy was seen as superior to democracy. It is that same moral vision that animated Obama in accepting nearly half a million dollars in speaking fee money. Obama was the damn President — he’s a smart guy, and yeah, this is who he should be spending time with and naturally this transfer of wealth is a just reward for him to live the lifestyle to which the virtuous class is entitled.
The endorsement of this worldview by Obama, and the disappointment it provoked in his supporters, is useful. It strips away the polish and PR sheen of the last eight years. Democrats are now uncomfortable, not with Trump, but with themselves. And they need to be, or they won’t learn to love democracy. Taking this money makes it clear what Obama believes, and what Democrats bought into when they invested so heavily into his administration and its policies. It draws a consistent line from the unsatisfying policy framework of Obama’s administration to what actually animated it. Not 13 dimensional chess, not GOP obstruction, but a philosophy that Democrats find distasteful on its own merits.
Obama’s good society was one in which a few actors in this class organize our culture using their power over our lives and liberties, because their virtue has enabled them to have the capital or credentials to do so. It’s why his policy agenda on the challenges of today’s political economy was education, early childhood education, and a higher minimum wage, rather than any means to liberate us from the concentrated financiers that organize our markets and our communities. They are doing this for our own good, for one day, maybe not you or me, but perhaps our children might be able to scratch and claw into this rarefied class. If, of course, they have the virtue and intelligence to do so.”
Stoller well describes the technocratic elite who’ve emerged as the winners in our society.
For this strata of Americans these are indeed the best of times. And why wouldn’t they think this way? They are themselves the beneficiaries of a global meritocracy which serves to validate their worth. They live in coastal cites that are booming with jobs in tech, finance, media, and other fields that highlight their educations at the greatest universities in the world. They work brutal hours and are rewarded with high salaries, frequent travel, nice cars, and cutting-edge gadgets.
What of the other 80 percent of the population that aren’t winners? For them, these are the worst of times. Not surprisingly, they don’t see the bankers who ruined their lives in such a positive light. What they see is a system that is fundamentally unjust, rigged, and shot through with corruption and self-dealing. They see Obama getting paid a half-million for a speech on Wall Street as a slimy bribe.
James Howard Kunstler describes the losers.
“I live in a corner of Flyover Red America where you can easily read these conditions on the landscape – the vacant Main Streets, especially after dark, the houses uncared for and decrepitating year by year, the derelict farms with barns falling down, harvesters rusting in the rain, and pastures overgrown with sumacs, the parasitical national chain stores like tumors at the edge of every town.
You can read it in the bodies of the people in the new town square, i.e. the supermarket: people prematurely old, fattened and sickened by bad food made to look and taste irresistible to con those sunk in despair, a deadly consolation for lives otherwise filled by empty hours, trash television, addictive computer games, and their own family melodramas concocted to give some narrative meaning to lives otherwise bereft of event or effort.
These are people who have suffered their economic and social roles in life to be stolen from them. They do not work at things that matter. They have no prospects for a better life — and, anyway, the sheer notion of that has been reduced to absurd fantasies of Kardashian luxury, i.e. maximum comfort with no purpose other than to enable self-dramatization. And nothing dramatizes a desperate life like a drug habit. It concentrates the mind, as Samuel Johnson once remarked, like waiting to be hanged.
What galls me is how casually the country accepts the forces that it has enabled to wreck these relationships. None of the news reports or “studies” done about opioid addiction will challenge or even mention the deadly logic of Wal Mart and operations like it that systematically destroyed local retail economies (and the lives entailed in them.) The news media would have you believe that we still value “bargain shopping” above all other social dynamics. In the end, we don’t know what we’re talking about.”
Stoller and Kunstler are describing two countries. On one hand we have the technocratic elite who live in a rarified world of seemingly boundless power and luxury. Though the members of this elite consider their own power and luxury to be completely legitimate, it is not. It is the product of a system that’s rigged to benefit them while the other vast majority of Americans languish in declining small cities and rural areas, working in menial service-sector jobs or scraping by on disability checks while medicating away the pain in an opioid daze.
This state of affairs can’t continue for much longer.
If only we had a political party who could propose an alternative to such an arrangement?
Update: This is absolutely right.
“The war we’re fighting against the oligarchy is first and foremost a media war, and we may be certain that any sympathies progressives maintain toward their establishment oppressors will be exploited. By letting ourselves really see Obama for the vicious ecocidal warmongering corporatist that he is and letting the resulting disgust wash through us, we are inoculating ourselves against sympathy for him and everyone like him. That disgust will serve as a kind of psychological gag reflex that rescues us from swallowing any more of their bullshit.”