Warning: This is a rant.
The one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement recently passed. I think about Occupy quite a bit because it was really a discussion and demonstration about the factors of political efficacy. There are still, remarkably, a lot of people who claim that they don't know what the Occupy protests were about - if anything. These folks, disingenuously I presume, ask "What was their message anyway?"
For me, the message of the Occupy protests was loud and clear:
The wealthiest 1% of our society use their wealth to buy political power then use that power to perpetuate and expand their wealth and to pursue their narrow self-interests.
How did anyone fail to hear that message? I suppose it is possible that the message didn't get out very clearly because the 1% control the media and suppressed the message. I suppose it didn't reach anyone who has no access to media that is not under corporate control. But in an age of blogs and other social media, who is that? It's not you; you're reading this.
I was also surprised by the number of people who got the message and were non-plussed by it. They reckon that's the deal - get rich and you can buy politicians, laws, and favorable tax rules. These cynical folks welcomed me to America and suggested that I grow up. There is no culture of noblesse oblige. No one is working in service for the betterment of society. This is the land of "I got mine, to heck with you." I was confounded by the number of people who shrugged off the fact that our political system was for sale and that rich people could simply buy whatever laws they wanted and that bought laws that make them even richer. They bought tax breaks, subsidies, government guarantees, and the privatization of our public assets. They used their political influence to privatize the gain and socialize costs and losses. That's just the way it is, the way it has always been, and there's just no changing it they told me. Grow up.
The kindest of them wanted to put me on display as a sort of living, walking Frank Capra movie for the entertainment of children and the irrecoverably naive.
I am reminded, time and time again, that the best return on investment that most corporations can make is not in their machinery, their technology, or their human capital, but in political influence. For just a few thousand dollars donated to a campaign they can get a tax exemption worth millions. Never has this process been so naked as we see it locally on our own ballots. Paul Allen's purchase of a stadium election, Costco's purchase of the private liquor sales initiative, and the purchase of a charter school initiative by a dozen multi-millionaires. The initiative process, intended as a tool for the grassroots, has become a tool for oligarchs.
Here's the point: grassroots movements, however noble, however broadbased their support, are ineffective, while the political efforts of the 1%, no matter how ignoble or narrow their support, are extremely effective. Yet the myth of our democracy persists.
The difference between effective political action and ineffective political action is clear to me. For the effort to be successful, it requires only two things: adequate cash behind it and inadequate cash in opposition. All of this works - the oligarch's or corporate takeover of our political system - because these are the deep pockets with both the financial resources and the narrow interest necessary to effect political change and, just as critically, because there is no one paid to oppose them. I'll give you an example:
Egg producers pay for and get a tax exemption on chicken bedding. Sure they had the money to do it, but, just as important, there was no organized opposition. There's no one out there who cares deeply about maintaining the tax on chicken bedding. There's certainly no one who has an economic interest in keeping taxes on chicken bedding at its historic level. That's our lesson for today, boys and girls, in this country few things happen if no one is paid to make them happen and no one was getting paid to maintain high taxes on chicken bedding.
There was no well-financed group of people with an economic interest in blocking private liquor sales, but there were people with a direct economic interest in promoting them. There's no one with a direct economic interest in preventing a publicly financed football stadium, but there was one really rich guy who would save a lot of money if the state built it. There aren't many people with a direct economic interest in preserving our public schools, but there sure are people who will make money off charters. Yet somehow, no one holds this self-interest against them. If there's any opposition, however, those folks are pilloried as pursuing their own interests over the greater good. It's a funny thing that people will suggest that the WEA's position on charter schools is self-serving but never wonder if charter supporters are not just as self-serving in their position.
Under the corruptive influence of money on politics our marketplace of ideas has devolved into just a marketplace.
We can see this dynamic at work every day on the front page of our newspaper. It happens at every level. Where is the push for the downtown school coming from? Not from any grassroots group of concerned citizens. It's coming from the Downtown Seattle Association. It's coming from people who want to enhance the value of their private assets with a publicly funded resource. And they can put money behind it. They are spending this money to forment support in Queen Anne, to promote the effort by organizing a letter-writing campaign to the board, by promoting the idea with the mayor, by promoting the idea with the City Council, promoting the idea through the Alliance for Education, and through all of their other channels. And they have channels. They own the channels.
Here is a textbook case of a situation in which well-financed and well-connected interests want a public resource to enhance the value of their private assets. They have the money to put behind the idea and, just as important, there is no one with an economic interest in opposing it. You'll note that the quality of the idea is not a factor. It could be a good idea or a bad idea - that doesn't matter. All that matters is how much money is lined up on either side of it. The opposition only comes from some good government types like us. In the end, how many of us would really vote against the levy based solely on the fact that less than 1% of it might get thrown at the downtown elementary? Really? Does that really outweigh the need for an Arbor Heights renovation, for additional capacity in West Seattle and the Northeast, and a permanent, suitable home for the Seattle World School? Really? Are you that willing to cut off your nose to spite your face? I doubt it.
So what is the lesson for us, boys and girls? What, if anything, can we do about this?
I suppose we could work to elect representatives who are resistant to undue influence by the moneyed elite. Except that most voters are easily influenced by the purchased media and are hard to influence by face-to-face conversation and the moneyed elite use purchased media to elect representatives who are under the thrall of the moneyed elite. It would be frontal assault and it would be futile.
I suppose that we could work to create laws that strike out against the influence of money in our political system, but, if you think that can happen then you must have skipped down to this paragraph and not read anything that came before it.
I suppose that we could work like dogs for free to organize and mobilize a grassroots majority to overthrow the oligarchs, but that's not a very practical solution, is it? Working people don't have the leisure time for that sort of volunteer effort. And even if we had the leisure time for it, we don't really have the skills. It's difficult to maintain the passion necessary to whip up a mob and keep them whipped up. The oligarchs can do it because they can pay skilled professionals to be full-time organizers of astroturf organizations. And, since they own the channels of power, they can get media and official attention paid to their groups while authentic grassroots efforts are ignored.
I suppose that we're kinda screwed. Maybe, when things get really, really bad, the people will rise up and attempt to regain control of their democratic process. We sometimes still see real democracy at work at the lowest levels - school board races - where the big money forces don't always bother to get involved. Here in Seattle, however, they still maintain a majority, which is all they need.
There's another challenge: I don't think that Director Sherry Carr, just to choose one example, sees herself as a bought-and-paid-for representative of the 1%. But that's because she doesn't seek or heed authentic grassroots voices. She hears primarily "official" voices. She gives them more credence than the voices of her constituents and she never questions their true interests. She doesn't do these things for the same reason that most people don't. In our culture, money equals credibility and authority. I can't blame her for being an ordinary person who doesn't question the culture in which she lives. With all of the expert work done to hide the dysfunctional biases engineered into the system, there's no surprise that she doesn't see them.
I know that Director Carr and her defenders will claim that she does seek constituent voices. She has that community meeting every month. But when has anything from those community meetings ever had any effect on Board action? Bagley was dropped from BEX IV. Where was Sherry? The JSIS needs to be an option school. Where is Sherry? Hamilton has grave problems. Where is Sherry? I've been to her community meetings. I have heard the people. I have seen Sherry make her "I share your concern" face. I have never seen any of those shared concerns in a motion before the Board. She deeply discounts everything she hears at those meetings. But when the Alliance for Education wants something, Director Carr is their obedient soldier and she takes prompt action. She delivers the vote. Director Carr has managed, like a lot of people, to convince herself that - somehow - the Alliance for Education is the legitimate voice of the people when there are no actual people behind it (unless you believe that corporations are people, my friend) while the actual voice of the actual people has no legitimacy. Amazing.
This is the power of the 1% in its full flower. Not only have they established their own undeserved legitimacy, but they have actually managed to de-legitimize the authentic. Lynne Varner has credibility and influence on education matters because she is annointed by Frank Blethen. Melissa and I, on the other hand, are ranting lunatics and self-appointed hotheads because we have not been delegated by the official powers.