The Chambers of Our American Sea

I don’t know what other people do when they are sick and more or less couch-ridden, but I do things like watch intensive introductions to Marxism on YouTube. If you really want to go through the looking glass, get about halfway through a Marxist lecture and then take a dose of Nyquil. As I lay on my couch in a cold sweat, shivering with the chills and learning just where the money went, I had the distinct feeling that I was Neo about to get swallowed from the Matrix and dumped out into the realm of the real.

Am I a Marxist? An anarchist? A Communist? I think the question of labels is beside the point. What I am is a person who sees massive wealth concentrated at the top, misery at the bottom, insecurity in the dwindling middle, endless wars, ecological disasters and economic crises looming and thinks, maybe this isn’t the best way to order our world.

The Marxist lectures in question are by professor Richard Wolff, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Professor Wolff’s lectures take us step by step through Marx’s theory that in capitalism one group of people, the laborers, produce the wealth and another group, the capitalists, controls and distributes it. The profit of the capitalists, on this view, is nothing more than the amount by which they are able to underpay their workers, which allows them to retain the “surplus value” when they sell their products. Needless to say, Marx has a bit of a problem with an economic system that allows one group to appropriate the work of another for their own profit.

Now anyone paying attention these days knows that those at the top have captured our government. They get the policies that they want, the rest of us be damned. This is demonstrably true, and the reasons for it are not difficult to discern. Here is what one article on the subject has to say: “A shattering new study by two political science professors has found that ordinary Americans have virtually no impact whatsoever on the making of national policy in our country. The analysts found that rich individuals and business-controlled interest groups largely shape policy outcomes in the United States.” (You can read the article here: We probably already new that the wealthy and corporations disproportionately influence national policy. After all, why would they continue lobbying politicians and spending so much money on campaigns if they didn’t get their policies enacted as a result? But that ordinary Americans have no impact whatsoever in the making of national policy? If you do not find that profoundly disturbing then you are either a commentator on Fox News or the CEO of a Fortune 100 Company, or both.

And by the way, far from being a new trend in American politics, it is woven into the very fabric of the system. This tidy piece of writing by Noam Chomsky is a good starting point for understanding the inherent tension between democracy and economic inequality: Professor Chomsky reminds us that, faced with the understanding (going back to Aristotle) that fully participatory democracy is incompatible with economic inequality, our founding fathers opted to limit democracy rather than ensure relative equality.

Now recognize that the political system is, at least regarding fiscal policy, just a way to redistribute wealth. The federal budget is a massive law dictating who has to put money into the system and how it gets meted out. One way or another, much of the wealth in America gets run through the federal budget and redistributed. So you can guess that those who control America’s government are redistributing wealth in ways that benefit themselves, otherwise why would they bother spending so much time and money to control it in the first place? People who think that we spend too much on social programs should ask themselves just how much more they are “paying up,” since it is a sure bet that those who spend billions to control the political system don’t make that investment in order to redistribute money to the downtrodden.

So in my Nyquil-induced haze I came to realize that today in America we are subject to a double distribution problem: the wealthy and the corporations control the distribution of wealth both economically and politically. They call the shots in the boardroom and in the halls of power (And don’t get me started on the Supreme Court of Corporate Corruption). For ordinary Americans, this is the stark reality: we don’t get to decide how to distribute our collective wealth according to our values, because we are doubly locked out of the political economy.

As for what to do about it, the good professor says that Marx never told us. He thought that capitalism was incapable of delivering liberty, equality and brotherhood and needed to be replaced, but he believed that deciding what should take its place was a kind of fortune telling and he would not indulge in it. Neither in the former Soviet Union nor in China, nor in any of the more or less socialist states that have come and gone have we yet seen an economy wherein those who create the wealth are the same ones who get to distribute it. Nor, for that matter, have we seen since ancient Greece a political system in which those who decide the policies of the state are the members of the state acting directly, rather than through elected officials.

For my part, America is like one who is sick and drugged and couch-ridden, dimly aware that he is witnessing something disturbing but unable to bring it into sharp enough focus to understand it fully and take decisive action to right it. I like to think that one day we will awaken from our stupor and finally order the world for our mutual betterment. But I wonder if we will instead linger on in the chambers of the sea, as TS Eliot wrote, ‘till human voices wake us and we drown.



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