Money, Power, and the American Dream

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack in DC)

Before I go to bed tonight, let me scream to the rest of you:  WAKE UP!

Or at least to those of you who have been dozing.

Bear with me, this is not what it seems.

Tonight I watched again the documentary Park Avenue:  Money, Power, and the American Dream.  The film deals with the way elite money and power rework the political and economic system to benefit the few at the expense the majority.

Park Avenue is a thoughtful, convincing, and powerful film.  It tells an honest and frightening story with simplicity.  Watch it.  But I dropped the “Park Avenue” in the title this post for a reason.  I did this because I think the Park Avenue reference is misleading, it is loaded with divisive connotations that swirl around class, geography, and connections.

Moreover, the problem of lost equality and opportunity in the United States isn’t as simple as money, power, or the American Dream.  It is that and something more.  I want to talk about that.

United (States) Parcel Service.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!

First of all, it is important to remember that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with money and wealth.  Instead the problem exists in greed and corruption.  For many decades the United States thrived in large part because we collectively enforced rules that put a check on greed and corruption.  With time, however, we let these rules be challenged and dismantled.

I’ll argue that prosperity silently ruined us by enabling destructive greed and corruption.

Park Avenue does an excellent job explaining the problem of greed and corruption occurring at the top.  It presents a convincingly simple narrative, backed up with facts and testimonials.  It is difficult to see how a thinking person could watch this film and not see a problem.  A very powerful few are reworking the priorities of our society and government, they have hijacked and bought the national political narrative, manipulating it to serve the benefit of a fortunate minority…

Right?

Park Avenue

Park Avenue.  Not the problem.

We hear this story all the time.  Critics — usually, but not always — on the left argue the case in defense of a dying America while the other side claims the whining is merely the outcome of resentment (or ressentiment)  and class warfare.  The “debate” on the issue has become dull, trite, and wrong.  Watch the film.

And while you’re watching the film, ask yourself this:  Is it only the super rich who have become greedy and corrupt?

While I think that part of the story is correct, I don’t think it is the entire story.  I’ll argue that the middle class, for one, also became greedy and corrupt, but not exactly in the way you might expect.  Prosperity — do you remember prosperity? — it lulled the masses into a state entitlement and complacency.  It became a given that we all had become self-made successes and if we did not succeed we had no one to fault but ourselves.

Right?

Hard work, discipline, and self-improvement — the Protestant Ethic — was the God-given equalizer that made each of us individually worthy to claim and share success.  The individualists — phony as they might be — became heroes, and the exceedingly fortunate became gods.  The only thing that kept the rest from being them was a matter of freedom.  That’s what the narrative told us.  The American Dream became the American Myth and we believed it.

Illustration of the Black Death from the Togge...

The Wealthy Poor?

Right?  Damn, right!  Freedom!  Government isn’t the solution, it is the problem sort of thing.  Interestingly, government sure seems to be a bit of a problem now, but never mind.  And don’t even start talking about these so-called political leaders, vanguards of freedom for sure.  They’re merely tools of the state.  Don’t forget, we ARE the government, we Are the people.

Louis Althusser, a Marxist French philosopher,  offered some ideas that help explain what is going on when he wrote about the individual being subject to the Ideological State Apparatus.  We should pay attention.

The institutions and rituals of society including family, religion, and education mold the individual into conformity with the values of society, especially the political, legal, and economic values.  This shouldn’t surprise anyone if they give it some thought.  The values of a family, for example, tend to pass down.  But Althusser makes a point of involving the “state” in his assessment.  By that I think he refers to the political-economic structures of society.  We want to belong, we self-identify with it, we hear it calling us and so we identify with it.  In short, as society prospered we all prospered and we all became captains of industry, rugged individualists, and more recently John Galt.

Right?  Wrong.

3819825889_6bf35451c0Thank god not all of us became John Galt wannabes.  Many Americans still pay attention to history and events and see beyond the current ideological horizon.  Those people, I think, are the people attacking the greed and corruption at the top, whether from the left or the right.  They see us dismantling the social structures that helped foster our nation’s unprecedented prosperity and opportunity.  They understand that some have climbed the ladder and now that ladder is being pulled up leaving the rest behind.

Too many, though, remain corrupted by money, power, and the American myth.  They still worship their faux idols and gods.  They self-identify as subjects to the dominant ideology of individual prosperity.  It is a sham.

300px-StupidstampSome people see evil in wealth, money, and power.  I do not.  Instead I see evil in stupidity and ignorance.  These are the destructive qualities that elevate corruption and greed to a status of almost religious adoration.  And it is stupidity and ignorance that is at the root of our evil.  Obstinance and dogmatism, to paraphrase Michel de Montaigne, are the surest signs of stupidity and our pride has become pretty damn obstinate and dogmatic.

People flat out don’t get their own best interests.  It is called cognitive dissonance and it explains the rise of the extreme radical right in this country.  They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have popular support. So we have become slaves to our masters.  But we do more than merely answer to our masters, we internalize his values as our own.

That’s a radical corruption of the worst sort.

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