After United States. Third Part

 

Deceit is an inherent part of politics. Today, it is boosted by social media. A great effort of civic reflection, clarification, opposing organization and mobilization are needed to counteract its dire consequences.

 

December 28th commemorates the biblical massacre of children ordered by Herod, the puppet king of Judea. The date is remembered as innocent saints’ day (The equivalent of April fool’s day in the US). Today it is an expression used as the punch line for a practical joke played on someone on that day. The traditional phrase was: “Let the Holy Innocent come to your aid.” Over time, the ephemeris acquired another meaning, together with the word “innocent,” that came to mean “gullible,” the first cousin of a fool.

Time passed and we arrive to the time of the generalized use of the cellular phone and the android. With these gadgets humanity interconnects almost instantaneously and through the networks. As communications multiply, part of the information that circulates is true and other pieces are tricky or phony. Few people have the time or patience to properly sort the messages. The arts of debate, conversation, and critical analysis are being lost. Users have transferred not only data but also memory to machines. With the new technology and advances in artificial intelligence we have alienated our five senses.

What thorough alienation! It is no longer about an alienation of labor, that is, plain and simple exploitation. Today the whole person is alienated: emotions, reason, preferences, memory. This new, more virtual than physical, alienation, like the old alienation of labor, enriches a few while impoverishing all the rest. In the past, the exploited worker felt overwhelmed, but he or she had a very clear vision of his or her condition as an exploited human being.  It was in this class consciousness that some based their hopes for a social revolution, which in the end did not happen in part because the fear of a general uprising made capital make important concessions.

The new alienation—ours—in based on something different. It is democratic, participatory, and communicational. But precisely because that it generates much more false consciousness than the physical alienation of the past two centuries. It is fluid, social, engaging, but at the same time it is ephemeral and spurious. Distraction, frivolity, gullibility: we are living a new and dangerous innocence. The new innocents do not fall prey to slaughter under the orders of a Herod, or old dictatorships, but rather they are victims of manipulation in the hands of populists, hooligans, demagogues and liars, in captured and degraded democracies. We live in the fleeting moment, in what we can call the absolute present. We jump from information to information as squirrels go from one branch to another. We are incapable of connecting the dots that, in fact, tie us together. We are connected and disconnected at the same time. In the end, ours is a simulacrum of society.

Who are the innocent that suffer the most the mockery of values and the outrage of others in this communicational and allegedly democratic era? In my opinion, there are several categories of victims from the bottom to the middle of the social scale. In the first place, among the most innocent people we can find those that are at risk of being displaced and left behind by the rapid and staggering displacement of job qualifications in several socioeconomic categories and geographic regions. They are understandably dissatisfied with globalization which by no means is egalitarian but rather just the opposite. There is a huge concentration of wealth and privilege in the vertical dimension of the social structure and a redistribution of knowledge and aptitudes and, thus, of the capabilities of adaptation in the—urban, territorial, national and international— horizontal dimension of our society. These social strata are composed disposable laborers or former laborers who are available to join protest movements in the political arena.

With a lack of productive insertion and in a precarious situation, and in the absence of serious opposing organizations, protest is reactionary and mostly about identity: every time in the past seems better than the present, and many people find refuge in their ethnic, racial, religious or national identity when faced with the anonymous and dissolving forces that destroy old certainties. Whoever manages to capture such discontent and offers simple solutions that reaffirm the threatened identity and signal as enemies the beneficiaries and those better adapted to this new liquid, changing world, with no fixed places and in constant transformation, this character will get important endorsements from the victims of globalization. Whoever is in a power position to give voice and expression to the displaced and offers them an enemy target, will have many supporters. He will be the seductive magician that was masterfully described by Thomas Mann after a trip to fascist Italy, in his novella “Mario and the Magician[1],” or that folkloric character so popular in our childhood: the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Let us now pause to look at this photo.

 

Published by The New York Times. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

 

What are these two laughing about? Looking at the photo, someone might say that theirs is not laughter but a smile. But it is not even a smile: it is a mocking smirk. Then whom are they mocking? The answer is: all of us (99% of the population).

The smiling man is Steven Mnuchin, a former executive of Goldman Sachs and today US Secretary of the Treasury. As such, he has to sign the one-dollar bill in its new issuance. His companion is Louise Linton, a Scottish actress that appeared in minor TV shows. She is known for an expressions of disdain towards common people that surpass the well-known statements of Marie Antoinette.

Let us remember. The decapitated queen of France became famous when she asked: “if the people do not have bread, why don’t they eat brioche?” Meanwhile, Mrs. Linton, vaudeville actress, accompanies her husband in an official plane on business trips. She spends most of her time at the hobby she likes best: buying expensive clothes and other luxury items (bracelets, handbags, shoes), that she then shows on Instagram. Thus, she wrote on one occasion: “Great one-day trip to Kentucky. Look what I am wearing: #rolandmouret, #hermesscarf, #tomford y #valentino.”  This irritated many people.

Mrs. Miller, a “common folk” woman, posted this comment in Instagram: “I am happy to know that I have contributed to pay for your trip with my taxes. It is deplorable.” Mrs. Linton answered with an insult:

“Aw!! Do you think this was a personal trip? Or do you think that the government paid for my honeymoon? Lololol. Have you contributed to the economy more than I and my husband, either in taxes or in the sacrifice for our country? I am sure that our sacrifice is much larger than the one you are willing to make.” She was outraged because her sense of superiority had been hurt.

I am sure the Mnuchins pay more taxes than Mrs. Miller, or myself. Let’s see. Mnuchin’s fortune is estimated at 500 million dollars. The couple’s annual income, after cutbacks and deductibles as investor and as manager of a hedge fund as well as a public official is also in the millions. Let’s us make a quick computation. With the help of lawyers and accountants, this type of character pays around 16% of his/her income in taxes. Instead, Mrs. Miller, a woman of the middle class, pays more than 35% of what she earns in taxes. If we estimate that Mr. Mnuchin has an annual income of $2,000,000, then he pays $320,000 in taxes. Mrs. Miller, if she earns $100,000 annually, will pay $35,000. In absolute terms, Mnuchin’s contribution is 10 times larger than Mrs. Miller’s. But as a proportion of his earnings, he pays less than half of what he would otherwise pay in a rational and more equitable tax system.

The absolute figures conceal a gross injustice. The same reasoning would have been followed by Marie Antoinette. She “sacrificed” herself as queen with so much official business, so much dancing and so much fun in the court. What a burden! Every now and then she even made some small donation to the poor who, ungratefully, did not even know how to eat cake.

Let us look once again at the photo. In this end of the year, what those who are photographed really seem to be saying is “May your innocence be always with you!” (April fool! in the US). The Mnuchins are staunch promoters of the new Republican tax law.

For this holiday season, and as a Christmas present, Mr. Trump and the Republican Party that today govern the United States have voted a new tax law. Their disposition is pretty clear: reduce taxes for large companies and the wealthiest sector of the population while cutting back on benefits—tax and others such as health insurance—for middle and low income sectors of the population. The law outrageously benefits the owners of capital and properties at the expense of all those who just live off their jobs. It is the conservative version of the Argentine folk saying: “El vivo vive del zonzo y el zonzo de su trabajo” (The astute lives off the goofy and the goofy lives off his job[2]).

The worst part is that these measures, as all the others taken by the current government, are all wrapped up in a discourse of defense of the country and its workers. Pro-government politicians argue that measures will benefit the people because they stimulate investments in the country, which in turn will be a source of new jobs. This is far from the truth, according both to economists and common sense. Benefits go to the top and only stimulate sumptuary expenses. Taking from the poor to give to the rich is a curious interpretation of Robin Hood; it is at the same time disrespectful and unproductive.

On top of that, lowering taxes for the rich reduces state revenue, so it must borrow money to pay its obligations. It is estimated that, in ten years, this government “gift” to the rich will cost the state the tidy sum of 1.5 trillion dollars. This will be on the shoulders of the unintended consequence of a well-intended legislation. Quite to the contrary, it is a plan conceived to weaken the state, a main objective of the American right. The official hardship is the eternal excuse for denying help those in need.

I am a sociologist and I wonder: How is it possible for such a spoliation to enlist support not only from the privileged that are just a few (and the sanest of them are in disagreement with these measures), but also from a rather large sector of the rest of the population? The latter are Trump’s electoral base and their allies in Congress. Many white workers think that the government of which they are victims contrarily is working on their favor[3]. As part—and just part—of an answer, I will give two reasons. The first, over time many workers have suffered from the loss of their jobs, from a stagnation or a reduction in their income, from a decrease in the power of unions and, in general, from the need to get only temporary and poor-quality jobs. In other words, both globalization and automation have produced the social downward mobility of many strata. It is not surprising that they are looking for guilty parties and that they resent the elites.

In the blame market, large lobbies, interested media, Republican Party donors and many large corporations offer well designed substitutes as escape goats. These are: foreigners (patriotism always works well as a smokescreen), legal or illegal immigrants, the poorest (redefined as bums) and those who do not have white skin. Universities, foundations, and intellectuals also fall in the category of substitute enemies. In this ideological vision, they all get grouped up in one category of dangerous “liberals.”

However, Trump’s electoral base and assorted allies, that is, those that “buy into” such ideology, are nor majoritarian in terms of numbers. Let us remember that Mr. Trump came to the presidency with 3 million fewer votes than his rival. The secret of such result: the indirect system of presidential election, where less populated and more backward states are overrepresented in the Electoral College. In Congress something similar happens, through redistricting and the manipulation of the electoral registers. This trick is called Gerrymandering[4]. In summary, my two reasons are for people’s supporet for their victimizers are: the distortion of class conflict thanks to clever propaganda and the abuse of the electoral register.

With these gimmicks a minority—significant in numbers but always a minority (some 38% of the electorate)—can transform itself, magically, into a majority. And all these within constitutional legality. This is how democracy works. April fool’s day again!

To deal with this situation: should we become desperate and say, as Goya in his series of carvings Los Caprichos “There was no remedy[5]”? I do not think so. As there are reasons for explaining the perversion of American populism, there are other reasons for expecting a healthier and truly popular reaction.

According to surveys, the destructive and reactionary Republican type of legislation is not popular. The new tax law, in its several versions, has the approval rate of just 29% of the American population. The attempt at cancelling Obama’s Healthcare Insurance Act had only 30% of approval rate among the American population. Republicans leave aside measures that might have large approval rates (as arms control) and insist on promulgating unpopular laws. They do that because they cling to the power conquered thanks to the aforementioned gimmicks and because they are financed by powerful economic groups. Thus, there is hope for the majority of people to realize that they are being ripped off and bamboozled. The following popular saying is still valid: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all the time.  But you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

To undeceive people, we need to promote a large and clever clarifying and civic reflection campaign. There is a long way to go to dismantle this dangerous ideology that is sold today by the mercenaries of privilege. Let us see the following data to appreciate the true dimension of the challenge.

In the first 300 days of his presidency, Donald Trump made 1,600 false declarations, according to experts who fact check these. On average, he uttered 5 lies per day. Some of them some belittle immigrants. That said, to be naturalized a foreigner must take a citizenship exam, where there are questions about American institutions, its history, and the Constitution. 97% of those foreign candidates pass the exam. But if we were to ask the same questions to native citizens, one in three would fail the exam. They do not know how to answer simple questions such as: What happened on September 11th, 2001? Which ocean flanks the US western coast? 48% of Americans think that the Civil War in their country was only a fight about state rights and not about slavery.

Until 1960, in the States, high school students had the obligation to take three courses on civic education in order to understand how government, the Constitution, and institutions work. Since then, such instruction has ceased to exist. Today, they know much more about a brand of jeans or t-shirts than about an article of the Constitution. With that lack of education and critical thinking, it is not surprising that on the eve of the US presidential election, Russian agents have misinformed 126 million American followers in Facebook or flooded Twitter with 130,000 captious messages.

That brings us back to the admirable recommendation of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento: “Educate the sovereign!” The sovereign is neither a warlord, nor a king, nor a dictator, nor a twit, nor a group of Facebook messages, not even a constitutional president. The sovereign is all of us, those who—I hope—will have massively and happily lost our innocence.

 

[1] . http://www.24grammata.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Mann-mario-24grammata.com_.pdf

[2] . N.T: it is usually translated as “A fool and his money are soon parted,” but it does not have quite the same meaning.

[3] . Steven Morgan, “Social Class and the 2016 Election,”  presentation and data analysis, Sociology Department, NYU, December 4th, 2017 and https://www.sociologicalscience.com/articles-v4-27-656/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering

[5] . https://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/obra-de-arte/no-hubo-remedio-capricho-24/4919535d-e05c-4144-b1b4-17e3f1a78e8f

 

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