Monday, February 21, 2011

Adieu to the Middle Class, and the Rise of Wee Shumin-ism in America

My previous post talked about the protests by faculty and graduate students in Wisconsin over the dismantling of collective-bargaining rights by public worker unions (and of course the worsening academic job market despite soaring tuition and enrollment in US universities).

What is at stake is more than just that, as Paul Krugman and George Lakoff had helpfully pointed out:

For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.


The central issue in our political life is not being discussed. At stake is the moral basis of American democracy.

The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women's rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.

Budget deficits are a ruse, as we've seen in Wisconsin, where the governor turned a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions, not just in Wisconsin, but seeking to be the first domino in a nationwide conservative movement.

But I digress. I want to point out a few paragraphs in Lakoff's essay that caught my eye (the parts in italics).

...But deficits are not what really matters to conservatives.

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

Conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don't think government should help its citizens. That is, they don't think citizens should help each other. The part of government they want to cut is not the military (we have 174 bases around the world), not government subsidies to corporations, not the aspect of government that fits their worldview. They want to cut the part that helps people. Why? Because that violates individual responsibility.

But where does that view of individual responsibility alone come from?

The way to understand the conservative moral system is to consider a strict father family. The father is The Decider, the ultimate moral authority in the family. His authority must not be challenged. His job is to protect the family, to support the family (by winning competitions in the marketplace), and to teach his kids right from wrong by disciplining them physically when they do wrong. The use of force is necessary and required. Only then will children develop the internal discipline to become moral beings. And only with such discipline will they be able to prosper. And what of people who are not prosperous? They don't have discipline, and without discipline they cannot be moral, so they deserve their poverty. The good people are hence the prosperous people. Helping others takes away their discipline, and hence makes them both unable to prosper on their own and function morally.

The market itself is seen in this way. The slogan, "Let the market decide" assumes the market itself is The Decider. The market is seen as both natural (since it is assumed that people naturally seek their self-interest) and moral (if everyone seeks their own profit, the profit of all will be maximized by the invisible hand). As the ultimate moral authority, there should be no power higher than the market that might go against market values. Thus the government can spend money to protect the market and promote market values, but should not rule over it either through (1) regulation, (2) taxation, (3) unions and worker rights, (4) environmental protection or food safety laws, and (5) tort cases. Moreover, government should not do public service. The market has service industries for that. Thus, it would be wrong for the government to provide health care, education, public broadcasting, public parks, and so on. The very idea of these things is at odds with the conservative moral system. No one should be paying for anyone else. It is individual responsibility in all arenas.

Do they remind you of a particular (wealthy) South-East Asian country's style of governance?

"You die your own business" and "Please, get out of my elite uncaring face".


Ponder Stibbons said...

Umm. Except that that Southeast Asian country also has:
1) high taxes of various sorts on private transport,
2) a govt that owns 80% of the land (thus making a mockery of 'market prices')
3) a population 85% of which stays in govt-owned flats,
4) lack of educational choices outside govt schools,
5) a govt that confiscates part of your own wages and doesn't let you touch it until you're 65 (really also a hidden tax)

I am always amazed at American conservatives who love Singapore, because those things I describe would normally be anathema to them.

L'oiseau rebelle said...

Have you seen the transcripts of the conversation between Walker and the blogger who posed as David Koch on the phone? It's very revealing, to say the least, and it would be amusing if it wasn't scary.

To add to your quote from the Lakoff essay: the conservative moral system is basically an authoritarian system of power, which derives its legitimacy from the illusion that it provides for its subjects. The flipside of this is that dissent, even the nonviolent dissent that we are seeing in Wisconsin, is viewed as violence necessitating a violent response.

I would say this too, at least the Southeast Asian country hasn't enshrined in law that (1) corporations have the rights of human beings, (2) money equals speech, and (3) to restrict corporate spending on political campaigns is a violation of corporations' First Amendment rights. Point (3) has direct bearing on the Wisconsin situation, see: David Koch.

And I believe that the rise of Wee Shumin-ism in America began about thirty years ago, with the election of Ronald Reagan. The current form really began with the late nineteenth century Gilded Age, but that's another story altogether. Elitism and privatization (which is really what "individualism" is) is nothing new, just morphed into different manifestations.