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The roots of kleptocracy

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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

At his blog, economist Lane Kenworthy posted a compelling look at growing income inequality in America, illustrating with graphs how median income has fallen away from per-capita GDP—meaning that as the economy has grown, less of the benefits of that growth have been spread across the entire class distribution of the population. Kenworthy points to this as a source of strain on the middle class and sees it as a fundamental subtext for the upcoming presidential election.


Generally speaking, Democrats regard this inequality as a matter of those at the top leveraging their advantages to seize more and more of the pie. The solution to this, typically, is a progressive tax regime that takes away some of those financial advantages, redistributing the wealth created to those below. The rich resent this, as they tend to misconstrue the gains derive from passive investment as their just deserts for risk taking. (Whereas Marx describes capital as “dead labor that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks. The time during which the laborer works, is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labor-power he has purchased of him.”) But the middle class potentially has their tax burden lightened while getting improved government services financed by the new tax revenue.


Republicans obviously don’t see it this way. They instead evoke the past, when inequality was not so stark (thanks to policies they rejected at the time) and try to paint a picture of progress as failure and disruption, as individuals being crushed by a distant federal government that is essentially their enemy. The solution to the problems the middle class faces, from this point of view, is a recommitment to individualistic values of self-reliance and a church-based, small-town-size community (while scorning community organizers, the existence of whom signal a localized disharmony that conservatives are loath to acknowledge), and a repudiation of the idea that a federal government has any meaningful role in most people’s lives. This seemed to be the subtext of Sarah Palin’s angry, demagogic speech at the Republican convention last night—that small town people should be wary of those purporting to have expertise. At the Washington Monthly site, Steve Benen articulated the theme of the RNC this way:


Seriously, what’s the message of the week in St. Paul? That Republican governing works? No. That Republicans have a legitimate policy agenda? No. That the next four years should be different from the last eight? No. It’s simple: “Your house may be on fire, but don’t trust that man standing outside with a hose, because he doesn’t share your values.”


The Republicans offer voters an opportunity to live in a fantasy world in which they really are self-reliant and government is unnecessary; where “values” really are so uniform—perhaps because they are mandated by a God whom everyone must worship—that there aren’t any meaningful conflicts among groups that the state would have to mediate. All you need is a military to protect the homogeneous group from outside infiltration. (This is why conservatives are so quick to ridicule “political correctness”—because the existence of diversity, competing interests, fundamentally threatens their ideology of government. The only competing interest, from the conservative point of view, are those that the marketplace sorts out.)


Meanwhile, when voters abandon the idea that the atheistic federal government should work for them, it becomes captured instead by professional politicians and the corporate interests they serve—it becomes a machine of plunder, as Jamie Galbraith details in The Predator State. Ideologues like Palin ultimately provide the cover for kleptocrats like Duke Cunningham and his ilk.

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