How The 1 Percent Stays On Top
Vintage illustration of 1930s bankers sitting in a men’s club, discussing the latest stock market news (screen print), 1931. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
It’s not easy for a tiny minority — even one as powerful as the 1 percent — to sustain its domination. Staying on top requires far more than just relying on the submission of the oppressed. It demands deft use of a variety of approaches, most of which work best if the people can’t see what they are and prepare against them.
With that in mind, here’s another installment of the 1 percent’s most trusted moves in opposing those who stand up for justice.
Shock and awe
This is a contradiction to Gandhi’s famous dictum: First your opponents ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they beat you, then you win. Because Gandhi’s observation is often accurate, “shock and awe” can throw activists for a loss. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became president, he refused the air traffic controllers’ demand for a wage increase. When the union went on strike, Reagan abruptly fired the controllers.
This move surprised nearly everyone. It risked antagonizing potential allies for his escalation of the arms race — not to mention the safety of air travel, which could have hurt the nation’s economy and wrecked his presidency. Yet, Reagan’s move succeeded. He sent a clear signal to organized labor: The 1 percent was declaring war after decades of giving ground to the initiatives of grassroots movements. In the years since 1980, we’ve seen the 1 percent on the offensive, seldom so dramatically as when Reagan picked that fight, but nevertheless both Republican and Democratic administrations have steadily pushed back labor and other anti-poverty movements.
By the end of the 20th century, some imagined that the 1 percent had obtained all they could want — after all, their level of wealth and power was beyond fabulous. Now that their deindustrialization of the country had hollowed out the working class and many people had turned to elections and given up their most powerful weapon, nonviolent direct action, surely the 1 percent could relax.
As we now know, however, the 1 percent did not ease up; they knew what Gandhi also believed: The best defense is an offense. The 1 percent took even more power and wealth while most progressive movements (except for LGBT activists) played defense and cried in their beer.
The next national use of shock and awe might be a new Republican administration early in 2017. But there is time to get ready to turn their move to our advantage.
Create a vision
On a policy level, the 1 percent have invested substantial sums on vision-generation through a network of think tanks, centrist and right-leaning academics, and pundits. This vision work has provided a steady stream of proposals that on their face sound rational and on the side of American values. For instance, there’s the idea that globalization is inevitable and the result of ever-advancing technology, or that turning testing over to companies is the best way to ensure no child is left behind, or that we can eradicate tyranny around the world through so-called humanitarian interventions.
By investing in vision, the 1 percent show awareness of the strong American legacy of idealism, which only gives their agenda more legitimacy. It also works by playing on the psychology of social class differences. In order to dominate, the 1 percent need loyalty from the middle class. And it helps that middle class culture carries values the 1 percent can appeal to, such as accountability implemented by rational procedures. That’s why the 1 percent will tell them things like, “Let’s make sure there is no electoral fraud and create new requirements for voting” or “To increase efficiency, make poor people prove their poverty to get food stamps and a chance to play basketball at the Y.”
Middle class people generally stay longer in school than working class people, and are perceived as the bearers of rationally-superior ideas. Working class people are tempted to defer to the middle class and regard their own intuitive skepticism as an inferior source of wisdom.
Working class skepticism nevertheless surfaces in times of polarization. When peace candidate George McGovern challenged the Vietnam War by running against President Richard Nixon in 1972, he won more working class than middle class voters. These days, working class skepticism particularly shows up when people vote with their feet on election day — a skepticism now verified by a careful empirical study from Princeton University.
I believe there is an individual, temperamental inclination to generate vision that is widely distributed. How much that capacity is rewarded, however, depends a lot on which class one occupies. Visionaries born into the owning class are more likely to get support and the opportunity to shine than middle class visionaries, who are, in turn, more likely to get it than working class visionaries. Nevertheless, the visionary impulse among working class people is a wild card. What if it surfaces in a radical politics?
One way for class society to remain stable is therefore to generate projects that attract working class visionaries and middle class professionals. Government creates empowerment/economic enterprise zones ostensibly to “lift neighborhoods and cities out of poverty.” The zones may in fact reflect a hidden agenda of gentrification. They may get their job-creation results by attracting firms to move in from the neighborhoods across town that don’t get the zone’s tax credits, leaving the region with little or no increase in jobs.
Nevertheless, organizing a zone attracts working class visionaries — often leaders in their neighborhoods — to work alongside middle class planners and experts to plan schemes like incubators for entrepreneurs and artists. The zones, announced dramatically with hoopla and often the credibility of university participation, distract from the only economic levers that genuinely have a track record for ending poverty. Those levers operate on a macro level, and are anathema to the 1 percent. Zones give working class visionaries distracting busy-work to do.
Declare it ‘a done deal’
The 1 percent’s deeper vision for America won’t hold up in thoughtful public discourse — it really is narrowly self-serving and unconcerned with the common good. Making deals behind closed doors is one solution. An example is the Keystone XL pipeline, which won more support in the political class when its merits were undebated because it was branded as “a done deal.” Hilary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was only one of a long list of centrists who blessed it, and she mattered because the proposal was Canadian and therefore had to do with foreign relations.
It wasn’t until 350.org initiated the largest environmental civil disobedience since the 1970s anti-nuke movement that the Keystone XL plan became debatable. President Obama un-did “the done deal” and up until now he has managed to kick the can down the road.
“A done deal” was also the strategic tool used to quell possible dissent in the nation’s largest city to be attacked by the national gambling casino industry. Pennsylvania State legislators passed the enabling legislation in the dead of night, on the eve of a holiday weekend. Thereafter, even Philadelphia politicians, who knew it was a scam, told activists that two large casinos for Philadelphia must inevitably be built.
Daniel Hunter’s book “Strategy and Soul” tells the inspiring story of how a nonviolent insurrection defeated one casino and forced the other to be only half its intended size. During the campaign, the activists continued to hear a familiar refrain from some potential allies: “It’s a done deal.” These objectors had little faith in, or little acquaintance with, strategic nonviolence, and were therefore unable to see the real power dynamics that operate outside the electoral realm.
Ironically, members of the 1 percent may have more respect for the power of nonviolent struggle than do many middle class liberals. That may be why the mass media fail to cover strategies of nonviolent campaigning. From now to election day, broadcast media will offer tens of thousands of hours devoted to electoral strategies; print media will focus on “the horse race” and disagreements among highly-paid electoral consultants. The contrast between mass media’s daily “political education” and the near-total absence of media coverage of nonviolent campaign strategy — even retrospectively about such a famous campaign as Selma — tells us what we need to know about the 1 percent’s intention: Ignore even the existence of strategizing that uses nonviolent direct action, distract the middle class with the electoral horse race, and announce with confidence that the latest injustice is already “a done deal.”
With this, as with other 1 percent strategies, to know is to be forewarned. Movements can prepare to use the moves of the other side as a chance to take the offensive. Chess is a much more interesting game than victimhood.