Part One of a series.

When George W. Bush first spoke of “the ownership society,” he led most Americans to believe, and many did believe, that he was talking about them. Now, four years later, it’s easy to conclude that the president, his party and conservatism itself has failed to deliver the ownership society.

But the very crises now described and decried in both the new media and the old can actually be taken as signs of conservatism’s success, depending on one thing: identifying who really belongs to the ownership society. Conservatism, depending on how you look at it, has successfully built the ownership society — a very small, narrowly defined one — and strengthened it by building or expanding its essential support: the society of the owned.

The term “owned” has its origins in the realms of hacking and gaming, but I’m only partly borrowing the slang definitions — “To dominate another person or thing so completely as to humiliate them” and “To be made a fool of; To make a fool of” — here.

As the grandson of sharecroppers, I grew up hearing stories about how the system of sharecropping worked. Farmers worked all season, buying the goods they needed — food and clothing for their families — from the plantation owner, always on credit and always at high interest. By harvest, they always owed more than their work ended up being worth, often due to the various adjustments of the plantation owner.

The bottom line was, as long as they were in debt they couldn’t leave. And the system all but assured they never got out of debt. Sharecropping was post-slavery, so they weren’t literally owned; just nearly so. They worked hard, but in the end had nothing to show for it; nothing of their own, at least, because they owned almost nothing. Sharecropping itself died with the the advent of farm machinery, but there’s a lot going on in America today that looks an awful lot like it.

After the State of the Union Address, Naomi Klein noted that the “ownership society”-so often mentioned at the beginning of Bush’s presidency-didn’t even rate a mention in the final address of his presidency. “Bush,” Klein wrote, “has turned out to be ownership society’s undertaker.” Again, that depends on how you define the ownership society, and how you identify the owners; something Bush did as early as the 2000 campaign when he addressed a fundraiser audience, saying, “This is an impressive crowd of the haves and have mores. Some people call you the elite, I call you my base.”

Whether or not, in that particular incident, Bush was “mocking” his image of catering to the wealthy, Paul Krugman pointed out — in a 2006 Rolling Stone article, “The Great Wealth Transfer” — that the wealthiest are truly Bush’s “base,” as they are at every juncture the main beneficiaries of the Bush administration’s economic policies and the economic philosophy of conservatism itself.

During the 2000 election campaign, George W. Bush joked that his base consisted of the “haves and the have mores.” But it wasn’t much of a joke. Not only has the Bush administration favored the interests of the wealthiest few Americans over those of the middle class, it has consistently shown a preference for people who get their income from dividends and capital gains, rather than those who work for a living.

After rattling off the various ways the Bush administration has favored the economic interests of the wealthiest few while ignoring or opposing the interests working Americans, Krugman spotlighted what might be the cut-off point for membership in the ownership society or, more precisely, the ownership class.

Finally, there’s the government’s most direct method of affecting incomes: taxes. In this arena, Bush has made sure that the rich pay lower taxes than they have in decades. According to the latest estimates, once the Bush tax cuts have taken full effect, more than a third of the cash will go to people making more than $500,000 a year — a mere 0.8 percent of the population.

We’ll meet a few of them later in this series, but if their numbers are so small and their economic class so narrowly defined, how can most people be convinced or expect that they can join the ranks of “the ownership society”? Klein wrote:

The idea was simple: if working-class people owned a small piece of the market–a home mortgage, a stock portfolio, a private pension–they would cease to identify as workers and start to see themselves as owners, with the same interests as their bosses. That meant they could vote for politicians promising to improve stock performance rather than job conditions. Class consciousness would be a relic.

It was always tempting to dismiss the ownership society as an empty slogan–“hokum” as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it. But the ownership society was quite real. It was the answer to a roadblock long faced by politicians favoring policies to benefit the wealthy. The problem boiled down to this: people tend to vote their economic interests. Even in the wealthy United States, most people earn less than the average income. That means it is in the interest of the majority to vote for politicians promising to redistribute wealth from the top down.

Except, the reality is that it is in the interest of the real ownership society to vote for (and write checks to), and have rest of us to vote for politicians who will, if not actively redistribute wealth from the bottom to the top, at least stand out of the way while the ownership society itself implements that transfer of wealth. It goes without saying, of course, that it’s in the interest of the ownership society to get the rest of us to vote the same way. That’s accomplished by making us think we’ve joined the ranks of the ownership class, until we find out otherwise, at which point it might be too late anyway.

In every system in which a narrow few live and grow wealthy on the work and worries of many, from slavery to sharecropping, it is always a great benefit to get the many to identify with the few. In this case, urging them to forget, as F.Scott Fitzgerald said, the rich really are “different from you and me.”

The shift is psychological, but not intended to actually shift the economic realities of those targeted. Just our loyalties, which would shift to politicians who would actually vote in the interests of the members of the real ownership society. Membership has its privileges, and also its price. Entry into the ownership society comes not when you buy a house, but when you buy a member of the House or the Senate, or even an occupant of the White House.

The bifurcation is merely a dissolution of the mirage of belonging to the “ownership society.” Remember, the attendant who hands out towels in the executive restroom also has a key to the executive restroom. But that doesn’t make him/her and executive. It never has.

The ownership society that has always been is simply more clearly identified than before, as is the society of the owned now. The trick, and it worked for a while, was to convince the society of the owned that it too was part of the ownership society. But when bubbles inevitably burst, we remember (too late, in many cases) what we’d been convinced to forget: that the rich really are different from you and me. This becomes clear as the curtain falls away and the ownership society itself is glimpsed.

Crossposted from The Republic of T.




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