FDL Book Salon Welcomes Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy
Since Barack Obama announced his intention to run for president in 2007, Paul Street has distinguished himself as one of candidate Obama and President Obama’s most consistent critics from the left. At a time when many liberals were starry-eyed about the possibilities for an Obama presidency, Street was documenting Obama’s commitment to a pro-business, neoliberal agenda.
Street’s writings on the Obama era are even more important given the recent bout of revisionist history that liberal economist Paul Krugman spun in Rolling Stone. In They Rule, Street’s canvas is larger than those of his earlier books, which focused on Obama and on the Tea Party. Here, Street takes a step back. Rather than documenting Obama’s betrayals of liberal hopes or deconstructing the American right, he asks how a political system that produced an Obama and a Tea Party came to be over four decades of neoliberal rule. To build his case, he marshals an impressive array of social science research and Marxist-influenced analysis.
Street’s inspiration for They Rule came from the 2011 Occupy movement and from horror film director John Carpenter. Occupy expressed mass sentiment against the “1 percent” who owns and rules the country against the 99 percent who does neither. In a way, Occupy’s “1 percent” is 21st century version of the wealthy alien capitalists who come to occupy the earth in Carpenter’s 1987 They Live. Street takes us from They Live to They Rule.
Lest anyone think that the Carpenter analogy is a bit far-fetched, Street documents just how “alien” the 1 percent are from the rest of the population. Drawing on research from Robert Frank’s Richistan, the 2007 book that documented the lives of the super-rich, and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s 2011 Winner-Take-All Politics, Street shows how the rich have shaped a “second Gilded Age” in which government serves them, and not the working-class majority.
To make this point, Street cites one staggering statistic after another, with perhaps the most dramatic being the calculation that the U.S. 1 percent’s combined wealth exceeds the GDP of Canada! So the 1 percent is quite literally another nation that does not care for the welfare of the other 99 percent of people with whom they nominally share the same nationality. As a class with a global vision, Street writes:
America’s elite business class holds no particular attachment to the people, communities, health or even competitiveness of the United States per se.
Nor does this global 1 percent care about the environmental destruction it is wreaking. This additional perspective, connecting the domination of the 1 percent with the global climate crisis, is a valuable contribution that Street brings to the analysis in They Rule.
What we’re left to ponder is the very real possibility that the 21st century U.S. has morphed into a society akin to what used to be called “banana republics.” In the long post-Second World War economic boom, most working people (especially if they were white) could expect to make a decent living. Today, working people scrape by while an “unelected dictatorship of money” works to keep things their way, with policies on taxes, welfare and labor rights written to benefit the rich and corporations.
These policies certainly don’t reflect popular opinion, as Street’s citation of mounds of public opinion data show. If anything, popular opinion has moved leftward during the neoliberal era—not only on social questions such as support for same-sex marriage—but on questions of class and government responsibility to help the poor. In fact, America’s 1 percent know this. Although they have worked assiduously to lay the ideological groundwork for mass acceptance of the neoliberal culture of “every one for themselves,” their political servants know that populism sells at election time.
When their system faced a crisis in 2008 that threatened to up-end their stranglehold on power, they turned to the Democrats and Obama because “Democratic politicians promise to do progressive-sounding things that most of the populace supports: stimulate the economy, tax the rich, protect ‘the middle class’. . . and the environment.” But once in office, the Democrats return to their time-honored role of protecting and preserving the status quo.
Street reprises the pivotal scene from Ron Susskind’s 2012 Confidence Men, when the White House summoned the CEOs of the 13 largest U.S. banks to a meeting in March, 2009. The bank presidents were scared, and according to Susskind, willing to do just about anything Obama ordered them to do. Instead, Obama took the opportunity to reassure the bankers that he wanted to help them. And while Obama helped bail out the bankers, they repaid his largesse by mounting lobbying campaigns against financial regulations and spending millions to defeat him in the 2012 election.
Street’s message is sober. The United States, he argues, exists somewhere between democracy and oligarchy: “a corporate-managed state-capitalist democracy that sells the narrow interests of the wealthy business and financial elite as the public interest, closes off critical and independent thought, and subjects culture, politics, policy, institutions, the environment, daily life, and individual minds to the often hidden and unseen authoritarian dictates of money and profit.”
Fortunately for readers, Street doesn’t leave us in Carpenter’s dystopia. He returns to Occupy to show that, in its brief existence, it helped to bring class inequality into the usually “class-free” political debate. Moreover, it helped to bring activists together to learn how to debate courses of action and to struggle together.
He advocates a “duty to struggle” to change the current status quo, because he writes,
what’s most lacking on the left is not so much good policy and an alternative social vision” but the lack of a “an organized and independent social movement with the strength and determination to challenge the standard top-down corporate-managed game of politics and policy by capturing and channeling popular resolve.