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Letters at 3AM: 'O' Is for Oligarchy

'Oligarchy' is a big, bad word that defines the country we still call a republic

By Michael Ventura, Fri., April 9, 2010

Letters at 3AM: 'O' Is for Oligarchy
Illustration by Jason Stout

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition cites the clunky prose of American Political Science Review: "An oligarchy is an organization characterized by the fact that ... the highest degree of authority ... [is] free from control by any of the remainder of the [organization]."

"Oligarchy" is a big, bad word that defines a country we still call a republic.

The United States became an oligarchy slowly, in plain sight, without need of conspiracies. A Supreme Court ruling in 1896 granted corporations more rights than individuals. From the mid-19th century to today, town councils, state legislatures, and the federal government have given railroads, steel companies, oil companies, and the like every break possible. The outcome was what most people wanted: jobs, money, progress. The U.S. had the biggest and best commercial enterprises in history. For a while, especially after World War II, Americans lived high: Our population, just 5% or 6% of the world's total, gobbled roughly 50% of the world's resources.

That could not continue indefinitely.

Globalization began to change our status in the 1970s, while large corporations merged into gigantic corporations. The gap between the top and the middle grew by leaps. Again, it happened mostly in plain sight. For instance, a great victory for capital-"O" Oligarchy was won when, beginning in the early Eighties, insurance companies took control of our medical professions. In France or India, when the government condones practices that the medical profession doesn't want, their doctors, nurses, shrinks, and med techs go on strike – and usually win. In America, ours didn't make a peep.

During President Bill Clinton's second term, the financial industry was deregulated. Anyone who read newspapers could track the development of that disaster from beginning to end. But most Americans don't read the tough stuff. The nature of banking and real estate completely changed, and America took it in stride. After all, when this happened in the 1990s, things were pretty flush for many, so: why worry?

Everybody knew lobbyists had too much power, but no one marched on Washington about that. Republicans mostly, but Democrats too, gerrymandered state election districts so that it was tough to dislodge an incumbent, and no one marched about that. No one marched late in 2009 when the Supreme Court decided that corporations could spend as much money in elections as they felt like. By then, Oligarchy was a fact of life. The people with clout were out of sight, and, as we've seen in the past year, the power of elected officials became ever dimmer.

Now many are angry, on the right, the left, and in the middle. Many yell about "socialism." Occasionally you even hear the word "oligarchy." The yellers blame anyone but themselves. No one takes responsibility for decades of passivity.

Be that as it may, Oligarchy is here. The political structures of the republic are still operative but increasingly ineffective at stopping Oligarchy from its purpose, which is to suck all resources toward the top.

The U.S. Oligarchy can't be described with classifications such as upper, middle, and lower class. Oligarchy divides society (with amazing success!) into rigid strata or tiers.

Top Tier is the "highest degree of authority ... free from control." A Paul Simon lyric defined them: "a loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires." The operative word is "loose." Conspiracy theorists derail when they imagine tightly disciplined cabals. To think the Top Tier acts in concert is to underestimate how viciously and constantly its components compete among themselves. An oligarchy is more like a clan: They argue with each other but unite against the Other – that "other," in this case, being everyone else.

Beneath the Top Tier is the Professional Tier. An oligarchy depends on professionals. The Professional Tier is highly paid and dependably subservient: politicians (up to the highest level), lawyers, doctors, shrinks, scientists, engineers, financiers, real estate magnates, communicators (high visibility print and broadcast types, especially), generals, spooks, high-level bureaucrats (governmental and commercial), large-scale entrepreneurs, top-scale entertainers, university deans and professors (not lowly teachers), and experts of all kinds, be they specialists in meteorology, tax codes, or fashion design. Doesn't matter whether they're liberal or conservative. A liberal lawyer, doctor, scientist, or inventor is as useful to capital-"O" Oligarchy as a conservative one because the notion that "liberal" or "conservative" belief matters is delusional in Oligarchy. As long as professionals perform their function, their personal belief is as beside the point as what they eat for breakfast.

Oligarchy pays the Professional Tier plenty – so much so, in fact, that they are socially cut off from the tiers beneath them. Which is the point. Money is nothing to the Top Tier. Pay the Professional Tier in six figures, and that, alone, effectively cuts them off from the majority. The Professional Tier works for its own interests, and its main interest is that six-figure salary. Individually, they may do good works. That doesn't change the equation. Socially, they associate only with one another and dutifully perform the functions necessary within the terms and limits of how Oligarchy defines "success." Their attachment to affluence makes the Professional Tier co-conspirators in spite of themselves.

Beneath the Professional Tier is the Skilled Service Tier. Every function that cannot be outsourced is of the Skilled Service Tier. Soldiers and lower officers of the military, middle management in commerce and government, plumbers, hairdressers, electricians, techs of all kinds, cops, nurses, landscapers, construction workers, truck drivers, mechanics, K-to-12 teachers, folks who command the clothing or toy or furniture departments at Wal-Mart: They don't set policy. They carry it out.

The Skilled Service Tier is economically and socially cut off from the Professional Tier and light years distant from the Top Tier. Their paychecks are usually large enough to make many believe they're "getting ahead" but usually low enough to keep them from that imagined goal.

Below the Skilled Service Tier is the tier many of them command, the Unskilled Service Tier: waitresses, clerks, cabdrivers, temps, floor-moppers, bedmakers, night watchmen, delivery people, and the like, who, at best, barely scrape by.

Those beneath the Unskilled Service Tier are Spare Parts – a tier all its own, constantly in flux between desperation and work (often two or three jobs) amongst the Unskilled Service Tier.

In American parlance, the Professional and Skilled Service tiers are lumped together as the "middle class." Nothing could be further from the truth. In larger cities, these tiers don't live in the same neighborhoods and are socially cut off from one another. The Unskilled Service and Spare Parts tiers are what used to be called "working class"; in reality, their social function is to be so financially insecure that anyone above their status is frightened of sinking down to become their neighbors.

We still call it the United States, but in the American Oligarchy each tier is anything but united. Each tier lives in a different country, with different laws, customs, education, assumptions, interests, and drastically different options. What the tiers mainly have in common is that they socialize only with those in their own tier.

The social distance between tiers is the cement of Oligarchy. Socially separate tiers cannot act in concert. Only action in concert effects structural change and threatens Oligarchy.

Oligarchy thrives on a truth articulated by Thomas Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow: "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about the answers."

To be continued.

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