Contesting the Systems of Power

It seems to me that even political conservatives must concede that virtually every social program in the US that has served the needs of the people resulted from leftist thinking and organized struggle. Examples include public schools, public libraries, the eight hour workday, the weekend, minimum wage, social security, pensions, Medicare, child labor laws, civil rights, unemployment insurance, and desegregation, a degree of gender equality, and Medicaide.

Progressivism and liberalism is invariably opposed by its antithesis—regressivism. All forms of power elicit a response. The locations of power, blame, innocence, and trust are always being contested. No defeat and no victory are permanent. Like it or not, individual and collective struggle is the name of the game.

The people on the far political right—neocons and neoliberals of the Democratic and Republican parties—do not know history, except from the perspective of the rich and powerful. Power interprets history in a way that is beneficial to the status quo. With few exceptions, history is a book of myths written by the winners.

Perhaps the notion of human progress is also a myth. Some parts of nations and cultures are progressing, while others are regressing. A multiplicity of interactive forces is always in play. According to new historicism critical theory, history is not the linear progression of human progress that is portrayed in most history books. These books, like all books and all language, are written from a perspective that may or may not be true. Everything is a matter of interpretation. We must choose a method of critique that makes sense to us.

There is much confusion about the terms “liberal” and “conservative” these days. One thing that must be clarified, however, is that we can no longer rationally associate liberalism or progressive ideology with the Democratic Party. Nor should worker advocacy, environmentalism, feminism, or unionism be associated with democrats, who long ago abandoned left-wing ideology to pursue a course of self-interest and capitulation to the power elite.

Defined by absurdities and contradictions, Republicans have rendered themselves irrelevant to all discourse concerned with equality and reason.

Neither can we cogently associate fiscal conservatism with the Republican Party anymore. Political and social landscapes are continually evolving. Nothing stays the same for long.

In a practical sense, neither traditional liberals nor old-style conservatives affect the political system in America. Both have devolved into their antithesis: neoliberals and neoconservatives. Traditional liberals and traditional conservatives are marginalized, disorganized, ineffective, and politically extinct, relegated to the outer periphery of money-corrupted politics.

Furthermore, there is no longer a politically functioning left in this country. They have been disenfranchised by the systems of power. All too often, self-proclaimed liberals and progressives have stood for nothing and contested nothing. Consistent capitulation to right-wing extremists has mired the nation in neoconservatism, neoliberalism, and regressivism. It has given us George W. Bush and Barack Obama in successive terms. We are up to our eyeballs in excrement and sinking fast.

In truth, there is only one political party operating in the US: the Big Business Party. Membership in this group is only open to right-wing fanatics, free market fundamentalists, and the intellectually and morally crippled disciples of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, which helps to explain how we got to this point.

This misbegotten collective of economic cannibals should be called Republicrats—a hybridization or mutation of the worst qualities associated with Democrats and Republicans. Membership in this collective of power hungry miscreants is open to anyone without a social conscience and sponsored by wealth or social pedigree. Working people and the poor need not apply for membership.

The systems of power primarily serve the interests of the wealthiest one percent. They could not continue to exist if enough people do not believe in them. Voting, which perpetuates the myth of participation, is one example. The majority of Americans are dazed and confused, in a state of what Karl Marx calls “false consciousness.” To paraphrase Naomi Klein, the defenseless are “shock and awed.” Yet the emancipation of the working class depends upon their transitioning into a state of wakefulness, what Marx refers to as “true consciousness.”

This is a monumentally daunting task. There are strata upon strata of lies, distortions, political and cultural propaganda, and obfuscations to overcome, and time is running out. We must unplug from the matrix of capitalism and its institutions of power. There is not much time left before systemic collapse occurs.

Inexplicably, millions of working people of all political stripes contend that corporations and the wealthiest citizens should pay little or no taxes. In theory, when the super-rich and corporations receive massive welfare it stimulates the economy, wealth trickles down to the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and everyone benefits. This recycled theory, the stillborn child of Milton Friedman and championed by every capitalist, is contradicted by mountains of empirical evidence. Most of the wealth remains at the tip of the pyramid. Very little percolates down to its base without which there would be no top.

I would argue that what the US needs is “trickle up” economics. The greatest wealth and power should accrue to the real producers of wealth, the workers, and not private owners or investors. If democracy is ever going to be established here, it must begin in the workplace. Production and the surpluses of labor should benefit the people—all of the people associated with production and distribution—not just those with the most capital, the most property, or the most political and social clout. Workers should own everything they produce and decide what to do with the surplus of their labor.

Disconcertingly, my sister and her husband, like millions of propagandized Americans, subscribe to the trickledown theory of economics. They perceive “big government” and its restrictive regulations as an impediment to economic growth, rather than greedy capitalists and corporations, massive bank bailouts, and imperial wars without end. Political conservatives ignore the fact that corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash, but they are not using this capital to create many jobs. Rather, they are using these funds, much of it taxpayer money, to accumulate obscene wealth for themselves, to dole out huge bonuses to CEOs, destroy labor unions, reduce wages, consolidate power, maintain high unemployment, and to bring the working class to heel.

In other words, the power elite are imposing austerity on workers and forcing them to pay for a crisis of capitalism they had no part in creating. Thus, working class conservatives like my sister and her husband are unwittingly participating in their own oppression. Their opinions are driven by ideology derived from Fox News rather than by scientific methodology backed by empirical evidence. Accordingly, they detest socialism without knowing what socialism is or what it does. They are, like millions of Americans, conditioned to recoil in horror at the mere mention of the word.

It never behooves anyone to remain ignorant or in a state of false consciousness. The ignorance of the masses benefits those in power, not the disenfranchised workers, or the poor. Systems of power serve the powerful by keeping the marginalized people oppressed. These are not egalitarian institutions, and it is not useful for us to believe otherwise.

As a passionate skeptic, to borrow a phrase from poet Adrienne Rich, one must always be cynical. One must look for the political motivation operating behind policy and the institutions of power. As friend and mentor Ambrose Lane used to say, “Follow the money trail.” Otherwise, one is nothing more than a dupe, a chump to be marginalized, disempowered, and exploited by the rich and powerful, discarded like a spent tube of toothpaste in the landfill of history.

Popular culture is yet another means for constructing and managing human behavior. Entertainment requires little of us; it makes us susceptible to propaganda. Conversely, enlightenment demands consciousness and vigilance.

It is imperative that we know exactly where we are in relation to the power structures that govern human behavior. Nothing can be changed from within a position of false consciousness. Collective ignorance, including religious dogma, serves the status quo. Jacques Derrida contended that language conceals ideology. All language is coercive to someone. Yet reason and scientific methodology are superior to blind faith and misdirected trust. Faith and trust must reside within the self’s conscience rather than in the external systems of power. Blame belongs to the institutions of culture, capitalism, and government.

Corrupted systems of power cannot be used to reform themselves. Transformation must occur outside of them. Their function is to maintain the status quo, while providing the illusion of reform and thereby dissipating revolutionary energy. It requires courage to assert one’s moral autonomy in the face of ridicule and convention. One can and must choose to do what is just rather than what their culturally-defined roles require them to do.

We Americans are locked in an asylum for the criminally insane with the criminally insane, and they are armed to the hilt. We are in a dangerous place. Yet we continue to call ourselves free. Psychosis and delusion is not freedom.

Charles Sullivan is a naturalist, an educator and a freelance writer residing in the hinterlands of geopolitical West Virginia. He has an academic background in Appalachian Studies. . Read other articles by Charles.