Let me turn my blogging in a somewhat more political direction, at least for this post. Working on higher education as a futurist, I have to wrangle dozens of major contextual factors from the worlds of politics, economics, and society. In the course of doing so a hypothesis has come to mind, and I want to try it out here.
The idea is that American society is becoming an extractive democracy.
Short version: our economy and political institutions are now constructed to draw money and other resources from the lower half of society in order to transfer it to the wealthiest. It’s a kind of plutocracy.
Longer version? Let me draw together the intertwining strands. Ten of them, in fact. Ferguson will play an exemplary role.
First, local governments have ramped up their extraction of money from citizens through fees and bureaucracy. This is probably obvious to most readers, but let John Oliver explain.
Note that Oliver relies on what the nation has learned about Ferguson and surrounding areas.
Second, such practices scale up to the business and federal government levels, as David Graeber observes. Hence the epic-Kafka bureaucracies and exfoliating fee-charing systems. (No, I haven’t read Graeber’s most recent book)
“Almost every institution in America—from our corporations to our schools, hospitals, and civic authorities—now seems to operate largely as an engine for extracting revenue, by imposing ever more complex sets of rules that are designed to be broken.”
Once more, Ferguson’s shakedown policies are in view, but here as microcosm for the bigger machinery.
Fourth, financialization. That means an ever-increasing proportion of the American economy is based on financial services, rather than on manufacturing things. For a neat example, some readers may recall when General Motors made more money on loans than on actual cars. The Wikipedia page on financialization is actually very useful. For more depth, let me recommend Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century (1994) (Google).
Why mention financialization? Because cities, states, businesses, nonprofits, and families increasingly depend on debt to survive, function, and grow. Therefore they need revenue streams to pay back bonds and loans. Hence all kinds of behaviors, including leaning on citizens for cash flow. Moreover, financialization tends to increase inequality.
Fifth, many costs have gone up faster than inflation. The United States federal government now has a bipartisan commitment to fighting a global war on terror, and that doesn’t come cheap. The feds also are locked in to paying for a large number of social programs, some of whom are becoming more expensive due to demographics (Social Security, Medicare). States face the dual problem of contributing to Medicare and Medicaid while figuring out how to pay pensions they’ve foolishly underfunded for years. States and feds alike are also staring at a woefully undermaintained infrastructure, which can’t be addressed without immense funding.
Sixth, privatization. As a result of #5 many public actors have turned over certain functions to business. Think of public higher education, or parking, or prison management, or debt collection. This takes a little pressure off of those governments, but adds still more pressure onto the rest of us.
Seventh, escalating economic inequality. This includes stagnation or reduction in compensation for many, making it even harder to survive much less prosper within an extractive regime (again, see John Oliver, above, if you haven’t experienced this yourself). This also depresses normal tax revenues, as the wealthy largely skate away from such annoyances while the rest of us have less to be taxed.
Eighth: economic growth has slowed down. The debt-fueled “growth” of the 1992-2007 period has faded, and we seem to be living through what economics weirdly dub secular stagnation. We’re not growing, really, beyond a maintenance level. So if costs rise, it’s harder to scrape together funds. (Things have to be cut; cf austerity)
Ninth: democracy structured to maintain extraction. We rarely get to vote on the preceding factors. Those policies are instead implemented administratively, bureaucratically. At some level Americans must know this, and withdraw from political participation. Those who do vote and, more importantly, donate either focus on unrelated issues or are openly committed to maintaining the extractive apparatus. Apart from scantly voted elections, American democracy is being demobilized, in Tom Engelhardt’s phrase.
Note that what this post describes is generally bipartisan. Both Republicans and Democrats contribute to the apparatus.
And tenth, surveillance. Gathering intelligence on people makes it easier to assess and influence their behavior. Additionally the sheer scope of post-9-11 surveillance also seems to cow Americans. We might think the NSA has gone overboard, and some of us have taken steps to try to get a better handle on our privacy, but we don’t actually do anything organized about it, and there is no political avenue to express these ideas.
There’s so much more to say here. These ten interlock and interlace in all kinds of ways. A large number of antecedents and other forces power these up (offhand? post-1989 offshoring, the decline of unions, the Democratic party’s late 20th-century shift to the center, the long wreck of the war on drugs, bad television news, etc). I suspect our contemporary love affair with dystopia reflects on this disposition. I’d love to hear thoughts along these lines in comments, as well as criticism.
But basically, the heart of this extractive democracy idea is that all of these ten drives coincide to hoover up wealth from the bottom of society, depositing it up top. In a general sense this has been the case before (cf the first Gilded Age), but it’s gone professional now. To paraphrase a hip saying, extractive democracy has gone big and gone home. That’s the point.
What does this have to do with education? Plenty, but that’s for another post.
What do you think?
*Is this post too political, readers? Do you want more of this kind of thing, or less?