Economy

The 4 Plagues: Getting a Handle on the Coming Apocalypse

In an environment of confusion and despair, it helps to understand the forces at play, how they operate, and why they feel so overwhelming.

Photo Credit: f9photos/ Shutterstock.com

Every day, thousands, probably millions of people ask their family, friends, neighbors and colleagues similar and increasingly familiar questions: What has happened to our country? How did we get here? Isn’t it scary? Can anything be done about it?

There is an abundance of evidence that there are forces tearing apart the U.S. economy and society, causing increasing levels of fear, anxiety and trauma for large numbers of people. Many people are mystified as to the specific causes of their fears, with a mass media system that constantly broadcasts propaganda about how great America is and a new digital media system that may be exacerbating the problems for a society under immense and unprecedented duress.

There is the added problem that the theories and the means of social change we are familiar with, and to which we still turn, are not remotely up to the task we face, and have mostly proven to be inadequate. Virtually every problem we face has gotten worse over the past 40 years, and heavily sped up since 9/11 and the economic crash of 2007.

In an environment of confusion and despair, it can be helpful to name the beast—essentially to understand the forces at play, how they operate, and why they feel both intractable and overwhelming. So, what follows is a kind of "Users' Guide To What Is Freaking Us Out.”

What Has Happened to Us?

So the big question is: what is the “it” that has happened to us? Depending on your vantage point and the myriad problems in front of us, “it” can be any number of causes and factors. 

For many, it is the disappearance of the sense of a democracy many thought was embedded in U.S society. Sure, we’ve always been ruled by elites. But we are in a new era where we feel crushed by the overwhelming dominance of corporations and big institutions that treat people like commodities, getting away with degrading people’s dignities while pocketing large profits. This is especially true of banks, which are now so big they are beyond the reach of the legal system for fear that the global economy will be adversely affected.

Many people feel they have no control over the direction of the country because their vote doesn’t matter—incumbents with the most money mostly get elected. Many voters feel trapped by the lack of options because of pro-corporate stances of both Republicans and Democrats, and then there is another beast—the rabid right-wing.Our legislators are bought by campaign contributions and seem incapable of constructive action. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, and the fact that legally corporations are often treated like persons, is beyond most people’s comprehension.

Economic Disaster For Many

For others, the anxiety producing “it” is directly connected to personal economic loss, of homes, jobs, personal wealth, or increased debt, all which has contributed to a massive erosion of financial security.

The statistics are quite shocking. The poor are suffering—more than 46 million Americans live at or below the poverty level, which is $23,201 for a family of four. That's $5,800 per person; but a far larger group of 138 million people (nearly 40% of American households)—many of whom had considered themselves part of the middle class—are living paycheck to paycheck. And, according to a Pew Foundation survey, “nearly a quarter of Americans (24%) say they had trouble putting food on the table in the past 12 month revealing a painful level of deprivation and family trauma despite the U.S.  being the richest country in the world. Our level of deprivation is closer to that in Indonesia or Greece rather than Britain or Canada.”

Especially for Those About to Retire … Or Thought They Were

Furthermore, financial security for the future, often referred as the “American Dream,” is increasingly out of reach for many millions.  This is especially true for those approaching retirement—a goal that has been undermined, even destroyed, by the economic crash of 2007, which robbed so many of what small wealth they had. Over the long run, a major culprit has been the replacement of pensions by the grossly inadequate 401K model, which is forcing millions of Americans to keep on working, or find marginal jobs to help pay the bills as they age, or in some cases fall into poverty, living only on a meager Social Security stipend.

As Joshua Holland recently noted, this trend “has been an integral part of what Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker called the great risk-shift, in which the burden of paying for education, healthcare and retirement has increasingly shifted from corporations and the government onto the backs of individuals and families."

Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School for Social Research writes, “The specter of downward mobility in retirement is a looming reality for both middle- and higher-income workers. Almost half of middle-class workers, 49 percent, will be poor or near poor in retirement, living on a food budget of about $5 a day.” She adds, “Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts.”

But the situation is far from great for recent college graduates, many of whom are being crushed under student loan debt, while facing a competitive and often exploitative job market, where all too often an unpaid internship is an essential way to advance in a career. This is the first generation since the Great Depression that will make less money and have fewer resources than their parents. Perhaps because of dealing with all the stress, this generation has a prescription pill epidemic on their hands, which may be leading to a significant increase in suicides in their demographic.

Take Your Pick

This first summary just touches on some of the economic problems. The list of concerns and anxieties goes on and on—here are some of the most prominent, but any reader will be able to add her own to the list:

• The lack of an adequate response to the looming climate crisis.

• Mass incarceration, in which 2.3 million Americans, a huge number of them African American and Latino, are behind bars.

• The huge and still expanding security state, as police forces militarize, even in small cities and towns.

• A high level of unemployment at 7.5 %, considerably beyond what historically has been acceptable. And as Andrew Ross points out in the San Francisco Chronicle, “12.2 million Americans are classified as ‘not in the labor force’ because they're considered ‘discouraged.” When you add in the discouraged and the reluctant part-timers (7.2 million people) the unemployment rate jumps first to 9%, then to 13.9%.

• The continued prevalence of violence against women, often fueled by alcohol, and by the culture of rape in the U.S. military.

• The war on poor students as testing dominates the move toward privatizing public elementary and secondary education via charter schools; and in public schools, kids are increasingly treated as criminals.

• The assault on journalists, civil liberties and whistleblowers by a Democratic president, who campaigned quite differently than he is governing.

• The return of many wounded and psychological damaged soldiers from our two wars, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers are suffering from PTSD, and often lacking in supportive services to help them cope.

• The still-unchallenged power of the NRA, as many states are passing more lax gun laws, or making sure there are no gun control laws at all, despite the popular will, and the overwhelming data documenting the number of people killed by guns.

The list of disasters adds up to a very dark picture; the future looks bleak for tens of millions of people, a fact that has produced an epidemic of fear and anxiety. And finding our way out is a huge challenge, in part because the safety net keeps getting shredded, and the guidebooks we have used to challenge oppressive power are not capable of leading the way.

Many critics have been content to attribute the current state of affairs to a particularly virulent brand of casino capitalism practiced in the U.S. and gaining dominance globally. Sure, this is true. But it is not sufficient to simply chalk up our predicament to capitalism, because there are many forms of the capitalist economic system that don’t produce the dire results we have here in the U.S.

The problem is the special brand of American capitalism, with its thousands of interlocking parts feeding on each other, that ends up controlling and exploiting a majority of Americans. It is important to deconstruct how this happens in a digestible way.

The Symptoms Are All Around Us

A strong case can be made that collectively we are traumatized as a society, though perhaps reluctant to admit it. A constant barrage of stress, anxiety, intrusion, incarceration, and a generalized drumbeat of fear from the media and we have the mess we are in. Increasingly, despair leads to addiction, violence and even suicide, especially for people hardest hit by job loss.

Newly released and striking figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that from 1999 to 2010 the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, up from 13.7 to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2010 more people in the U.S. died from suicide than from car crashes—a statistic that alone seems to stand as troubling testament to desperate times. As the New York Times notes, the CDC and other experts believe the suicide figures to be on the low side.

Another striking symptom is high levels of stress that lead to drug use, abuse and addiction. Research concludes that stress can render people susceptible to serious illness, and that chronic stress can play a role in the progression of cancer. It is hard to believe, but 11 percent of all Americans aged 12 and older, which is well over 30 million people, are currently taking antidepressants despite the danger of suicide for some users.

And a stunning 23 percent of women in their 40s and 50s are now taking antidepressants according to a major study by the CDC.

And that is before you consider alcohol abuse and the fact that the majority of violence toward women is fueled by alcohol.

 A Useful Blueprint

Given the malaise that many are grappling with, the increasing feelings of desperation can feel confusing, overwhelming and crazy-making. Where do we start? How do we understand what is happening so that what we learn can help us take action and improve our outlook? What steps can we take to protect ourselves, to shift the momentum?

A first step is to try to get clear about the nature of how all these forces are coming together to make us so stressed out, and perhaps collectively on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As AlterNet’s executive editor, I have personally been engaged for many years in all the issues and developments described above, publishing much of the best writing on every topic. I too have felt overwhelmed by the tsunami crashing over us. After all the years publishing many thousands of articles, what is happening today feels fundamentally unprecedented—the combination of spiritual malaise and social collapse, an abundance of cruelty and callousness.

Recently I found a way of better understanding the forces that are at play, which I want to share in case it can be helpful. Basically, in this analysis there are four especially powerful and pernicious overarching economic and political mechanisms operating. These are privatization, financialization, militarization, and criminalization, which together are producing a steadily creeping authoritarianism—a new authoritarianism—to fit our times. Let’s call them the Four Plagues, or if we wish, “The Four Horsemen of Our Apocalypse,” from the Book of Revelations in the New Testament.

Actually, according to most accounts, the four riders are seen as symbolizing Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, respectively. So, they’re not exactly analogous, but you get the idea: it’s about very bad stuff that is coming.

The four “plagues” are very potent. With financializationwe are confronting a new hyper form of capitalism, underway for years, but especially apparent with the crash of 2007. Author David Graeber describes the financialization of capitalism in an interview with the SF Bay Guardian as “… casino capitalism, speculation… they are making money out of thin air. … It is based on getting everyone in debt.”

Graeber adds that the profits of Wall Street are increasingly based on finance, not commerce, which means “…they go into your bank account and take your money.” Extracted by the finance sector are mortgages, credit card debt, loan debt, all the fees and penalties you are not noticing. Graeber estimates the finance sector is at or near 20 percent of the economy.   

Privatization is pervasive in our culture, tearing the moorings away from democratic ideals and the commons—the common ground that has held many communities together for centuries. Schools, highways, parks, many things we hold dear are being taken away from public stewardship. Perhaps the privatization of water, where the huge multinational Nestle is leading the way globally, is the most daunting. In his thorough analysis of Nestle, the world’s largest food company and the most profitable corporation in the world according to the Global Fortune 500, Andrew Gavin Marshall writes that Nestle’s chairman, Peter Brabeck, believes that nature is not “good,” that there is nothing to worry about with GMO foods, that profits matter above all else, that people should work more, and that human beings do not have a right to water.

The signs ofmilitarization are increasingly visible in the nation’s police forces, especially with drug raids, as well as the escalated capture of undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the point where far more immigrants have been deported during the Obama administration than during George W. Bush’s tenure. There is also now a massive private prison operation mainly to handle those immigrants arrested.

The U.S. is still by far the world’s largest arms dealer, and we have military bases in 63 countries, and all across the U.S. as well, with nearly 1,140,000 soldiers in uniform.

The militarization of America was on graphic display in the over-reactions in response to the Boston bombing. The entire city of Boston was shut down and a kind of martial law declared as millions were told to stay indoors and lock up. Public events were canceled, transportation in and out of the city ceased, people were stranded at the airport—and all because a wide array of police forces were searching for a wounded 19-year-old on foot. The horrible bombing with its horrendous death and destruction traumatized many. But it is likely that the overwhelming police response—local police, ATF, FBI, DEA, etc.—traumatized the population even more. The military model of “lockdown” has become the default response to many disturbances. The use of SWAT teams all over the U.S. has increased dramatically, as the military has supplied local police forces with a wide array of super-powerful weaponry, often far beyond what is needed.

Cornell West Speaks

In a recent dialogue with Institute of New Economic Thinking’s (INET) Rob Johnson at Columbia Theological Seminary, Cornell West used the first three of what I am now calling “plagues” as examples of what is scaring him as he sees our society heading toward fascism. I thank him for his help in advancing my thinking.

I was struck by what West said, but I realized that it is necessary to add criminalization as a fourth plague for a fuller picture. In our world of mass incarceration, we see students, poor people, the homeless, debtors, drug users, and whole neighborhoods being criminalized in huge numbers. One powerful example is in the efforts by the New York Police Department known as “stop-and-frisk.” Since Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York City in 2002, stop-and-frisk increased by 600%, from 100,000 New Yorkers targeted to almost 685,000 in 2011. Nearly 90% of those stopped are black or Latino.

Mass Incarceration and the New Jim Crow

More than 2 million people in jail has resulted in what author and lawyer Michelle Alexander has called the “New Jim Crow,” in her book of the same name. Despite the civil rights movement, theoretical progress on racism, and even an African-American president, more people of color are in jail than were ever slaves; more people are jailed in the U.S. than in any other place in the world. As Alexander writes: “Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

According to the NAACP, from 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled, from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the US is 5% of the world population and has 25% of the world’s prisoners.

Millions in jail is part of a strategy of mass incarceration fueled by the highly funded and militarized war on drug users, which is primarily aimed at the poor and people of color. The racist caste of the criminal justice system is overwhelming: African Americans, incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, now constitute nearly one million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. Mass incarceration accomplished in the 21st century what slavery accomplished more than 150 years ago: the oppression and disenfranchisement of a whole generation of black men.

So, looking through the lens of these four plagues provides me with a useful handle on what is happening to our country, and to the globe. They help explain trends and shifts that are destroying the middle class, exacerbating poverty, keeping millions in jail, and traumatizing many millions more. Most of it can be attributed to one or more of the plagues, and often all four.

Essential Ingredients for the Success of the Plagues

But I don’t want to stop here. To best understand the plagues, there are several cross-cutting fundamentals of U.S. capitalism which fuel the oppressive nature of the plagues and help us understand how they interact.

1. Follow the money: For every unfair, exploitative and destructive force going on in America—and there are so many—some corporations or groups of people are profiting. Not only are they making a lot of money, they have also very likely built a powerful infrastructure to ensure the security of their cash flow using a potent array of tools to protect their interests. These are lobbyists, PR agents, campaign contributions, trade associations to agitate for their interests, and with overarching powerful giant entities like the chamber of commerce to provide the protective umbrella.

2. When following the money, it is often the case that the system picks on the weakest. Long ago, someone figured out that the easiest way to make a lot of money is to paradoxically target those who don’t have much.Or use powerless people as scapegoats to leverage access to large pots of money. One example is state lotteries, about which AlterNet’s Steve Rosenfeld explains: “What many people don’t know about lotteries is that they prey on those who can least afford it.” State lotteries amount to a hidden tax on the poor. They eat up about 9 percent of take-home incomes from households making less than $13,000 a year. They siphon $50 billion a year away from local businesses—besides stores where they’re sold.

Another example is that the privatization of the public school system is on the backs of poor kids, with the discredited fantasy that schools will be improved when people make money off of them. "Rent to own,” “payday loans” and many other tactics of capitalism all exploit poor people.

3. The best way to maximize profits and make radical changes in policies is to take advantage of crises. We all know what happened after the horrible death and destruction of 9/11. Our government, the Bush administration, orchestrated the most gigantic overreaction in history, turning a criminal case to the ongoing “war on terror,” which has transformed most of our lives in many negative ways.

The aftermath of 9/11, which includes the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, also created the most extraordinary secret government in the history of humankind. The Washington Post, in an unprecedented investigation that took two years, discovered a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in oversight. “After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is a system incredibly massive --1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States. An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.”

Naomi Klein, in her book The Shock Doctrine has helped us understand that when crises erupt, those in power will use the opportunity to increase power in extreme and undemocratic ways, in what is now called “Disaster Capitalism.” For example, as Kristen Rawls reports, after the massive impact of Hurricane Katrina, most of the schools in New Orleans’ Parish were replaced by charter schools.

What to Do—The Challenges Ahead

How do we fight these massive interlocking forces that often seem impossible to slow down, let alone stop and change? Well, there is good news and bad news.

The first answer is, we don’t stop the machine, at least now, because we can’t, not at this moment in history, anyway. At the present, there is no large-scale, coordinated, funded plan, across issue lines to organize a mass movement capable of putting a dent in the juggernaut; and there are some major problems on the social change organizing front to be sure.

The Occupy movement was a great moment, and a popular response to financialization and militarization. But then we saw the surveillance state in action as police power along with the titans of big finance crushed the dissent. Certainly Occupy generated, at least for a time, a new level of discourse on economic fairness and exploitation. But it is already a memory, and the system of the “four plagues” grinds on as the wealth gap increases every week.

On the other hand, no one could have predicted Occupy. Is there another upheaval waiting to explode?

Nevertheless, there is a lot of good news on the activism front. As Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers write, “Every week we are inspired by the many people throughout the country who are doing excellent work to challenge the power structure and put forward a new path for the country. The popular resistance to plutocracy, concentrated wealth and corporatism is decentralized, creative and growing.”

A couple of examples, according to Zeese and Flowers, include a growing series of protests called “the ‘Moral Monday’ demonstrations in North Carolina ....challenging the systemic corruption, undermining of democracy and misdirection of a state government that puts human needs second to corporate profits—which they have dubbed ‘Robin Hood in Reverse.’"

There was a recent victory for Seattle teachers and students that resulted from their citywide protests against standardized testing. The school district announced that testing in the high schools would not occur next year. The teachers said they will keep protesting until the tests are banned from lower grades as well.”

There are dozens of examples like this. Hopefully momentum will build, although the obstacles are formidable and the forces of repression ready to step in at any moment.

Still, being realistic, the challenges of building resistance, finding ways to reform and change the "system” is hugely daunting. Many thinkers argue that our version of exploitative capitalism is doomed, and will someday fall apart. The only problem is, those thinkers have no idea how to bring down capitalism, or even change the system, beyond critiquing it. The number of people and books that bewail the system are many, but the path to solutions, almost nil. Meanwhile, more people suffer every day.

I am personally frustrated, that some of our biggest thinkers and experts are not investing much of their brain power or political capital in the bigger picture of strategy and tactics—the battles to gaining more political clout to confront the power centers. The ability to build to a point where millions of people are in the streets is currently not on the horizon. So there is much work to be done in that regard. An assessment of the possibilities to change, and a range of the options is beyond the scope of this article, but will be forthcoming.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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