What If the Rich Never Stopped Getting Richer and Everyone Else Continued to Tread Water?
Who can help us best understand what happens to deeply unequal societies that let wealth concentrate, beyond all reason, at the top of the economic ladder? Economists? Sociologists? Over a century ago, back in the original Gilded Age, Americans looked to a different source for wisdom on inequality. They looked to novelists. In books like Looking Backward, a fabulously popular 1888 novel that imagined an America gone egalitarian, our forebears found the inspiration they needed to challenge robber baron fortune and power.
Looking Backward would eventually sell, after Uncle Tom's Cabin, more copies than any secular book in the entire 19th century. The book's impact crossed class lines. Nationalist Clubs" espousing the principles of Looking Backward sprouted up in genteel middle class communities. In the South, organizers of dirt-poor farmers handed out Looking Backward as a membership premium for joining the insurgent agrarian advocacy group that would evolve into the Populist Party.
Edward Bellamy, the frail New Englander who authored Looking Backward, revolved his story around an affluent Bostonian who slips off to sleep in 1887 and awakes in the year 2000 to discover an America that had been totally -- and happily -- transformed. No one lacks an adequate income. No grand stashes of wealth allow some to dominate over others. An equal America. A better America.
In short, not our America today. Not our America tomorrow either, suggests veteran novelist David Lozell Martin in his remarkable new book, Our American King.
No one will ever will ever confuse Martin, a former open-hearth furnace steelworker in Southern Illinois, for a frail New Englander. And no one will ever confuse the future America that Martin imagines in Our American King with the better America Edward Bellamy envisioned.
In Martin's post-apocalyptic America, set in our near future, the super-rich play golf in fortified gated communities while, outside the walls, packs of machete-wielding adolescents in wedding gowns -- "with no more than curiosity showing on their young faces" -- slice off the arms of starving suburban matrons.
In other words, a nightmare America.
But with this nightmare the 61-year-old Martin may have given us a Looking Backward for our time, a novel that forces us to confront the inequality that so distorts our lives. The defining difference: Edward Bellamy, writing in perhaps a more innocent age, painted a gloriously hopeful future to force a focus on inequality. David Lozell Martin paints a horror.
What triggers this horror? Martin never lets us know. We learn only that a "social calamity" has hit the United States, leaving the government dissolved, the infrastructure of modern life completely broken down. No electricity. No gasoline. No regular supplies of food. Disorder everywhere.
The mega millionaires, Martin writes, have "purchased and seized massive quantities of every imaginable commodity, trainload after trainload of fuel oil and pharmaceuticals, generators and gin, coffee and clothes," and made fortresses out of places like Montauk at the end of Long Island, "where you could pile burned-out buses and stretch razor wire and position rapid-fire weapons to keep at bay the starving mad million hordes to the west."
In what's left of Washington, D.C., next to a White House fence festooned with the hanging dead bodies of politicians who overstayed their welcome, the mad hordes eventually find a champion, a man who would be -- and does become -- king. Martin's novel tells his story, through the recollections, from fifty years later, of the half-starved Northern Virginia suburbanite who would give that king a son.
That story takes the king and his rag-tag followers across the continent and back, past strongholds of frightened average people they either convert or kill, past empty cities and face-down corpses, with buttocks sliced and diced to offer up "steaks" for the achingly hungry.
Inequality, the king's followers muse as they "sew buttons and snap beans, recalling life before the calamity," made all this inevitable. Their American nation, "the site of the largest accumulation of wealth in human history with the gap between that wealth and the poorest Americans widening every year, was it any wonder that that America became unsupportable."
How fanciful is all this? David Lozell Martin, earlier this month, is sitting at a sidewalk cafÃƒÂ© table in downtown Washington, D.C., a block off the capital's famed K Street corporate lobbyist corridor, talking about his new book. Every few minutes, gaggles of power suits pass by, rushing to meetings and deals designed no doubt to enhance the fortunes of America's already fortunate.
If calamity really neared, would these fortunate hoard resources that desperately need to be shared?
"Throughout history," Martin notes, "that's what the wealthy have always done. In the great plagues of medieval times and the great famines, they literally went behind walls and let it play out. Whoever is going to starve, starves."
And those machete-wielding youths in wedding gowns? That turns out to be not much of a stretch either. In contemporary war zones, where social fabrics have almost completely frayed, we already have ferocious children wildly killing and maiming.
"In places like Sierra Leone," says Martin. "kids get kidnapped at eight or nine. They become warriors as adolescents, like something out of Lord of the Flies. One group of them believed that if you wear a wedding veil, bullets couldn't touch you."
But what about Our American King's larger assumption, that some disaster could traumatize the United States into chaos?
Analyst Naomi Klein's provocative new book, The Shock Doctrine, sees plenty of trauma-inducing possibilities ahead, as the "appetite for easy, short-term profits offered by purely speculative investment" -- the hallmark of global capitalism, 21st century-style -- turns "stock, currency and real estate markets into crisis-creation machines."
"An economic system that requires constant growth, while bucking almost all serious attempts at environmental regulation," Klein observes, "generates a steady stream of disasters all on its own, whether military, ecological or financial."
These disasters, David Lozell Martin reminds us, don't have to play out all the way to generate massive social dislocation.
"We get to a tipping point," he explains. "Our transportation system, for instance, would break down long before we would ever run totally out of oil. Once the oil in distribution drops down to a certain level, the system would collapse."
In Our American King, the wealthy see collapse coming.
"They don't say we're all in this together," says Martin. "They take what they need and get out while they can."
We shouldn't find that behavior, Martin believes, at all surprising. In any extremely unequal society, those who have accumulated huge fortunes just naturally develop an arrogant sense of entitlement.
"They become absolutely convinced that they've earned every bit of their success," he says, "that they would rise to the top no matter where they started."
Martin knows that arrogance first-hand. He once felt it, as a novelist who had most definitely "made it" -- and all seemingly on his own.
As a young man Martin had left the steel mills where his father and all his uncles worked -- "I knew there had to be a less hot way to make a living" -- and gone off to college. He graduated with a journalism degree and then moved from newspapers to novels. He wrote ten of them, literary fictions, love stories, thrillers. He won both critical praise and the confidence of a major publishing house.
But then five years ago disaster struck.
"I lost everything -- health, marriage, money," says Martin. "I was one son away from homelessness."
Martin ended up working with Native American groups, "with families facing economic distress." He started contemplating inequality and the precariousness of American middle class life. He started writing politically. His eleventh novel, the 2005 Facing Mount Rushmore, spun off from Wounded Knee "ghost dancing " and the genocide of Indian peoples. His new twelfth book, Our American King, picks up the calamity theme that ends Facing Mount Rushmore.
So what might the theme be for Our American King?
"We have to have more generosity in the system to account for people who aren't like us," says Martin. "That's a hard lesson to learn. So many 'successful' people never learn it."
The "successful," he hopes, will find much to learn in Our American King.
"I don't expect the scales to fall away from their eyes," Martin acknowledges. "But at least maybe they'll see the enormous built-in inequalities of our current system."
"And if the book," smiles this accomplished thriller author, "puts the fear of God into them -- the fear that the poor will come into their bedrooms and string them up -- that's okay, too."