Requiem for the American Dream (review)
“NOAM CHOMSKY is widely regarded as the most influential intellectual of our time. Filmed over four years, these are his final long-form documentary interviews.”
Inequality in America is unprecedented. A fraction of one percent of the population have super wealth. Because of this unequal wealth distribution, there is a corrosive effect on the principles of democracy.
The notion of class mobility is now antiquated. While back in the Great Depression, there was an expectation of future prosperity, of idealized success. In this modern period, the American Dream has collapsed.
In a real democracy, the public has influence over policy decisions. For privileged elites, however, democracy takes power out of their hands and puts it into the general population’s. They desire a concentration of wealth for themselves, so they can have more power, more influence. If politicians want to win elections or even to run, they’ll need ever-increasing sums of money. In order to get funded, candidates must serve corporate interests that financially support their campaigns. Corporate power becomes legislation through their influence on those running and elected. Legislation passed protects the rich, helping them to gain even more power, often at the expense of taxpayers.
This cycle is inherent in the United States. Adam Smith, in “The Wealth of Nations,” wrote that in England, the “principal architects of policy are the people who own the society.” In the 1770s, the merchants and manufacturers were the architects. Despite the impact on other members of the population, their interests were always taken care of. Nowadays, instead of manufacturers and merchants, financial institutions and multinational corporations are in control.
They are the “Masters of Mankind.”
PRINCIPLE #1: REDUCE DEMOCRACY
James Madison believed that the United States should be structured. He wanted most of the power to transfer to the senate at a time when the senate wasn’t elected. Senate members were selected from an elite class of white men in the population.
In debates of the Constitutional Convention, Madison said that “the major concern of society has to be to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He wanted the constitution to prevent the majority from taking the property of the rich. Whereas Aristotle wrote that a democracy should reduce inequality, Madison wrote that an unequal society should reduce democracy.
The general population often pushes for more democratization, such as in the 1960s with civil rights, environmental rights, and anti-war activism, while the masters want the population to be apathetic, subservient, and powerless.
PRINCIPLE #2: SHAPE IDEOLOGY
There has been a coordinated effort to undermine democracy. When “previously passive and obedient” members of the population, who are sometimes called “special interest groups,” have tried to become politically active, the state resists them. Private businesses can lobby, buy elections, staff the executive branch, but when young people are “too independent and free” and not responsive to indoctrination, they’re deemed as dangerous and must be subdued.
PRINCIPLE #3: REDESIGN THE ECONOMY
Since the 1970s, financial institutions such as banks and insurance companies, have gained more power. For example, in 2007, before the economic crash, they had 40% of corporate profits. The United States once was the greatest “manufacturing center of the world.” Financial institutions had a smaller part in society, performing roles like distributing unused assets. They were regulated with more control over their risky investments. By the ’70s, there was an increase in speculative capital, risky investments, money manipulations, and so on. Manufacturing was exported out to third world countries, putting workers from different countries in competition with each other, which reduced their wages while exploiting the poorest of workers. Top managerial positions have shifted to more business graduates than graduates from other departments, financializing the country even more.
“Workers can’t move, labor can’t move, but capital can.”
While highly-paid professionals are secure, workers are made insecure. They fear losing their jobs, discouraged from attaining livable wages, better health and safety conditions, and unionization.
PRINCIPLE #4: SHIFT THE BURDEN
Dissidents are often vilified. Depending on the society, critics are imprisoned, abused, executed, tortured, or censored. The United States has a high degree of freedom, compared to other countries. Yet terms of abuse, such as anti-American and Marxist, still arise when one criticizes corporate state power. Abusing critics in a developed democratic country, such as the United States, is a sign of the influence of elite culture on the general population.
During “The Golden Age” of the ’50s and ’60s, there was a high period of relatively egalitarian economic growth. The lowest fifth of the population was improving about as much as the upper fifth. When the U.S. was considered the largest manufacturing center in the world, businesses were made to be more concerned with consumers domestically.
When only a small percentage of the population owns an increasing amount of wealth, however, what happens to American consumers matters far less. What matters to the wealthy is their quarterly profit, even if it is due to money manipulation, higher salaries for their top executives, and decreases in taxes for multinational corporations.
“Taxes on the wealthy has reduced, while the tax burden on the rest of the population’s increased.” The pretext for this drastic shift is so there will be more jobs and investment. Despite the lack of evidence for this poor rhetoric, to truly stimulate production and job growth, money should go to poor and working people. The reality is far different, however. Corporations pay little to no taxes, receive exponential profits, while sending their manufacturing work offshore. They shift “the burden of sustaining the society on the rest of the population.”
PRINCIPLE #5: ATTACK SOLIDARITY
The masters want to indoctrinate people to only care about themselves. To care about other people is dangerous. They have put in a lot of effort to undermine people’s instincts for compassion and generosity, such as with the attack on social security. Social security is about helping others. “I pay payroll taxes so that the widow across the street can get something to live on.” A lot of the population survives on social security. The rich don’t need it, so they want to destroy it. They will first defund it, eventually privatizing it. A similar attack has happened to public education. The United States used to be a leader in funding mass pubic education. Now most college students are burdened with tuition. If they don’t come from wealthy families, they are trapped in debt.
PRINCIPLE #6: RUN THE REGULATORS
“The business being regulated is often running the regulators. Bank lobbyists are actually writing the laws of financial regulation; it’s gotten to that extreme.” The business world has worked steadily against the welfare measures of the sixties, ending with Nixon as the last “New Deal” president. Businesses didn’t like “consumer safety legislation, safety and health regulations in the workplace, the EPA,” and so on, because of high taxes and regulation. They began a coordinated effort, through lobbying, to overcome it. When regulations started to become dismantled, there were more economic crashes. Then the government bailed out the banks, over and again, under the Reagan, Bush, and Obama administrations. Taxpayers were forced to bail out the institutions that started the crisis. These financial institutions had become “too big to fail,” not responsible for their risky investments. Instead, they were chosen to fix the crises that they created.
PRINCIPLE #7: ENGINEER ELECTIONS
“Corporations are state-created legal fictions” that have manipulated the fourteenth amendment to be considered persons. They use their “persons” status to have personal rights and the right to due process under the law. This notion of “persons” is expanded for corporations, but not for actual people. If taking the amendment literally, undocumented immigrants would not be deprived of rights because they are persons. In the U.S., however, General Electric is more of a person than someone from another country.
In Buckley V. Valeo (1970), “the courts decided that money was a form of speech.” Later, in Citizens United V. Federal Electric Commission, a corporation’s free speech couldn’t be curtailed anymore, because they could spend as much money as they wanted. Now, corporations can buy elections, completely unrestricted.
PRINCIPLE #8: KEEP THE RABBLE IN LINE
“Organized labor is a barrier to corporate tyranny.”
Because organized labor is a democratizing force, leading to worker’s rights and those of the general population, it has been consistently attacked. The United States, in comparison to other developed countries, has had a long history of violently opposing organized labor. The core principle of free association, of political pressure through the masses, is a threat to business interests. Violence against workers, campaigns of propaganda, threats, and imprisonment, has drastically reduced unions.
PRINCIPLE #9: MANUFACTURE CONSENT
It is not easy to control a population by force alone, especially in developed countries like the United States and Britain. Manipulating a population’s beliefs and attitudes is far more effective. To control what the public wants, turning people into consumers is the goal of business. The masses are taught to crave superficial things, distracted from meaningful change. They spend their lives buying what they don’t need and wanting what they don’t have. They are seduced by advertisements, uninformed about desires, persuaded against their own interests.
Ever since Reagan, the PR industry has been marketing candidates like toothpaste. There is little discussion of policy issues and more discussion of personality. Meanwhile, private interests are marginalizing the public, while securing their selected candidates into office.
PRINCIPLE #10: MARGINALIZE THE POPULATION
Most of the population doesn’t influence policy. People are increasingly frustrated with institutions, alienated, demoralized, but are often lost for answers. The manufacturers want the population to turn on each other, to hate and fear each other. They want activist groups to fragment. They want people to care only about themselves and not about others. If a society is controlled by private institutions, it will reflect those values. A society based on the value of greed will not last.
To progress as a society, institutions should be under a participatory democratic control. All structures should be questioned for legitimacy. If they’re not just, then they should be dismantled or improved upon. If there are oppressive structures, the public must come together and not accept them. They must organize and challenge what is unjust. To become a better citizen, to change the world, people need to learn, to contribute, to find opportunities for speech and direct action. As Howard Zinn once said, “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”