Ulterior motives, good and bad

It bears repeating: we need to be savvier.

We liberals are united in standing against Trump, yet seem fragmented in what we stand for — because we do not fully understand either. We do not understand the common factors underlying the policies we oppose, and accordingly we do not understand the common factors underlying our opposition. One lens through which to gain insight into these common factors, a perspective often used on these pages: power, specifically the concentration or distribution thereof.

Take any major Republican policy — voting restrictions, reversing environmental protections, restricting abortions, for examples — and the ulterior motive is not voting integrity, industrial jobs, or protecting life. At its core, the ulterior motive is not even racism, climate change denial, or misogyny. The core is concentration of power, and those issues merely serve as convenient vehicles to achieve that goal.

Take any major response from the left — marching for voting rights, for science and climate, for women — and the issues seem distinct, yet they are united by a common purpose, too: the sharing of power or, in a word, equality.


Climate of fear

Even scarier than the prospect of climate change is the possibility that, far from attempting to mitigate its effects on vulnerable people, power-holders will instead exploit fear, destabilization, and disasters to further concentrate wealth and power, as they already tend to do in times of war, terror, recession. Trump’s election may be a precursor, his anti-immigration policies appealing to fears of the humanitarian expense posed by refugees, whose numbers are likely to swell as climate change hastens, and his anti-environment policies appealing to fears that rules protecting clean air and water will affect bottom lines.

Demos, part 2

The fundamental question of democracy is the identity of the demos. Who are the people? In other words, who votes? And are those votes of equal value? Who speaks? And are they speaking at equal volume?

We pay little consideration to the fact that most people who have served time cannot vote. Yet the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, a disproportionately high rate of imprisoning black and brown people, and a dubious criminal “justice” system, making felon disenfranchisement a dramatic distortion of democracy that perpetuates the history of oppression against African, Hispanic, poor, and other Other people. Add to that: the millions of residents of Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. and other territories who cannot vote; the electoral college favoring rural interests; prejudice to the many people who would lose a paycheck or job were they to miss work to vote; unnecessary voter ID restrictions; women only voting for 97 of our country’s 241 years; demographic disparities in the donor classes. Voting power in America is white and male.

Speech is harder to measure, but consider the factors in its capability and effectiveness: education, money, status. The same groups tend to have less of these factors. “We the people” are white men.

If not me, then who?

It is not so much wealthy individuals or even corporate entities who are ultimately responsible for inequality and environmental devastation. They are merely the beneficiaries of the political economic system that we take for granted; moreover, to a large extent, they are acting in accordance with our social and legal norms, which equate accumulating more resources, money, or market share with success, esteem, and power. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it was not so much that individual executives should have gone to jail, but that the system of financialized capitalism that incentivized exploitation should have stood trial. Accordingly, the 99 versus the 1% is not about vilifying or targeting a particular group of people, but about reforming our exploitative system.

And likewise lawyers are not to be blamed personally for the legal system: whether prosecutors or defense attorneys, corporate or plaintiffs’ lawyers, most of them simply play their institutional roles according to the institution’s rules — but that system of rules, roles, institutions rests on a history of exploitation. Similarly, consumers are not to be blamed for consumerism, and producers not to be blamed for economies that rely on alway producing more. People who shop at Wal-Mart do not deserve primary blame for or because of the store’s employment practices and erosion of communities. Governments should not allow businesses to pay sub-living wages and they should even the playing field for small and local businesses.

We must take away the incentives for a race to the bottom. The system is set up like a prisoner’s dilemma. We cannot rely on individuals to solve these collective action problems. If I don’t take the deal, I’ll get screwed because other people will take it. Yet while any given individual deserves little blame for exploiting collective action problems within the normative boundaries of our system, nonetheless each of us must be held fully responsible for the collective errors of our species — because no one else can be. But specifically what we must be held accountable for is not so much the incidents of exploitation but the failure to solve these collective action problems through governance; in other words, our crime is not taking the deal, but offering it.

Aggregate fault

How could we allow ourselves to rip apart the wilderness, trees, and soil and replace them with asphalt? To build machines that spew noxious gas into the life-giving air?

The first roads, made of stone or wood, hardly seemed to infringe on the vast wilderness through which they humbly, hesitantly cut. They were only small improvements upon the paths forged by ancient hunters, which were only following the trails of the animals they hunted. And asphalt was just another step. Likewise, the car is the latest modification in the line of vehicles stretching back to the similarly unobtrusive (though cruel) horse and buggy, and before that the cart, or agile legs.

It is only the concatenation of roads and buildings and parking lots, of cars, trucks, buses, trains, planes, that makes an important difference, or so it seems. Every individual is innocent, and only the collective guilty.