The following is an excerpt from WAGES OF REBELLION: The Moral Imperative of Revolt. Reprinted with permission from Nation Books 2015.
The public's inability to grasp the pathology of our oligarchic corporate elite makes it difficult to organize effective resistance. Compliant politicians, entertainers, and our vapid, corporate-funded popular culture and news media hold up the elites as leaders to emulate. We are repeatedly assured that through diligence and hard work we can join them. We are taught to equate wealth with success. This narrative keeps us from seeing the truth.
"The rich are different from us," F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have remarked to Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway allegedly replied, "Yes, they have more money."
The exchange, although it never took place, does sum up a wisdom Fitzgerald had that eluded Hemingway. The rich are different. The cocoon of wealth and privilege permits the rich to turn those around them into compliant and expendable workers, hangers-on, servants, and sycophants. Wealth, as Fitzgerald illustrated in his 1925 novel The Great Gatsby-- a tome on the depravity of the rich in the giddy world of speculation that would lead to the Depression--as well as his short story "The Rich Boy," which appeared a year later, breeds a class of people for whom human beings are disposable commodities. Colleagues, business partners, clients, associates, shareholders, investors, employees, kitchen staff, servants, gardeners, tutors, personal trainers, even friends and family, bend to the whims of the wealthy or disappear. Once oligarchs achieve unchecked economic and political power, as they have in the United States, the citizens too become disposable. And that, in the eyes of the elite, is what we are.
"Let me tell you about the very rich," Fitzgerald writes in "The Rich Boy." "They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different."
Aristotle, who saw extreme inequality as the fundamental cause of revolution, argues in Politics that the rise of an oligarchic state leads to one of two scenarios. The impoverished underclass can revolt and overthrow the oligarchs to rectify the imbalance of wealth and power, or it can submit to the tyranny of oligarchic rule.
The public face of the oligarchic class is carefully crafted by publicists and a compliant media. It bears little resemblance to the private face. This is hard for those who have not been admitted into the intimate circles of the elite to grasp. I, like Fitzgerald, was thrown into the embrace of the upper crust as a boy. I was sent to an exclusive New England boarding school at the age of ten as a scholarship student. I had classmates whose fathers--fathers they rarely saw otherwise--arrived at the school in their limousines accompanied by personal photographers (and at times their mistresses), so the press could be fed images of rich and famous men playing the role of dutiful dads. I spent time in the mansions of the ultra-rich and powerful, watching my classmates, who were children, callously order around men and women who worked as their chauffeurs, cooks, nannies, and servants. When the sons and daughters of the rich get into serious trouble, there are always lawyers, publicists, and political personages to protect them--George W. Bush's life is a case study in the insidious affirmative action for the rich. The rich have a disdain for the poor--despite carefully publicized acts of philanthropy--and a haughty dislike of the middle class.
The lower classes are viewed as uncouth parasites, annoyances to be endured, sometimes placated, and always controlled in the quest to amass more power and money. My hatred of authority, along with my loathing for the pretensions, heartlessness, and sense of entitlement of the rich, comes from living among the privileged. It was a deeply unpleasant experience. I returned on summer breaks to the small town in Maine where my grandparents and relatives lived. They had more innate intelligence than most of my prep school classmates. I knew from a young age who my enemies were.
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy," Fitzgerald writes of the wealthy couple at the center of Gatsby's life. "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
"Those who have too much of the goods of fortune, strength, wealth, friends, and the like, are neither willing nor able to submit to authority," Aristotle writes in Politics. "The evil begins at home; for when they are boys, by reason of the luxury in which they are brought up, they never learn, even at school, the habit of obedience."
Oligarchs, as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith, and Karl Marx knew, are schooled in the mechanisms of manipulation--subtle and overt repression and exploitation to protect their wealth and power. Foremost among their mechanisms of control is the control of ideas. Ruling elites ensure that the established intellectual class is subservient to an ideology--in this case, neoliberalism and globalization--that conveniently justifies their greed. "The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships," Marx wrote, "the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas."37
The blanket dissemination of the ideology of neoliberalism through the media and the purging, especially in academia, of critical voices have permitted our oligarchs to orchestrate the industrial world's largest income inequality gap. Nobel Prize--winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, in a May 2011 article titled "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" in Vanity Fair, warned of the damage caused by the extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite. "In our democracy, 1% of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation's income," he writes.
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