Wednesday, October 26, 2011

'Occupy' protests: Not Tahrir yet

Demonstrations in the US and Europe are important, but an Egyptian style revolution is still an unlikely prospect.

Mark LeVine



A brilliant strategy

In order for neoliberalism to succeed, the economic elite had to pull off an incredible trick: to convince millions of Americans - first labelled, in the 1980s, as "Reagan Democrats" - actively support policies that clearly went against their economic interests. At the same time, the policies of conservative and economic elites were geared to expropriating more wealth than ever before, they had to convince the very people whose wealth they were siphoning off that they actually represented their most basic interests and values.

How did they do this? Through a brilliant two-fold strategy. First, they solidified a culture of materialism and hyperconsumption based on the ideology of 'Greed is Good', in which achieving wealth and power and looking out for number one - always resonant with American myth of rugged individualism and self-reliance - became defining markers of American identity and its increasingly bling-obsessed culture.

The corporate elites, from manufacturing to the culture industries, managed to convince most Americans that they both could and should hope to achieve the same wealth as possessed by the super rich. The problem was that the very structure of the neoliberal economy redistributes wealth away from most Americans and towards the top.

The gap between how Americans were being told they should live and how they could afford to live created a huge amount of cognitive dissonance that helped fuel the rise in consumer debt, as tens of millions of Americans used credit card and home equity to live more like the rich whom they were incessantly told they could and should try to be.

But people aren't that easily fooled; soon enough they would start to understand that the economy was shifting in a way that privileged the few at the expense of the rest of the country. How to keep the broad swath of "middle America" from rebelling against a system that was siphoning off a huge share of their wealth to enrich the top tier?

This is where the second half of the strategy comes into view. With one side of their mouths, elites told Americans that maximising wealth and power was the defining culture value in America, even as the neoliberal policies they imposed on the country made doing so increasingly difficult for the large majority of Americans. But out of the other side of their mouths, they told Americans that wealth didn't matter, that religious faith and conservative social values such as being anti-gay and anti-abortion, and patriotism and support for the military, were what defined "real" Americans.

It was this argument that allowed the wealthy in this country to eat their cake and still have it; to foster one ideology that justified the increasing skewing of wealth towards the proverbial "1 per cent" (in reality, it's more like 12 or 13 per cent, but slogans work precisely by intensifying reality for political effect), while at the same time deploying another ideology that said both that wealth didn't matter and that the very people who could help bring the majority of working Americans a better standard of living-the government, unions and other progressive forces-were the greatest danger to the "American way of life."....."

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