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In the Dead Zone of Capitalism: Lessons From Chicago on the Violence of Inequality

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Posted on Jun 6, 2013
swanksalot (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 2)

The spectacle of the new Gilded Age reveals itself in the huge incomes and unimaginable amounts of wealth being amassed by the upper 1 percent.  For instance, hedge fund manager Steven Cohen of SAC Capital Advisors took home $1.4 billion in 2012, while Ray Balio, Bridgewater Associates founder, made $1.7 billion and David Tepper of Appaloosa Management made $2.2 billion the same year. Paul Buchheit reports that the Koch brothers make about $3 billion per hour on their investments, while the poorest 47 percent of Americans have no wealth. While many young people face a jobless future, billionaires such as Bill Gates, Leon Cooperman, and others do more than drain wealth and income from the larger society; they also destroy those institutions that serve the common good, undermine the public interest, and gut the most basic elements of a viable social contract. Buchheit has argued that “a single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the United States.” Not only do the rich and powerful shape policies that lower corporate tax rates while bleeding states of much needed revenue, but they also attempt to compensate for the loss of public revenue by closing public schools in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and New York City.  Austerity has become a ruthless ploy to “cut spending to the point where government [becomes] unrecognizable.”

The neoliberal policies funded by the new financial elite cut funding for programs such as Head Start, eliminate breakfast programs for poor children and portray people on food stamps as freeloaders.  The latter baseless insult is particularly vicious since the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is crucial for low-income children living in extreme poverty because it “greatly reduce[s] food insecurity . . . which, in turn, greatly enhances their chances of doing well in school and growing up to be successful, productive adults.” The Republican Party’s engineering of the so-called sequester is not about balancing the budget. It is about waging war on poor minorities and low-income youth, public schools, the welfare state, unions and social programs for women and other disadvantaged populations.  Such inequality of power and wealth produces massive amounts of human suffering for millions of Americans who are marginalized by age, race, gender, disability and socio-economic class.

In Texas, 1.5 million low-income people will lose health care because of the ethos of savage capitalism relentlessly enforced by Governor Rick Perry and his fellow lawmakers.  These bible-thumping disciples of “free-market” capitalism have “voted against expanding Medicaid using $100 billion in federal funds offered under President Obama’s health care law,” insisting that government-sponsored health care demeans character and rewards people labeled by conservatives as lazy and contemptible. Of course, the populations considered disposable here are low income and poor minorities, of whom 35 and 32 percent, respectively, suffer from poor health and shortened life spans. As Goran Therborn points out, inequality is not simply about the gap between the rich and the poor: It is about the inequities in life expectancy between the privileged and disadvantaged. The dividing line in American society is no longer between those who have made it and those trying to emulate their success. On the contrary, the dividing line is between those who live a life of unimaginable privilege and comfort and those who are struggling to survive and stay alive.

There is more at stake here than a symbolic violence that objectifies the vulnerable and produces insensitivity to their problems. There is the real violence that aggravates poor health, shortens lives and produces a machinery of individual and social death. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he pointed to two Americas, stating insightfully that “the other America” is inhabited by people “perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” What he did not envision was that those considered part of the other America are now viewed not as disadvantaged, but as utterly disposable. In the new order of casino capitalism, people continue to live in rat-infested slums, but they are also increasingly warehoused in jails and prisons, which now rank as the most prominent institutions of the welfare state. And if they do not perish in prisons, they die from illness caused by the failure of government to regulate big business.

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As Ralph Nader recently noted,

the effects of deregulation stretch to all walks of life. The profit-driven practices of big corporations have led to the deaths and preventable illnesses of thousands of Americans every year. Roughly 60,000 die from workplace-related diseases and injuries, 200,000 from medical malpractice and hospital-induced infections, 70,000 from air pollution and 1,000,000 from side effects from dangerous pharmaceuticals.

The daily ugliness of the violence of inequality perpetrated on millions of Americans finds its counterpart in the culture of cruelty, produced by the dead zone of capitalism and sanctioned by big corporations and the ultra-rich who preserve a disordered autoimmune system for the nation that destroys the defenses protecting any viable notion of democracy and justice. The financial elite and their political stooges resemble not only the main character in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street, with its infamous “greed is good” credo, but increasingly the more disturbing character in Bret Easton Ellis’s novel made into the 2000 film American Psycho, who literally kills those considered disposable in a society in which only the strong survive.  While Wall Street is a critique of the celebration of greed and the institutions that make it possible, it captured a particular moment in American history when the values of the Gilded Age were resurfacing under the presidency of Ronald Reagan with a vengeance. American Psycho is about the subjects, identities, and desires being produced for those who are leading America into an authoritarian dystopia in the 21st century in which safety nets are destroyed, civil liberties dismantled, gated communities proliferate, prison populations dramatically increase, and pervasive violence circulates at the level of everyday life.  Both films crucially capture something about the downward ethical, economic and political spiral produced by casino capitalism.  The hero of contemporary American capitalism is also modeled after John Galt on steroids, the character from the infamous Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged who transforms the morality of self-interest into a secular religion for the socially disabled.  The fictional characters Gordon Gecko, Patrick Batemen and John Galt are now personified in the real life personas of the Koch brothers, Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon, among others.


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