We can’t afford this miserable oligarchy any more; so what should we do? There are two basic approaches. One is to cut down on the material inequality between the oligarchs and the rest of us. Another is to hem in the behaviors of Oligarchs so that their ability to damage the rest of us is significantly reduced. We can try both at the same time. However, I hardly need point out how difficult it will be to accomplish anything in a country as fractured as ours.
Oligarchy is based on material power. The richest among us have power just because of that wealth. It enables them to make massive campaign contributions to people who will vote their interests at the expense of the rest of the public. It enables them to spend wildly to change public perceptions of issues important to the very rich. And wealth gives them ability to hire tools like lawyers and accountants to undo and weaken regulation and avoid taxation.
But material wealth is not the only source of power. In his book Oligarchy, Jeffrey Winters discusses four other sources of power in a democratic society.
1. Formal political rights, including one-person one vote, the ability to express views without repression, and access to information.
2. Official positions, which give the holders temporary power granted to the offices. This includes both elected and appointed positions.
3. Coercive power, which can take the form of personal coercive power, or the use of official positions to direct the police or other armed people in ways that the person favors. Thus, Michael Bloomberg with his private army of heavily armed police can direct the police to use coercive power against Occupiers; and feudal lords were able to use their little collections of vassals, or mercenaries, to control peasant uprisings.
4. Mobilization power, which has two aspects. For leaders it is the ability to get large groups aroused to action. Examples include Gandhi and Oprah Winfrey. For actors, it leads to a dramatic increase in their own personal sense of strength and responsibility, which arises from acting in concert with others.
Progressives need mobilization power, because we have little or none of the other sources of power. In the past, we have been able to mobilize in times of crisis, and force changes onto the system, improving the lives of millions of us. We haven’t succeeded in doing that in the aftermath of the Great Crash.
Perhaps the Occupy movement will stimulate mobilization power for its members and thus lead to change. The labor movement is a kind of model: it was the result of a combination of mistreated workers whose misery was transformed into action, at least in part with the guidance of charismatic leaders, but primarily by their own actions, led by local people selected by the workers themselves.
If mobilization were to reach powerful levels in our society, it would be a real threat to oligarchs. With nothing more that a bit of press attention to income and wealth inequality, it suddenly emerged into the public awareness that the public supports increased taxes on the oligarchy and the top 1%. If the movement can do that with so little real action, think what it could accomplish with a larger number of mobilized and activated citizens.
There is no shortage of good ideas for taming the Oligarchy, ideas which would make huge differences, and would improve the lives of millions. To achieve them is a long-term proposition, and it will require major sacrifices of personal time and energy from large numbers of mobilized individuals. It requires a complete change in the attitude, from that of consumer to that of citizen.
Even as consumers, we have the ability to restrain the wealth of Oligarchs. Their wealth is concentrated in stocks, bonds and other financial instruments that are a claim on future income of various businesses. To the extent that any of us borrows money for any purpose, we give the rich, or their institutions, a claim on our future income. Personal debt undercuts the personal security we need to act as full citizens. Many people are afraid to express their views as citizens because they don’t want to lose their jobs.
That suggests two ideas. First, we need to reduce our debt. “The rich lords it over the poor, the borrower is the lender’s slave.” as we learn in Proverbs, 22:7 (New Jerusalem Bible).
Second, we can seriously cut into the wealth of Oligarchs by changing buying habits on the way to getting out of debt. If a sufficient number of people cut back on buying from national and international Corporate Citizens, it would gradually reduce the income and wealth of the richest among us, non-violently. Profit lies in the marginal dollars. If we cut those, the profit picture changes. Think about your cable bill. The expenses of the company are pretty much fixed. If 2% of the people in one area stop buying, most of the difference in income is lost profit. Lower profits translate to lower share prices for the Oligarchy, and less wealth.
I realize this is hard, but for mobilized and active people, it isn’t asking a lot.