This all began with a question from the significant other (SO): “I understand why the rich people accept that extreme inequality is legitimate and vote for the conservatives that want to preserve the existing system with all its inequalities, but why do the poor people accept it’s legitimacy? Why do they accept things the way they are? Why do the poor and working class vote conservative?”

Last time I expounded my ideas about why those in the lower and working classes who have some thing to lose (it may not be a lot, but it is something) acquiesce to inequality even though they don’t really accept it as legitimate, and even vote for conservatives in what might appear to some to be counter to their economic interests.  But there are people who really don’t have anything to lose, and everything to gain from rebelling against the inequalities. Why don’t those who are truly at the bottom, with nothing to lose, strike out against the structures of inequality in our society?

Well, first up, many  do strike out  — at least against individuals, groups and businesses that are close at hand, and are perceived as representing the hand of repression. This is what happens in riots, and acts of looting and vandalism. The striking out may also be expressed through theft, burglary and robbery. But its not just the big crimes, petty shoplifting and minor vandalism, violation of school rules, may also be attacks on what is viewed (accurately I might add) as a biased and unfair system. That these actions have no effect on the over all structure of inequality does not negate the intent behind them — to strike back, to tear down or to take something that is not otherwise available. One reason why these actions are particularly non-effective for changing inequality, is that they are directed at available targets — small business people and residents in poor neighborhoods — not at the upper class owners of corporate America.

Most street crime (theft, robbery, burglary is exercised by individuals or small groups. It does not represent a coming together of people with a common cause against an unjust system, to do something systematic about changing it.  Why not? One reason is that racism, ethnic animosities, and xenophobia are routinely cultivated in our society in such a way that when young people do create groups to engage in criminal behavior, their animosities are focused upon other young people  in similar groups, especially groups of different races and ethnicities. In other words, gang warfare is a mechanism by which our society bleeds off anger and frustration of the poor and powerless, and prevents it from becoming a unified revolutionary force.  As long as gang members kill and injure other gang members law enforcement does little about gangs. When gang violence spills over into “innocent bystanders” attempts are made to punish transgressors.  Not always, of course, because most innocent bystanders are also lower and working class members who lack power and resources in our society.

When punishment occurs it involves being sent to correctional facilities or prisons, in which the daily life of prisoners is dominated by gangs.  Gang organization in prisons serves the interests of those in charge of the prisons. Gangs create order, mete out punishment, and create divisions that prevent prisoners from developing awareness of common, economic or class interests. This is why gangs are tolerated and allowed to flourish within the American prison system; most of the time, the existence of gangs facilitates greater control over the prisoners, than could be accomplished through the formal structures, security personnel and sanctions of the prison.

The United States imprisons a higher percentage of their population than any other country on the face of the earth. The vast majority of those imprisoned come from the ranks of the lower and working classes.  They are more poorly educated, more likely to be illiterate, and more likely to have been unemployed before engaging in criminal activity.

One indicator that the U.S. uses its prisons to control those at the bottom and defuse revolutionary potential, is to compare how street criminals are treated by the police, legal and penal systems, compared to the “white collar” criminals who steal far more money every year through fraud, price fixing, embezzlement, and other crimes that require access to high economic positions and power just to commit them.  Take folks found guilty of embezzling — most get off with no jail/prison time at all.  For one thing, many of the institutions (such as banks) that they embezzle from don’t want their customers to know about the losses. The argument frequently made by their (private, highly paid) lawyers is that they are “upstanding” citizens, responsible members of the community — who have just stolen huge amounts of money, but never mind.  Of those who do get incarcerated, their sentences are shorter than those doled out to not violent thieves, and they serve less of those already short sentences than street thieves do.

There are even more people at the bottom of our structure of inequality, who have nothing to lose, who do not strike out through crime, but rather who check out through drug and alcohol abuse.  Addiction is a powerful method of controlling those at the bottom of society. Oh, sure there’s been a “war on drugs” for the past quarter of a century — a highly ineffectual war, that primarily places low level producers, traffickers and users in prison [pardon me a few statistics: More than half a million people were behind bars for drug offenses in the United States at the end of 2004; people sentenced for drug crimes accounted for 21% of state prisoners and 55% of all federal prisoners.]. The “war on drugs” does little to stop the flow of drugs and money into poor communities. Indeed, keeping a certain amount of law enforcement pressure on drug transactions at the lowest level, helps keep the profits high for those at the top of the drug supply pyramid — who are not poor and not powerless, and who have used their money and power to support politicians who are “anti-drug”.

Societal outrage over drugs generally kicks in when addictive substances, or drug related violence, encroach on middle class communities.  Even then the primary response is a punitive one, focused on locking up the dealers (see above). Very little money is put into drug treatment and rehabilitation facilities.  Keeping a large percentage of the lower class hooked on drugs is a good way of absorbing their energy in ways that will not threaten the status quo.  Someone who is just looking for their next fix is not going to be involved in trying to engineer political and economic change by legitimate or violent means.

Moreover, it provides a superior means to delegitimize the complaints of the poor in the eyes of those higher on the stratification ladder. One does not feel sympathy for the economic plight of the drug addict or wino in the way one might for a sober beggar. Clearly the addict deserves his/her position at the bottom.

So to answer the question at the beginning, many of those at the very bottom of American society who have little or nothing to lose by challenging the system, and trying to change the distribution of resources, are co-opted through gangs, cooled out of society in prisons, and silenced by addictions.