I am a professional analyst of society; my training is in social research, my primary employment – my bread and butter so to speak – requires me to engage in ongoing research and analysis of social, economic, environmental and political trends. So what follows are not the observations of your ordinary citizen observer or even of a journalist (not at all sure why so many people these days accept journalists – such as Thomas Friedman – as experts on social and economic trends). I spend my days immersed in data, examining the nitty-gritty of income distribution, education attainment, crop reports, tuition costs, energy production figures, employment trends, Arctic melt patterns and extreme weather events, economic investment patterns.

What I see emerging from all this data is stark and disturbing for advanced capitalist industrial nations, but more so for the United States than countries that have made an effort to blunt the contradictions of industrial capitalism with social policy.  We are simply running out of places into which to “bury” the toxic effects of industrial capitalism.  Two types of contradictions exist within industrial capitalism: one has to do with the fact that every single successful capitalist enterprise must draw in more revenue than it gives out in wages/salaries and other costs; the second with the impossibility of the constant growth in production required by industrial capitalism meeting the barrier of finite resources.

For two hundred and fifty years we managed to avoid the first problem by finding sources of revenue that were outside the realm of industrial capitalist societies (undeveloped or underdeveloped nations), and avoid the second problem because we had yet to come close to the limits of key resources like petroleum and natural gas, or the limits of sinks for waste products like carbon dioxide and toxic chemicals. But today, there is no country where capitalist industrial enterprise has not taken hold and converted nations of peasants and artisans into wage earning laborers. And today the limits of resources like petroleum are all too visible, as are the limits of sinks for carbon dioxide and other wastes.

The United States is heading straight for an economic, social and ecological brick wall. To all those Tea Partiers who “want my country back,” I’m sorry, but your country is gone, irretrievably broken and disintegrated, and even if the majority of Americans actually wished to return to days of racial, ethnic and gender inequality that you hold with such great reverence it cannot be recovered. To all the liberals who have “Hope” for the future based on “Change,” sorry, the course is set, there’s not enough resources left to pull us out of the dive we began more than a generation ago.  The next several generations of Americans will have less in the way of material goods, less time, less energy, less ease, less of everything.  There is no changing this. Conservatives who want to reclaim the past can’t stop this from happening. Liberals who want to subsidize the future can’t stop it from happening either.

We are in the condition of “overshoot” warned against by Meadows, Randers and Meadows in their 1972 The Limits to Growth, and then again in the 1992 follow-up Beyond the Limits, and yet again in their Limits to Growth: Thirty Year Update in 2004. Industrial capitalism is the 52,000 ton Titanic. The iceberg is right in front of us. There’s no way to steer a ship of that size around the obstacle. We are going to “crash.” There’s no avoiding it.

So why not give up? Why vote? If the course is set, the disaster is unavoidable, decline is inevitable, why does it matter who wins in 2012? It does matter. Because every disaster, including the Titanic can have survivors. It matters, because the two parties have very different views on how many “lifeboats” and “life preservers” there should be and who should have access to them. I’m going to vote for the party and the candidate, that is going to do its best to make sure that both rich and poor have a chance at surviving. The party that will provide enough life boats for everyone, and won’t be excluding people because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or income. Life boats may not be a luxury liner, but they are the difference between death and survival. Not everyone will survive, but I intend to vote for the party and the candidate that’s going to do it’s best to make sure that the cards aren’t stacked against those in “steerage” and in favor of those with “first class tickets.”  If you can’t figure out for whom I’m going to vote you aren’t paying attention to this election.

Community Colleges in America are well on their way to being institutions that provide no real “college” education at all. Thus insuring that low and middle income students who have no choice but to attend community colleges, will have an education that increasingly below the standard of four year college education.

My friends who teach in community colleges acknowledge that already their courses really do not measure up to those at four year colleges. These faculty know that they simply cannot get low income students who work full-time jobs, are married, have small children, and who lack adequate college preparation (many of whom have never read a single book cover to cover), to read the same amount or level of material, such as the primary sources and research articles typically assigned to four year college and university students.

But in recent years things are getting worse, the gap in what community college students and those in four year institutions learn has gotten wider, and current trends in developmental and technical education threaten to expand the divide to a chasm rivaling the Grand Canyon.

The emphasis in Community Colleges is on developmental education (what we used to call “remedial” before that became politically suspect) and on technical education or narrow job training. In other words, Community Colleges, rather than providing the first two years of a college education, are doing the things that American secondary schools no longer are able to accomplish.

Across the nation, Community Colleges have seen the state tax money available to them decline, if not in absolute terms, certainly in terms relative to the cost of the education they provide. As a result many community colleges, like four year colleges, have raised tuition rates, and instituted a variety of cost saving measures to make up for lost funds, as well as amping up efforts to attract grant and corporate money.

In true political contrarian fashion, states and regional accrediting bodies have increased demands for accountability at the same time that they have decreased overall state tax support for community colleges. The demand for accountability focuses on three things – assessment of learning, increasing retention and graduation rates and the employment of students exiting community colleges.

Rising tuition costs and pressures to improve retention and post-degree employment, push Community Colleges to bow to the short-term, often short-sighted, pragmatic goals of their “customers” – the potential college students and their parents (who rarely have college educations themselves). Colleges scramble to come up with new programs to meet current, localized job demand, with little thought to long range trends or life time career paths.

As a result community colleges crank out graduates that have practical skills but no liberal educational content behind those skills. As a result occupational graduates in fields like real-time closed captioning where the graduates can type as a fast as news anchors can talk, but lack a liberal education with the humorous result that the ancient runner “Pheidippides” turns into “three fip disease” during Olympic coverage, and a commentators view that British youth’s rioting as “inchoate” (August 12, 2011) turns into rioting “in Kuwait”!!

In doing so, they shift resources (classroom space, computer labs, faculty lines, technology funds) away from traditional college instruction and to meeting the needs of technical programs. Classes like literature, mathematics, history, communications, psychology, and political science can share the use of standard classrooms, most of the allied health professions and technical fields require dedicated classroom and laboratory space, removing those facilities from the pool shared by all the other regular college courses.

To meet the stringent demands of national accrediting bodies in allied health and technical fields, colleges must staff these programs (new or old) with a core of full-time faculty. There are no such accrediting bodies to make sure that the faculty teaching history, communications, or college math, are up-to-date in their fields, or certified (once they earn the minimum graduate hours), and certainly no oversight bodies to require that courses in history and literature are taught by full-time faculty rather than part-timers and adjuncts. So full-time faculty lines shift to the allied health and technical fields, while instructional needs in traditional college liberal arts and even basic sciences classes are more and more often taught by a growing army of temporary and part-time instructors.

Pressures for both accountability and the need for tuition dollars have placed more emphasis than ever on retaining students, and the research is very clear, the students most at risk for failure and dropping out are those that come to college under-prepared – the students needing multiple developmental/remedial classes. Colleges are motivated to retain developmental students, and the recent flood of grant funding for improving and experimenting with developmental education (see previous post), has placed developmental education at the top of community colleges agendas.

Good, thoughtful, educators and liberals who care about inequality in the schools like developmental education. On its face, developmental/remedial education is an opportunity to reverse educational inequalities, to provide the background and support that able but ill prepared students need to “make it” educationally. If remediation were happening in high schools, if high schools all over the country were seriously addressing the college readiness of all their students, than I would applaud that unreservedly. However, as needed as developmental education is, the attention and dollars available to community colleges for it, are like allied health and technical fields pushing real college instruction to the side lines.

Whole computer labs get removed from use by statistics classes, computer science classes, political science classes, physics classes, etc. and become dedicated laboratories in which developmental math and reading students can spend their days learning the things they should have received in high school. Technology and instructional money comes from grants, but when grants run out, colleges are heavily pressured to continue funding for developmental needs, and faculty lines are shifted from traditional college level classes where adjuncts can fill in the gaps to developmental instruction.

In the quest to retain developmental students, subtle shifts in course designations begin to take place. New “college” credit bearing courses are invented to provide ways for developmental students to work towards graduation requirements while struggling to bring their skills up to college level, and instructors in traditional college classes are pressured to become part-time developmental instructors by adding “supplemental instruction” to their college courses and allow marginal students in before they are able to meet testing guidelines.

Thus the gap between the quality and content of the community college education drifts further and further below that of the four year college or university.

Last night I watched the SyFy channel’s new series Caprica, and I have to say I’m worried. It won’t be that long before we have the technological capability to create cyborgs and human clones and what happens when these creations demand the right to vote. They could both easily out number us real humans very quickly. Do you want to live in a country where the political power of soulless cyborgs dominates and controls the lives of us ordinary soul infested humans? [Okay you quibbling SyFy junkies, I know that one of the premise of Caprica is that Cylons have souls — they believe in a monotheistic god — but really now, can a machine have a soul?).

I mean we already have the political precedent established — you don’t have to be flesh and blood to be a person and have political rights. Corporations have had personhood since the 19th century–the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution was perverted by the Supreme court of that day to achieve that. And this week, today’s Supreme Court reasserted that the corporations as persons have the same political rights as flesh and blood persons. The problem of course being that corporations have a hell of a lot more money and power than most flesh and blood persons.

The time is right to prevent the future take-over of our nation by cylon-like cyborgs and human clones. We need a new amendment to the Constitution that defines once and for all that a person is only a biological human created by the combined sperm of a male biological human and a female biological human. This would not only protect us against future threats (think not only cyborgs and clones, but also aliens from other planets — you think we have an alien problem now!) but would also end the tyranny of large corporations in our political process. If they are no longer persons, then their political rights would disappear. The humans within them would still have full rights, but not the corporations.

This is an amendment that both the Tea Partiers and commie pinkos like myself could get behind. Those Tea Partiers don’t like big banks, big insurance companies, big oil, etc. any more than I do.

Today I read a piece that touted the objectivity and disinterest of science as an enterprise when it comes to global warming.  This completely ignores the fact that most of the people involved in the political promotion of anti-global warming policies are not scientists, and are motivated by many different agendas. Even when scientists enter into the political arena their activities in that arena are no longer governed by scientific review.

I’ve heard some people say that the real test in the difference between those who support the idea of anthropogenic global warming and those who deny it, is that no one who supports the idea really wants it to exist -they’d rather be wrong than right, and their acceptance of the rightness of it is reluctant. Well I’m here to say that’s bullshit. Of course there are people who want humanly caused global warming to be real, and I’m one of them.

First let me make a distinction between the scientists, who has a professional interest in not having his/her career go up in smoke because some one comes up with contrary findings, and some one like me who actively is rooting for a warmer earth. Most of those scientists may have career investments to protect, but they’d really rather be wrong than right, because the enterprise of science is highly dependent upon a stable, high tech, wealth industrialized society, and that’s precisely what global warming threatens.  Folks like me on the other hand, and there are quite a few of us, actively detest highly centralized, large scale, global, industrial capitalism and would really like to see a very different kind of social system in its place. We’re opportunists who see global warming as a chance to either convince people to make changes we think are necessary anyway, or force them by circumstances to change.

Now I don’t agree with the “mother earth” lovers, who whine about the earth dying and view humanity as a form of locust that should be exterminated. I think humans are a fine species. I like being human. I like most other humans.  I just think we’ve gone a very long way in the wrong direction, and need a course correction to a simpler, more localized, more decentralized, more humane way of life.

I’m not talking about reverting to foraging, or even becoming true agricultural societies. There’s not a thing wrong with computers or the Internet, or with electricity. However, I have overcome a prejudice of my youth that held flush toilets to be the epitome of civilization, and can now see that composting toilets, with the compost recycled back into local farms would be far more sustainable.

I’m a big fan of the writings of Murray Bookchin (Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future, South End Press, 1990), who envisions “decentralized communities, united in free confederations or networks for coordinating the communities of a region, …[reflecting] the traditional ideals of a participatory democracy…” (page 181).  Bookchin sees the “need to rescale communities to fit the natural carrying capacity of the regions in which they are located and to create a new balance between town and country” as an “ecological imperative” (page 185).

As I see it, if the climate scientists are right, and I suspect that they probably are, environmental circumstances will force upon us changes that will disrupt global capitalism, and combined with the loss of fossil fuels will result in greater localism whether we want it to or not. However, if we wait to be forced into this chances are the changes will come about due to more oppressive governments to deal with the extremes of dislocation and social unrest almost certain to appear.

So I’d rather use the fear of global warming as a tool to get people to willingly, gradually restructure society. Even if it turns out that the world doesn’t get warmer and the environmental catastrophe’s don’t happen, the end result of a restructured, more localized, slower, less energy intensive, more democratic society is more than worth it. But all in all, I think humanity — a  least what’s left of it — might be better off in a warmer world.

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.

The significant other asked a question the other day.  SO said “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?”

A statement like this assumes certain things as givens, things my SO assumes, things I assume.  I’m not going to try to convince you of these things, but I will spell out what the key assumptions are: 1) our society is extremely unequal, more so that almost all other advanced, highly technological, capitalist industrial nations (i.e., most of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand). 2) it has gotten more unequal over the past thirty years, with a growing gap between those at the top and those at the bottom. 3) Our political system is skewed to provide benefits to those who already have money, and help them make more money — doesn’t mean that the ordinary person and the poor person never benefits, but that the scales tip way, way on the side of those who already have millions or billions. 4) The answer to the question is NOT why shouldn’t they accept our wonderful, beautiful, marvelous economic and political system, its the best there could possibly be.  No definitely not the answer.

Your old fashioned, material Marxist is going to say that the answer is “false consciousness.” That is that poor and working people have been so brain washed they don’t even know they are being screwed. Totally disagree with that. Ordinary folks really do know the difference between piss in their ear and rain.

So my initial answer is, the folks at the bottom, the ones who are on the losing side of the economic contest, who work and work and never quite get ahead, or even for that matter caught up, these folks do not in fact accept the way things are. They don’t think its legitimate or fair or right that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. So the question isn’t why they accept things the way they are as legitimate, but why, knowing that they are getting screwed they don’t stand up and fight and change things.

I think that the answer to that question is very complex and multifaceted. There are actually multiple reasons.

One of the first answers is that those at the bottom of society make a realistic assessment of what happens to  people like them when there are major changes in society — even if the changes will ultimately, over the long run,  create a better and fairer society, getting there is highly disruptive even without violent conflict, and the lower you are in the food chain the more you and yours are likely to suffer in any disruption.

Another, related answer is that most people, certainly those in the working class, even if they are deprived in a relative sense, have some level of material well-being and security. They have a job, even if it isn’t a great job, they have some income, they have a place to live, they have a family to nurture and protect. In other words, they have a stake, albeit a small stake, in the existing order of things.  Their primary concern in life is not about how to get more, but rather how to avoid ending up with less.  They have little or no experience with social changes that result in improvements in their way of life.  In their experience or observation of the world, changes are more often negative than positive.

Liberalism is essentially a forward, future looking philosophy; conservatism is a backward, past looking philosophy — a desire to preserve or conserve that which already exists or existed in the past. In the 1960’s American had experienced more than a decade of positive economic growth, more jobs, higher real incomes, declining inequality, some expansion of civil rights, opening up of opportunity for education.  This bred a forward looking mentality, liberalism in the American people. Day to day, year to year experience said that change was good, life improved with change, new things were possible and could make life even at the bottom better. This prompted even greater positive changes in the 1960’s, the Voting Rights Act, the desegregation of schools, the expansion of opportunity for education and jobs for women, blacks and the poor. 

Then, for a variety of reasons, way to complex to go into in this post (never fear I’ll get to them one day), the world caught up with America, the economic climate changed.  A new type of change began in the early 1970’s, one in which men’s wages stagnated, traditional high paying blue collar jobs went else where in the world, and the new service sector jobs either required higher levels of education (for the good paying ones) or were poorer paying jobs often with fewer benefits, and often in areas traditionally dominated by women.  Family incomes kept up with inflation only by putting more family members to work. Whole manufacturing sectors (basic steel production, textile production, television production) started to disappear from the American scene.  The new jobs were at Walmart where cheap goods from other countries, helped families cope with declining times.

A new conservatism emerged — Reagan conservatism — one that proclaimed “morning” in America, that promised to make things better by going backwards. Conserving the past. Today’s poor and working class, tend to vote conservative because their experience is that the past was better than the present.  They have little hope for change to create a better future. Only the past seems to offer a better outcome, and the past is what conservatives offer voters.  Let’s go backward, to when women and blacks knew their place, to when no one expected us to respect diversity in religious belief or sexual orientation or lifestyle, to when there was prayer in the schools and teachers exercised corporal punishment. Things were better back then. 

The fallacy of course in that thinking is not the assessment that things were better back then. Because, at least economically for most white Americans they were better. There was a lower level of inequality, a man with a high school diploma could support a family, while his wife stayed at home with their 2.5 children.  The fallacy comes from asserting that what made things better was the prayer in the schools, or the repression of blacks and women. What made things better was a constellation of world political and economic factors that cannot be reproduced. A world in which the United States was the only major economic power not physically devastated by World War II.  That world doesn’t exist any more and cannot be recreated, no matter how many prayers are said in the classrooms, or how obedient wives are to their husbands, or how thoroughly folks attempt to undo affirmative action.

Barack Obama made a speech in California that drew fire from all sides, in which he said:

“in a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn’t buy it. And when it’s delivered by — it’s true that when it’s delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.

But — so the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What’s the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is — so, we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing — close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide health care for every American. So we’ll go down a series of talking points.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothings replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

The only thing I’d disagree with Obama with is the use of the word “bitter.”  A far more accurate word would be “disaffected” or even better “alienated.” Because people aren’t bitter (an emotional state), they go about their everyday lives with a sense of humor and often good cheer. But they have become disconnected or disaffected from the political world, they have developed a sense of powerlessness or alienation. And when things are going badly, and one has little expectation that change will bring improvement, because recent history says things are getting worse, people do cling to the past, they do become conservative. And they do accept inequalities that they know hurt them and their families, and that they know are unfair, but things could be worse.

This isn’t the end of the story, but it’s the end of this installment of Lian going out on a limb.