Life After Capitalism

How to create jobs and save the planet

Posted Mar 18, 2013

The new book, The Middle Class Fights Back: How Progressive Movements Can Restore Democracy in America, (Praeger, 2012), spotlights a crucial link between psychology and politics: ideology, by which I mean belief systems that legitimize power.

Author Brian D’Agostino analyzes a number of prevailing U.S. ideologies, especially militarism and neoliberalism (the free market). My interest lies how group fantasies drive these belief systems and distort the country’s fiscal and educational priorities.

“Defense” is our government’s biggest expenditure: about a trillion dollars a year for military and related programs.(1) How much of this comes from middle class taxpayers? About 60%, according to the author’s analysis of federal tax data. (p. 28) D’Agostino shows in detail that this “national security state” serves to uphold the wealth and power of elites, rather than protect the population from attack or maintain a democratic world order. America’s ruling elites invoke “national security,” the author writes, “in much the same way that communist dictators invoked the ‘proletariat’ and kings invoked God or gods to justify their control of vast wealth extracted from ordinary working people.” (p. 12) The refrain resonates emotionally with our electorate, at times arousing archaic fears of helplessness, as in the aftermath of 9/11.

Neoliberalism, the other main ideology critiqued in the book, claims that dismantling unions, deregulating business, and reducing taxes on the rich will bring about general prosperity. D’Agostino illustrates how this agenda has played out since the 1970s, when corporations began shutting down unionized factories and moving to lower-wage regions. Corporate profits and personal fortunes rose dramatically while median wages stagnated. White middle class men were often replaced in the workforce by lower-paid women and blacks. Ronald Reagan (who also presided over massive military buildup) ushered in this neoliberal era, which continues today. In addition to undermining middle class prosperity, unbridled capitalism now creates an environmental crisis that threatens the welfare of future generations.

D’Agostino’s discussion of American plutocracy raises many questions that merit psychological exploration, such as why some people feel driven to compulsively amass wealth and power. Hording, waste, and the reduction of people to things are often connected to anal narcissism. Is the irrational accumulation of “net worth” by CEOs and predatory investors a compensation for the inner child’s shattered self-worth, for parental introjects that make the person “feel like shit?” If so, no amount of wealth is ever enough—it cannot heal unconscious feelings of worthlessness rooted in childhood.

Although money does not trickle down, corporate culture does. D’Agostino, who taught eleven years in New York City public schools, describes how capitalism infiltrates K-12 education. Instead of providing equitable funding for inner city public schools, the neoliberal “school reform” movement scapegoats teachers for not lifting disadvantaged youth out of poverty, an ideology dramatized in the film “Waiting for Superman.”(2) Test scores become the equivalent of the corporate bottom line, and management by numbers replaces attunement to children’s learning needs.

A vivid example of corporate practice in public education is Mayor Bloomberg’s choice in 2003 of retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch to train NYC school principals. Welch imposed on schools a corporate management approach well-honed at GE: using rewards and punishments based on “performance” data to motivate managers. With performance measured by test scores, public schools are becoming test-prep factories in which “high-stakes tests teach students to think in-the-box of the test maker’s scoring criteria.” Ours is fast becoming a nation of “in-the-box people” trained to repress creative and independent thought. (p. 146)

The second half of The Middle Class Fights Back calls for a middle class revolution against "state capitalism" and proposes policies and institutions that can meet the needs of ordinary people. This agenda begins with a Green New Deal that can create full employment by transitioning a large sector of the workforce to jobs in renewable energy, which will also help avert climate change. Worker owned and controlled enterprises can provide a new foundation for middle class economic security, D’Agostino argues.  Public schools need to be properly funded and given a mandate to promote unalienated learning.

Written with passion, coherence and exhaustive documentation, this book aims to heal a dysfunctional nation and marshals an unusual breadth of knowledge on behalf of a just and sustainable future. At a time of unprecedented income disparity, (3), this book is a wakeup call for middle class America, the “sleeping giant” that began to stir in the 2011 Wisconsin uprising and the Occupy movement. The Middle Class Fights Back provides a bold agenda of policy and institutional reform that will enable such movements to create the promising future ordinary people desire.

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A version of this review is published in "Psychohistory News," Vol. 32 No. 1, Winter 2013 (forthcoming).

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Notes:

1).  Winslow T. Wheeler, ‘Defense’ Budget: the Full Enchilada, Public Intelligence Blog, 20 February 2012.

2). "Waiting For Superman" (2010), film directed by David Guggenheim.  In response, a group of NYC schoolteachers made the documentary film "The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting For Superman" (2011) directed by Julie Cavanagh.

3). See the recent viral video "Wealth Inequality in America."

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