Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Argument by caricature

The Right’s plan to abolish workers’ rights

That the US’ right wing is working methodically to return the country to conditions best described as “Dickensian” is by now an open secret, denied only by those with a pecuniary stake in that outcome or those successfully hoodwinked by the deceptive arguments proposed by those stakeholders. After all, the legislation now emanating from Republican-controlled state capitals and the Republican-majority House of Representatives, if analyzed for its longitudinal effects, all tends toward this same object: further to deprive working people of the lower and middle classes of bargaining power and hard-won protections that nascent labor organizers of the nineteenth century suffered and died to obtain for us.

What astonishes observers from outside this political milieu, however, is not so much the psychopathic behavior of the right as its success, to date, in fooling enough of the people enough of the time to get away with it — and, in particular, its ability to obtain the willing support of a large contingent of those most harmed, which permits it to compel the remainder to accept what economists term “negative externalities” in countless forms.

Naturally, the explanation for this seeming paradox is complex and multifaceted. Corporate control of the media environment (in which five media conglomerates own virtually all mainstream publications and broadcast entities); fear of offending (corporate) advertisers; social ties among the elite, including media owners; de facto bounds on permissible public debate; consumer culture; the “dizzying” of the public by an overwhelming influx of trivial choices and recreations: All of these elements and more contribute to confusion on the part of a substantial segment of the electorate, adroitly manipulated and exploited by those advancing private interests at public cost.

One might assume that workers would instinctively reject arguments for taking away their right to organize, but this holds true only so long as most of them are organized and can therefore directly experience the benefits of collective bargaining. The elite, however, starting in 1981, when Ronald Reagan’s first act on taking office was to smash the air-traffic controllers’ union, has created a vicious cycle in which, as fewer workers remain unionized, the collective incentive for unionization dissolves in a corrosive atmosphere of hostility among non-unionized workers who are led to believe that it is the greed of other, organized workers that is responsible for their falling purchasing power and standard of living.

Created and fostered by the mass media, this hostility is irrational and its inculcators must therefore resort to argument by caricature: painting a mental picture for their target audience of non-union workers in which unions are not organizations of their peers fighting the exploitative power of corporations for the common benefit of all workers, but as cabals of lazy fat cats getting overpaid to do inefficient, slipshod work. This is not dissimilar to the painting of the poor, in the minds of those only slightly less beset by penury, as immoral, slothful, obese, improvident, ungrateful and greedy Untermenschen. Both appear to exploit the psychological principle of the “just world” fallacy, in which people who wish to believe themselves immune to a particular misfortune convince themselves that the misfortune results from poor choices on the part of those suffering from it, and that they can therefore remain impervious to it by making better choices.

On the whole, I think the right wing is fomenting, at a time of international volatility, a national crisis whose consequences I cannot predict; nor, I suspect, can anyone else. More than at any time in living memory, there is a real chance of a revolution or coup d’etat ousting not merely the current government, but possibly the entire framework from which it derives its authority.

If this happens, it’s up to us to ensure that as few as possible of our peers remain deluded, for those who do will fight on the wrong side and lead us all into captivity.

Originally published as a review of a Huffington Post article on the uses of a manufactured deficit for social control.

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