Rolling through virtually any reasonably populous city or town in America, one encounters a surreal landscape blighted by grotesque temples to America's twin gods of Capitalism and Consumerism. As an increasing number of individual proprietors are driven to extinction, Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and hundreds more leviathan corporations continue their rapid construction of more houses of worship to serve their zealous congregation. Once inside, many Americans gleefully sacrifice an abundance of their greenbacks at altars attended by Consumerism's unwitting acolytes.
For appallingly meager wages and benefits, the cashiers tending the sacred Churches of Capitalism and Consumerism gather the offerings which enable their fellow faithful to reap the fruits of practicing their devotion.
Good little Consumers can receive a veritable cornucopia of "blessings" which include working in jobs amounting to indentured servitude, obesity, insurmountable debt, insularity from the rest of the world, unwitting support of a merciless militaristic regime which is evolving into fascism, idolatrous worship of celebrities and money, facilitation of obscene concentration of wealth into the hands of a few, and participation in the severe desecration of our environment.
They may exist in a spiritual wasteland, but at least those Americans who are fortunate enough to find themselves in the shrinking middle class have access to basic human necessities, some creature comforts, and relative stability and safety (at least for the short term). However, a growing number of Americans find themselves wandering in a barren desert, lacking both sustenance for the soul and the corporeal "blessings" bestowed upon the middle class wage earners by the high priests of Capitalism and Consumerism.
How did this nightmare evolve?
As the Magna Charta emerged and evolved, and the United States Constitution was conceived and implemented, "feudalism" and monarchy began to gasp their dying breaths. Ostensibly, the rule of law was superseding the rule of men to deliver a sound measure of justice and equality.
In truth, humanity simply traded one set of tyrants for another. To this day many still cling to the myth that the United States is the nexus of freedom, equality and human rights. Yet the constitutional republic of the United States was forged primarily by White men, many of whom were wealthy land-owners looking to free themselves from the tyranny of King George while preserving their narrow interests. The fact that there was significant resistance to the inclusion of the Bill of Rights in the Constitution speaks volumes of the priorities of many of our Founding Fathers.
In creating a powerful federal government, minimizing the decision-making power of the poor and working class to occasional elections of representatives (while limiting the impact of their votes by forming the Electoral College), barring women from political participation, ignoring the Native American population, and maintaining the legality of slavery, our founders created a nation which afforded freedom and equality almost exclusively to White males who possessed a measure of wealth.
America's propertied ruling class quickly learned to manipulate their laws to exploit the rest of the population in ways not unlike their predecessors who reigned from thrones. As they lived like lords and kings, the elites of the United States basked in the glow of admiration of their "enlightened values". Over the years they showed their true colors to the world by engaging in numerous imperialistic endeavors, nearly wiping out the Native American population, and fighting progressive movements like Abolition and Women's Suffrage with virtually every fiber of their collective being.
Capitalism: Economic Rule of the Rich, by the Rich, for the Rich
Founded on the principles of individual liberty and self-determination (for White male property owners), the nascent United States provided fertile ground for the seeds of Capitalism. Conditions such as slavery, explosive growth in the number of banks, America's powerful drive to expand its territory, neutral trade during the war between Great Britain and France, and ultimately, the Industrial Revolution enabled American Capitalism to grow into a thriving jungle.
By the late Nineteenth Century, trusts and monopolies flourished. Laissez faire economic policy prevented the government "of the people" from meddling in the wealthy elite's obscene human and environmental exploitation. America's plutocracy was living large while the rest of the population struggled and suffered.
For years, America's schools and media have inculcated us with the notion that Capitalism is the superlative socioeconomic system in the history of humankind. In spite of the "feel good" propaganda intended to keep us pacified, working, and consuming, there is a very dark side to the much vaunted American Way.
"America's abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes."
Thank you, Ayn Rand, for affirming the naked brutality and avarice of America's socioeconomic system, a system which enables a privileged few who "play the game" well to mercilessly pursue their personal interests, amass private fortunes, and hoard the lion's share of "America's abundance".
The economy of the United States, which possesses many elements of commonly accepted definitions of Capitalism, is tempered to some degree by components which would more appropriately be attributed to Socialism or Progressive Utilization Theory (PROUT), socioeconomic systems devoted in large part to ensuring the welfare of society as a whole and which value humans as sentient beings rather than commodities.
Unfortunately, by and large, Capitalism predominates in the American socioeconomic system and represents a substantial portion of our national character (or lack thereof). America embodies ruthless exploitation of humanity and the Earth. In the capitalist paradigm, human beings and the planet are simply material objects which exist to fulfill the desires of the bourgeoisie masters. Imperialism and Neoliberalism go hand in glove with Capitalism. Insatiable greed and objectification do not respect borders or boundaries.
Cruel and brutal as the United States is, imagine how ruthless it would be were the Social Darwinists of the upper stratum of our society given free rein to implement their Hobbesian vision.
After years of gains for the poor, women, minorities, and labor throughout the Twentieth Century, a champion arose for America's White Capitalist Patriarchy in 1980. When Ronald Reagan took the driver's seat, he wasn't content to simply return justice and compassion to the back seat. He threw them in the trunk and left them there to rot.
Reagan's successors, Republican and Democrat alike, have worked feverishly to refortify the Capitalist bulwarks of privatization, property laws, deregulation, cuts in social spending, and free trade agreements.
American Capitalism is a pyramid scheme shaped and forged over time to ensure that a small minority of principally White males garner a majority of the wealth. A few token minorities are allowed to "join the club" while some women enter the upper stratosphere (usually by virtue of their birthright and inheritance), but by and large, the White Patriarchy maintains its strangle-hold on choice properties like Boardwalk and Park Place. A majority of Americans wind up holding Mediterranean and Baltic.
You Might as Well Stand Around Waiting to be Struck by Lightening
Horatio Alger wrote over 130 very popular fiction novels in the Nineteenth Century. Unfortunately, his ideal notions of attaining "rags to riches" success through hard work and determination in the Capitalist system were principally fiction too. Calling him a useful idiot would be unfair because his heart was in the right place, but his works did provide very useful propaganda for the wealthy ruling class who wanted their modern day serfs to believe they had a realistic chance of rising to the top of the economic or political food chain. Undeniably there are those who started with virtually nothing and accrued vast fortunes or became powerful people, but for each one who did, millions failed. And the same is true today.
He Who Has the Gold Makes the Rules
Consider that over half of our presidents came from families ranking amongst the wealthiest 3% of Americans while at least a dozen sprang from the loins of elitists in the top 1%.
In 2005, 143 of 435 US Representatives and one in three Senators were millionaires.
Statistics from 2002 indicate that eight of the fifteen wealthiest individuals in America had acquired their fortunes through inheritance. Five of these eight were Waltons. The other three were progeny of the founder of the Mars Candy empire. Three of the top fifteen derived their fortunes from the same company, Microsoft. No concentration of wealth in the hands of a few there, is there?
Reports from 2002 also indicate that Bill Gates had acquired as much wealth as the bottom 40% of US households. And the Walton clan possessed 771,287 times the wealth of the average US household. Here is to the land of equal opportunity!
In 2004, the United States had 374 billionaires and 7.5 millionaires (about 2% of the population). The wealthiest Americans possessed $11 trillion in assets. Meanwhile 13% of Americans lived below poverty level. What was that Horatio Alger myth again?
Yes, the bourgeoisie is thriving and dominating in the United States. We are indeed experiencing the dawn of the Second Gilded Age.
According to Friedrich Engels, the bourgeoisie are:
"...the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour."
Whose function is:
"...the appropriation and therefore control of the labour of others and... the selling of the products of this labour."
And who are differentiated from the small proprietors (which their massive corporate entities often crush) by:
"capitalist production requires an individual capital big enough to employ a fairly large number of workers at a time; only when he himself is wholly released from labour does the employer of labour become a full-blooded capitalist."
More staggering statistics demonstrate who reaps the bounty in a Capitalist system (even one constrained by elements of more just and humane economic systems):
More than 99% of American businesses have fewer than 500 employees and account for less than 37% of all business sales.
Elite corporations (those employing more than 5,000 people) comprise a fraction of the remaining 1% of American businesses, yet ring up over 40% of sales.
Within specific business sectors, corporate monopolists shine brightly. The fifty largest banks control over 35% of bank assets in the United States.
The largest 100 corporations alone account for over 46% of corporate net income after taxes.
1% of Americans own more stock than the 90% of us who dwell at the bottom of Bush's "ownership society".
While a tiny segment of the US population becomes increasingly powerful both economically and politically, working class families continue to rely on two incomes to make ends meet while 13% of the population lives below the poverty level.
As the semblance of a meritocracy in America succumbs to the forces of plutocratic ambition and greed under the Bush Regime, American economic system's "noble and fair" reputation is dutifully maintained by genuflecting mainstream media pundits. Yet there is one particularly shameful stain which not even master propagandists can mask.
Material Prosperity.Spiritual Bankruptcy
In a self-proclaimed Christian nation awash in a sea of money, guided by allegedly noble principles, and purported to have a Manifest Destiny to convert the world to the American Way, a significant number of discarded, hopelessly poor human beings are living proof of the cruel hypocrisy of the ruling elite of the United States. America's homeless are living testaments to the gross injustices of Capitalism, even in an economy tempered with elements of government-funded social programs and regulations on businesses.
"Let all bear in mind that a society is judged not so much by the standards attained by its more affluent and privileged members as by the quality of life which it is able to assure for its weakest members."
--Javier Perez de Cuellar (former PM of Peru and Secretary General to the UN)
Each year 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness. Of these unfortunates, 750,000 are chronically homeless. 49% are Black while only 35% are White (which represents an obviously gross disproportion when compared to the racial make-up of the general population). A startling 40% of the homeless include families.
Who are these Nameless, Forgotten, "Disposable" Human Beings?
Homelessness is not limited to the conventional notion of people sleeping in a cardboard box or on a park bench. America's homeless people include those who live in their cars, abandoned buildings, cheap motels called flop-houses, and train or bus stations.
Many homeless maintain jobs making sub-standard wages. Other ways the homeless obtain their meager incomes is through begging, street performance, selling street magazines (written and distributed by the homeless), and selling their blood plasma. In their desperation, some feign illness to gain admission to hospitals while others commit crimes so they can get "three hots and a cot".
Those with untreated mental illness are amongst the most vulnerable of our society. Tragically, the mentally afflicted comprise 25% of the homeless population. In the 1960's, the United States government de-institutionalized many suffering with chronic mental illness. Our ruling elites at multiple levels of government failed (and continue to fail) to establish and fund adequate community service programs necessary for these people to achieve stability in their lives. Without adequate support systems in their communities, many mentally ill individuals wind up living on the street.
At least 38% of the homeless are reported to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to escape the misery of their situation, thus greatly diminishing the likelihood they can reclaim stable lives.
About 5% of the homeless are runaway teens. It is a travesty that due to a dearth of government social safety nets, many of these children fall prey to drugs, street gangs, prostitution, or the pornography industry.
Representing a particularly searing indictment of America's Capitalist constitutional republic are the 500,000 US military veterans who experience homelessness each year. Conscripted or manipulated by propaganda to fight in wars of imperial aggression (like Vietnam), homeless veterans were used by the elites and cast aside like yesterday's garbage. The Veterans Administration only provides housing for veterans who are chronically ill, has severely neglected the needs of those with mental illness, and cut most Vietnam War Veterans adrift with no job training. Risk your life to expand the American Empire and you get to spend the rest of your days eating out of trash dumpsters.
Many choose homelessness, at least temporarily, because they are unable to make a living wage in America's "booming" economy or find themselves completely unemployed. Offshoring of American jobs, stagnant wages, the soaring cost of housing, and the agonizing loss of industrial sector jobs with healthy wages are leaving many Americans vulnerable to financial disaster. Overwhelmed by bills and crippled by insufficient income, some Americans are forced to choose amongst basic necessities. Naturally housing goes before food and clothing, leaving people living on the street, or if they are lucky, in their cars.
Natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina can add dramatically to the number of homeless. At least 50,000 Katrina victims remain homeless. New Orleans is a particularly instructive case because it clearly demonstrates the Capitalist elites' obsession with property rights and their callous disregard for humanity. Our Constitution charges the federal government with promoting the general welfare. Yet the Bush Regime had cut funding for the levees despite warnings of the impending disaster dating back to 2001, provided a slow and anemic relief effort by utilizing a FEMA entity which they had gutted, and patrolled the streets with heavily armed Blackwater contractors to secure property and assets.
Principally because of its draconian crack-down on non-violent drug-users, particularly in the Black community, the United States has the world's largest prison population (5% of the world's population and 25% of the prison population: more evidence that preservation of the propertied class and their holdings must come before all other considerations in a nation dominated by Capitalist elites).
Since the American justice system emphasizes punitive measures over rehabilitation, many of the two million incarcerated face bleak possibilities once they have completed their sentences. Lacking job training and adequate social coping skills while bearing the stigma of a felony conviction, former convicts find it extremely difficult to reassimilate into society. Many wind up homeless, living with the friends with whom they got into trouble in the first place, in homeless shelters, in flop-houses, or under bridges.
Their Milk of Human Kindness Soured Long Ago
As the moneyed class strengthens its dominance over our society, the plight of the homeless is worsening. The US Conference of Mayors (representing 270 cities) reported that the demand for homeless shelter space increased by 13% in 2001 and by 25% in 2005. 22% of those seeking shelter in 2005 were refused.
Demonstrating the depths of their compassion, our "benevolent" leaders have begun to criminalize homelessness. Of the 224 American cities that participated in a recent National Coalition for the Homeless survey, approximately 30% are taking measures targeting the homeless, including banning pan-handling and "camping", initiating frequent police sweeps of public areas to arrest or "evict" homeless persons, and selectively enforcing loitering laws.
While our heavily entrenched corporate elites and affluent decision-makers cut their own taxes, reduce spending on social programs, and lavish insane amounts of the working poor's and middle class's tax money on a military which exists to protect and expand their pecuniary interests, they offer the weakest members of our society, our homeless people, a quality of life that would repulse a sewer rat.
Thanks to the pathological greed unleashed and rewarded by Capitalism, America has forged a Faustian Pact. It is inevitable that Mephistopheles will come to collect his due. Or perhaps he already has.
Jason Miller is a 39 year old sociopolitical essayist with a degree in liberal arts and an extensive self-education (derived from an insatiable appetite for reading). He is a member of Amnesty International and an avid supporter of Oxfam International and Human Rights Watch. He welcomes responses at firstname.lastname@example.org or comments on his blog, Thomas Paine's Corner, at http://civillibertarian.blogspot.com/.