My disillusionment

Fig. 1. David Benfell at Bolinas Beach, January 2, 1966. (Photograph by Robert S. Benfell, found in family album kept by Carol R. Benfell.)

I grew up with an image of the United States as a country governed in a democracy, where the individual vote mattered, where politicians represented voters, where laws were passed in the public interest, where courts rendered justice, where everyone had economic opportunity.

This image is, of course, a naïve view of the country. I also grew up during the Vietnam War, and believing that "liberty and justice for all" didn't just mean people in this country, that it should apply as well at least in any country we fought for, and thus that it should apply for the Vietnamese as well. The contradiction between that belief and the fact of the Vietnam War led me to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance, led me, even then, to adopt an antagonistic view toward this country's foreign policy.

Fig. 2. Evacuation from a CIA-occupied apartment building in Saigon, April 29, 1975. (Photograph by Hubert Van Es. Found at Springfield Historical Society @ mcgarnagle.com, and used under fair use). Fig. 3. 'Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning the office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal in 1974.' (Photograph by Ollie Atkins [August 9, 1974]. White House photograph in the public domain.) But the war ended (figure 2), Richard Nixon resigned (figure 3), I dropped out of high school (and headed straight for community college), and I was able, for a time, to re-adopt that naïve view, particularly as I strived to follow my father, a professional engineer, into a professional career—in my case, computer programming. When Ronald Reagan was elected, I guessed that his presidency might discredit conservatism. When he was re-elected, I guessed that it would have to get worse before conservatism was discredited.

I burned out as a computer programmer in 1985, and left my job in Selma, a small town about 15 miles south of Fresno, California. I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, fully expecting to find another job—as a computer programmer. It was my first hard high technology hit. I didn't just waltz into another computer programming job. And I began a long experience of working class life.

Working class life belies everything I learned about what this country was supposed to be—the naïve view—but because I was bright, I continued to believe that I could succeed, that if I managed to get a good job, my talents would be recognized, and I would be promoted. But I also noticed that my fellow workers—some of whom became my friends—had no such prospects. Working—as I was, even if I failed to recognize it at the time—in dead end jobs, they (and I) paid a high price for trying just to get by, a price paid in suffering severe oppression, a price paid in a dearth of opportunity.

My family did not understand this dearth of opportunity. My parents had come of age in the 1950s, when it was possible to believe, as Gerhard Lenski wrote,1 that our coercive hierarchical system of social organization had, after some initial very large excesses of inequality, produced a decrease in inequality. I came of age in the 1970s, however, when "stagflation," a condition of high inflation and low economic growth (as measured in GDP), led to the adoption of neoliberal policies, which promoted widening disparities.2

In a space of nearly twenty years of mostly working class life, and sometimes abject poverty, I endured a lot. I bounced in and out of the technology industry and landed hard a couple more times, the latest being the dot-com bust, before returning to school in Fall 2003, partly because student loans could help to pay my way. But I abandoned all previous hopes of a computer science degree. Observing the H-1B visa scam, in which high technology companies import cheaper workers to avoid hiring skilled workers already in the U.S.,3 and recognizing the effects of outsourcing in technology and in manufacturing, I believed I should not pursue a degree in anything my father (who had committed suicide in 2000) would have regarded as "real" work—I recognized that as soon as the rich could figure out how to get a job done cheaper elsewhere, that job would be gone, and that I would be starting again, trying yet again to learn whatever the new skills of "the future" de jour were, taking out yet more student debt, and that if I guessed wrong, I would still be stuck with the same abysmal low-level service jobs that are created or left in globalization's wake.4 I completed a B.A. in Mass Communication and an M.A. in Speech Communication, enrolled in one Ph.D. program, and then switched to another (I'm much happier with my second Ph.D. program than the first).

Fig. 4. In purple, annual unemployment since 1948, calculated as a percentage of people in the labor force minus number employed. The dark blue line counts those who are not in the labor force but want a job now, a statistic only available since 1994. The yellow line calculates unemployment based on the maximum labor force participation rate to date, on a hypothesis that as conditions deteriorate for workers, their need for work does not decrease. Having been through over twenty years of a mostly failed employment history, returning to school gave me access to something of an explanation, an explanation I've been developing ever since. Of the peaks in unemployment (figure 4), I had been securely employed only during the one in 1982-1983, and I came to understand viscerally, even before I could offer backing, that when capitalists speak of efficiency, this invariably comes at a cost to labor, especially since the financial crisis of 2007.5

Fig. 5. Max Weber, 1894 (Wikipedia, public domain) I also noticed what anyone who has worked for tips will tell you—that rich people are the worst tippers. I realized that they become rich in part by devaluing others, by using their leverage to get better deals. Max Weber (figure 5) actually wrote this nearly a century before I realized it,6 that a capitalist system (really, any economic system of exchange) inherently privileges whomever has the greater ability to say no. It's a good thing I did realize it, because the way Weber wrote it, I might have overlooked it, except that I recognized it:

It is the most elemental economic fact that the way in which the disposition over material property is distributed among a plurality of people, meeting competitively in the market for the purpose of exchange, in itself creates specific life chances. The mode of distribution, in accord with the law of marginal utility, excludes the non-wealthy from competing for highly valued goods; it favors the owners and, in fact, gives to them a monopoly to acquire such goods. Other things being equal, the mode of distribution monopolizes the opportunities for profitable deals for all those who, provided with goods, do not necessarily have to exchange them. It increases, at least generally, their power in the price struggle with those who, being propertyless, have nothing to offer but their labor or the resulting products, and who are compelled to get rid of these products in order to subsist at all.7

As Weber recognized, although not in complexity theory terms, this is a positive (destabilizing) feedback. It cyclically reinforces a trend to widening inequality.8 And in addition, the rich do everything possible to keep themselves rich and everyone else worse off.9 Quite apart from the actual competence needed to do a job, the rich determine what attributes they recognize as worthy, and promote those who possess those attributes.10 The incompetence I and so many others perceive—hence the popularity of the Dilbert comic strip—is a product of this so-called meritocracy, because meritocracy strongly tends to devolve into a system for preserving the position of the wealthy.11

I have learned as well that while I may not be able to earn a living, I still serve a vital function in our system of social organization: that of being what others are afraid to become, that of being an example of what happens to people who do not (or cannot) comply. Those of us who are in an even worse condition serve further to rationalize the employment of police officers, prison guards, and all the other people who work in the criminal injustice system,12 dividing the poor and working classes against ourselves.

There was more. In those days, and in the days since, I learned for the first time that the Vietnam War had been started on a lie, that the Central Intelligence Agency had provoked the Gulf of Tonkin incident; that the news media are not so much watchdogs on the government as participants in propaganda; that they rely too heavily on 'official sources'; that they are owned by corporate conglomerates and thus face a conflict of interest when reporting in the people's, rather than the corporate, interest; that journalism schools instill a bias that assumes the supremacy of the United States and its system of social organization.13 I learned that the United States is chronically at war.14 I was resensitized to the story of the American Indian.15

And far too many times, I thought that I had gotten a handle on the depth and breadth of corruption among our ruling elite, only to stumble across some other hideous truth, that compelled me to reassess. There is, of course, still, much more, the more recent of which often gets published on my blog or in my research journal.

That brings me to the actual motivation for this post. I began by writing of my own naïveté about the political and economic systems that govern this country, a naïveté that had been contradicted by my personal experience. It is a naïveté that was still shocked when, for example, there was a financial crisis, and the government rushed to bail out the banks, and to keep whole the people who caused the crisis, but left the unemployed and homeowners with underwater mortgages to twist in the wind.16

But while I have mostly, I hope, outgrown this naïveté, it is still held by many others. This is a naïveté that implicitly assumes that poor people and people of color must indeed be more dangerous than better-off whites as it reposes faith in a systemically discriminatory system of law enforcement,17 the same system that largely excused the people who caused the financial crisis. It is a naïveté that is shocked by attacks like 9/11 and which acquiesces to an ongoing war in Muslim parts of the world without realizing that "[t]here was not a single act of Arab terrorism against Americans before 1968, when the U.S. became the chief supplier of military equipment and economic aid to Israel," a decision undertaken by then-President Lyndon Johnson, a policy which then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy promised to continue, and a possible motivation for Sirhan Sirhan's assassination of Robert Kennedy.18 It is a naïveté that accepts military spending on par with the entire rest of the world and an imperial presence as necessary to keep "us" safe.19

This is a naïveté that continues to back President Barack Obama despite his betrayal of nearly every progressive hope.20 This is a naïveté that continues to excuse Obama, preferring to blame Congress, even as he repeatedly caves in negotiations with determinedly obstructionist Republicans.21 This is a naïveté that may very well accept Obama's word when he claims that "[n]obody is listening to your telephone calls” and that a massive domestic spying operation is, in the New York Times' paraphrase, "legal and limited."22

“If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here,” [Obama] said.23

This is a naïveté that accepts such claims from a probable war criminal,24 who rather than prosecuting Bush administration figures for these crimes, has embraced and extended that administration's programs,25 and instead prosecutes more whistle-blowers for leaking evidence of criminality than all previous administrations combined.26

Fig. 6. Bart Simpson: The National Security State is always right. (Created with Add Letters, Bart Simpson Chalkboard Generator, used with permission)

This is a naïveté that cannot properly assimilate this: "Last year, pressed by progressive donors at a dinner party to act more like the progressive they thought he was, Obama responded sharply, 'Don’t you remember what happened to Dr. King?'"27 Whether Obama fears an assassination by the national security complex or he fears assassination by folks like those sending ricin-laced letters,28 this is not government of, by, and for the people, but rather government from fear of assassination, and government of, by, and for multinational corporations.29 And it's hard not to notice that the only times that Obama shows any guts are with special forces operations, drone attacks, whistle-blower prosecutions, and in that full-body embrace of so many other Bush administration policies—that is, with a bullying reminiscent of the Vietnam War and McCarthy Era.

Figures:

  1. Photograph of me, probably taken by my father (Robert S. Benfell), found in a family album kept by my mother (Carol R. Benfell) and labeled as having been taken at Bolinas Beach on January 2, 1966. Please see the wiki entry for notes.
  2. Photograph by Hubert Van Es. Evacuation from CIA-occupied apartment building in Saigon, April 29, 1975.30 See the wiki entry for sources of the fair use interpretation applied for use here.
  3. Caption from Wikimedia Commons: Richard Nixon boarding Army One upon his departure from the White House after resigning the office of President of the United States following the Watergate Scandal in 1974.31
  4. Unemployment since 194832
  5. Max Weber33
  6. Bart Simpson: The National Security State is always right.34

This page is a revised version, as of November 22, 2013, of an earlier blog posting.35 It will be further revised as developments warrant. A summary of who I am in the present can be found here.