The current foment provoked by recent political debates aside, the question on most voters’ minds may be: which candidate’s platform will best serve the economic interests of the 99% of Americans? Leading intellectual thinker, writer, philosopher and citizen advocate, Noam Chomsky, has already projected an answer in the film Requiem For The American Dream, a documentary about the collapse of American democratic ideals and the exponentially increasing divide between the hyper-rich and the rest of us. Though his answer is cryptic and incisive, understanding the lack of political legitimacy manifest in our country’s systems of governance which favor the 1% can be a painful but motivating eye opener.
In Requiem For The American Dream, produced and directed by Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks, and Jared P. Scott, Chomsky’s views are succinctly ordered and explained in interviews culled over four years. Filmmakers use archived video clips from the 1950s onward to illustrate and include the events spanning a period which Chomsky refers to as the country’s economic golden age, when the average worker made a decent wage which afforded him the opportunity to buy a home, purchase a car, and live a “dream” life of contentment with his family in a move toward upward class mobility.
In the preface of the film, Chomsky emphasizes that our current time reflects a devolution and downward spiral away from this golden age which featured high employment, no corporate bankruptcies, no investment bank failures, or taxpayer bailouts. College tuition was very low and higher education was even free for many of the nation’s students. Outsourcing was unthinkable because the society depended upon Americans purchasing the products fashioned by American manufacturers. Unions and collective bargaining agencies made tremendous strides to protect workers against egregious workplace dangers and employer abuses. Banks were places where folks kept savings; there was no financial chicanery and there was a rise in income and economic prosperity for a large portion of the population. Job permanence and loyalty to one’s employer were nearly a guarantee, as was the defined benefit pension plan. These golden years are what Americans long for and what the country’s twenty and thirty-somethings find impossible to imagine.
Chomsky, with dispassionate and cogent clarification, says that even in the Great Depression of the 1930s, for most of the population who were experiencing hardship, there was the hope that the economic situation would eventually improve. That hope is not seen today where there is unprecedented economic inequality and few legislative programs or initiatives including tax reform for the under classes. There has been talk, but in order to pass laws for such relief, the uber wealthy, who have bought the politicians’ campaigns and can do so legitimately through court decisions like Citizens United, would have to support such programs. The elites would have to share a bit more with the underclasses according to democratic principles. Chomsky points out that the upper class wealthy never like to share and they despise democratic principles. His commentary is revelatory, considering the current debates and the upcoming election of 2016.
Filmmakers have selected Chomsky’s most incisive ideas giving a list of 10 principles which enumerate the ways the rich have concentrated their wealth and power in the last decades. In featuring an explanation of each principle, filmmakers using graphs, charts, video clips, during the Chomsky interviews. This is the shocking transparency of what has happened since the 1970s as wealth has been exponentially increased and concentrated at the top. One of the direct impacts has resulted in a vicious cycle to increase the legislative power and control of the wealthy few and reduce democracy, eliminating the power the 99% have to impact public and national policy.
The documentarians briefly highlight that struggles between rich and poor are nothing new. Even Aristotle who believed democracy to be the finest form of government suggested the wealthy needed to mitigate the discontent of the masses who obviously had less wealth and power and would try to use democracy to improve their stature. To prevent this, elite Greeks used a way to sustain democracy and keep their power. They reduced economic inequality.
To shrink the divide between the rich and poor and sustain democratic ideas by reducing inequality, the Greeks established a welfare state. Today, the democracies in the Scandinavian countries work on a similar basis; the standard of living in the populace is so robust, waitresses don’t need to be “tipped” to make a living. Also, the corporate CEOs in these countries are not making 2000% more than their lowest employees. There is much less economic inequity between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Chomsky and filmmakers point out that the “democracy” of the US is managed another way: democracy is reduced. Elite attitudes, expressed by James Madison and other founding fathers established that governing power must be in the hands of the wealthy. Madison said, “To give the vote to those with property was to ‘protect the minority of the opulent against the majority'” of the numerous. Policy makers and politicians were educated white men of wealth. Women, slaves, Native Americans, ethnic people not property owners, couldn’t vote. To prevent the herd from unjustly curtailing the wealth and privilege of the rich, democracy was reduced: i.e. the original senate was appointed, not elected. The herd took orders from the wealthy few, via laws passed against them.
From such history, Chomsky elucidates that the poor and lower classes’ public opinions were mostly ignored. They never influenced policy, especially economic policy, unless they threatened to revolt, demonstrated or exercised their freedom of speech. And even then, unless the leadership was empathetic to their cause (i.e. FDR moved to support unions, create the GI Bill of Rights, Social Security, etc.), revolts were brutally quelled by law enforcement called in to “keep order.”
The notions which we retain today about the U.S. Constitution and our democracy functioning smoothly are naive. Governance is a continual struggle if one considers the views of the privileged who dislike a system of government that would put power in the hands of the majority populace. In Chomsky’s fascinating discussion of the 10 principles of “Concentration of Wealth and Power,” we clearly understand the players- the wealthy from both political parties: the conservatives (representing the wealthy) and the liberals (the wealthy allegedly supporting the ‘national interest’ which is a hypocritical way of appearing not to be like the conservative rich). And we can view the 20th century through this paradigm, by realizing that the wealthy of both parties with a few leadership exceptions (FDR, Johnson, even Nixon), promoted their agenda to reduce democracy and the democratic ideals of equality, especially economic equality.
Chomsky admits that he underestimated the rabid reaction of the rich after the uprising of the populaces’ drive toward democracy in the 1960s in which special interests protested, demonstrated, and worked to increase their freedoms (Civil Rights movement, women’s movement, unionization), and take power from Adam Smith’s “masters of mankind.” From the 1970s on, filmmakers show again and again with video clips, illustrations, graphs, and voice overs from Chomsky interviews, how presidents Ford, Carter, Regan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama and their staffs predominately caved in to the concerted effort on the part of the American upper class elites and corporate interests to reduce our democratic freedoms especially our freedom/opportunity for economic class mobility.
During each of the presidencies, there was an increase in the economic divide between the 99% and 1%, an increase in the power of the wealthy to influence legislation by funding political campaigns, an increase in the tax burden on the lower classes while reducing the tax burden on the rich, the attack and destruction of unionization (unions close the inequitable income gaps), an increase in attempts to de-fund equalizing programs (social security, education, Pre-k, healthcare), an increase in media propaganda to drive frenetic consumption in the market place, an increase in debt burdens for college students, and much more. All of this creates a vicious cycle which shrinks democracy, economic equality, and freedom of choice, while allowing corporate interests and elites to fund politicians who legislate whatever they want.
Despite the depressing accuracy of this film, its truths are vital in an election year. It reveals the power of PR campaigns for political candidates: they want the majority of this country’s citizens to be floating on a mirage of illusions buoyed up by political candidates’ false promises of “change,” when the only change coming may be more of the same harmful cycle of elite money bringing elite laws that devastate the majority of Americans’ lives and well being. That is unless…unless we realize what is going on…unless… as Chomsky and the filmmakers gently encourage, we use our power of voice, to speak up, demonstrate, and exercise our freedom of speech rights. The 1960s was a time of massive protest in a solidarity movement that included divergent ethnic and social groups. Great democratic strides were made to empower and improve the lives of the many.
Adam Smith said, “All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” Requiem For The American Dream reveals that elite governance with politicians in their pocket is a given. Protest and massive organization is the way to shape political and economic policy and increase democracy in the U.S. Public outcry like the force and effort of that demonstrated by Iceland’s “Pots and Pans” Revolution is the way to go. The “American Dream” may be over, but the “American Reality” of democracy is yet to come.