Can it be Stopped?
The world is heading towards a new feudal age run by corporations and the wealthy elite. It’s possible we can prevent that outcome, but only if we harness Web technology in ways that let us take charge of democracy…Now!
Originally published 2004
What “Feudalism” Means
We have become used to living in a “classless” society in America. Our TV shows show the rich hobnobbing with the poor, and we pride ourselves on the idea that anyone can join the ranks of the wealthy, if they’re willing to work for it.
Americans have become so used to those ideas that we don’t even contemplate the possibility of a completely stratified society — a society in which you’re born to your station in life, and you have little or no chance of rising above it. Even if we thought such a future was possible, many would feel that there is little need for concern. That complacency stems from a sense of well-being — from a sense of having enough.
But imagine living in a class-based society where the vast majority of people are poor. Imagine working long hours for meager sustenance. Imagine that your only chance for a marginal improvement is when you have the opportunity to become an overseer, and you make your comrades work even harder. Imagine that at the top of the heap, there is a small cadre of ultra-wealthy aristocrats who enjoy the fruits of the world’s bounty, surrounded by a well-fed, armed garrison that keeps them in power. Imagine that, below them, everyone else lives in varying degrees of misery, suffering their lives for the benefit of others.
That picture describes the essence of feudalism. As dismal and unthinkable as it sounds, that’s the future we’re headed for — not just in this country, but around the world. It’s not going to happen to overnight. It may take 40 or 50 years to reach that point. But we’re heading in that direction, and America is leading the charge.
It has been reported that currently, several million people fall out of the class and into the ranks of povery — every year. At that rate, how long could it take?
The peril, surprisingly enough, comes from the very corporations that have given America and much of the world a strong economy and an enviable standard of living. It also derives from the political realities in which they operate. As much as we enjoy our standard of living today, the forces currently at work in our economic and political systems are trending inexorably towards a new brand of feudalism — Corporate Feudalism.
If those forces continue unabated, the result is inevitable. To prevent it, the first step is to understand exactly how those systems work, so we can find their pressure points. The next step is to apply pressure at those points:
- Use technology in meaningful ways to create a vibrant, thoughtful democracy.
- Use the tools of democracy to reinvigorate morally-centered unions.
- Institute a morally sound and economically viable system of Progressive Capitalism.
This article presents a possible solution path — the only possible solution that this author has seen, to date — to what can only be described as an imminent threat. The arguments fall under the following headings:
- Anticipating the Threat of Corporate Feudalism
- Concocting an Antidote with Progressive Capitalism
- Using the Web to Constuct a Vigorous, Decentralized Democracy
This first section outlines the forces that define the threat. The second section idenifies the kind of unified action we need to meet the threat. The final section shows how we can use the Web to reinvigorate democracy’s capacity to institute the remedies.
Anticipating the Threat of Corporate Feudalism
If the forces currently at work continue unopposed, an elite corps of investors and executives will own virtually all of the wealth in the coming world. Middle managers, like the feudal barons of old, will have a slightly better standard of living in return for ensuring that the work gets done. The remainder of the population, meanwhile, will have no option but to work for a major corporation, and they’ll be living on the margin of poverty. Even small businesses will suffer the threat of extinction, as their previously high-paid clientele purchases less and less.
Does that scenario seem implausible? Then consider these points:
- In industrial economies, the only corporations that survive are those that grow — especially in America’s winner-take-all economy.
- To throw off the constraints that limit their growth, corporations are challenging and at times usurping the very democracies that allowed them to prosper in the first place.
- In industrial societies, the political environment has come to be dominated by corporate money, which is producing weaker regulations.
- In the weaker regulatory climate, corporations are increasing profits in ways that make them stronger, while at the same financially starving the governments that provide the infrastructure they depend on. T
- The lack of government funding, in turn, leads to less efficient enforcement of existing regulations.
- As regulations and enforcement become increasingly lax, multinational corporations are raising profits by laying off workers, polluting the environment, sending jobs and intellectual property offshore, and exacting additional hours from employees — all of which are easier and faster than producing more or creating better products.
- In third world countries with weak democracies and non-existent unions, multinational corporations profit from and encourage political and economic systems that benefit a few, while the majority work for subsistence-level wages.
- Corporate profits rise, even as average global income falls, so money is concentrated in ever fewer hands. That concentration of wealth allows for even stronger — and subtler — attacks on democracy.
- The global trend towards reduced wages produces a drag on that economy that corporations combat with more cost-cutting measures, reduced quality, planned obsolescence, and more intensive marketing to stimulate demand.
- In the resulting economy, corporations produce cheaper toasters that break in a few years’ time, forcing the consumer to re-buy products they used to invest in for a lifetime. At the same time, consumers are pummeled with advertising that encourages them to buy new cars and clothes as styles change from year to year.
- Consumers never really get ahead. They must work to maintain their current standard of living, rather than working to improve it. And instead of spending a small amount of time working for necessities, working beyond that only as much as they want to work for additional luxuries, they’re increasingly finding themselves forced to work long hours for basic necessities.
- Meanwhile, planetary resources are dwindling. And the American economy, which has come to be synonymous with “disposable” products, continues to exacerbate that decline — and that may be the most salient fact of all when it comes to a potentially feudalistic future.
In short, corporations are forced to grow to survive, and their growth mirrors the excessive, unlimited growth that characterizes a cancer cell, rather than the controlled growth that characterizes a functioning member of the societal body. As they grow, they contribute to a global scarcity of resources. That scarcity, coupled with a concentration of wealth, presages the advent of a new feudalism — Corporate Feudalism. And that is precisely where we are headed, unless we take decisive action.
Right now, money controls politics. Corporations have money, so they’re pulling the strings. The resulting legislation is allowing corporations to make even more money, which gives them even more power in the political arena.
Students of General Systems Theory will recognize these forces as the intertwined series of feedback loops that characterize a complex system. In general systems terms, these are known as positive feedback loops, because they reinforce each other and, in the end, reinforce themselves. What’s lacking from the system, obviously, are the negative feedback loops that would put a brake on the process.
In later sections, we’ll see what you can do about the future that confronts us. In this section, we’ll examine several aspects of the system interactions and see how they are trending towards a new feudalism:
- Rising Scarcity
- Corporate Greed and Fear
- Democracy Under Attack
- Corporate “Solutions” are Producing a Vicious Downward Spiral
In One with Nineveh, Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich documents the dwindling supply of planetary resources, as well as rising economic inequities and corporate interference in governance. These problems have been documented in a long litany of books that have become available in recent years. But while it may seem that we’re marching on without taking these facts into account, the reality may be very different — and far worse — than we had imagined.
The ultra-wealthy and corporate executives did not get where they are by being dumb. True, they often have the advantages that attend inherited wealth. But maintaining and growing wealth requires perception and a long-range outlook. For example, it takes 20 years for low-cost real estate on the outskirts of town to become a profitable suburban development. Of course, not everyone can afford to wait 20 years for a profit. That’s why you need money to make money. But it’s that kind of long-range planning that produces massive wealth.
Today, a future of increasing scarcity is in sight — water shortages by 2020, exhaustion of the world’s oil supplies by 2040, reduced food production, ever-dwindling populations of fish, and large-scale loss of habitat and species. Can it be that the most forward-thinking among us do not see these things? No. The problems are well-documented in study after study. The declines are happening slowly enough that the average citizen has yet to become radically alarmed, but long-term planners are well aware of society’s impending difficulties.
In addition, our innate cleverness has gotten the better of us. Resource shortages we warned about in the past have been forestalled by foresight and inventiveness, thanks at least in part to the warning cries of the observant few who noticed them. But since the expected shortages didn’t materialize in the time frame predicted, much of the population has decided that such warnings are false alarms. Their reasoning is fallacious, of course. They assume that since shortages haven’t happened, they therefore won’t happen — an obviously incorrect assumption. The good news is that America’s oil shortages of the late 1970’s and the California energy crisis of several years agi brought to light a remarkable ability to adapt to changing conditions. But the moment the shortages were over, the country went back to business as usual — a sign that only truly long-range planners are looking far enough ahead to take the necessary actions.
The situation we face is reminiscent of rats in a cargo hold filled with grain — the rats grow and multiply until the grain begins to run out. After that, only the strongest survive. It’s the law of nature. That law makes sense in a survival situation. It’s the same reason that the largest chick in the nest gets fed first by the mother bird. If all the chicks are fed equally when resources are scarce, none of them survives. Making sure that the strongest is fed ensures that some, at least, will survive.
Feudalism is the economic equivalent. When there isn’t enough for everyone to live well, it’s a foregone conclusion that the strongest will take the best for themselves. When resources are scarce, therefore, they will be owned by the strongest and wealthiest, and everyone who manages to survive will only manage to do so by working for the good of the elite, earning a pittance for themselves.
The wealthiest and most powerful members of society are, almost by definition, the practitioners and beneficiaries of long-range planning. There is a distinct and alarm possibility that they do see that future materializing, and that they are aggrandizing as much wealth as they can now, in prepration for that time. But the problem with that approach, as we’ll see, is that the activies they’re taking by way of preparation are creating the very future they dread.
Corporate Greed and Fear
Ideally, we would learn as a people to be satisfied with less. As the tribes of American Indians did in early America, we would learn to live in harmony with nature. Satisfied with an amount that is sufficient, we would be happy to have enough. And we would make major decisions based on how they would impact the seventh generation, rather than how they affect us.
If we could manage to do that, we could effectively eliminate scarcity. We would all have enough. But there are those among us who are afflicted with what the Indians called “white man’s disease”–the disease of greed. It is quite interesting, in fact, that the American Indian saw this condition as a disease — as an abnormal condition that needs to be cured, rather than as some sort of “original sin” that we’re all born with. It is perhaps that single difference in philosophical outlook that has accounted for the monumental divergence between industrial and Native American civilizations.
However much we might want to adopt such a philosophy for ourselves, however, the real trick is get it adopted by corporations and by the long-range financial planners who are truly capable of thinking that far ahead.
At the moment, industrial societies in general (and America in particular) are characterized by levels of individual greed that are exceeded only by unimaginable levels of corporate greed. Couple that greed with an awareness of looming scarcities, and the result is fear.
As my martial arts Grandmaster taught me, we tend to see the world as a reflection of ourselves. If we’re kind, loving, and sharing, we expect others to be that way, as well. Sometimes, our expectations are rewarded. Sometimes we’re surprised. If we’re greedy and self-aggrandizing, on the other hand, we expect others to act that way, as well. When they do, our outlook is confirmed. If they don’t, we disparage them as naive.
It’s a matter of outlook, really. As individuals, we can choose our outlook. In fact, most folks attend regular religious services in order to internalize a more positive, more uplifted outlook on the world. But corporations apparently have no choice. They are doomed at their inception to grow at the maximum possible rate, or else they perish. And whenever an obstacle stands in their way, they do their utmost to circumvent it.
One such obstacle is democracy, itself.
Democracy Under Attack
Democracies tend to impose limitations on corporations in order to protect the populace. Democracies don’t like pollution, price-fixing, and other forms of behavior that hurt people, no matter how much they improve profitability. Corporations, meanwhile, want to remove any restrictions on profitability that they can.
When these opposing forces are in balance, corporations maximize their benefit to society. But when the media, marketing, and money began to dominate the political process, corporations started to gain the upper hand. That process has been underway for most of the last century.
Late in the century, however, advances in the Internet, information processing, and transportation systems gave corporations an ability to globalize in ways that have financially starved the governments of industrial nations, while keeping the governments of third world nations, and their citizens, on life support. In short, governments around the globe are increasingly desperate for money, giant multi-national corporations are accumulating ever more of it, and that money is being used to dominate the processes of politics and legislation, while the financial starvation of government stifles regulatory enforcment.
The balance, in a word, has tipped far to one side, in favor of corporations. As a result, democracy is currently under attack around the globe — nowhere more so than in America, where corporate money has become indispensable to the election process, but it is also under attack in socially liberal countries like France and Germany, where corporations are arguing that the liberal social policies of the past can no longer be sustained in the face of a declining economy — a decline which is a direct result of actions that corporations are taking, especially in America, where corporations effectively have a free hand..
The multi-party politics in the European communities have always ensured representation of critical minorities — not just ethnic and racial minorities, but ideological minorities as well, like ecological conservatives, alternative energy enthusiasts, workers unions, and advocates of fairness and societal balance. Until now, those forces have been capable of balancing the corporate desire to maximize profit. The result has been an admirable balance of interests, marrying corporate efficiency with humanistic concerns.
But that balance is shifting, and the major argument made in favor of that change is the necessity to compete with American corporations in the face of a global economic decline — a decline that can in large measure be traced back to the policies of American corporations and American politics. Even the “international” trade agreements that are currently wielding so much power over democracies are in reality corporate agreements, rather than agreements between governments — and the economy that forms the bedrock for many of those corporations is in America.
In America, there is none of the political balance that’s found in Europe. Winner-take-all politics ensures that there is a two-party system, and corporations dominate both halves of that system. Neither major party has the strong ideological commitment of smaller parties, so corporations have a larger impact than they otherwise could.
For example, a truly ecologically conservative party will fight tooth and nail against legislation that impacts the environment. But in America’s two major parties, the ecology is just one of many important concerns. So the difference between the two parties tends to be in how much pollution is allowed, rather than whether it should be allowed at all.
With their greater freedom to exploit the world’s workers and their resources, American corporations clearly have a competetive advantage. As the global economy declines, European corporations become increasingly desperate to compete more effectively. But changing European politics to give corporations the free hand they have in America can only accelerate the damage and hasten the onset of corporate feudalism.
The only viable solution, then — the only option that remains — is to reform the American political system. It is in America that the battle must be won. Unless we do, unless we take charge of the political system, get the money and the media out of the process, and wrest control from corporations, we face a bitter, unenviable future. It will come slowly. Only an additional a percentage or two of people will suffer in any given year. But 40 or 50 years of economic decline, combined with increasing scarcities and rising prices, will produce a highly undesirable future.
Corporate “Solutions” are Producing a Vicious Downward Spiral
With corporations holding sway in America, they have a powerful base from which to affect the world. In exercising their competitive advantage, they harm much of the world’s population, as well as its environment. (Other nations may have corporations with worse percentages, but few can do harm on the massive scale of American corporations.)
But the most serious problem of all may be the global economic decline that’s resulting from the actions corporations are taking around the globe — a decline produces increased concentrations of wealth, at the same time that it produces increased pressure to legislate in favor of corporations. That decline is putting pressure on the most pluralistic, egalitarian democracies on the planet, in places like Canada and Europe, and causing them to rethink their commitment to their ideals.
Oddly enough, it is the corporate drive to maximize profits in the short term that is producing the global economic slowdown. The slowdown depresses profits in the long term, which then causes the corporations to redouble their efforts to raise profits. The problems could be reversed if corporations took a long-term view. But the way financial markets are structured, corporations are constitutionally incapable of acting in ways that threaten short term profits.
In third world countries, corporations are paying subsistence-level wages for manufacturing work — largely because the privatization of every aspect of the economy makes it necessary for people to work for a company in order to survive. That privatization is required by international banks as part of the price the government must pay to get the investment they need to create a better life for their people — or so they have been led to believe. All too often, however, the government is making a Faustian bargain that impoverishes its citizens and takes away their freedom. So the corporations are doing little to raise the standard of living abroad.
In industrial countries, meanwhile, corporations are employing “quick fix” solutions to raise profits — solutions that raise profits without increasing employment: layoffs, outsourcing, and hiring slowdowns. They all improve profits, but they force the remaining people to work longer hours to keep the corporation profitable enough to employ them.
As the pace of offshore outsourcing quickens, jobs are migrating to third world countries at an alarming rate. At first, only manufacturing jobs were affected. As a result, Alvin Toffler and other futurists predicted that America would transition into an “information economy”. That prediction came true, for a couple of decades. Then came the Internet.
Because of its exceptional capacity for information transmission, the Internet has become a powerful vehicle that allows individuals to share knowledge with one another. But it also permits corporations to transmit information securely, and virtually instantaneously, which makes it possible for information-management job to be conducted anywhere. The resulting job shift has begun to decimate the information economy that America was transitioning into.
For example, the Forrester Research group in Framingham, Massachusetts surveyed major American corporations to determine their outsourcing plans. They concluded that 3.5 million jobs will be going offshore by 2015, in a dozen different job sectors including high technology, payroll, telephone support, and accounting. As a percentage of total employment, that number is significant. But when you consider the magnified impact of each dollar that isn’t being spent by an American worker, the cumulative effect on the American economy is staggering.
In other words, wages are dropping at home, and they’re not rising overseas. Prices aren’t going down, overall, though. And therein lies the reason for the increasing concentrations of wealth — the same amount of money is going into the corporations, and less is coming out. The money is being concentrated in the hands of the corporations majority stockholders and their executive stewards.
As jobs shift overseas, wages become a global matter, rather than a national one. The standard wage in America, for example, will no longer depend on what other Americans are making, but rather on what the rest of the world is making. In other words, American wages will be averaged with wages around the world. To keep jobs at home, the American employee will eventually have to work for the wage of a third world laborer. The same is true for every industrialized nation.
As wages drop, the economy continues to deteriorate, producing new rounds of layoffs, hiring delays, and offshore outsourcing. Even small businesses suffer as their clientele dwindles away. Corporations will continue making billions by expanding their marketing efforts and raising prices. But people will be making pennies as their income increasingly depends on corporate employment.
If the process is allowed to continue until it reaches its natural conclusion, the result will be an economy characterized by small pockets of weatlh (corporate fiefs), feudal barons (executives and majority owners), surrounded by a vast global plain of impoverishment. In short, the inevitable result will be an extreme concentration of wealth and access to resources that will qualify as Corporate Feudalism — if we allow it to come to that.
Concocting an Antidote with Progressive Capitalism
Society is headed towards Corporate Feudalism in the coming century. Unless we act resolutely, the process may be unstoppable. To counter the trend, society needs a strong progressive movement, committed to a new and better system of Progressive Capitalism — a system that balances the needs of individuals against those of corporations; one that makes sure corporations are serving the needs of people, rather than the other way around. That is the only way to stem the tide of corporate malfeasance.
Bringing it about requires an odd combination of decentralized democracy and unified action. The next section shows how we can decentralize democracy to keep corporations from dominating the political arena. This section outlines the kinds of unified action that must be taken, given a political system that makes them possible.
To institute more progressive policies, we need:
- A Long-Term Progressive Outlook
- Strong Unions
- A Strong Moral Center
- Strong Corporate Controls
A Long-Term Progressive Outlook
Oddly enough, it was unions and progressive politics that produced the wealth of the industrialized nations. By giving workers a better life, the progressive movement created a larger class of investors, as well as a new class of inventors and entrepreneurs who had the time and resources to pursue their dreams. By sharing the wealth, they created a larger class of consumers, who became the tide that lifted all corporate boats.
The progressive movement produced magnificent long-term results. The short term effect of their actions was to reduce corporate profits, giving more to individuals. But in the long term, those actions rebounded to the benefit of the corporate economy as a whole.
Corporations, however, are constitutionally incapable of taking such a long term, altruistic view. While corporations as a whole may benefit from that strategy, no single corporation is guaranteed to succeed. And corporations are only concerned with their own survival. The short-term actions they’re taking to ensure their survival, however, are putting the global economy into a tailspin. They’re producing a short-lived increase in profits that is eventually offset by the fact that people have less to spend, which ultimately produces yet another frenzy of cost-cutting.
On the other hand, the progressive movement doesn’t always know when to stop, either. Failing to engage in long-term thinking can lead to a welfare state that attempts to give away more than the nation can produce. The long term result, of course, is inevitably a “failed social experiment”.
The fundamental question, really, is “How much is enough?” Until we can begin to answer that question — for ourselves, for society, and for our corporations, we face a future where greed meets scarcity, and only the strongest survive. That is the challenge for the progressive movement.
One of the fundamental underpinnings for a system of Progressive Capitalism is strong workers’ unions. But the question, “How much is enough?” applies equally as much as to unions as it does to corporations.
Unions in America lost virtually all claim to moral authority when, in the hands of organized crime, they became little more than a tool for legalized extortion. Rather than displaying the best traits of democratic processes, they displayed the excessive greed of a ruling elite. That elite used the union as its power base to accumulate ever more wealth.
I used to work with a fellow who managed the company’s trade shows. In New York, it took five unions to get the computers from the truck to the tradeshow floor:
- To take the computer from inside the truck to the lift gate.
- To move it from the gate to the curb.
- To take it across the curb to the door of the building.
- To take it from the door of the building to the door of the hall.
- To take it into the hall and set it into place.
More disturbing was the fact that palms had to be greased every inch of the way. If any link in the chain were broken, the computer might not be set up until very, very late — or at all.
On the one hand, five times as many people were being employed, and the union was forcing the corporations to share their wealth. On the other hand, payoff money didn’t go to rank and file union workers. It went to executives. And the added costs were reflected in higher-priced products and reduced employment within those corporations. Still, more basic laborers were working at high-paying jobs. So from a systems perspective, it’s not entirely clear whether the union’s impact was primarily beneficial or mostly detrimental. (But from a moral standpoint it just seems wrong.)
Eventually, the system crashed under its own weight. Workers came to realize that, in effect, they had simply created another ruling class. At that point union membership began to stagnate. After penetrating the blue collar work force, they were unable to expand into the ranks of the white collar, information-processing professions.
A few decades later, manufacturing jobs began to disappear offshore. The resulting loss of bargaining power contributed to their decline. Meanwhile, loss of jobs reduced their membership and lowered wages reduced their income, all of which reduced unions’ effectiveness even further.
To redress the balance, unions need to reestablish their moral center, so they’re acting for the long-term good of workers, their families, and society. In other words, they must be working for the good of all workers — present and future, rather than for the good of the organizers. They also need to globalize (a process which is now underway).
But unions can only be effective in the context of a strong democracy. In a plutocracy governed by a ruling elite, which is characteristic of all too many third world nations — and even America itself — unions have little chance of success.
To be effective in the short term, then, unions must once again become a political force at home and focus on limiting corporate behavior offshore. In the long term, of course, they need an effective international organization. But to buy the time we need, they must find a way to combat corporations in the industrialized nations where they seem the strongest, but where a system of democracy at least makes combat possible.
A Strong Moral Center
On the one hand, the progressive movement needs to be invigorated so that it can become a powerful political force once again — especially in America, where corporations currently hold sway. On the other hand, the progressive movement in general (and unions in particular) must exhibit exemplary restraint, so that they demonstrate the principle of “enough is enough” by their own example.
One way to help them do so is to ensure that the union is itself a fully democratic institution, rather than an autocratic hierarchy run by an elite group. The system recommended in the final section of this article could conceivably help to ensure such a decentralized democracy within a union, as well as a strong democracy in the external political milieu.
In short, unions need a strong moral center, held in place by a strong, decentralized democracy.
I’m reminded of a story told by Dr. Tae Yun Kim, the founder and Grandmaster of the martial art I practice (www.jsw.com). It’s the story of heaven and hell. When you go to hell, you see a table full of rich, delicious foods. But the chopsticks are several feet long, which makes it impossible for the people to put anything into their mouths. The gaunt, emaciated people sitting around the table are so frustrated that whenever someone does appear to be getting something to eat, the others slap it away. Everyone is miserable.
When you go to heaven, you see the same table filled with foods, and the same long chopsticks that were the cause of so much frustration. But the people are plump, smiling, and happy. Why? Because they’re using the extra-long chopsticks to feed each other.
The moral is that there is plenty to go around, if we’re willing to share.
Gore Vidal once told a story with a similar lesson. It was the story of the loaves of bread and the fishes. In his version of the story, everyone was sitting around the Mount after Jesus gave his sermon, feeling hungry and unhappy. There was nothing to eat, and it was getting to be a long day.
Then a little boy came up to Jesus and offered his families’ food.
As Vidal told it, Jesus used the boy’s example to shame the crowd. Here was a boy willing to offer everything he had. How could they do any less? Whereupon the people took out the food they had been hiding in the folds of their robes. They had been afraid that if they shared it with their neighbors, they wouldn’t have enough for themselves. But when everyone brought out their hidden food, there was more than enough for everyone.
It’s a grand story, with a great moral. Unfortunately, the way the story is generally told in church, the story becomes a “miracle” without a lesson that has any practical value. But in Vidal’s version, one can practically hear the great teacher conveying the true moral: If we share what we have, if we take care of each other as well as ourselves, we can all live well.
Strong Corporate Controls
But while people may be willing to share, corporations aren’t. Their only mission is to grow, and if people suffer for that growth, what does it matter to the corporation? The corporation has no conscience, and no empathy. It obeys no moral code. It only knows the laws of the jungle.
The evidence around us suggests that the long-term planners in our society don’t believe that a future of plenty is possible. To create it, corporations would have to make less money and spend more on the public good. They would have to eliminate waste, emit zero pollution, and make solid quality, good-for-a-lifetime products. They would have to survive on less, and the wealthy elite would have to stop passing accumulated wealth from generation to generation, producing inevitable concentrations of wealth due to the effects of compound interest, if for no other reason.
But with today’s system of government, the odds against that happening are astronomical. Long-term financial interests appear to be betting against it, as well — but in the process they’re creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing about the very future they predict through their actions.
America’s founding fathers did their best to set up a system of checks and balances that would prevent such problems. Even the income tax and estate taxes were structured to be regressive in ways that would assure a balanced society, with a fair opportunity to all.
But corporations don’t pay a regressive income tax in America. Even the ostensible tax of 25 percent goes uncollected. The largest and mightiest corporations pay nothing at all, and the average is on the order of 17 percent — paid mostly by the small corporations that, thankfully, still employ the vast majority of America workers.
Corporate systems and financial markets clearly aren’t designed for self-control. That leaves the government. Government action could conceivably stem the tide. But with corporate money dominating both political parties, and with a political system that effectively precludes the emergence of third party alternatives, the chances of government-induced reform are slim — unless we somehow manage to take charge of the political process.
Using the Web to Constuct a Vigorous, Decentralized Democracy
If we can take charge of the political process in America, we can reduce improve life everywhere around the globe. We can halt the economic decline that is putting pressure on European democracies. We can limit the corporate behaviors that are turning third world countries into corporate fiefs. And in the process, we can halt the accelerating decline in the American standard of living.
We can do that if we use the Web to circumvent the existing political process. We can do it by creating a voting-advice system that lets people network effectively. If we do it right, we can create a new class of democratically-chosen representatives — minority representatives — that come from the population at large, rather than from the moneyed elite that constitute the bulk of the major American political parties.
Even in the current political framework, that system will magnify the voices of the ideological minorities who are so essential to a working democracy. The system will not only empower them individually, it will make it possible for them to build effective coalitions. Eventually, the system has the potential to make money irrelevant to politics. At that point, corporations become simply another voice at the table, rather than the dominating entity in the political equation.
The Voting Advice System pages explain how the system works. With a system of that kind, we can begin to solve our problems and make progress towards creating a heaven on earth. If we don’t, the prospects are grim. Somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of the planet will be living in poverty, working for the elite who run the show. In other words, we’ll be living in a feudal society. Our children, bred to the yoke of corporate feudalism, won’t even know the difference. But we will.
On the one hand, we have a future characterized by scarcity — one dominated by greed and fear, in which wealth is concentrated in the hands of the powerful, largely in response to that fear. On the other hand, we have a future characterized by abundance, where every individual knows the meaning of enough, and where both corporations and unions are limited by democratic political institutions so that they, too, are content with enough.
The choice is as old as Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed. We have two different outlooks, and two different futures we can create. The one new tool we have at our disposal this time around is the Web. If we use it effectively, we can usher in a sustainable future, a future of plenty. If we don’t the forces that are currently at work in the world will reach their inevitable destination.
The choice is ours.
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