Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cause / Effect Misidentification

Matt Taibbi has an insightful article on the recent faux populist movement being spurred by Fox and the Conservatists. In it, he cites the inclination of these groups to blame, not the culprits, but those reacting to wrongdoing, for the ills in society that the actual culprits have caused. In what he terms the “peasant mentality,” he describes clearly the inclination of the loyal worker to support his (corrupt) bosses while railing against a trumped-up phantom opponent from the same strata. The banks are failing because of idiotic investments and overeager lending? Blame the folks who took out mortgages without reading the reams of fine print. Bail out AIG, which squandered its financial base in the fund markets? It's the protesters against the bailout who are at fault for cramping capitalism. The list is endless.

Taibbi supports his arguments well. But there may be an additional facet to the argument: opponents of real politico-economic reforms tend to blame those reacting to the injustices rather than the injustices themselves. This is identification, not with peasantry, but with power.

Take, for example, the Abolitionist movement of the 19th century. The loudest pro-slavery complaints against Abolition weren't about the excessively narrow definition of human rights the pro-slavery community observed, nor about the skewed economic model slavery fostered. They were about the inconvenience of the Abolitionists to their way of life. Actually owning slaves wasn't required for this position: only identification with the slaveholders, and recognition that their rights and livelihood were threatened, was sufficient. Abolitionism interfered with slaveholders' property rights. Abolitionism hindered their ability to earn a living. Abolitionism threatened their way of life. All the pro-slavery adherents' problems would go away – if only those dratted Abolitionists kept their mouths shut.

The same could be said for the emergence of labour unions during the same time period. Unions, which at their inception were about workers' rights to a safe workplace, reasonable working hours and meaningful compensation, were to industry a blight and a threat. Again, owning a business was inconsequential to the position, while relating to the business owner rather than the employee was essential. Unions prevented industry from being effective. Unions prevented business from achieving profitability. Unions inhibited normal business. Industry would prosper and enrich the nation – again, if only those pesky organizers didn't keep mucking things up.

In each case, a movement sparked by injustice is derided by those in authority as contrary to the common weal, even though the common weal itself is harmed by the actions of those in authority and the movement against that harm is inspired by that condition. This is more complex than a “shoot-the-messenger” response: those opposed to such actions are genuinely – if misguidedly – convinced that the status quo is good for all (or at least, good for all worth considering) and that the changes sought are an imposition on (in their eyes) good, law-abiding people who have done no wrong. There is no recognition of harm done by the engines of exploitation themselves, only that done by those seeking to redress those injustices. Likewise, the law itself is not at fault - only those seeking to amend the law (to be more equitable) are to blame.

The chief problem occurs when those not part of that particular movement side with those who oppose it rather than those who support it out of identification with the opponents rather than the supporters. Abolitionism was rejected by the antebellum South as an infringement on individual and states' rights, even by the substantial percentage of the Southern populace that did not and never would own slaves themselves. Anti-labor sentiment is high in the Southeastern US, who see unionisation as an affliction of the industrialised North rather than a boon to all workers, and remain infatuated with the concept of entrepreneurship despite the predominance of wage labour in that area which would benefit from organisation. Likewise, the modern opposition to anti-corporatism, particularly the anti-corporatism spawned by the obscene levels of greed and mismanagement that characterised the financial industry of late, stems not from a philosophical difference with that opposition but with identification with the status quo and rejection of reform as detrimental to the current economic structures. Aspiration is more significant than status here: the detractors of the anti-banking clamour are as likely to see themselves in the mold of the banker rather than the borrower.

The false nature of a “populism” ginned up by Conservatists and a major broadcaster is nearly self-evident to those who disagree with the principles on which it is presumably based. However, the segment of the populace that follows along with that false populism continue to do so largely because they identify not with the justly aggrieved but with those they perceive as oppressed by demands for justice. The trick to their enlightenment is not to paint them as a small-minded underclass but to educate them on the detriment they are causing their own well-being and that the very same detriment is done to them largely by those they follow.

H/T Bark Bark Woof Woof.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. This is a major problem I run into in the US all the time. I see labor constantly stick up for these wealthy people and businesses because they would do the same thing if they were in their position. They see harmful action as justified because it was a smart economic move to rip people off legally. A society can not long stand with such acceptance of theft and abuse of power.

    One of the major issues I have with most discussions is that those people defending "capitalism" never see labor as capitalist. A person who labors is supposed to work hard for works sake. But as soon as you attempt to explain that a person who labor is a simply a business of one and that it is their duty to seek the greatest profits possible as a business owner would that collective bargaining makes sense. Why wouldn't they as a business owner of their own labor want to earn a greater share of the profit?

    One of the main arguments against labor unions is that they destroy business or make things cost more. That is a blatant lie because the business can only charge what the market will bear. If they could raise the price they would have done so. As long as the union remains in the market and isn't subsidized by government they should be able to seek as much profit from their labor as they can achieve. They are simply acting as a capitalist should act. But labor is never seen as being a business of one.

    We better get our act together in this country. From where I am standing there isn't much left worth saving. The people hate each other and the wealthy power brokers who continue to run for office and buy our system of justice have destroyed our ability to function as a nation. It seems unlikely we will survive much longer if we continue down this path and the loss of liberty for average citizens will continue to explode as more citizens are thrown into deep poverty.