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Are We An Oligarchy Yet?

9:17 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Matt Stoller believes that the recent pre-publication release of a study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page doesn’t support the idea that the United States is an oligarchy yet. He says:

A lot of people are misreading this Princeton study on the political influence of the wealthy and business groups versus ordinary citizens. The study does not say that the US is an oligarchy, wherein the wealthy control politics with an iron fist. If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.

What the study actually says is that American voters are disorganized and their individualized preferences don’t matter unless voters group themselves into mass membership organizations. Then, if people belong to mass membership organizations, their preferences do matter, but less so than business groups and the wealthy.

Well, it’s true that Gilens and Page never say that United States is an oligarchy, and perhaps it’s also true that they don’t believe it. But they do say this:

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of ‘populistic’ democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.’

And they’re right. Their data refute the idea that the preferences of the majority are, by-and-large, or even frequently, enacted into law in today’s United States. Insofar, as that’s a necessary condition for having a constitutional democracy, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that right now the United States doesn’t have one. That finding has further implications.

First, the US doesn’t have either mob rule or constitutional democracy. Nor does the study show that the political system is paralyzed, in spite of all the complaints about excessive partisanship and stalemate in Washington. So someone is ruling. Who is it?

Second, it shows that, mostly, economic elites and interest groups representing them, many of them virtual puppets of the economic elite and corporations, are getting their way. Also, it doesn’t show that one individual is getting his/her way. That means there’s no King or Queen ruling, and also that there isn’t a single tyrant ruling. So, we can conclude that, mostly, the economic elites and their interest groups are ruling. How are they ruling?

Well, third, even though there are legislative and judicial forms specified in the Constitution being followed; there are many elements of current elite rule that are neither constitutional nor legal. For example, is it legal and/or constitutional for the Executive Branch to use prosecutorial discretion as a tool to refuse to go after the big banks for their blatantly illegal behavior leading to the mortgage crisis, the failure of major financial institutions, and the world economy? Is it constitutional and legal for the President of the United States to use drones to kill US citizens without legal or constitutional due process? Is it legal or constitutional for the President to use drones to violate the sovereign territory of other nations through drone strikes without the consent of the authorities of those nations?

Is it legal or constitutional for the big banks to use fraudulent documents to implement foreclosures? Is it legal or constitutional for the Administration to refuse to prosecute officers and employees of the big banks for committing these frauds? Is it legal or constitutional for local governments and the DHS to violate the rights of free speech and free assembly of Occupy protestors across the country in order to protect elite financial interests? Is it legal or constitutional for Justices of the Supreme Court to interpret the 14th amendment as conferring the liberties of biological individuals on organizations whose legal existence is an artificial legal construct? Are the Justices who are doing this not the products of influence previously exercised by the economic elite?

Is it legal or constitutional for State legislatures to enact and attempt to enforce laws to suppress voting rights of minorities and other groups across the country; as well as laws effectively removing the right to choose to end their pregnanicies of women with limited financial resources to exercise that right? Is it legal or constitutional to apply the law harshly to racial and ethnic minorities, and the poor, while refusing to apply it at all to members of the economic elite and their companies?

The answers to all these questions suggest that the non-democratic, non-monarchical rule validated by the Princeton Study is also rule by the economic elite that is a good deal less than constitutional or just. In my book, that makes it rule by the relatively few that is unjust, and isn’t that the definition of oligarchy, whether Gilens and Page say so explicitly or not?

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The Interactive Voter Choice System and Totalitarian Society

9:55 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

In previous posts, I’ve looked at the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS) in a number of ways as: 1) a way of preventing the collapse of American Democracy; 2) the only way around all that money in politics; 3) a way of people self-organizing into voting blocs and electoral coalitions to make candidates and electoral officials accountable once again; and 4) the remedy for overcoming the threat to open society. In this post I want to write about a similar concern about the threat to open society: specifically, the possibility of the emergence of totalitarian society in the United States, and the potential for the IVCS to prevent that emergence.

The Theory of Mass Society

During the 30s, 40s, and 50s of the last century, liberal democracies were understandably concerned with understanding the conditions that lead to the emergence of totalitarianism. Towards the end of that period, a sociologist, the late William Kornhauser, formulated a conceptual framework using two attributes: accessibility, by which he meant an individual’s capability of being influenced by others, and availability, by which he meant an individual’s susceptibility to mass behavior: a psychological state characterized by a focus on remote objects, a direct mode of response to these objects, vacillation between apathetic and activist responses to these objects, and a readiness to make direct responses to these objects through mass movements.

Kornhauser’s framework also divided people into two simple categories: elites and non-elites. Then by categorizing the two attributes into high and low accessibility and availability and cross-classifying by elite and non-elite, he arrived at four states of society: 1) communal society, in which elites are have low accessibility and non-elites are not available for mobilizing for mass behavior; 2) pluralist society, in which elites are highly accessible, and non-elites are unavailable for mobilizing; 3) mass society, in which elites are highly accessible and non-elites are highly available for mobilizing; and 4) totalitarian society, in which elites have low accessibility, and non-elites are highly available.

Kornhauser Frame

Kornhauser Framework

(Source: William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, New York: The Free Press, 1959)

This framework is overly simple and was criticized for vagueness and ambiguity, not least because it was difficult to measure power which was important in distinguishing high from low accessibility, and elite vs. non-elite, and also because the notions of high and low availability seemed biased against the style of Civil Rights and New Left activism that became important in the 1960s. Because of these problems with the framework, difficulties of measurement, and the decline of Communism, Kornhauser’s work fell by the wayside, as did Popper’s work on Open Society. Popper’s Open Society notion, however, experienced a renaissance with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union, because, suddenly many nations wanted to understand what it meant to be an Open Society, and were very open to George Soros’s willingness to support the spread of Open Society ideology and activism based on that ideology.

Perhaps, however, because of the rise of an increasingly authoritarian plutocracy in the U.S., it’s time now to reconsider some of Kornhauser’s thinking also. It’s no longer the early ’90s. Today, Democracy and Open Society are threatened in the lands of their birth. In Kornhauser’s terms, they’re threatened because the triumphs of neo-liberal ideology, and the rapid globalization of economy it has been associated with, have created discontinuities (rapid changes in the direction of social trends) in authority, community, and society, of the kind Kornhauser wrote about, as instrumental in creating mass society.

The rapid evolution of the United States into a society dominated by the Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE) sector, as well as Information Technology, has resulted in the occupational displacement of more and more people, who have found themselves either, under- or unemployed, or condemned to relatively low income service jobs delivering only a fraction of the income they once enjoyed. It has also begun to produce an education and skills gap in which the United States lags behind insurgent nations, intensely striving for admission into first world economic status. These problems have been exacerbated by the crash of 2008, and the ensuing Great Recession and are still being exacerbated by continuing high rates of unemployment, the disruption and ending of careers, and the foreclosure fraud crisis. They are literally destroying communities, and the social ties of people and families to them. But the problems existed before the crash, which has only hastened the effects of the radical social and economic changes already underway.

In addition, there are cultural gaps between American Main Street perspectives and beliefs, and the perspectives and beliefs of urban and suburban communities more integrated into the globalized economy. These gaps relate to perspectives on religion, science, education, the role of Government in the economy, and immersion in the new developing Information Technology. In Kornhauser’s terms, the effects of these various gaps among segments of American society are to disrupt authority relations, communities, and social ties, leaving many citizens and potential voters detached from the social context in which they lived their lives before. This detachment also makes them susceptible to mobilization by counter-elites (such as the leaders of various tea party factions) using the tools of ideology, propaganda, and people-to-people organizing efforts to mobilize people in support of the goals of the counter-elites.

We see this happening in the tea party mobilization going on right now around the symbols of American individualism, and I suspect it will not be too long before we start to see mass movements organized around the symbols of social and economic justice, rather than small government and individualism, appear. The only reason why the latter hasn’t happened yet is because the election of Barack Obama has co-opted leftist activism for awhile, and channeled it through organizations and structures who believe they must work through him to represent their memberships. However, as the gap between social justice ideology and the reality of the Administration’s accomplishments sinks in, people looking for justice will also look for new organizations to relate to, or else the old organizations will leave the “veal pen,” and try to mend relationships with those they are attempting to mobilize, and whose loyalties they are now rapidly losing.

The main point here is that the breakdown in social ties experienced by large numbers of Americans makes them available for mass movements and mass behavior, and depending on what’s happening in the area of intra-elite fragmentation that availability could support either the emergence of mass society, or, in the worst case, totalitarian society itself, if one faction of the elites can gain the upper hand in political struggles among themselves so that it is no longer constrained by other factions.

The elites in America are not yet so unified that this has occurred, but the convergence of political, corporate, and media elites around corporatism, and their ability in a post-Citizens United world, in George Soros’s terms, to manipulate the cognitive functioning of citizens to distort perceptions of reality, suggests that the time of unification may be coming. In fact, the corporate elites themselves may be manipulating the conditions for such unification by creating a faux challenge to their authority from a tea party mobilized in back of the candidacy of a figure like Sarah Palin, who seems so unacceptable to a majority of people that they will fall into the arms of a thoroughly corporatist candidate. The corporatist would then continue the extraction of financial resources and entitlements from America’s middle class as it has already done with its poor, while simultaneously and gradually restricting the civil liberties of dissenters using the danger from terrorism as a rationale, and increasing their manipulation of the cognitive functioning of the American people so that fewer and fewer are willing to challenge the trends supporting the transition from mass to totalitarian society.

The IVCS, Mass, and Totalitarian Society

From the point of view of the theory of mass society, what has happened to America is that its pluralist democratic society, what Popper and Soros called its Open Society and Kornhauser called its pluralist society, has gotten hollowed out, in the sense that the institutions creating and maintaining social ties: the informal group relationships, mediating voluntary associations and interest groups, and accessible interest groups, and political parties standing between individuals and the State have disappeared. Now lonely individuals stand naked before extremely powerful and inaccessible institutions including modern lobbying organizations and political parties. These individuals are disaffected by social trends and open to mobilization by ideological appeals and astro-turfing organizations funded by a financial oligarchy. The result has been a transition away from open/pluralist society to mass society, which while still having the form of democracy, no longer supports the social and psychological requisites for it. Depending on what happens in the arena of elite conflict, mass society in the US can even transform itself into totalitarian society if current trends continue.

The movement towards mass society and totalitarianism has been driven by social and economic discontinuities that have destroyed social ties and the social ecology of interaction among Americans, the first step in creating counter-trends that can drive America back towards pluralism and Open Society is to re-integrate people into a social context which will relate them to their fellow citizens, and also provide them some way of influencing their fate by gaining access and influence to the political elites, in order to make them accountable once again to non-elites.

Another and very important way of looking at IVCS is that it can provide an environment that will perform that re-integration, remove the vulnerability of people to cognitive manipulation and political propaganda, make non-elites unavailable for mass behavior, and make political elites accessible and accountable once again to the people they are supposed in democratic theory to represent. Let’s take a closer look at IVCS capabilities to see how it can restore social ties making non-elites unavailable, and also create the influence relationships necessary to make political elites accessible.

A person wanting to use IVCS will do so because he or she is dissatisfied with the behavior of the elites and the outcomes of their dominance of government decision-making, and wants to do something about it. They will have seen a problem or problems and want to have their say in proposing a solution(s). The system will provide facilities (e.g. forums, web conferencing) that people can use to communicate about the problems they concerned about with other people, in an effort to clarify and state them clearly for themselves. In the process of communicating, people will align themselves with or against others, create a social context, social relationships, and social ties, which they did not have before using IVCS.

IVCs’s cognitive mapping capability will allow people to compare the cognitive profile of their own policy agendas with other policy agendas available in the Knowledge base. This will help people place their agendas in the context of the views of others, and prepare the way for social interaction and collaboration with them in voting blocs. People using IVCS will also be able to use social networking capabilities like those in such well-known applications as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, and Friendster. In addition, they will be able to access their social network graphs, use social software such as blogging, micro-blogging, wiki participation and origination, sharing videos, images, and policy agendas, create communities and discussion groups, exchange ideas, and search for and locate experts. Finally, using capabilities based on text and data mining, and also the cognitive mapping capability mentioned earlier, people using IVCS will be able to find, contact, and create social relationships with other voters having statistically and/or conceptually similar priorities. These capabilities are a gateway to other people. They can help in creating new social ties integrating people into communities once again AND in building winning voting blocs, political parties and electoral coalitions that have the voting strength to elect representatives who will enact their priorities into law.

If an individual wants to join with others to form a voting bloc to solve any problems the voting bloc may uncover, or to influence office-holders or turn the voting bloc into a primary force or a political party, then that’s going to take collaboration, and collaboration over time creates friendship, mutual identification, and, frequently enduring social bonds. The IVCS system will offer individuals a wide range of collaboration capabilities and opportunities so that voting blocs and the individuals in them will be able to function. The more general collaborative capabilities in the IVCS will include team-based workflow to allow teams of people to plan and implement common tasks involving specialization. This capability can be very powerful in campaigns and also in complex problem solving processes also involving specialization. In addition membership and participation in teams often creates strong social relationships, as well.

IVCS will also include virtual team workspaces. These are like forums, but have more comprehensive capabilities. IVCS will include application and desktop sharing in virtual collaborative sessions. Users will be able to collaborate on documents such as policy agendas, policy options, impact analyses, and blog posts. Wikis, which are inherently collaborative will be available, as well. Again, there will be discussion forums for people to use in creating voting bloc coalitions. Project, Task, and Event Management tools will be provided, as will tools for web-conferencing for online meetings to recognize and formulate problems, develop solutions, criticize them, and mobilize support for policy agendas and for voting bloc campaign activities. IVCS will support collaborative prioritization of policy options as well as planning and prioritization of political initiatives to get policy options passed into law. It will also support a voting/polling capability. The capability can be used in any number of collaborative contexts, but for IVCS its most important application is for getting agreement in voting blocs, and then using the agreed upon policy agendas as a legislative mandate for elected representatives and electoral candidates.

IVCS will provide a collaborative e-learning facility that will support people in getting access to content fragments gathered from across the Internet that are relevant to a problem they’re trying to solve. The facility will provide a variety of virtual environments for collaborative learning for teams.

Finally, while IVCS will allow voting blocs to safeguard confidentiality to the extent that seems reasonable to them, it will also emphasize the importance of transparency and inclusiveness in most voting bloc processes. These characteristics are essential for open and pluralistic societies, and open collectivities of all kinds, because, in contrast to secrecy, they create mutual trust and reinforce social relatedness. At least a moderate level of trust, along with a minimum of honesty in public affairs are important for the functioning of open society, and for facilitating the way back from mass society and the trend towards totalitarianism, because trust supports the maintenance of social ties and the ability to interact with others in political and problem solving contexts.

The cumulative effect of these various IVCS capabilities is to create an environment that provides opportunities for people to create new social relationships and to re-integrate into society. IVCS enables ordinary people to recreate the mediating socio-political institutions at the community level that prevent democratic institutions from being captured by plutocratic elites. People who join voting blocs in IVCS and become active in them, will no longer feel isolated and alienated, and will no longer be available for mass behavior. They will identify with their voting blocs and the people in them, and will be far less susceptible to mass propaganda appeals coming from the corporate media or anywhere else, because they will use their IVCS social networks to filter and evaluate the propaganda that is sent their way.

In addition to its effects in blocking the availability of individuals for mass behavior, IVCS will also restore the accessibility of elites. Right now, the channel of elite accessibility proceeding from the people to political elites, to elites in the private sector appears to be broken, since political elites seem increasingly to be ignoring the interests of their constituents in favor of accommodating the desires of those elites funding their campaigns. The channels of accessibility can be restored by IVCS, because the aggregation of political power in its voting blocs and electoral coalitions, will occur within the IVCS environment, and outside of the reach of the corporate media and its channeling of elite world views and propaganda to people. The IVCS will disrupt the cognitive manipulation of non-elites proceeding from the corporate media on a continuous basis, by exposing its members to a variety of points of view freely available with the IVCS. Because cognitive manipulation will be less ubiquitous in the IVCS, the possibility of voting blocs emerging that hold and support different narratives than are being pushed in the corporate media will be very much greater than in pre-IVCS politics, and policy agendas different from those favored by elite officeholders and candidates are more likely to emerge from these narratives.

At that point, the creation of new accessibility channels is facilitated by IVCS tools for communicating with officeholders and candidates. When people running for office are contacted by voting blocs with many thousands and in some cases even millions of members, the numbers in these blocs will get the attention of those running. When bloc leaders ask for commitments to bloc policy agendas and make clear that these agendas will be viewed as mandates for the blocs, and that the performance in office of those elected will be evaluated in terms of these mandates, the influence of big money raised to pay for mass media propaganda will radically decrease, because the only thing that talks louder than money in politics is the ability to deliver masses of votes. Since voting blocs in the IVCS will have that ability, the influence channel that now goes from well-funded interest groups to politicians, will be eclipsed by one that goes from voting bloc members to voting bloc leaders to politicians, making political elites once again accessible to people. And once that link is forged, it will be possible once again to influence the behavior of economic and other private sector elites through the political elites.

Conclusion

In the United States today representatives in both the Legislative and Executive branches of Government seem to have escaped the bonds of influence relating them to working people and making them accountable to them. Replacing those bonds is the growing influence of the wealthy and major corporations in a variety of economic sectors. In turn, events set in motion by globalization and other corporate activities have damaged or destroyed the social ties and intermediate organizations relating people to the State. Individuals stand naked and isolated and subject to cognitive manipulation and mass mobilization, by huge multi-national corporations and the very wealthy, the astro-turfing organizations they create to do their bidding, the dominant political parties, and the big Government that today serves them and not the people.

One way to look at this problem is from the viewpoint of cognitive manipulation controlling political participation causing the breakdown of Open Society: The Popper/Soros way. Another way to look at it is through Kornhauser’s framework suggesting that we have to re-build social ties and influence channels to move mass society back toward pluralist society. I think the Interactive Voter Choice System can help to both re-build social ties and provide effective new influence channels making political elites accountable once again. The sooner we can implement the IVCS and get it used by many millions of people, the sooner we still stop the trend toward mass behavior and totalitarianism. American Society moves very fast these days. It has moved rapidly toward the destruction of democracy and Open Society. It can move just as rapidly back toward pluralist/Open Society. The IVCS can make a difference by 2012. And, soon after that, the American people will have their democracy back entirely.

(Cross-posted at All Life Is Problem Solving and Fiscal Sustainability).

The Threat to Open Society and the Interactive Voter Choice System

9:12 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

The Problem

The biggest problem for Americans in our time is the increasingly dangerous threat to open society posed by the trend toward plutocracy and its effects on the political system. George Soros described the antecedents of these threats in The Age of Fallibility (pp. 100-101):

“Gradually, the methods developed for commercial purposes found a market in politics. This changed the character of politics. The original idea of elections was that candidates would come forward and announce what they stood for; and the electorate would decide whom they liked best. The supply of candidates and the preferences of the electorate were supposed to be independently given, just as in the theory of perfect competition. But the process was corrupted by the methods adopted from commercial life: focus groups and framing the messages. Politicians learned to cater to the desires of the electorate instead of propounding policies they believed in. The electorate did not remain unaffected. They chose the candidate who told them what they wanted to hear, but at the same time they could not avoid noticing that they were being manipulated; they were not surprised when their elected leaders deceived them. But there was no escape. The increasing sophistication of communication methods was built into the system. That is how America became a feel-good society. It was fostered by politicians seeking to be elected.”

One of the most damaging effects of the “feel-good society” is that the people are unable to keep politicians in check (p.96): Read the rest of this entry →

Censorship at the WonkRoom?

10:36 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Lambert, DC Blogger and various commenters at Correntewire report an observed problem at The Wonk Room. Experience, tests, and screen shots indicate that the Wonk Room site is rejecting links to the PNHP and Health Care-Now web sites. Both sites advocate for enhanced Medicare for All, while the WonkRoom and its parent organization the Center for American Progress are advocates for the public option. Read the rest of this entry →

What Might Have Been; What Still Might Be

11:15 am in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

Many progressives, even though they’ve been working for a PO-based health care reform bill, have 1) never given up Medicare for All as the goal of their activity, and 2) decided, in the first quarter of 2009, that Medicare for All could not pass the new Congress. They then reacted to their realization by concluding that since Medicare for All couldn’t pass, they would not advocate for it anymore politically, but would transfer their activist commitment to getting a strong public option. Last Spring, they had in mind a Jacob Hacker-type PO, which they saw as the road to Medicare for All. So, in short, they took Medicare for All off the table as something to push for, and they did so because they thought the impossibility of its passing was "reality."

In my other life, in the field of Knowledge Management, I sometimes work on the idea of reflexivity, a favorite notion of George Soros’s, and also on complex systems, a field having to do with the rise, maintenance, and fall of various types of systems, including human organizations of various kinds. Both of these notions are closely related to the idea that to some degree at least we make our own realities, or, as some in systems theory put it, we constantly "bring forth our world." Read the rest of this entry →

George Soros’ “New Paradigm”: The Relevance of Reflexivity

5:09 pm in Uncategorized by letsgetitdone

My critique of Soros’s ideas on reflexivity in my two previous blogs on this subject, and my distinction between sequential and simultaneous reflexivity, was in no way a criticism of his application of the notion of reflexivity to various public issues in his Open Society, The Age of Fallibility, and The Crash of 2008. In those works, he uses the sequential reflexivity idea to explain patterns we see in economics and politics that were unexpected when they occurred, and to predict the Crash of 2008 before it occurred. I think Soros’s work, even if it has not supported the idea of simultaneous reflexivity, has shown that sequential reflexivity, whether a new idea of not, is a tool for thinking about economics and politics that cannot be neglected. There is a very dynamic relationship between our beliefs and what we do, and we often try to change reality, in order to confirm what we believe, and even want to believe. And that’s why I think his applications of sequential reflexivity to various social phenomena are valuable, despite his conceptual problems with “reflexivity.” His pleas in book after book to get us to attend to “reflexivity,” and his examples emphasizing sequential reflexivity, heighten our awareness that our commitments to certain views of the way world is, will affect the way the world is, and require us to think through very carefully what claims about the world we ought to be making. Read the rest of this entry →