The Phaserl


Mao and the Middle Class: What’s the Source of Political Power?

by Charles Hugh Smith, Of Two Minds:

The decline of middle class wealth and income is not just an economic trend–it translates directly to a decline in political power. Chairman Mao famously noted that “Political power grows out of the barrel of gun,”, but this is only true in specific circumstances, for reasons elucidated by author Edward Luttwak in his book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.

Luttwak delineated the difference between force and power. Force is what grows out of a barrel of a gun: the ability to coerce people to obey commands.

Force is expensive and labor-intensive. If you want to prohibit people from using alternative currencies or making black market trades, for example, you have to literally follow every individual, as black market transactions can occur virtually anywhere by pre-arrangement.

Forcing people not to horde scarce goods is another example.

Power manifests when people willingly obey or choose to comply. Although it’s tempting to boil power down to threats of punishment/death, history offers many examples of intensive repression and threats failing to translate force into power.

Filing tax returns is an example of low-cost compliance. The IRS audits and prosecutes relatively few taxpayers for non-compliance. The vast majority of people choose to comply without being forced to do so. This leverage is power.

Power ultimately flows from the populace’s belief that the state or other authority could deploy overwhelming force if necessary. The subject populace makes a mental calculation of risk and return, and concludes that the high risks and modest gains of non-compliance make compliance the wiser, lower risk choice.

We are seeing force and power playing out in the Brexit drama. The European Union needs to punish Britain for leaving the EU, as the ability to enforce a painful punishment on any nation leaving the union will communicate (like nothing else can) that there will be a high cost to exiting the EU.

If other nations believe they will share the same fate as Britain and thus decide to stay in the EU, the EU will be manifesting power. Power is persuading people to comply without having to invest any political capital or treasure in the application of force.

If Britain exits the EU and avoids any severe financial penalty, the EU’s power will be exposed as “all snarl and no bite.” The inability to force severe punishment on Britain will reveal the limits of EU power. The realization that the EU can’t force severe punishment may well free other member states to re-calculate the risk-return of exiting the EU.

The key to voluntary compliance is the stake being held in the status quo. Those holding a major stake in the status quo–for example, homeowners with significant equity/wealth in their homes–have a much different risk-return calculus than those with very little stake in the status quo.
To quote Bob Dylan: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

The middle class is losing its stake in the status quo, and this is loosening the state’s power over the middle class and reducing the power of the middle class, which has less motivation to comply and less motivation to fight for political influence.

The lower-income class that is dependent on state welfare benefits has a major stake in the status quo. So does the well-paid top-5% technocrat/professional class.

The middle class in between has less stake in the status quo than either the dependent bottom or the high-income top. Why bother fighting for a dwindling stake in a corrupt system? If you can’t join the high-income top 5%, then the rational choice is to opt out or slide into the lower class that qualifies for full state benefits.

As the middle class’s stake in the status quo diminishes, so does state power over the middle class. Those with less to lose will slowly stop complying or engaging in political battles (i.e. advocacy). A pox on all your houses expresses a disdain not just for the corrupt system but for the state’s power to enforce its will by threat.

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1 comment to Mao and the Middle Class: What’s the Source of Political Power?

  • rich

    The printing press is the source of power….channeling it to politicians transmits it.

    The Audacity of Sleaze: Profiles in Corruption

    Photo by Carlos Pacheco | CC BY2.0

    It actually doesn’t take a lot of courage to aid those who are already powerful, already comfortable, already influential.
    — Barack Obama, Acceptance Speech for the Kennedy Library Foundation’s “Profiles in Courage” Award, May 7, 2017

    What could be more absurd than Drone War King Barack Obama getting an award for courage?

    The speech that Obama gave after getting the 2017 “Profiles in Courage” prize from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation last Sunday – that’s what.

    The Venality of Hope

    In his ponderous address, Obama showed that his aptitude for grandiose, fake-progressive oratory has not been extinguished by dips with Richard Branson in the cool Caribbean (more on that below). Obama’s brash Orwellian chutzpah was on grand display. He praised freshly elected Congresspersons for having the “political courage” to “save the financial system…even when it was unpopular” in 2009.

    Yes, these dauntless peoples’ representatives had the epic valor required to boldly defy public opinion by expanding a major taxpayer bailout to the well-heeled Wall Street parasites who crashed the national and global economy through their selfish and reckless behavior –opulent bloodsuckers who grant lucrative salaries, speaking fees, and other neoliberal disbursements to not-so public officials who do their bidding while “serving” (the Few) in government.

    Ask Obama. Ex-prez “O” has been spotted kiteboarding with Branson, the British billionaire airline mogul, who is leading the charge for the privatization of the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Obama’s been seen boating in the Pacific with Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Springsteen on a $300 million luxury yacht owned by recording mogul billionaire David Geffen. The Obamas reached an eight-figure publishing deal ($65 million) for his-and-her memoirs on their years in the White House. And Obama will speak for $400,000 at a Wall Street health care conference in September, hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald LP.

    Nothing says, “show me the money” like POTUS on your resume. Call it the Audacity of Sleaze. The Venality of Hope.

    Good God, but who writes and/or speaks sentences like that? How does Obama talk so straightforwardly about this cynicism after sitting atop a presidency that epitomized the ruling class capture (combining ideological and cognitive takeover with financial debasement) that turns everyday people sour on a political order wherein “government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it” – and little for the rest, who really need and deserve it? How does the man dissociate from his own history with such effortless, fake-progressive ease?

    All this from Obama just as he is diving into a great post-presidential victory lap and soul-numbing cha-ching orgy that offers yet more proof of his capitalist indoctrination and moral debauchery. Obama is perhaps the ultimate poster child for the term corporate sell out.

    He is a leading agent of the very cynicism he cynically denounces. The man has no shame.

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