Bernie Sanders’ “Inequality in America” Town Hall Meeting: Peter Joseph's structural analysis of American progressive consciousness

Bernie Sanders’ “Inequality in America” Town Hall Meeting, March 19, 2018: Peter Joseph's structural analysis of American "progressive" consciousness
(transcript follows introduction)
In March 2018, US senator Bernie Sanders hosted a Town Hall meeting with the theme “Inequality in America.” The economist, filmmaker and author Peter Joseph (founder of the Zeitgeist Movement) used the meeting as the basis of a critique of American progressivism. This rich source material allowed him to make a comprehensive analysis of the fundamental problems of progressive politics in the United States. Americans who style themselves as progressives or “on the left,” or who think “liberal” means “radical,” are actually whistling in the wind. They fail to understand the nature of the ocean they swim in. They avoid doing structural analysis and never look at the root of the nation’s problems. If they did, they would recognize that their circumstances are much more dire than they care to admit, and that radical transformation is the only way to proceed.
In the forty-five minute video critique that Peter Joseph compiled from segments of the Town Hall, several problems with progressive discourse are covered. He notes that racism is never seen as rooted in economic structures. Income inequality is seen as something that can be reformed, rather than as an intrinsic product of the present system. While some speakers at the Town Hall said stronger unions could remedy inequality, Joseph said they are just a form of economic warfare, and that hope for a resurgence of union power requires denial of the reality of the global economy. He also noted the frequent nostalgia for mid-20th century prosperity. Americans tend to look at that time as a lost normal state that can be recovered, but Joseph claims they should regard that time as a unique anomaly in world history. It will never return.
He spiked his commentary with the necessary cynicism about the nature of the system. As he sees it, we should not be shocked that corporate lobbyists write all legislation. This is what the system is designed for. Furthermore, the economy has evolved from a plutocracy into a plutonomy—one in which the majority of economic activity happens among a small minority of people, which leaves the majority as externalities to the economy. They simply don’t matter. Finally, Joseph concludes by pointing out the grim reality in which, because of the United States’ history as an empire and the power of its corporations, social democratic models of other countries could not be easily transposed onto the American system.
This critique was done in order to make Americans wake up to the need for radical change—the creation of an economic system that has never existed before. As Joseph describes it in this critique (as well as in his films, books and interviews):
There is no greater means to generate real equality of opportunity than to actually remove the stress of survival. Providing people with the necessities of life is the root of allowing people to actually be creative and free, and to develop and prosper. So if people could just be relieved of that foundational stress of survival, having to worry about their children’s education, worried about the next job, worried about their health costs, and so on—if we can alleviate that, there is your precondition for true equality of opportunity to allow people to flourish as promoted by organizations like the Zeitgeist Movement and new forms of economic models.
I posted this transcript (most of the work done with about 90% accuracy by Youtube speech recognition software) because it was an excellent illustration of what is so sadly lacking in “progressive” consciousness. In addition, it is a comprehensive explanation of what I have seen Peter Joseph talking about in other interviews. 

My name is Peter Joseph, and the following is a critique of the Bernie Sanders March 19th [2018] Town Hall with Michael Moore, Elizabeth Warren and others, from the standpoint of a structuralist. Structuralism simply means you’re accounting for larger-order contexts when addressing a given situation. The point being that much of what was discussed in the context of root causes and solutions was rather disappointing to me, as the true origins of the problem of socio-economic inequality and loss of democracy were not really addressed at all. Naturally, if you do not understand the root problem, you cannot create viable solutions to problems or symptoms, and it’s frustrating to see how this representative group of influencers still doesn’t seem to have the awareness, or perhaps the courage, to go after the market economy and it’s incentive psychology and procedural dynamics.
When I say incentive psychology, I’m referring to the individualistic, effectively antisocial incentives generated through competition and seeking short-term profits, generally at the expense of long-term sustainability, not to mention humane ethics. An obvious example is that when a person works to invent something they do it first and foremost to sell, to make money. The incentive is to make money, not advance society. While some argue this relationship, this proxy relationship, has been fruitful, which of course it has on one level, it has also simultaneously been unnecessarily destructive, especially when other economic alternatives that remove this proxy incentive system could be applied to human society. Also, things do not get done in our society for the reason that they have no profit possibility, which is extremely depressing, and one of the main core reasons so many problems go unresolved today, from the resolution of ecological decline to the prevalence of poverty and homelessness.
Similarly, when I say procedural dynamics, I’m referring to the game of market trade and how it orients human rationality. In the same way a person plays a sport—orienting behavior around the structure of the game itself—there’s a near automatic pattern of response happening throughout human society working to game itself, in effect, for each individual’s or group’s advantage.
For example, a universal constraint inherent to this market game is the need for cost efficiency. Cost efficiency simply means people are trying to save money on input while maximizing gain upon final sale, of course, and what has this led to? Well, slavery for one, whether abject slavery or the millions of slaves that exist in the world today getting paid virtually no money or so little that it doesn’t even matter, considering the various degrees of coercion driven by poverty and vulnerability.
And keep in mind, and I think it’s an important distinction, that what we call capitalism or capitalist society isn’t really capitalist by any absolute definition because there’s no such thing as a purely capitalist society, nor could there ever be in terms of the free-market foundation. It’s more accurate to say that it is capitalistic, a qualitative property, and this capitalistic tendency was birthed by the Neolithic Revolution twelve thousand years ago, molding and evolving society and culture ever since. It’s a specific structural framework that we’ve been inside of, and if you’re not familiar with that, I can point you to my book The New Human Rights Movement which details it, along with other issues relating to socio-economic inequality.
But suffice it to say it’s very important to understand that there’s a long-term geographical determinism that has set the characteristics of our society in motion. Put another way, countless people are pulling levers on a giant machine, engaging in the market economy’s gaming through cost efficiency and so on, not realizing that the long-term result includes human exploitation and abuse, along with a loss of earthly sustainability. It’s built into the collectively operating mechanism without the need for individual malicious intent on the part of any single individual.
Cost efficiency is often confused with the idea of technical or natural efficiency and design. The truth is cost efficiency is deeply destructive because it doesn’t actually employ any kind of true science system. System science would define true efficiency in the design and production of a given good. True efficiency is about doing things correctly from a scientific perspective, in other words, and cost-efficiency is simply about doing things in order to maximize income and reduce loss in the process of production and sale. This again leads to enormous earthly waste and perpetual human abuse, as empirical and formal evidence shows, and when you put these two things together—incentive psychology and the procedural dynamics of capitalism—you begin to understand why any attempt to push back against the outcomes and the inevitabilities of this system, that we see consistently, will either be short-lived or they will fail.
It will also happen again regardless of the moral aptitude of a society because this isn’t some trivial matter in decision-making. This is about survival. Individual self-interest, coupled with familial or group self-interest, coupled with an expansive materialist culture now derived from our need to keep consuming and having growth in GDP and creating jobs and so on, will forever condemn any hope of improvement in the context of socio-economic inequality or class war without large-scale structural economic change, which effectively voids what we consider to be the purest form that we’ve ever known of market economics. In other words, if you want to change the behavior of people and how we relate to each other, you have to change the framework they are operating in. That said, let’s begin with the basic opening by Sanders stating their cause.
Bernie Sanders (United States senator): Tonight’s discussion is not just an analysis of our problems. We’re going to talk about solutions, about where we go from here, and how we create an economic and political system which represents the needs of all Americans, and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors. Elizabeth…

Elizabeth Warren (United States senator): OK, so I want to start this picking up where Bernie left off, and that is: look at all the data right now about inequality in America, inequality in wealth, inequality in income, but I want to reframe this a little bit. I see this as inequality and opportunity, and that that is one of the most corrosive parts about what’s happening and what’s gone wrong over a generation.
Peter Joseph: The synergy of influences that limit human potential individual by individual is vast, and the idea of equality and opportunity, or equal access to potentials of society, becomes increasingly dubious, tenuous, and confused when the entire society is actually premised on something that moves against any type of balance or equality. In other words, the foundation of society we have today is premised on scarcity, competition in the game of seeking income to support future interests, and hence greed and so on. You can’t have equal opportunity in a society that, for example, makes money out of debt—selling that money like any other good. You can’t have equal opportunity when there is an actual boom and bust cycle that periodically wipes out the lower middle class’ potential. And the list goes on. And it’s a little bit disappointing, even though I agree with Warren’s gesture, that no one brings up the other forces that limit human potential in public health.
And I think the general gravitation of the democratic socialists and others of this mindset is also that you can kind of regulate it in hard rigid laws that will preserve some degree of equal access, even though the entire society is premised on unequal access as a driver of industry and innovation, by the way. Once someone does attempt to create such legislation, like FDR did decades ago, you’ll notice that the general pressure is always to dismantle such programs in the name of free markets, and the problem here, effectively, is consistency. You cannot have contradictory social patterns and expect both of them to preserve themselves.
And while we do see (as I’ll talk about more, later in the video) differences between the United States and the Scandinavian countries and other social democracies in terms of how they collar capitalism, the United States itself exists in a completely different level of the sickness, so that even if you regulate in free education, free health care, free medical leave, free extended vacations—all these other things common in the pop culture socialism as we know it today, it would just be a matter of time before a new constituency would come in and remove those safety nets in favor of larger-order capitalist rationalization.
So I hope all of that makes sense because equal opportunity, to define that and make it real, and make it applicable requires far more than what these folks are proposing.
Elizabeth Warren: So for me, what this generational shift is a shift in this fundamental question about who this government works for and who it creates opportunity for.
Peter Joseph: You can’t pose the question of who the government works for without understanding what gives birth to the structure of government to begin with. Governments are fundamentally premised economically. That may seem odd since we’re led to believe government is the starting point of our society in action. But if you examine the nature of governments since the Neolithic Revolution, you will see that they are first and foremost concerned with economic behavior. Feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism and even socialism and communism, as they have existed, have had institutions of governance that organize around those economic foundations, explaining their differences. This only makes sense since the economy is what produces survival, and as a related aside, I’d like to point out that this understanding that economics is the root of survival has led to some deeply superficial perspectives that further misunderstand the nature of government, such as with modern libertarians.
They see a false duality between markets and government, and as the argument goes, government is a problem, as it restricts the so-called free market, and hence if we reduce government power or regulation, as was notably done by the Thatcher and Reagan administrations, you will open up markets and wealth will spread. More people will be supported and so on. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way, nor would it ever work out that way. And my point here is to not debate the libertarian perspective directly but to show the pervasiveness of this false duality or confusion, which is even present in the Sanders panel.
The truth is government and business are inseparable because you have to have regulation of the individualistic and self-interest-driven anarchy that defines market behavior. The invisible hand may exist to some degree, but that degree is so limited, far too limited to be universally workable. Markets simply are not a viable system when it comes to accounting for human sustainability or social stabilization. It’s old and out-of-date. If government did magically vanish, the negative externalities produced by market behavior would pretty much destroy the planet overnight.
So regulation becomes critical to collaring this primitive economic model that simply can’t take into account what is required. That stated, overall, government has two roles: the democratic or regulatory role, where the general population sees problems and tries to vote in regulations to solve those problems; while the other role is to facilitate business and work to preserve national business in a competitive global context, along with encouraging and assisting the expression of the most successful in business.
Now, this second role explains why there is a natural gravitation in America for high-level corporate power to create legislation, and in effect control government. More succinctly, government is a regulator on one side and government is a tool for groupistic business power and economic advantage on the other, even more since market economics guarantees inequality and class hierarchy due to its very structure. Money and power become intertwined and suddenly you have perpetual class antagonism and competitive threat, and within that climate of antagonism and threat, the power elite naturally become fearful, then generating feedback loops of lower-class disregard, oppression and so on, weakening them like a country weakens another country’s infrastructure in war. All of this is systemic and should be expected, given the nature of the economic structure that serves as the foundation of government behavior.
Now that that’s stated, coming back to that structure, remember a government, even though it makes money out of nothing through its central banks, still wishes to limit inflation, so they tax. Taxation is important income for government. Likewise, a thriving economy also allows government to maintain its geopolitical dominance. This occurs through economic power emerging in the form of colonialist and globalistic trade agreements, for example. And with the United States being the empire that it is, while also housing the vast majority of the most powerful transnational corporations on the planet, we can better understand why the sickness of political preference in support of the wealthy class is so much stronger in the U.S. than in many other governments. It just makes perfect sense systemically, so the real question is not “Who does the government work for?” The question is “What defines the government’s inherent nature?” What are its natural gravitations?” And it’s interesting how people don’t pick up on that.
The corruption against Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary could be considered an anomalous thing, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a natural gravitation of those in positions of hierarchy and business and financial power working to preserve their positions and so on, and they move like a swarm against anyone that wants to deplete their power. And if it’s found that, say, the US government’s nature is inherently there to favor business wealth, class, and power hierarchy, maybe it’s time to rethink how the democratic process is to be approached since the system can only be fundamentally antagonistic towards anything that we would consider true democracy or egalitarian and democratic, or whatever you want to call it.
Michael Moore (filmmaker): And these films I make are about a country that has an economic system that’s unfair. It’s unjust and it’s not democratic. You cannot call this a democracy if the democracy means we just get to go vote but with the economy we have no say. This then it’s not a true democracy.
Peter Joseph: I got excited for a brief moment when Moore said this because he seemed to hint at the fact that economic democracy is required for a true social democracy, yet that focus quickly gets lost in vagueness, which I guess shouldn’t be too surprising since he made a movie about capitalism that didn’t even address the structure of capitalism. Just more vaguery—highlighting certain corrupt extremes while still supporting general market practice, as if general market practice doesn’t inevitably lead, statistically, to a vast spectrum of corrupt extremes.
You’re only as free and powerful as your purchasing power will allow you to be in today’s society, and because all these folks still subscribe to the market religion in general, the idea of economic democracy really only implies being able to influence through regulation how the economy unfolds, never really touching the actual structure. Again, if the structural nature of the economy works against higher-order democratic possibilities, reinforcing rather than alleviating oppression, perhaps it’s time we addressed that structure rather than danced around it or avoided it because it’s too inconvenient, taboo or complicated to talk about.
Darrick Hamilton: And the key frame in which to address these solutions is to empower people. What is really pernicious is that the most vulnerable people, when trying to do something for themselves, are the most exposed to predation, be it from the financial sector, be it from colleges and universities that might be incentivized by a for-profit, as opposed to a non-profit motive. So that rhetoric has a harm on those that really try hard. We don’t want that. We want a society where your efforts will truly be rewarded.
Peter Joseph: Hamilton seems to bring up predation and lower-class vulnerability and exploitation as if it’s separate from the incentives and procedural dynamics of market logic. This observation needs to move past the fact that poor people become more vulnerable to exploitation. Rather, it must focus on the fact that the economic system generates this class hierarchy or inequality by its very design. How extreme that class inequality becomes is subject to other forces, of course, as we see across the world, but it doesn’t change the fact. Where does one draw the line between predation and strategic cost efficiency? Where do we draw the line in the gradient of overall human exploitation in the capitalist machine? Because it is just that: a gradient, or matter of degree.
For example, I’m a low budget independent filmmaker, and I have to find people to do things cheaper than industry standard. I have no choice if I expect to produce quality that will draw income in the end. This means as a systemic result, those who I can afford to hire are often young or starting out, or in a deprived condition whereby they can’t demand as much money for their service. Now do I like doing this? No, but I have no choice in the market game, and neither do you when it comes down to it. Each one of us, every moment of our lives, is engaging in some form of cost efficiency or savings to try and secure our futures, and that inevitably leads to some form of taking advantage of other people’s circumstances, whether we intend it or not, and the solution certainly isn’t to pretend that some forms of human exploitation for another’s gain is fine while some forms are not. That would be a matter-of-degree fallacy or continuum fallacy, and the way folks intuitively combat that is to fall back on morality. They may say, “Well, it’s okay for a poor person with a hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt to work as a janitor in a coffee shop, due to that pressure, while it’s not okay for a poor person to work for six cents an hour in a sweat shop in Asia.”
Once again, in order to understand what’s happening in the structure of capitalism, you have to become objective, removing both your familiarity with the practice of markets, how you’ve been rewarded by that operant conditioning—if you have been successful—while also removing the tendency to draw moral lines when in truth they don’t actually exist logically.
Darrick Hamilton: … and they’re not… I’d be remiss not to point out that these vulnerabilities are more pronounced for marginal groups—race, gender, disability status, formerly-incarcerated. They face obstacles that the general population doesn’t.
Peter Joseph: Once again we need to go deeper. If we don’t understand how groups became marginalized or what keeps them marginalized, if we don’t understand the root causes, we can’t develop proper solutions. Once again, for example, black-white race inequality obviously cannot be understood until you at least go back to early American slavery, in turn considering the arduous and heavily fought process of integration since, and the question then becomes: what incentivized or set in motion abject African slavery? The answer is simple: cost efficiency. Economic motivations. Racism itself, as we see vividly, is a sickness today, a side-effect of this older period of time. Race was developed as a social construct, in fact, a perception, to help preserve the economic institution of abject human slavery, and effectively classism. As Dr. Martin Luther King often talked about, the black and white divide in America was used to preserve the power establishment, keeping poor whites and poor blacks fighting amongst themselves. In fact, if you think about it, this race-class divide-and-conquer is still occurring today. Few are talking about this fact that slavery was an economic decision, a business decision, a capitalist decision, so you can’t explain the ongoing deprivation of African Americans today without seeing this chain of causality and fundamentally linking the oppression to capitalism itself.
Now since then racism has grown and taken on a life of its own, as we know, and coupled with all the other procedural dynamics, black society has remained regimented and poor, even though there has been general improvement, through technology really, as time is going on. In fact, I think the only group that ever really went after this system in terms of how it creates group racism and oppression, of course, besides Dr. King and his Poor People’s Campaign late in his life, was the work of the Black Panthers movement, a very large movement at its time that originally opposed capitalism based on principle, which is an important historical footnote that we don’t hear much about anymore. How many movements out there are actually going after capitalism in the way we obviously should?
Likewise, other marginalized groups cannot be understood without the competitive element of capitalist society also being considered again. Gender inequality has cultural roots, no doubt linked to the history of patriarchy and sexism. Women have historically been paid less, and of course marginalized, because male-dominated societies simply got away with it. But you can’t look at wage inequality between men and women today, for example, and not consider cost efficiency. That’s really the motivation. It’s not that men sit back and say, “Women are inferior. I’m going to pay them less because they don’t deserve it.” It’s because they know this pattern still exists and they can get away with it to a certain degree. I point this out again because you have to look at human-induced group deprivation from an economic perspective before considering cultural matters. Obviously, culture is a big part of things. It’s not always economic, but you’d be surprised how much economic involvement, past and present, culminates in the social condition we see today, including ongoing oppression, marginalization of groups etc.
Now, as far as disabled people are concerned, as he brought up, it should be readily apparent that the economic value of people that have limited capacities physically or mentally make them of less commercial value by default. If the libertarian theory of human value in financial terms—meaning you get what you work for, and so on—if that’s true, then those that, unfortunately, suffer from disabilities of whatever kind are always going to suffer because the system simply isn’t humane enough to respect them. These people are worthless to the system. And as for those that have been incarcerated—which is characteristic of the US social approach to further repress those that have committed crimes on one level—keep in mind that the history of convict leasing, the modern corporate employment of prisoners for a fraction of minimum wage, coupled with modern for-profit prisons that seek increased prison capacity so they can get more money, presents a cloud of economic pressures that has very little reason, very little incentive, to do anything but continue limiting people’s rights and literally oppress them and exploit them.
Ana Kasparian (political writer): Income inequality continues to be a great tragedy in a country such as America where you have so much productivity, so much wealth, but so much of it is concentrated at the top 1%, and the reality is another portion of that tragedy is how we have allowed the wealthiest individuals to essentially take hold of the narrative regarding all of us, and stereotyped us as individuals who expect entitlements, who expect to get things handed to us, when in reality, as Senator Warren brilliantly put it, we want equality of opportunity.
Peter Joseph: So I want to throw in this part by Kasparian because it sets up a couple of interesting points. First, income inequality is a problem in the 21st century regardless of country, including the fact America is not an island. If people are going to complain about inequality generated from the loss of jobs due to outsourcing, you have to then take into account the existing deprivation or inequality in the out-sourced areas that are being exploited. Companies would not outsource unless they could get people to work cheaper, obviously, so this is an international synergy. We should also remember the economic differences between the northern and southern hemispheres, considering this macro-economic inequality that has been created largely through the force of colonization and globalization.
I want to point out that, without exaggeration, America is basically the spoiled-child empire whose business and government culture has raped and pillaged its way to wealth since the dawn of the 20th century. Its economic growth has occurred on the backs of other nations, and then the American public is surprised when the US business-driven leadership enables the exact same kind of abuse of its own populations domestically? That should be no surprise. In the game of economic exploitation and class, there are no nations. There are only those who can dominate and those who are vulnerable to domination. This is another reason why the union argument, which will be talked about more later, really falls flat today. Companies simply are not bound by national borders. They will influence any legislation to restrict their movement, and hence unions can be sidestepped very easily by simply moving operations to economically weaker nations.
The second thing I want to point out is this narrative she mentions—which is a good point—which condemns anyone seeking non-market support or benefits entitlements. They’re considered lazy, freeloading socialists, as we know. This has been a powerful tool of propaganda, but rather than counter it through just moral objection, it’s best to point out that society as a whole is the generating force of innovation, and hence wealth. Everything we see in terms of material and intellectual progress is a social outcome. It is a social outcome whether it’s generational, building upon people’s knowledge as time goes on, or it’s lateral in the sense of sharing ideas in the short term, as exemplified by, say, the power of the open-source movement—advancing industrial and scientific development through the group mind. And that’s just the way it is. No one comes up with anything on their own. There are no true geniuses. There are geniuses in the temporal sense that have built upon other people’s work, but no one just spontaneously comes up with anything. It’s always a social process.
So the propaganda that people should get what they work for—as if the competitive market we see is a level playing field, we’re in some kind of equality where each individual is working to climb their own individual mountain, and when they reach the top of that mountain they should be rewarded disproportionately against those that don’t reach the top of that mountain—this is preposterous from a systems perspective, in a true sociological perspective, a true epistemological perspective. Not only is there no level playing field, people are also not equal in their abilities or in their biology and have different strengths and weaknesses. These are not strengths and weaknesses that are universally assumed. In other words, what seems like a strength or a weakness in one context could very well be the opposite in another context.
This propaganda will say that those with weaker strengths mentally or physically or who are just lazy deserve less in this sort of socially Darwinistic assumption, and it’s a very dangerous assumption. It’s a very false assumption. So culture has become obsessed with individual success, so-called success, ignoring the collective reality of our existence.
So coming back to Kasparian’s point, people today more than ever should be receiving a dividend of society, so to speak. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of people being born into a society that’s actually designed to take care of them, building upon the fruits of what prior generations have done. There is no greater means to generate real equality of opportunity than to actually remove the stress of survival. Providing people with the necessities of life is the root of allowing people to actually be creative and free, and to develop and prosper. So if people could just be relieved of that foundational stress of survival, having to worry about their children’s education, worried about the next job, worried about their health costs, and so on—if we can alleviate that, there is your precondition for true equality of opportunity to allow people to flourish as promoted by organizations like the Zeitgeist Movement and new forms of economic models.
So anyway, let’s not confuse equality of opportunity with something like equal opportunity employer or other market-based notions—once again because equality simply doesn’t exist in this type of socio-economic structure.
Elizabeth Warren: But business won’t come to this area because there’s no sewage infrastructure and if there’s no business, there’s no tax base to build any sewage infrastructure. Do you see a pattern here about how this works? So you get these areas of poverty. They’ve just got locked in poverty.
Peter Joseph: I threw in this comment because it’s just another example of the procedural dynamics of market logic once again, even though no one is speaking of these types of feedback systems in that context. These dynamics have to be pointed out not as though they are some anomaly but underscoring the core logic of the way the system works. Of course, investors are not going to come to regions that they can’t exploit because there isn’t proper infrastructure, so it becomes a self-feeding cycle of more and more poverty and deprivation and isolation, and so on. This is a structural problem, not a problem of policy.
Catherine Flowers (Founder, Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise): Some of those same types of attitudes that existed prior to the 1960s, the structural racism that was reinforced by racial terror, are still in existence today.
Peter Joseph: Flowers brings up structural racism, and again you can’t really talk about racism without talking about classism. Classism is racism’s father, and racist tendencies which are created through economic fear of other groups can only be resolved through removing that economic fear in the end. Now this isn’t to say that all bigoted views are somehow economically related, but generally speaking, if you view history and look at patterns of bigotry across groups, you will see a history of economic oppression or economic fear, and I can’t emphasize how important that foundation is to understand in order to try to stop modern bigoted behavior. There is no silver bullet, but the closest thing to a silver bullet today is working to create true economic equality on this planet, removing groupistic fears.
Michael Moore: Water doesn’t just get dirty. These are decisions that get made and you don’t have clean drinking water because of decisions about money that are made. We were talking backstage about Flint, and there are many Flints around this country and it’s not just that we have an environmental problem, but we have we have an economic problem where those people—in your case in Alabama, in my case in Flint—where decisions get made where they say “You know what? These people are not worth the investment.”
Peter Joseph: Again I almost got excited here, hoping Moore would link what he just described to the inherent incentives and procedural dynamics of the market economy. Instead the phenomenon pointed out, of economically poor or dead regions, is explained in an almost conspiratorial way. Apathy is not malicious intent. Business logic doesn’t care. The same with the homeless crisis. Homeless people don’t have any money. They’re not economically viable, so they are ignored. So these decisions he speaks of are about what’s profitable and what isn’t, and deeply poverty-riddled areas in America are really systemic outcomes. The primary logic of markets is efficient regional exploitation. If it can’t be exploited, investment doesn’t occur, so Flint, Michigan, and other such regions, really need to be understood as negative market externalities, negative externalities of capitalism that are inevitable, like pollution, not some failure of policy.
Darrick Hamilton: Economic justice should be a moral imperative. Why are we relying on the private sector to begin with? Somebody’s dignity should not be based on the profit of a firm that’s just [concerned about] the bottom line.
Peter Joseph: And the crowd goes wild. Yet it’s this kind of moral invocation that continues to stifle any type of technical progress in the activist community. We have to stop thinking in terms of what is right morally, demanding people act against their own self-interest in the market game, because that’s what the invocation implies. It’s exhausting listening to the platitudes and righteousness of what should be in this public debate on effectively human rights, when we are entrenched in a system that is really morally bankrupt by default. It isn’t designed to favor equality or justice. It’s designed to favor hierarchy and injustice. Everybody’s dignity, so to speak, is contingent upon income and profit in this type of system. One’s dignity is proportional to their purchasing power, in other words, for only their purchasing power gives them, in effect, any human rights, to whatever degree.
Bernie Sanders: And when we talk about the decline of the middle class, clearly were talking about the loss of fifty thousand factories in this country since 2001, of jobs being sent abroad to China etc., workers now working for much lower wages than they used to the decline of the trade union movement. I want to say a few words about those issues
Peter Joseph: And this begins the extensive conversation about unions which seems to be at the core of the solutions proposed by this panel. While unions are important to keep some balance in the market through class warfare, as I touched upon before, remember we live in a different condition today. The unions had strong force decades ago, and political power, but the natural gravitations of capitalism have eroded that, and rather than look at this as an ebb and flow, let’s look at this as an evolution.
Sanders mentioned the sending of jobs overseas, declining wages, marginalization, battles against unions. The implication is that these things are supposed to not happen when, of course, the truth is that the entire gravitation of our economy ensures this constant diminishment, attenuation and antagonism from the ownership class—which really holds power, as naturally would be the case in this type of government, with the foundation being markets, once again.
It may seem redundant for me to say all this, but if this Town Hall is supposed to be progressive and in-depth, we can’t keep falling back on these old notions of economic warfare and the idea that the lower classes will simply organize more strongly, develop strong unions, influence political parties and somehow maintain social justice equilibrium.
While it is certainly possible—while very heavily improbable—to counter system legislation, to stop international capital flows, the outsourcing of labor and so on, along with perhaps the application of universal basic income to give the working class less vulnerability, enhancing their ability to fight back against being manipulated into lower wages or poor circumstance, that’s simply not the way it’s going to go if government is composed of business power. I’m not saying anything is impossible. Once again, I’m saying that it’s improbable. And I know the conversation is difficult regarding trying to make structural changes to our economic system. It’s extremely difficult and requires a deep mass movement and sharp focus about what the changes need to be, but the fact that we’re leaving this out of the conversation here is the actual problem.
Cindy Estrada (vice president, United Auto Workers): But even $15 [per hour] isn’t a living wage. It’s not the wage that we grew up with and so we have to have $15 and union. Workers have to have a seat at the table because if it’s left up to employers, they’re always going to make a decision on their bottom line. It’s always about their bottom line. They’re always going to send it to their shareholders in corporations, so I agree with what you said. We can’t leave it up to the private sector. Workers have to get a seat at the table. And how do we build that trade union movement again when employers are spending a billion dollars a year fighting and unions-busting, fighting workers as they try to organize?
Peter Joseph: Not to run this into the ground, but I keep trying to find a fitting analogy that embraces the kind of naivety we hear along the lines of what Estrada is saying. She points out the actual problem, but doesn’t give the gravity of that problem the weight it deserves. For lack of a better analogy, it’s like capturing a lion in the wild from Africa, plopping it in your living room as a pet, and then being surprised when it attacks you.
It’s also important to point out that unions are really no different in their incentives than business owners. If a union had the option and power to increase its wages a hundredfold, you can bet that they probably would, in the exact same self-interest and self-preservation that business owners have to pay as little as possible to their employees. So unions and management, unions and company, are really two sides of the same coin. It’s economic warfare. And the goal should be to remove the need for war to begin with. So, yes, the working class needs a seat at the table, obviously, in the context that we are in, but I’m tired of people once again speaking of unions as though they are a solution when they’re really just a reaction.
Cindy Estrada: 60% of workers want a union. So you ask “Why don’t they get one?” And they don’t get one because they’re being fired. They’re being told that their jobs will go to Mexico where they’re competing with $3.95.
Peter Joseph: What did you expect? Estrada again makes it seem like these behaviors are anomalous, and the implication is that some kind of legislative force has to come in and limit the ability of businesses to diminish union power, but if the ownership class runs government, as it does, as it would be expected to, given the economic foundation of government, why would it favor any such legislation? Even with mass voter force, it still runs against the current. We also can’t forget the dark violent history of unions as the most central expression of class warfare. Unions were considered anti-American, communistic. The Red Scare worked to try and diminish union power and so on in the mid-20th century. I want to again reinforce that there’s a current, a trend in our society, and that current flows in one direction. Anything that moves against that current of the market’s inherent incentives and procedural dynamics will periodically drown or be pulled in the other direction one way or another. It’s just a matter of time.
Elizabeth Warren: Unions built America’s middle class. It’ll take unions to rebuild America’s middle class.
Peter Joseph: No, Unions today will not rebuild the middle class because conditions have changed. They will help, to whatever degree they can be enforced, but they have very diminished efficacy in the current condition we have on the planet now. What allowed for the middle class after the post-World War II era was a synergy of influences. The middle class flourished in a short-lived domestic and international condition. With Europe and much of the industrialized world was in shambles, the emerging US hegemony enabled a delicate period of stress reduction. It was a petri-dish stage of a new era. US-based industry started to grow and dominate as a result. These industries expanded, through absorbing wealth from other regions, through emerging globalization, hence reinforcing the US Empire which was still semi-loyal to the nation. In this situation, union power was far more tolerated because there was less pressure on American society to be competitive on the whole against other nations. At the same time, the ongoing Industrial Revolution allowed for increased productivity, and hence a more relative abundance, again easing social stress.
Sorry to be rambling here, but with anything sociological it’s complex. You can’t understand the post-World War II period of US growth and the rise of the middle class without taking into account the international condition and recognizing new trends. It was really just a matter of time before the self-interest of these new powerful industrial capitalist organizations evolved into evermore greedy and ruthless action, including working against its own domestic population, just as it works against third world nations in exploitation. Transnational corporations simply stopped having respect for borders. Suddenly this grace period of middle-class respect ended as corporate America expanded globally.
So the middle class diminished in America because the very idea of an American middle class became irrelevant. Companies became international. The entire dynamic changed, and hence it makes sense that the US, which houses most of the transnational corporations that are empowered today (at least houses in the sense of we are the origin nation), but that is not to be confused with the idea that there’s any loyalty to the US middle class, as these folks basically imply.
Today, businesses really don’t see nations. Transnational dominance and capitalist expression don’t care about regions. They are not loyal to anything, so what basically happens is the abuse that you’ve seen through colonization and globalization has been transferred domestically as corporations became more international. And good luck trying to legislate around that kind of global dynamic, to somehow magically improve the American middle class.
Michael Moore: Back when I was growing up in Flint, Michigan, nearly every job was a union job. The person who bagged the groceries in the checkout line—there was a union for grocery baggers, and everybody did well. I mean, and you only needed one income.
Peter Joseph: Here we have again the nostalgic position that America can simply return to some institutionalized systemic state that existed prior when that can’t happen again because of international dynamics and just general technological change and so on. Things evolve. They don’t just ebb and flow, once again, in society, sociologically. You know, like Donald Trump’s slogan “make America great again,” we are obsessed with this as a society. We can’t seem to think systemically or from an evolutionary perspective, understanding how outcomes change circumstances as time goes forward. And I want to give an analogy for this, an analogy for market capitalism itself.
Think about the discovery of hydrocarbons and oil. If it wasn’t for the discovery of hydrocarbons and oil, we would not have had all of the great progress that we’ve seen, but now what is hydrocarbon energy doing? It’s destroying our atmosphere. It’s polluting the environment to almost a deadly extent. So what once used to be fine, the best we knew, turned out to be deeply problematic on another level as time moved forward, and this is exactly how people should be thinking about market capitalism as an evolutionary phenomenon.
Gordon Lafer (political economist): As a political scientist, I’m asked sometimes how it happens in a democracy that laws get passed that go against the interests of the majority, and to answer that question we really have to look behind the politicians and behind the parties to see what the real power is that is writing our laws, and that’s not just the Koch Brothers. It’s a handful of the biggest and most powerful political actors in America, which is the big corporate lobbies. The biggest vehicle through which corporate political activity happens in the United States is called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. They meet several times a year in committees that are made up half of elected legislators and half of corporate lobbyists.
Peter Joseph: So Lafer here continues the common general outrage argument that politicians are corrupted by lobbyists and money. Laws are being written by lobbyists, and so on and so forth, as if that should be a surprise. And I’m not going to go through the litany of detailed incentives and causality that explain this. Rather, I’m just going to put it this way: if legislation is not for sale in a social system where everything else is for sale, we have a consistency problem. Market economics, as the foundation of our social system, says that people should be able to operate without coercion on a voluntary basis, and whatever happens within those parameters, anything can be exchanged and so on and so forth.
So buying and selling politicians is like buying and selling pizzas. This whole idea of getting money out of politics is possibly the most naive platitude and argument I’ve ever heard because it goes against absolutely everything we are taught about how our society is run. So as far as I’m concerned, if we’re going to be consistent, the Koch Brothers should own and run America. If you want to stop the corrupt influence of groups that are disproportionately gaining advantage over other groups, then maybe, just maybe, it’s time we begin asking what kind of economy would actually facilitate that as a social precondition.
Bernie Sanders: Describe for our audience how it happens that not only here in the Congress now but in state after state the needs of working people are ignored, the needs of the wealthy and powerful are addressed.
Gordon Lafer: Well, first of all I think it’s important to say that it’s not a partisan issue. As you said, a majority of both Republicans and Democrats support a higher minimum wage, support a right to paid sick leave, think that Citizens United should be overturned, and a bunch of other things, and the corporate lobbies are not cheerleaders for the Republican Party. They want more money and power for themselves, and they’re not hesitant about going after pro-working-people Republicans. In Michigan When “right-to-work,” which is a law that’s designed to kill unions in the private sector, was passed, the senate majority leader, who was a Republican, was opposed to it, and he was taken in a backroom with big money donors who essentially said, “Do what we say or this will be your last term in office because we’ll pull our money from you and will fund a primary opponent.”
Peter Joseph: Building upon the consistency of money and how those with the most money are going to win, they vote with their dollars, no pun intended. We also have to think about the evolution of this society once again. For the first time in history, the United States has both a plutonomy and a plutocracy. Plutocracy simply means the government is run by big elite business interests in favor of money and capital and so on, and a plutonomy is an economy that has such a large percentage [of economic activity] driven by the 1% that the enormously wealthy are spending so much money amongst themselves that they actually have more importance, on a certain level, to the entire overall economy, making the lower class economic behavior virtually irrelevant. The amount of money that’s being moved amongst the upper 5-10% is so extreme that it greatly diminishes the importance, the economic importance of the middle and lower classes.
When you take that into account, you begin to see something very interesting, and that is that capitalism is basically a precondition for fascism. Plutonomy or plutocracy emphasizes the wealthy class while diminishing the lower classes, and hence different forms of constraint will always exist to dominate because power and money are so deeply intertwined.
Darrick Hamilton: The issues, with regards to politics, are beyond just voting and that’s clearly evident with the ways in which corporatists can lobby and control things. So I think we need to be even more sophisticated than just talking about voting. Voting is obviously essential and important, but beyond voting we need social movements, and Senator Sanders has talked a lot about this—building a social movement. He’s used the word political revolution.
Peter Joseph: I certainly agree that we need something more sophisticated than just voting. Social movements, however, need to have an actual platform. What kind of platform are you people proposing for these social movements? Just people saying they want more equality and using old techniques to achieve that that, that have proven a lack of efficacy? People standing in free speech zones, yelling at buildings, holding up signs, hoping someone will look out the window from Congress and listen to them?
And that’s another thing, by the way. Have you ever noticed that the political process effectively for the general population is really just this half-assed kind of public display technique? People have no say on direct policy unless there’s a referendum, and yet we actually sit back and call this democracy: holding up signs, yelling at buildings, electing people that don’t pay attention to us. It seems ridiculous as a concept, but yet people are still locked into that world, so I ask again: what are these social movements exactly proposing?
So there needs to be a very defined platform, which is why I’m advocating more radical approaches here because, unfortunately, the platforms being promoted are just more of the same and accomplish little.
Bernie Sanders: And the vision that all of us are talking about—I know we get criticized. We’re too radical. We’re too extreme. You know what? All the stuff that we’re talking about exists in other countries around the world.
Peter Joseph: And I’m going conclude this critique with this. It seems rational to say we can just superimpose the policies of other more successful social democracies, like Norway and Finland, on the United States and everything will be fine. If only it was that simple. And this is probably one of the more complicated sociological considerations because you have to look at the state of any nation as a consequence of the entire global evolution.
Like in domestic society, on this planet we have upper-class nations, middle class nations and lower class nations, generally speaking. Upper-class nations are the empires: China, the United States, Russia. Middle class nations include European social democracies: Finland, Norway, Scandinavian countries; while lower-class nations include much of the global South such as in Africa or the destitute regions of the Middle East. And just as inside the domestic economy of the United States, the dynamics of trade and politics merged together to create hierarchy.
Global hierarchy mirrors domestic hierarchy in terms of class relationships. At the same time each individual nation, of course, has pertinent histories that define the nature of that nation and culture, such as the history of North Korea or the history of Cuba. It’s very easy to track, to a certain degree, the influences that have generated those nations and why they are the way they are, due to geopolitical policy, war, sanctions, and so on. And it’s this synergy of history, and the real-time dynamic of national classes that explains why the United States is such a bizarre anomaly, and why simply imposing the forms that we see in other nations really won’t work because they don’t fit the dynamics.
As an analogy, if you drive your car into a traditional middle-class neighborhood somewhere you might get the impression that everyone’s happy doing the jobs they love and so on, if you don’t take into consideration the extremes on other ends. So you have a housing project of poor people on one end. You have Beverly Hills-style neighborhoods on the other, and you have the middle-class neighborhoods in the middle. This gives a false impression, if you saw nothing else, that this pocket of middle-class happiness exists on its own. Oh, capitalism works! The middle class is there, but it’s a pocket, and it only exists because of the extremes on either side.
So without going into any more detail as to why the United States has become so bizarre in this upper-class national nightmare, it is within this context that we have to understand that the system of political and economic power we have in the United States today—how it has evolved to where we are—will simply not easily allow basic human interest and public health advancements such as, say, universal health care. It’s representative of a different stage of the capitalist sickness, and that much harder to change.
Much could be said on that, but that’s enough for me. I hope this has been helpful, and I would appreciate it if people shared this video with others that are not informed about these relationships. Thank you.

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