A Game of Chess with the 1%

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(Flickr / Sean Davis)


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A Series of Three Articles by George Lakey

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Strategies of the 1 Percent Revealed!

It’s too easy to say that the 1 percent has recently been winning the class war in the United States because it is more powerful, with its control of the mass media, ownership of the major parties and command of the means of repression. In the Global Nonviolent Action Database there are plenty of cases in which the 1 percent has all those things and is nevertheless pushed back by people power and smart strategy. In fact, even in the United States, the 1 percent has lost some recent battles.

We Americans often fail to notice the 1 percent’s strategy game. Knowing some of the favorite moves they make to achieve their goals will assist us as we stand up for justice, equality and life itself.

Divide and conquer

New York State has had a moratorium on fracking for natural gas in its part of the giant Marcellus Shale deposit. In 2010, oil companies paid for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s election in the neighboring state of Pennsylvania; Corbett then made sure to minimize taxes on fracking in his state’s Marcellus Shale.

However, Pennsylvanians’ concern about the negative effects of fracking has grown since 2010, along with the growing concern about underfunded public schools. Politically, there was a natural overlap of the two constituencies — care for health and care for children. Faced with this problem in 2014, major Democratic candidates for governor chose to divide and conquer. They promised to increase tax on the oil companies and use that money for education, thus splitting a potential coalition to gain a moratorium on fracking.

Something similar is happening with Amtrak. A few weeks ago, Congress finally laid the groundwork for the demise of the national passenger train system and the capture of its most profitable routes for the 1 percent. Amtrak is a public good, ever more desperately needed in a country whose carbon emissions are out of control. Passenger rail is, of course, heavily subsidized by taxes, the most sensible way to provide many public goods.

To simplify a complicated story, the 1 percent’s previous attempt to destroy Amtrak failed because the rail system was defended by a broad coalition of senators, including those from Midwestern and Western states that needed Amtrak even though their states’ small populations meant very heavy subsidies.

Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor — which covers Boston to Washington, D.C. — generates surplus income because of high passenger loads. Having analyzed the 1 percent’s earlier loss, the new strategy is apparently to divide the Senate pro-Amtrak coalition by promising the Northeast Corridor the chance to keep more of its surplus for itself. That will lessen the money available for the Western states. Service outside the Northeast Corridor will decline while infrastructure improvements in the Northeast will be pumped up. The result: a split in the coalition that kept Amtrak alive.

As the coalition falls apart, most of Amtrak can be dumped and the valuable Northeast Corridor can be saved for re-privatization. Clever.

Running down public services

The 1 percent’s wish to turn school taxes into private profit has been apparent for quite a while. It could only be done around the edges as long as people were basically satisfied with the public school system. The 1 percent’s school voucher campaign failed despite the appeal to the fundamental American value of freedom of choice.

The 1 percent increased its strategy of de-funding pubic schools and supported a “school reform movement” that attacked public school teachers and used testing as a stick. The project was branded as Leave No Child Behind. The combination was effective for running schools down. For example, studies show that one of the better predictors of educational achievement is class size — the smaller, the better — so the defunding strategy forced the increase of class size, then attacked the teachers for underperforming. Soon, teachers were paying for pencils and supplies for the students; many teachers proved to be heroes, but the system as a whole was predictably stressed out.

Enter: charter schools. Nationally, we now have enough research on charter schools to know that, on the whole, they are no improvement. A recent Stanford study joins others that show no conclusive evidence that charters are better. But charters don’t need to be better, because the defunding-plus-blaming strategy is working among desperate working class parents who want to flee run-down public schools in the hope that charters are better. That’s great if you don’t care about working and middle class education, and believe the unions won’t go on the offensive and rally the community against your strategy.

Ignore people power

For the first half of Earth Quaker Action Team’s successful five-year campaign to end PNC Bank’s support of mountaintop removal coal mining, bank officials ignored us. Journalists told us they were frustrated that when they covered our story they received only “No comment” from PNC’s public relations officers in Pittsburgh.

In Colorado, a new right-wing campaign seeks to expunge from the schools any history or description of civil disobedience and radical dissent. Presumably Thoreau, the Underground Railroad and Martin Luther King are to be shown the school exit.

Actually, as “A People’s History” author Howard Zinn and the Global Nonviolent Action Database have shown, the 1 percent’s influence in academe already screened out most of the people’s heritage of their own nonviolent campaigns, hiding them from college students who, frighteningly enough, might put that legacy to use. At Swarthmore College, most of the students who worked on the database, arguably among the best-educated in the country, told me that Swarthmore taught them the concept for the first time in their educational experience. Mainstream academics slather their students with military history, strategy, and view of the world; that is a study consistent with the values of the Masters of the Universe.

The recent furor over the movie Selma’s portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the voting rights act was itself instructive: a phalanx of Democrats resisted the view that the people were primarily responsible for that victory. Years ago Hilary Clinton said publicly that it was President Johnson who was the prime mover. This is consistent with the 1 percent-financed Democrats, who interact with social movements to co-opt them and wean them away from the strength of self-reliant nonviolent power.

Judging from the 1 percent’s strategy of ignoring, discouraging, and disparaging nonviolent action, the elite apparently respects nonviolent power more than some activists on the left.

Naomi Klein is right

In her book “This Changes Everything,” Klein argues that the climate crisis presents a tremendous opportunity for the people who have been on the losing side of the class war. I agree. Even when the 1 percent in the United States was at the height of its power, George W. Bush was blocked when he tried to give Social Security to Wall Street, and his over-extension of U.S. military power in Iraq was a disaster for his empire. The Washington gridlock of the two parties owned by the economic elite reveals a 1 percent losing its grip. We the people are very wrong if we believe that they are all-powerful.

We can organize alliances among constituencies that up until now have been easily divided. Waging Nonviolence blogger Kate Aronoff recently wrote about a blue-green alliance that is paying off. It takes good organizing, yes, and smart strategizing that emphasizes the big picture. It also borrows a page from the 1 percent’s playbook of being willing to play the long game, as they do with Amtrak and public schools.

As volatility increases and institutional legitimacy falls, our movements can grow more rapidly. That’s all the more reason to get smarter strategically and counter the opponent’s favorite moves, including divide and conquer, running down public services, and trying to delete the existence of people power.


How the 1 Percent Stays on Top

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Vintage illustration of 1930s bankers sitting in a men’s club, discussing the latest stock market news (screen print), 1931. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

It’s not easy for a tiny minority — even one as powerful as the 1 percent — to sustain its domination. Staying on top requires far more than just relying on the submission of the oppressed. It demands deft use of a variety of approaches, most of which work best if the people can’t see what they are and prepare against them.

With that in mind, here’s another installment of the 1 percent’s most trusted moves in opposing those who stand up for justice.

Shock and awe

This is a contradiction to Gandhi’s famous dictum: First your opponents ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they beat you, then you win. Because Gandhi’s observation is often accurate, “shock and awe” can throw activists for a loss. Shortly after Ronald Reagan became president, he refused the air traffic controllers’ demand for a wage increase. When the union went on strike, Reagan abruptly fired the controllers.

This move surprised nearly everyone. It risked antagonizing potential allies for his escalation of the arms race — not to mention the safety of air travel, which could have hurt the nation’s economy and wrecked his presidency. Yet, Reagan’s move succeeded. He sent a clear signal to organized labor: The 1 percent was declaring war after decades of giving ground to the initiatives of grassroots movements. In the years since 1980, we’ve seen the 1 percent on the offensive, seldom so dramatically as when Reagan picked that fight, but nevertheless both Republican and Democratic administrations have steadily pushed back labor and other anti-poverty movements.

By the end of the 20th century, some imagined that the 1 percent had obtained all they could want — after all, their level of wealth and power was beyond fabulous. Now that their deindustrialization of the country had hollowed out the working class and many people had turned to elections and given up their most powerful weapon, nonviolent direct action, surely the 1 percent could relax.

As we now know, however, the 1 percent did not ease up; they knew what Gandhi also believed: The best defense is an offense. The 1 percent took even more power and wealth while most progressive movements (except for LGBT activists) played defense and cried in their beer.

The next national use of shock and awe might be a new Republican administration early in 2017. But there is time to get ready to turn their move to our advantage.

Create a vision

On a policy level, the 1 percent have invested substantial sums on vision-generation through a network of think tanks, centrist and right-leaning academics, and pundits. This vision work has provided a steady stream of proposals that on their face sound rational and on the side of American values. For instance, there’s the idea that globalization is inevitable and the result of ever-advancing technology, or that turning testing over to companies is the best way to ensure no child is left behind, or that we can eradicate tyranny around the world through so-called humanitarian interventions.

By investing in vision, the 1 percent show awareness of the strong American legacy of idealism, which only gives their agenda more legitimacy. It also works by playing on the psychology of social class differences. In order to dominate, the 1 percent need loyalty from the middle class. And it helps that middle class culture carries values the 1 percent can appeal to, such as accountability implemented by rational procedures. That’s why the 1 percent will tell them things like, “Let’s make sure there is no electoral fraud and create new requirements for voting” or “To increase efficiency, make poor people prove their poverty to get food stamps and a chance to play basketball at the Y.”

Middle class people generally stay longer in school than working class people, and are perceived as the bearers of rationally-superior ideas. Working class people are tempted to defer to the middle class and regard their own intuitive skepticism as an inferior source of wisdom.

Working class skepticism nevertheless surfaces in times of polarization. When peace candidate George McGovern challenged the Vietnam War by running against President Richard Nixon in 1972, he won more working class than middle class voters. These days, working class skepticism particularly shows up when people vote with their feet on election day — a skepticism now verified by a careful empirical study from Princeton University.

I believe there is an individual, temperamental inclination to generate vision that is widely distributed. How much that capacity is rewarded, however, depends a lot on which class one occupies. Visionaries born into the owning class are more likely to get support and the opportunity to shine than middle class visionaries, who are, in turn, more likely to get it than working class visionaries. Nevertheless, the visionary impulse among working class people is a wild card. What if it surfaces in a radical politics?

One way for class society to remain stable is therefore to generate projects that attract working class visionaries and middle class professionals. Government creates empowerment/economic enterprise zones ostensibly to “lift neighborhoods and cities out of poverty.” The zones may in fact reflect a hidden agenda of gentrification. They may get their job-creation results by attracting firms to move in from the neighborhoods across town that don’t get the zone’s tax credits, leaving the region with little or no increase in jobs.

Nevertheless, organizing a zone attracts working class visionaries — often leaders in their neighborhoods — to work alongside middle class planners and experts to plan schemes like incubators for entrepreneurs and artists. The zones, announced dramatically with hoopla and often the credibility of university participation, distract from the only economic levers that genuinely have a track record for ending poverty. Those levers operate on a macro level, and are anathema to the 1 percent. Zones give working class visionaries distracting busy-work to do.

Declare it ‘a done deal’

The 1 percent’s deeper vision for America won’t hold up in thoughtful public discourse — it really is narrowly self-serving and unconcerned with the common good. Making deals behind closed doors is one solution. An example is the Keystone XL pipeline, which won more support in the political class when its merits were undebated because it was branded as “a done deal.” Hilary Clinton, as Secretary of State, was only one of a long list of centrists who blessed it, and she mattered because the proposal was Canadian and therefore had to do with foreign relations.

It wasn’t until 350.org initiated the largest environmental civil disobedience since the 1970s anti-nuke movement that the Keystone XL plan became debatable. President Obama un-did “the done deal” and up until now he has managed to kick the can down the road.

“A done deal” was also the strategic tool used to quell possible dissent in the nation’s largest city to be attacked by the national gambling casino industry. Pennsylvania State legislators passed the enabling legislation in the dead of night, on the eve of a holiday weekend. Thereafter, even Philadelphia politicians, who knew it was a scam, told activists that two large casinos for Philadelphia must inevitably be built.

Daniel Hunter’s book “Strategy and Soul” tells the inspiring story of how a nonviolent insurrection defeated one casino and forced the other to be only half its intended size. During the campaign, the activists continued to hear a familiar refrain from some potential allies: “It’s a done deal.” These objectors had little faith in, or little acquaintance with, strategic nonviolence, and were therefore unable to see the real power dynamics that operate outside the electoral realm.

Ironically, members of the 1 percent may have more respect for the power of nonviolent struggle than do many middle class liberals. That may be why the mass media fail to cover strategies of nonviolent campaigning. From now to election day, broadcast media will offer tens of thousands of hours devoted to electoral strategies; print media will focus on “the horse race” and disagreements among highly-paid electoral consultants. The contrast between mass media’s daily “political education” and the near-total absence of media coverage of nonviolent campaign strategy — even retrospectively about such a famous campaign as Selma — tells us what we need to know about the 1 percent’s intention: Ignore even the existence of strategizing that uses nonviolent direct action, distract the middle class with the electoral horse race, and announce with confidence that the latest injustice is already “a done deal.”

With this, as with other 1 percent strategies, to know is to be forewarned. Movements can prepare to use the moves of the other side as a chance to take the offensive. Chess is a much more interesting game than victimhood.


How Do You Beat the 1 Percent?  Start By Learning Their Moves

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Gandhi confronted a number of adversaries in his day, including a world empire. He sometimes called them “a worthy opponent” — one that used shrewd strategy to try to defeat his movement. Even though Gandhi was deeply concerned with ethical issues, he didn’t think that taking a moral stand excused him from the need to strategize. That meant paying attention to the moves coming at him.

In keeping with my last two columns on this subject (see part one and part two), here are five more of the economic elite’s favorite moves, as it seeks to maintain dominance in the United States and elsewhere.

Create a lesser-of-two-evils choice

When the nonviolent campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline upset the “done deal” between Canada and the United States, a flurry of discussion took place among environmentalists. A prominent expert took to the airwaves to argue that, since the Alberta tar sands oil was going to be extracted anyway, wouldn’t it be better to have it transported by pipeline rather than dangerous railcars?

Many liberals bought her argument, overlooking the assumption beneath it: “the Alberta tar sands oil is going to be extracted anyway.” They (and the environmental expert) fell into the trap; they failed to notice that the very framing of choices supported the elite’s goal and created an environmental disaster.

The current energy debate in Philadelphia is over whether to accept a new vision of the region as a fossil fuel “energy hub,” enlarging pipelines for Marcellus Shale natural gas and North Dakota fracked oil, gearing up Philadelphia’s refineries and tanker shipping, and stimulating petrochemical manufacturing. Here the framing is: Would you rather create new jobs and expand our tax base to support our schools through this exciting vision, or stick with the status quo left by past deindustrialization?

At the moment, the Philadelphia climate justice campaign fights for traction because the choice appears to be between the lesser of two evils. There’s not a vivid climate-friendly vision for economic development with an abundance of green jobs. U.S. political culture habituates the public to “lesser-of-two-evils” choices, and overlooks the question: who sets up this framing? If we follow the money the answer is obvious, and raises the next question: Why leave vision work to the 1 percent?

Put on the good-cop/bad-cop routine

For a long time the 1 percent has supported a division of labor for the two major political parties. The Republicans focus on meanness and repression, while the Democrats focus on compromise with progressive movements and co-optation. This division of labor works well for the economic elite, because they win no matter what party is in power. The track record of the Democrats, even when they control both houses of Congress and the White House, supports the ever-increasing wealth and control of the elite, while distracting movements from more effective options for exerting grassroots power.

Interestingly, the division of labor between the parties grows sharper as the 1 percent faces the potential political dynamite of a growing wealth gap. At times when income distribution in the United States is a bit closer to equality, bipartisanship in Congress is frequent. When income inequality becomes more extreme, the parties distance themselves from each other. Partisan polarization generates drama, as we saw during the health reform days early in the Obama administration. The healthcare reform coalition carefully avoided drama, disregarding the lessons of the civil rights movement on what actually works to bring about major change. The vacuum was filled by Tea Party Republicans, whose drama of course upstaged the reformers and resulted in the loss of a public option in the Affordable Care Act. Tens of millions of Americans still have no health insurance, while the private health care industry reaps additional profits paid by taxpayers.

The emotion of drama comes from somewhere. The Republicans give voice to the growing fear and anger of millions who feel, and are, oppressed. While it’s odd to hear millionaire white male Republicans speechify about how pushed around and marginalized they are, the narrative plays well among white, middle class older men who now recognize their relative powerlessness.

Extreme and outrageous behavior among Republican office-holders is helpful to the Democrats, who look ever more rational and “grown-up” even while failing to deliver major gains for labor, women and environmentalists.

On the ground, this means that any progressive grassroots campaign that looks as though it has legs can expect overtures from Democratic Party operatives to “help.” It feels great, especially for people who have been marginalized, to “have a seat at the table.”

Results are something else. In Wisconsin, a powerful grassroots direct action campaign resisting the 1 percent’s attack on labor was co-opted a few years ago by the Democratic Party, and went down to defeat. On the macro level, anyone can spend 20 minutes on the Internet comparing the United States with the Nordic countries to see how allowing ourselves to be co-opted has worked out for us.

Make it vertical, then lop off the bottom rungs

This move beguiles middle class groups committed to measurement and the rational use of scarce resources. In Pennsylvania, a historic system of 14 state universities exists separate from the better-known Pennsylvania State University. One of the 14, for a variety of reasons, is booming, giving the opportunity for the elite to apply its verticalizing strategy: first “reward” the prospering one by loosening its link to the other 14. This step encourages a couple of others to seek the same status, over time supporting the urge to rank the 14 from “best to worst.” It then becomes easier to abandon the “worst-performing” schools. Fitting into the racist narrative is that the oldest historically black college in the country, Cheyney State University, will be on the chopping block. (Full disclosure: I’m a graduate of Cheyney.)

Verticalizing not only enhances competition and back-stabbing, usually a good thing in the eyes of the 1 percent, but produces an attractive (to them) bottom line: less overall public funding going to the schools that are left standing.

Set up a study commission

This move has enormous appeal as long as we forget about the reality of power. The governmentally-sponsored study commission is a graveyard for good ideas that threaten the economic elite. It also drains off the talent and brains of progressive intellectuals who could instead be working for a people’s movement, generating the vision that such movements too often lack.

Discredit the truth-tellers

Like the other strategy tools employed by the 1 percent, this move does not always work. The failure of this move in the case of Edward Snowden is instructive. Enough people stood up to defend Snowden as a whistle-blower such that the combined machinery of media and the White House didn’t fully work. This shows why activists should be careful not to exaggerate the power of the economic elite. When a radical voice is attacked, activists need to be ready to go on the offensive. At the height of the anti-Communist hysteria in the 1950s, for instance, U.S. civil libertarians in Philadelphia rented the Academy of Music and filled its 3,000 seats for a speech by a U.S. Communist Party leader who had been indicted as a criminal for violating the Smith Act.

There are many ways to counter the economic elite, depending on the specifics of the situation, but all are enhanced by preparation and going on the offensive. Not everyone who cares about justice loves strategy, but those who have a knack for it can join progressive movements and lend a hand.

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