You can look at most of the history of civilization as a struggle between the powerful trying to exploit the masses as much as they can, until they push too much and it snaps back the other way and the masses rise up and overthrow, kill, or otherwise resist this and put real fear in the hearts of the exploiters.
Take a look at FDR a little cynically. He was a rich man that came from the aristocratic class, yet created a lot of reforms that helped the common person at the expense of the rich. He was viewed by many rich of the time as a class traitor for that. But what FDR saw was a period where the excesses of the rich made life quite difficult for regular people and that we were potentially looking at one of those historical “snap back” moments.
Preceding him was massive income inequality matched only by the robber baron era, and only exceeded … by today. As tends to happen, when those with the most got too greedy, society started to collapse. The Roarin’ 20s led to the great depression. The zeitgeist of the era seemed to indicate that international socialism might actually gain a real foothold around the world, and as impossible as it might seem now, the US might have rebelled against the conditions that lead to the great depression by embracing it.
So if you were inclined to read FDR’s intentions cynically, you might read the New Deal as a pressure relief valve. To make things better for the average person to the degree that they could avoid the backlash which would topple the current power structure. Sure, the rich had to give up some of their wealth - and this was not a small matter, they almost executed a coup against him - but in doing so, they’d avoid the worst of the backlash and maintain the traditional power structure in the US.
As I mentioned, inequality now is worse than it was during the Roarin’ 20s. Millenials and Gen Z will be the first American generations that does worse than their parents financially. And why? There was no great war, no great catastrophe. The world is more peaceful and prosperous than it has ever been. There’s more wealth to share than there has ever been, even as the average person has less and less of it. Things that were considered basic staples of American life are falling further out of reach - education, access to medicine, home ownership, and more recently, even being able to pay your own rent.
It’s a cycle. The greed of the powerful always resurfaces. They try to take more and more until people have had enough, and push back. The only thing that keeps those in power in most countries giving any sort of concessions to those below them - to reel in their greed and help improve things for the average person - is the fear that what happened to Louis XIV could happen to them.
The “economic elite” have completely captured both parties in the US. Study and journalistic write up. Even before the current conservative coup that will very likely be successful, democracy in the US was already a bit of a farce. Elections are real (this is likely coming to an end), but almost irrelevant to policy in as far as it concerns the balance of power between the rich and the regular people.
It has been quite a long time since the American people have engaged in significant civil disobedience (the George Floyd protests might be the only significant event since the civil rights conflict of the 60s) and the rich and powerful are overconfident that they can keep pushing us - keep getting even greedier - until they have everything. And so far they’re right, they’ve faced no significant resistance. They think they can achieve that end through controlling our media to control us. They might be right. We’re in uncharted territory. It doesn’t usually go this far before there’s that backlash.
The creation of Fox News and that whole echo chamber - conservative talk radio, think tanks, chain e-mails, twitter bots, the whole deal - was basically designed to create unthinking obedience, even when acting against their own interest, of a significant, very politically active minority in the US. And they’ve done an incredible job of it. These are the people who will fight to the death to cut their own food stamps and medicare, who were basically made into a ready to hijack cult when Trump came along. The people who are willing to fight the hardest against taxation or any other social policy that benefits the average person at the expense of the rich are people who have essentially been brainwashed into being passionately against their own interests. The rich and powerful devised this plan as a way to maintaining a complete control in a nominal democracy and enact policies that hurt almost every American to the benefit of a very tiny few and it has created a level of cult-like obedience to a degree that I think exceeded their wildest dreams.
Our history has also been whitewashed. Things we take for granted today, like unions, worker protections, and civil rights, were paid for in blood. They were brought about by violence and the threat of violence. But the vast majority of Americans don’t know those stories. They instead only highlight the non-violent part of those changes. They tell us, for example, that black people were granted legal status as first class citizens purely because Martin Luther King made some nice speeches and asked real nicely for white people to respect them. They downplay the violence and threat of violence that made them worry about the stability of society and their place on top of it. They’ve convinced us that “violence is never the answer” and washed that that out of even potentially being part of the discussion, because they know that’s one of the few tools that the rest of us have to push back when they’ve exploited us too much. That sort of framing is affecting almost all of you, who are probably uncomfortable reading me talk about violence as one of the only ways to fight back against those who would exploit us because the idea of violence being a legitimate tool in the face of injustice has been completely invalidated in your mind as a thought that a reasonable and decent person can have. That’s exactly the sort of control I’m talking about.
Non-participation can work too - the threat of general strikes and non-compliance can threaten their income, and so they’d listen to that, too, but they’ve also effectively controlled that. Over 90% of media in the US is owned by the same 6 giant conglomerates. If there were burgeoning efforts to have general strikes to increase the living condition for the average person, do you think these corporate owned news sources would spread the news to make people aware of those? Really?
You could say that the internet can get around the stranglehold that the powerful have over traditional media, but that’s becoming increasingly less true, too. A lot of you were around 15 or 20 years ago, when the internet was a wild west full of a million different places and ideas. It’s increasingly becoming 5 or 6 big websites that control everyone’s experience. They wield an incredible amount of power through their editorial decisions, their decisions to allow disinformation, their choice to steer people towards right wing radicalization, etc. We’ve basically taken the promise out of the internet and voluntarily made it another place where a few entities can control the acceptable range of discussion as a society, just like traditional media has become.
The rich and powerful allow us to fight over issues that they don’t give a shit about, like guns and abortion and religion and racism while they hope they don’t notice that no one has been allowed to make a policy that benefits the economic interests of the average person over the rich in many decades, while they rape our planet and post an existential threat to human civilization so they can get their wealth high score up a little higher before they die. They love it when we squabble about these things as it gives us the illusion that we’re in control while they exploit us.
We are already pretty far past the point where that traditional pushback of the masses against the elites would’ve happened. Our policies are so greedy that people are having a hard time surviving in a peaceful, prosperous world. It seems pretty clear that improving the lives of the vast majority of us is not in the cards, that maximum greed is going to be pressed until things fall apart. As demonstrated in the aforementioned studies and through observation and common sense, voting isn’t going to get us there, and widescale non-compliance is likely not in the cards, either.
Given that, and given the never-ending cycle of greed and exploitation while our lives get worse in the richest, most peaceful period in world history, what options are left to make our lives better, and to get our share of that prosperity?