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When Belief in the System Fades   (March 12, 2008)

Knowledgeable correspondent Jon H. recently recommended an important book on the elites which sit astride the U.S. economy and government and describes their actions/errors during the 20th century: Tragedy & Hope: A History of the World in Our Time

I look forward to reading this monumental work.

The topic of elites stimulated this train of thought: yes, there are elites in every human culture (and in the social apes as well). But unlike a troop of chimps ruled by an alpha male, today's elites cannot operate the vast complex structure of the the U.S. economy, government and society themselves. They need hundreds of thousands of well-educated, hard-working people to believe in the system of meritocracy, justice, opportunity, etc., people who will choose to invest their entire productive lives in sustaining the structure the elites influence/control.

Just to refresh our memory of just how complex the structure of The Powers That Be is, here is a chart I prepared last year:

The corollary to this structural need for highly motivated, dedicated people to work the gears is that if their belief in the machine fades, then the machine grinds to a halt.

In the Armed Forces, the key layer of staffing is in the middle: lieutenants, captains, chief petty officers, etc. If those non-coms and junior officers leave the service, the Force is essentially gutted, regardless of the generals and admirals and high-tech weaponry and the valor of the recruits.

There is some evidence that just such a migration is occuring.

In a large law firm, the essential layer is the hungry-to-be-partner attorneys who labor insane hours for years, enriching their bosses as they pursue the carrot of "partner."

In the retail world, it is the store managers and assistant managers who keep the store running smoothly.

In construction, it is the foremen/women and onsite supervisors who get the building built.

In every case, the person takes on the burdens in the belief that their career will be enhanced and they will make more money/gain more prestige. Yes, we all understand this. But they also must believe in the structural fairness, justice, opportunity, security, meritocracy, etc. of the machine they willingly serve--even if their belief is subconscious or rarely in their conscious thoughts.

This belief is far more vulnerable than the Powers That Be seem to understand. You see the alienation, the bitterness, the disbelief, in factory workers when the factory shuts down, and their livelihoods are gone--and all too often, so too are the pension and benefits they were promised.

You see it in the face of an academic who worked long hours for years "on the tenure track," carrying much of the department's teaching load, when she/he is ultimately denied tenure. Thank you for working for $40,000 a year for years alongside people doing the same work for twice the salary; good night and good luck.

When the most dedicated servants of the system awaken to the realization that they are not benefitting from their service as they'd once believed, that their near-religious faith in the System has been bruised by the grim knowledge that the few are benefitting from the lives and sacrifices of the many, then they simply quit, or move down the chain to an undemanding position.

You can still work in law without having to bill 80 hours a week. You can resign your commission at 20 years and go live on a farm and leave all the headaches behind. You can resign from the commissions and boards and "career-enhancing" stuff you've crammed in after your regular hours. You can refuse the offer of the position of supervisor, or manager, or head of sales, because you now see the extra pay and phony prestige isn't worth it.

In a way, a belief in the value, transparency, trust and reciprocity of the System is like a religious belief. The converts, the true believers, are the ones who work like crazy for the company, or the Force or the firm. And when the veil of illusion is tugged from their eyes, then the Believer does a reversal, and becomes a devout non-believer in the System. He or she drops out, moves to a lower position, or "retires" to some lower level of employment.

One trigger of such destruction of belief in the worth of the System is the loss of a job or house--an event I unfortunately anticipate will become very common. "But don't these people have to work to support their lifestyles?" Yes they do, until they realise they can live on half the money they thought they needed as an absolute minimum.

Not that most people choose this--they find out via bankruptcy or being laid off, or by watching their buddies and friends getting laid off (or killed/wounded) around them. Their belief in the goodness and reciprocity of the System--that if you work hard and keep your nose clean, we're gonna take good care of you--fades and then dies.

Immigrants are by self-selection believers, and the rise from poverty to relative wealth they see around them offers visible proof that sacrificing one's productive life for the System is rewarding.

But once you've reached the plateau of relative wealth, then the proposition becomes contingent on exactly what happens to you and your family. If your kids all get advanced degrees and they can't find a decent job in their chosen profession, then you start wondering. If you get laid off, despite your decades of selfless service, then you start wondering. If you get passed over in favor of some brown-noser, you start wondering.

And then you realize you don't have to work 60 hours a week, or live in a big house. An apartment works just fine, and 40 hours a week is enough. Let somebody else step up and take all the heat and the guff and the never-catch-up endlessness of the work.

At that point--a point I anticipate will come to pass in the next 5-10 years--then the elites' machine grinds to a crawl. People don't have to throw their bodies on the gears of the machine--they just have to stop believing, stop taking that promotion, and stop wanting to trade their entire lives for a thin slice of more more more.

If that day comes, then the social contract will have to be rewritten, or an entirely new set of elites will have to emerge with a new social contract which people are willing to believe and trust.

Readers Journal has been updated! As always, readers have shared incisive commentaries on key issues such as pharmaceutical ads and the demise of house flippers/speculators: There's also a new thought-provoking essay by contributor Chuck D. and a new short poem by Verona, My Second Self.

Special bonus update: Recommended Books/Films has been updated with dozens of new books and films. Scroll all the way to the right to see our exciting new film categories, "French Tough-Guy Films" and "Guy Films (no Merchant-Ivory!)". Great fun. If you think all French movies are romantic triangles or cuddly movies like "Amelie," prepare to be blown away.

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