I feel like Gene Hackman in Enemy of the State. You know: that movie with Will Smith where Hackman’s character is the old guy who knows how corrupt and all-powerful the system is and Smith’s character is the one who gets stuck in a web of intrigue far enough that he desperately needs Hackman’s help to survive.
The system in that case was the spy and counterspy world of the NSA and international electronic surveillance. It’s a system that exists beneath the radar of Everyman so far that virtually no citizen knows it exists. And yet it does exist, and the extent of its tentacles’ invisible involvement in the life of Everyman is unbelievably entangled. Smith discovers all of this and awakes to understand a part of reality he had been supporting with his own efforts — taxes paid, votes cast — but would probably not have done so if he had known what was going on. I feel this way a lot lately.
It’s a bit like The Matrix too. We’re all “copper tops” powering something we’re intimately intertwined with, but we have no idea it’s there or that we’re making it possible. This invisible part of the world we live in is made possible by our contribution — and here I mean in way more ways than simple taxes and votes — and the resulting invisible superstructure of society not only exists and benefits from us, but actually acts to control us so that we never really perceive it. But even more importantly, these invisible puppeteers who live off the proceeds of the labors of the world act directly to maintain their power over us and our ignorance of their manipulations of us to keep it that way.
Imagine any of the really rich families, for example. The Koch brothers of energy, chemical, pulp and paper, the Waltons of Walmart fame, or the Rothchilds, the Rockefellers, the Romanovs, the di Medicis, or even the Hiltons. There are hundreds or even more than a thousand of these groups, families that are wealthy beyond belief, whose connection to the real world you and I occupy is tenuous at best. They exist as they do because the system of our world gives people with wealth like theirs enough power to never have to even see the world upon which even their elevated and distanced existence depends.
Consider Joe Sixpack, the guy next to me on the train or the bus nearly every day of the week. He’s a great guy, with a family he loves, a big morgage and several credit card balances and car loans. He loves football and beer and barbecuing in the back garden on summer evenings, and his contributions to his church are significant fraction of his disposable income because he’s someone who works hard and wants to give back to society. He works for Boeing, having made his way up from sweeping factory floors to leading a manufacturing team making carbon fiber composite wing tips. He votes Republican because he believes in hard work and not allowing our government to tax and spend its way into becoming even more a bloated burden on business and work people, giving away American wealth to support lazy, stupid poor people who need to just get up from their couches and get a job and become like Joe.
Across the aisle on the train is Ms. Lila Liberal. She eats organic fruit and nuts and yogurt on the train and reads Huffington Post articles on her iPhone. She carries a bag made from recycled materials she bought while on a working vacation in Haiti helping to rebuild low income housing destroyed during recent earthquakes there. She works as a legal assistant in a high rise building in Seattle, often exceeds her boss’s expectations, and is getting noticed for it. It seems her future is very bright. She’s an atheist, and lives with her partner who is a woman. She always votes Democrat, although she does so reluctantly, knowing her candidates are funded by corporate and other interests expecting to receive concessions in return. She believes the world could be a much better place if only the influence of the gigantic corporations in our government could be eliminated.
Never mind which of these people’s beliefs are the ones I agree with. Never mind which you agree with. Think about them in abstract for the moment. These two people would seem to be opposites in many ways. They are opposed in views, and effectively cancel each other out in terms of political power. They represent a continuous source of conflict for which there appears to be no resolution.
What of it? Why do these two people matter? It’s the work that enables their very existence, creating things in the world, lending the energy of their bodies and minds and creativity toward the forward progress of an economy that matters. They work, trading their time for money — the very same money that they need to live and pursue their interests, to raise their families or pets, or simply to keep their surroundings beautiful and comfortable, and to continue to work so they can earn money to continue the cycle. As they work, they put energy into the system that is our economy. In spending their earnings, they help to move everyone’s money along, again adding value in the sense that they are choosing products that are better than competitive products, taking them home, and using them — perhaps eventually needing repairs or replacement parts or a subscription to continue to be useful over time.
These people, like most of us, are hamsters on a wheel, running forever to get what they need to continue to run. Ah, you’ll say, it’s what they do with their lives along the way that matters. Sure. It certainly is. But that’s not the point of my little rant here, so I’ll continue on to that point having said enough on the subject of hamster wheels for now.
What matters is that they keep running. Adding value to the economy, building its energy level up and up and up. This powers the continuation of what all have built over the centuries: human civilization as we know it. This is a good thing. We’re all improving our standard of living, building wealth, getting safer, more comfortable, healthier, etc.
But along the way there is a group that is buoyed upward by this process as an invisible side effect of the world’s self-enriching climb upward. The rising tide may raise all ships, but some of the ships are rising faster than most, and they’re so high already we can’t even see them. We never could. These are the richest of the rich, whose existence depends entirely upon the efforts of Joe and Lila and billions in the world just like them. These wealthy, privileged people depend on the continued balancing act of the political process that keeps everyone arguing while true control of the world is actually in the hands of those who provide the funding to power the election controversies and the mannequins who run for office in the first place. They pay a little to get control, but that control provides them with an astoundingly huge return on that investment.
As long as Joe and Lila continue to oppose each other while working to put food on their tables, build their homes into comfortable places, keep themselves entertained, and doing all the things we have come to believe we are free to do in life, the Rothchilds, the Waltons, the Kochs, and all the others can keep printing money and pulling the strings.
Or not. They have so much money they can hire someone to handle all of the sordid details of running the world. They have more important things to do — there is an island in the Hawaiian island chain that’s available if they buy their way past laws and make it theirs before someone else does.