Oprah Winfrey asked former President Jimmy Carter whether he could be president today. His response was vintage Carter: instructive and thoughtful as well as frank.
“We’ve become now an oligarchy instead of a democracy. And, I think that has been the worst damage to the basic moral and ethical standards of America’s political system that I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Social workers, as practitioners in the public space engaged in an ethic-inspired promotion of human dignity and worth must understand systems call former president Carter is echoing. He’s not the first to make this call. He is not the first to quantify it with data. But, social work is uniquely oriented professionally to answer the call.
Oligarchy is best understood contextualized by economic systems and their relationship with the government. The basic explanation offers three economic systems, capitalism, socialism, and communism. Capitalism suggests that the market has little relationship with the government. Any regulations are tilted toward private ownership and wealth creation. Socialism suggests that the market is regulated by the people the through government and influenced by egalitarian ethics. Communism suggests that the market is owned by the people through the government ensuring egalitarian distribution of wealth.
No matter the economic system, oligarchy defines who constitutes “the people.” In an oligarchy, the wealthiest of the citizens control both the means of production and the market according to their ethics. When those ethics tend toward support of the principles of individualism and consumerism, the result is a populace who believes they can become rich and powerful without the responsibility of ownership.
Oligarchy trades on a deception and a distraction perpetrated on the masses. Work hard and you too can achieve what the wealthy have achieved. This is the deception. One will never become wealthy through work, i.e. the sale of labor. Wealth comes from ownership of the means of production. That means, in order to become wealthy, you must create something. Ownership of the means of production stems from the ability to translate ideas into capital.
The distraction is a function of the individualism and consumerism. Many are so caught up working to achieve the American dream that they make two unsustainable observations about human life. First, they are more troubled and angry about those who do not work and are poor, than those who do not work and are rich. The idea that when people have more, they can offer more to society is lost in the midst of an individualistic notion. Second, many find the appearance of riches an easier achievement than actual wealth. Both the lack of knowledge and the lack of patience to build a legacy are operant in this distraction.
The deception and the distraction are fertile context for oligarchy. Oligarchy thrives when the populace is beset with a proper mix of poverty and apathy. That mix is in perfect fermentation with the yeast of individualism and consumerism. It takes the focus away from the system created by wealth and places it upon the people in squabbles amongst themselves.
Overcoming Oligarchy: Collective Action
Social workers are uniquely suited to address this need in society. Working with “the masses” social workers have the potential to influence the population that has the most to gain from change in the status quo. This population is also the favorite target of fiscal conservatives, consumerist, and individualist alike who fault them for their ills and the ills of society.
Social workers would do well to implement their systemic change and human synergy skills across systems. Expand from individualism to collective action. Respond from consumerism to a producer ethic. Empower from poverty to financial literacy. Graduate from apathy to involvement.
- From Individualism to Collective Action. You don’t have to adopt collectivism, but you must learn to work with others to achieve goals. One million people can raise $1 million dollars for just a dollar each. Five dollars each is five million dollars.
- From Consumerism to Producer Ethic. Valuing, sharing, and developing ideas must become the norm in education, family, and civic life.
- From Poverty to Financial Literacy. Wealth creation is a generational process requiring sustainable resource management and wise investment. It begins with education.
- From Apathy to Involvement. The discussions must move away from people who are lazy and misguided to focus on the system and the ethics, mechanisms, and structures that maintain the status quo and corrupt opportunity.