The “Great” Experiment
Time to stop drinking the Kool-Aid
The phrase, “great experiment” is often attributed to Alexis De Tocqueville from his book, On Democracy in America published in 1835.
In that land the great experiment was to be made, by civilized man, of the attempt to construct society upon a new basis; and it was there, for the first time, that theories hitherto unknown, or deemed impracticable, were to exhibit a spectacle for which the world had not been prepared by the history of the past.
In 1831, Alexis De Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were sent to America by the French government to study our prison system. While here, Tocqueville was also researching American democracy and Beaumont was researching American slavery. After returning home to France, they published On the Penitentiary System in the United States, Slavery in the United States and On Democracy in America.
In a letter to Reeve, unhappy about his translation, Tocqueville wrote:
“Without wishing to do so and by following the instinct of your opinions, you have quite vividly colored what was contrary to Democracy and almost erased what could do harm to Aristocracy.”
This is a perfect microcosm of American mythology and propaganda. Global aristocrats poking and prodding at the suffering of the lower classes in an effort to understand the appropriate balance of Democracy (power given to us) and Aristocracy (power kept for themselves). Tocqueville — who was critical of but not entirely opposed to aristocracy — thought Reeve had overstated the case and erased the nuance of the power relationships. It seems Tocqueville was right. Reeve’s editorial license became a powerful new American meme. The Great Experiment now lives in the pantheon of American propaganda with classics like “the Land of Opportunity”, Horatio Alger and the rugged individual.
With this post I am suggesting that the great experiment is not an experiment of a system that rewards hard work and provides opportunity for all. Instead, I believe the “Great” Experiment is an ongoing attempt to prove the hypothesis that a ruling class can titrate freedoms to their subjects to create calculated and tenuous comfort so that fear of losing those freedoms motivates the subjects to sustain the engine that supports the power and wealth of the ruling class.
Racial Slavery and the “Great” Experiment
In his article, How Racism Relies on Arbitrary Hierarchies, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi discusses the noxious and craven creation of race and racism as a strategy to justify the enslavement and exploitation of Black bodies.
“The first global power to construct race happened to be the first racist power and the first exclusive slave trader of the constructed race of African people. The individual who orchestrated this trading of an invented people was nicknamed the “Navigator,” though he did not leave Portugal in the 15th century. The only thing he navigated was Europe’s political-economic seas, in order to create the first transatlantic slave-trading policies. Hailed for something he was not (and ignored for what he was) — it is fitting that Prince Henry the Navigator, the brother and then uncle of Portuguese kings, is the first character in the history of racist power.
Prince Henry’s first biographer — and apologist — became the first race maker and crafter of racist ideas. King Afonso V commissioned Gomes de Zurara, a royal chronicler and a loyal commander in Prince Henry’s Military Order of Christ, to compose a glowing biography of the African adventures of his “beloved uncle.” Zurara finished The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea in 1453, the first European book on Africa.
One of Zurara’s stories chronicled Prince Henry’s first major slave auction in Lagos, Portugal, in 1444. Some captives were “white enough, fair to look upon, and well proportioned,” while others were “like mulattoes” or “as black as Ethiops, and so ugly.” Despite their different skin colors and languages and ethnic groups, Zurara blended them into one single group of people, worthy of enslavement.”
All across the Atlantic this hierarchy was exploited to prove the hypothesis of the “Great” Experiment. In her book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Keri Leigh Merritt writes about how aristocrats set poor whites against blacks in the 1840’s and 1850’s in America.
“Complete with large percentages of slaves and a sizable, disaffected poor white underclass, a constant state of anxiety engulfed much of the Deep South in the years preceding secession,” Merritt writes. An alliance between slaves and poor whites would have threatened “the fortunes, the power, and even the lives of the region’s masters.” Slaveholders would take nearly any step to prevent this interracial alliance from forming, and Merritt argues that the treatment of poor southern whites stemmed in part from the white elite’s efforts to preserve the institution of slavery. (Steven White, In his review of Masterless Men in the Los Angeles Review of Books)
Another iteration, another measured dose of freedom invidiously applied.
Reconstruction and the Gilded Age
In 1865 the Civil War ended, the 13th Amendment passed declaring slavery illegal, and the Reconstruction began. Another moment when great things were possible and noble aspirations were declared. But instead of a more equitable nation, we got The Gilded Age. Historian Richard White describes this moment like this:
“Toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans had a clear vision of what they wanted the country to be. They sought to make the republic a replica of Springfield, Illinois, a Midwestern town that embodied free labor and the middle class. By 1896, it was clear that they had helped produce a very different world.”
Another iteration, another measured dose of freedom invidiously applied.
In 1921 in Tulsa Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, Black American’s built Black Wall Street. For the offense of being Black, comfortable and self-sufficient; for the offense of not being poor; for the offense of taking freedoms they were not given; residents of the Greenwood District were murdered by their neighbors. For building Black Wall Street and actualizing the most American of mythologies, residents of the Greenwood District were murdered by a mob of angry white men acting as proxy for the system itself, erasing the outliers, cleansing and purifying the data, validating the hypothesis of the “Great” Experiment.
Reconstruction is to the Civil Rights Era as The Gilded Age is to the Age of Information
In 1967, during the middle of the Vietnam War and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Timothy Leary asked 30,000 hippies gathered in San Francisco to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Leary explained the phrase as a personal journey of enlightenment and self-determination and lamented:
“Unhappily, my explanations of this sequence of personal development are often misinterpreted to mean ‘Get stoned and abandon all constructive activity’”.
Three years later in 1970, Gil Scott Heron released “The Revolution Will not Be Televised” and confronted the privilege inherent in Leary’s aspiration of personal enlightenment.
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials, because
The revolution will not be televised
This cultural exchange seems to provide a more nuanced window into what it means to be a subject of the “great” experiment. Proof of the hypothesis depends on the participation of the subjects and how we balance our satisfaction with our assigned freedoms and our fear of losing those freedoms. Leary’s rebellion was personal, each of us rejecting and consciously abandoning the paradigm of the experiment, each of us, individually, finding enlightenment.
“Turn on” meant go within to activate your neural and genetic equipment. Become sensitive to the many and various levels of consciousness and the specific triggers engaging them. Drugs were one way to accomplish this end. “Tune in” meant interact harmoniously with the world around you — externalize, materialize, express your new internal perspectives. “Drop out” suggested an active, selective, graceful process of detachment from involuntary or unconscious commitments. “Drop Out” meant self-reliance, a discovery of one’s singularity, a commitment to mobility, choice, and change.” -Timothy Leary in his 1983 autobiography Flashbacks
In contrast to the personal enlightenment that Leary described, Gil Scott Heron saw a collective movement where individuals compared their own lives to those around them in an effort to build a collective enlightenment, a revolution.
The first change that takes place is in your mind. You have to change your mind before you change the way you live and the way you move. The thing that’s going to change people is something that nobody will ever be able to capture on film. It’s just something that you see and you’ll think, “Oh I’m on the wrong page,” or “I’m on the right page but the wrong note. And I’ve got to get in sync with everyone else to find out what’s happening in this country.” (- Gil Scott Heron, 6:25 in this video)
It seems Heron is not simply negating Leary. Heron is agreeing that we must each become awake to the trajectory of the country but also declaring that personal enlightenment is insufficient. After becoming aware, we must each get in sync with everyone else and only then can we move forward together to something better. Each of us moving alone is not good enough. Heron seems to declare a truth; as individuals we are still pawns in someone else’s game but through cooperation we can rewrite the rules.
Commenting about the America of100 years earlier, Richard White echoes this sentiment:
“The ‘American dream’ during this time was about attaining a “competency” rather than great riches. A competency meant having enough to secure independence, security in times of crisis and old age and the means to start children out in life. Previous historians have described Reconstruction and the Gilded Age as a time of individualism. But it was less about individualism than cooperation. These alternate American values are something we forget today.” — Richard White
Around 1970, a year after “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and 100 years after the end of reconstruction, the era of the Civil Rights Movement was over. And, like 100 years earlier at the beginning of the first Gilded Age, I imagine a cabal of American domestic colonialists, another iteration of the founding fathers, another iteration of the robber barons, huddled in a smoky room intent on tightening their control of their laborers; intent on tightening their control of their consumers. This is the moment when the New Deal and the Great Society became just another dose of limited freedoms handed to children from unmarked white vans. In the 1870’s, Oil and railroads fueled the Gilded age just as, in the 1970’s, financial services and the Internet were the engine for the massive concentration of wealth we are experiencing now. The Robber Barons are reborn.
Inequality is the Goal
The story of income inequality is always told as if it was a natural phenomenon; as if it was an inevitable consequence of winners winning.
“Beginning in the 1970s, economic growth slowed and the income gap widened. Income growth for households in the middle and lower parts of the distribution slowed sharply, while incomes at the top continued to grow strongly.” — A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Inequity is the intended, or more generously, predictable outcome of policy put in place by oligarchs and their political toadies. Sustainable inequality is the goal of the “Great” Experiment. Starting around 1970, taxes were increased for low incomes and cut for high incomes. The quality and existence of essential services like health care and education were limited or erased for low income families and improved for high income families which created 20+ year differences in life expectancy. In an effort to increase competitiveness in an era of increasing globalization, companies were allowed to build monopolies making them more competitive but also giving them far greater control over prices, wages, labor, regulation, etc. Minimum wage, welfare, and worker unions were redefined as handouts to the lazy and undeserving, handouts to losers, handouts to the poors that are holding us down. (How to Fix Income Inequality by the Peterson Institute for International Economics) By defining the poor as deserving of their poverty, we justify the idea that the rich are uniquely worthy and deserving of their ability take what they want, when they want, because they want (see LIBOR and FOREX scandals as two particularly egregious examples.)
This idea, that poverty is the result of the limited capacity of the poor, exists solely to support the hypothesis of the great experiment. In their work with financial diaries, Jonathan Morduch and his colleagues have shown that poverty is not associated with some fundamental failure or deficit of the people who are poor. (US Financial Diaries and Portfolios of the Poor). Morduch’s work demonstrates clearly that the world’s poorest people are excellent money managers who are able to continue to exist by making excruciating decisions about how to allocate minuscule funds. These life and death financial decisions are far more real, far more human, than what we are told to think about when we think about financial planning. We are told that financial planning is meant to be about retirement and buying a house, not how to get enough calories to stay alive and, more insidiously, if you are required to stave off catastrophe multiple times a day it must be because you deficient. The cognitive load of financial decisions made by the poor is so heavy and oppressive that it makes any planning or dreaming of tomorrow literally impossible due to the necessity of focusing on the searing reality of today.
This trap, this all consuming pain of the present, this is not just an unfortunate consequence of Capitalism. Keeping Americans face down in the economic muck while offering them only their own bootstraps to pull themselves out is not a bug, it is a feature. It is the proof of the hypothesis of the “Great” Experiment.