Mao and the Middle Class: What’s the Source of Political Power?

The decline of middle class wealth and income is not just an economic trend–it translates directly to a decline in political power. Chairman Mao famously noted that “Political power grows out of the barrel of gun,”, but this is only true in specific circumstances, for reasons elucidated by author Edward Luttwak in his book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire.

Luttwak delineated the difference between force and power. Force is what grows out of a barrel of a gun: the ability to coerce people to obey commands.

Force is expensive and labor-intensive. If you want to prohibit people from using alternative currencies or making black market trades, for example, you have to literally follow every individual, as black market transactions can occur virtually anywhere by pre-arrangement.

Forcing people not to horde scarce goods is another example.

Power manifests when people willingly obey or choose to comply. Although it’s tempting to boil power down to threats of punishment/death, history offers many examples of intensive repression and threats failing to translate force into power.

Filing tax returns is an example of low-cost compliance. The IRS audits and prosecutes relatively few taxpayers for non-compliance. The vast majority of people choose to comply without being forced to do so. This leverage is power.

Power ultimately flows from the populace’s belief that the state or other authority could deploy overwhelming force if necessary. The subject populace makes a mental calculation of risk and return, and concludes that the high risks and modest gains of non-compliance make compliance the wiser, lower risk choice.

We are seeing force and power playing out in the Brexit drama. The European Union needs to punish Britain for leaving the EU, as the ability to enforce a painful punishment on any nation leaving the union will communicate (like nothing else can) that there will be a high cost to exiting the EU.

If other nations believe they will share the same fate as Britain and thus decide to stay in the EU, the EU will be manifesting power. Power is persuading people to comply without having to invest any political capital or treasure in the application of force.

If Britain exits the EU and avoids any severe financial penalty, the EU’s power will be exposed as “all snarl and no bite.” The inability to force severe punishment on Britain will reveal the limits of EU power. The realization that the EU can’t force severe punishment may well free other member states to re-calculate the risk-return of exiting the EU.

The key to voluntary compliance is the stake being held in the status quo. Those holding a major stake in the status quo–for example, homeowners with significant equity/wealth in their homes–have a much different risk-return calculus than those with very little stake in the status quo.

To quote Bob Dylan: “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

The middle class is losing its stake in the status quo, and this is loosening the state’s power over the middle class and reducing the power of the middle class, which has less motivation to comply and less motivation to fight for political influence.

The lower-income class that is dependent on state welfare benefits has a major stake in the status quo. So does the well-paid top-5% technocrat/professional class.

The middle class in between has less stake in the status quo than either the dependent bottom or the high-income top. Why bother fighting for a dwindling stake in a corrupt system? If you can’t join the high-income top 5%, then the rational choice is to opt out or slide into the lower class that qualifies for full state benefits.

As the middle class’s stake in the status quo diminishes, so does state power over the middle class. Those with less to lose will slowly stop complying or engaging in political battles (i.e. advocacy). A pox on all your houses expresses a disdain not just for the corrupt system but for the state’s power to enforce its will by threat.

This decline in the stake of the middle class is the source of profound political instability. Note how the top 1% have gained wealth, income and power, at the expense of the middle class:

Rising federal debt will eventually impact taxpayers and state dependents alike, pitting various classes against each other.

Meanwhile, the entire status quo, public and private, is being crushed by unprecedented debt loads.

Needless to say, stagnating income and soaring debt loads is not a story with a happy ending.

Force is not the same as power. If force fails to persuade, power evaporates.

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  • Dr Mindbender

    The People are their own worst enemies.

    They do nothing; and therefore, the powers that be will eat them alive. Most people do not know, all Moussolini ( a good example, because He was a Nobody) did was organize “a protest” to march on Rome. He installed himself -and had almost absolute power- because the people were with Him. The King of Italy became a Puppet.

    Americans are too apathetic and think they can do nothing. However, they have a Constitution that authorizes them to use force. Citizens Arrest allows US citizens to use Force. US citizens have more Constitutional authority to use force than Government. I, myself, was Amazed when I learned this, but what value does it have if it is never practiced?

    All it would take is 1-million ( that`s all) “angry protesters” to march on WALL STREET, because that is the KINGPIN of US POWER , CORRUPTION,and Projection, Globally! You Checkmate WALL STREET and the US government becomes YOUR Puppet! Simple.

    • animalogic

      “Simple” ? Maybe.
      Firstly, such a movement would likely have been infiltrate by the FBI etc months before. Expect the entire leadership to be arrested. Expect another 10,000 arrests just for insurance. Expect both police & military to welcome any March on wall Street.
      But – win over significant number of police/military & maybe you’ll be in with a good chance….

      • Dr Mindbender

        NO. You screen your leadership.

        Then, you have security forces in place to do background checks.

        The police and military can always be corrupted and infiltrated too. Who wants a chance to own the stock market? You can play it for your own gain shorting it on the way down, and so, there is something for everyone. If they arrest 10,000, than they get charges filed for being a complete tyranny! However, they do not have the power to arrest 10,000, unless the people allow it.

        Police and Military “who do not respect the people” will be addressed. You do not have an organization with 1-million and go about it all stupid and peaceful.

        • Dr Mindbender

          Yes, and to clarify,

          You see that picture above?

          Those people are angry over a lot less, than is occurring in USA, today!

          We have over “1-million laws” dictating our every breath in USSA. Nobody in “Florian Geyers” day could even imagine such Tyranny!

          So … today, we have a Constitution that affords us the rights of Protest, Assembly, Militia, Free Speech and even Citizens Arrest ( that allows for Force to be used). Simply, infiltrators and other government malfeasance will not be tolerated. The people have more rights than law enforcement. Peace is only good so long as the Government wants peace. If they choose war, than they must be corrected for their mistakes

          There are too many ways to prevent infiltrators! This is easy! OWS only failed because they promised peace: a foolish and fatal mistake. You promise to be peaceful and government will become violent. They could have won if they held their ground and they only had 30,000.

          This is easy with 1-million, and cannot fail, if proper leadership is secured with a security force and combat force, if necessary.

      • Dr Mindbender

        Yes, and Remember, this is not IRAQ … Police and Military have homes and families too!

  • Dr Mindbender

    I believe that is “Florian Geyer” in the above Photograph. Interesting. You know this is a good site, really, and we need more viewers and participants in discussion. We need to advertise.

    Yes, I would like to “Florian Geyer” Wall Street! Speas Voran! As the song goes, they failed, but a new generation will come!