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A state, according to German philosopher Max Weber, has a monopoly on violence. An individual is largely powerless in the face of a state. Thus, when the state is in the hands of a small elite, as Joseph Stiglitz describes in Rent-Seeking and the Making of an Unequal Society, the ruling class has the ability to feed off of the rest of society. Likewise, a human with advanced weaponry has a monopoly on violence compared to an elephant. In The Elephant Crackup, Charles Siebert explains how poachers use their monopoly of violence to devastate the elephant community. Rent-seeking and poaching are simply what happens when those in power, those being the corporate-political complex that controls the state and the hunters who control the guns, respectively, abuse their position of power at the expense of everyone else. The monopolists control extends beyond the political sphere. The monopolists have economic and even psychological influence that they use to perpetuate their position. Outbursts of revolution and violence are rarely effective ways to shift this paradigm. It is only through periods of great social strife that the elite wake up to the reality that those on the bottom are human too and create egalitarian institutions.
Human-elephant conflict and economic disparity are similar due to an attempt by one party to gain a “monopoly”. A monopoly is exclusive control of a good or service. For example, there is exactly one corporation that sells Daraprim, a drug used for treating HIV, in the USA: Turing Pharmaceuticals. This gives Turing tremendous market power and ability to raise prices (when it did in 2015, Turing and its CEO, Martin Shkreli became very unpopular). Typically, attempting to obtain such a monopoly is a violent ordeal. The classic explanation for human-elephant conflict is “competition for land and resources between elephants and humans” (Siebert 354). Elephants gore humans and humans gore elephants to protect their territory, as ownership of land is essentially a monopoly on that land. Mankind has so far been winning this conflict, and the elephants are suffering. Elephant society has been destroyed by “decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss” (Siebert 354). There is a vicious cycle at work. As elephants lose their habitat to human settlement, they conflict with humans more. Thus, humans feel compelled to cull the violent elephant herds. This disrupts elephant society further, causing more elephant attacks. Coexistence becomes an ever more unattainable goal. Of course, the reason for extreme, violent actions being taken to secure a monopoly is that a monopoly is hugely beneficial to its controller. For businesses, “when competition is so limited, prices are likely to be far in excess of competitive levels” (Stiglitz 406). John Rockefeller became one of the richest men ever thanks to his oil monopoly. Bill Gates became one of the richest men alive thanks to Microsoft’s software monopoly. Regrettably, these fortunes were made by exploiting consumers with no other options. Society suffers even though the monopolist is richer. Both the pursuit and control of a monopoly are harmful to the world at large.
One of the ways to secure a monopoly on resources, like wealth or land, is to secure a monopoly on violence. As the government has the ability to arrest, torture, fine and legislate, using the government’s monopoly on force is the perfect way to establish a monopoly. Big business uses lobbyists and campaign contributions to control elected officials like representatives and senators. In addition, companies use regulatory capture, when “those on the regulatory commission come from and return to the sector that they are supposed to regulate” (Stiglitz 407), to control unelected bureaucrats in the EPA, SEC or FDA. Thanks to large corporations’ political power, they get subsidies, handouts, lax regulations and sweetheart deals at the consumers’ and taxpayers’ expense. There is a perverse incentive structure for companies not to invest and research, and instead spend their money on bribes and influence. Meanwhile, some people who would like a monopoly of violence use weaponry directly. Poachers and hunters “just throw hand grenades at the elephants, bring whole families down, and cut out the ivory” (Siebert 358). Advanced weaponry has made humans the masters of elephants. The monopoly of violence has not only given the Homo Sapiens control of some land, but control of the elephant’s lives, creating the power imbalance that has ravaged the dwindling elephant community. Both the poachers’ and the corporations’ position are sustained by monopolies of force.
Just as poaching and culling of elephants creates monopolies, it also creates inequalities, like economic rent-seeking does. Elephants are at the mercy of humans and our weapons, so that “they have no future without us” (Siebert 362). Whether the elephant population survives or not is mankind’s choice, while elephants have no such power over us or themselves. This inequality of power is paralleled by the economic inequality created by monopolists and rent-seekers. The ranks of the super-rich are filled with “monopolists and their descendants who, through one mechanism or another, have succeeded in achieving and sustaining market dominance” (Stiglitz 403). Economic disparity feeds itself. The money, prestige and connections of the 1% gives them outsized political influence. Consequently, “we have a political system that gives inordinate power to those at the top, and they have used that power not only to limit the extent of redistribution but also to shape the rules of the game in their favor” (Stiglitz 396). The upper class can also use their wealth to ensure their children stay wealthy. Rich families buy expensive houses in safe, affluent neighborhoods with good schools and public services. High-income households send their children to expensive, elite colleges to prepare them for lucrative careers at Goldman Sachs and Pfizer. The monopolists create self-sustaining inequalities that reinforce their privileged position.
The power of the monopolists is not just economic and political, as they also have a psychological influence over their victims. As elephants see their communities slaughtered, they experience what is effectively PTSD. The trauma of seeing their elephant families die “impairs normal brain and behavior development in young elephants,” (Siebert 356) making them more violent, aggressive and territorial. The violence exerted by hunting and culling upon elephants by poachers conditions elephants to be wandering, bitter sociopaths. In human terms, the elite use their monopoly money to influence culture and society. The wealthy have embarked upon a “massive program to educate people, and especially judges” (Stiglitz 404) about the benefits of their preferred strain of laissez faire. Oligarchs like the Koch brothers donate millions to universities, fund think tanks, and sponsor publications. In return, the plutocrats own a small legion of ideologues working to justify fortunes. Our culture is shaped by what these ideologues want. The powerful are capable of manipulating the minds of the powerless.
Dehumanization of the powerless is a way inequality is rationalized. In 1916, a circus elephant named Mary killed a few humans. In retrospect, she was most likely mentally ill due to abuse and alienation. However, she was demonized. The circus owner had to deal with “cries from the townspeople to ‘‘Kill the elephant!’’ and threats from nearby town leaders to bar the circus if ‘‘Murderous Mary,’’ as newspapers quickly dubbed her, remained a part of the show” (Siebert 360). She received a gruesome execution. In contrast, the current method of dealing with violent elephants is psychological rehabilitation, like at the Elephant Sanctuary. This change comes courtesy of new research that has revealed elephants to be physically and emotionally akin to humans. While humanizing saved elephants, dehumanizing has justified the harm of actual humans. While “the influence of the Chicago school should not be underestimated” (Stiglitz 405) in justifying conservative policies, scapegoating of the poor is also responsible. The demonization of single mothers as “welfare queens”, or the distaste for the 47% of Americans Romney claimed pay no income taxes, and general “other”-ing of the poor by the media and politicians is used to justify and promote regressive policies. Reactionary narratives are parroted by “right-wing foundations like the Olin Foundation” (Stiglitz 404) or conservative media outlets like Fox News, and these ideas are embedded deep into the American psyche. This creates another vicious cycle. Voters internalize dehumanizing ideas about the poor. They then support politicians who espouse those ideas. These ideas get normalized and broadcasted back to the general public via speeches, political advertisements and media coverage of political figures. Thus, more voters are exposed to and influenced by contempt for the poor. Dehumanization justifies oppression, and it is one of monopolists most powerful tools for keeping themselves at the top.
The elephants’ attempt to fight back has led to fruitless bloodshed and no solution, casting doubt upon the feasibility of humans fighting back against rent-seeking. The age old method for dealing with homicidal elephants in captivity is execution. “The use of culling and translocations as conservation tools” (Siebert 362) has been used by humans to keep wild elephant populations in check. Aggressive elephant behavior in Africa has been met by “retaliation by angry villagers, who have used everything from poison-tipped arrows to laced food to exact their revenge” (Siebert 353). Human history is overrun with examples of people trying to throw off their chains. Revolutions often backfire, as the new regime can be as repressive as the old regime. The Russian Revolution provoked an arduous civil war, and the Soviets that won were ultimately no better than the Tsars. Of course, not every revolution even succeeds. The Spanish government effectively refused to acknowledge the Catalan independence referendum. A society controlled by rent seekers will have massive economic and political inequality. These are the conditions for revolution and revolt against the status quo. Considering that “countries rich in natural resources are infamous for rent-seeking activities” (Stiglitz 401), one would expect the oil-rich Middle East to be in a state of constant revolution against those who control the resources. In fact, the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 shows that there was significant appetite for reform and change among the populace. In practice, many of the protests fizzled out as the government responded with a violent crackdown on protesters. Resistance can simply be crushed. Much as aggressive elephants are culled and executed for humans’ safety, protesters and revolutionaries are silenced and imprisoned for the ruling class’s safety.
Unfortunately, a pessimist could infer that the powerless are under the mercy of the powerful. There is nothing elephants can do to save themselves. Sadly for the elephants, “Saving them will require finally getting past ourselves; it will demand the ultimate act of deep, interspecies empathy” (Siebert 362). If humans lose interest in elephant preservation, and close down the Elephant Sanctuaries and give up “passive control”, then the elephants are absolutely out of luck. At least some humans are on the elephants’ side. The oppressed don’t have many allies among the rent-seekers. The wealthy fund interest groups and lobby politicians so that they can “use their political influence to get people appointed to the regulatory agencies who are sympathetic to their perspectives” (Stiglitz 406), and to write laws that benefit them, or receive handouts and no-bid contracts from Uncle Sam. Those at the bottom can’t fix things for themselves.
On the other hand, pessimism may be too simplistic. Those in power will treat their underlings with dignity, and even share power, when the powerful feel that the oppressed are their equals. “A commitment to move beyond an anthropocentric frame of reference and, in effect, be elephants” (Siebert 363) has inspired humans to develop programs like the Elephant Sanctuary. Problematic elephants are not executed at the Elephant Sanctuary, but rehabilitated as if they were humans suffering from trauma. Humans did not just wake up one day and feel sympathy for some large, strange-looking land mammal. Research by scientists like Bradshaw and Abe revealed that elephants were psychologically similar, if not equivalent to humans, which provoked the change in elephant-human relations. Even in human history, the powerful have given concessions to, and even shared power with the powerless. When men left to fight and die in World War One, women entered the workforce and took on traditionally “male” jobs, like factory work. When the war ended, men recognized that women had the same capabilities as men, and had worked as hard as men had. Universal suffrage was passed in many European countries. Even economic privilege has been shared. While “those at the top have managed to design a tax system in which they pay less than their fair share” (Stiglitz 400), that is unique to the United States at this time. Following World War II, many European countries that had endured Nazi occupation created progressive tax systems and large welfare states. One explanation for this was that the conflict brought people together, as both the rich and poor had to face the same fascist regime. Those in power will use their power benevolently when they relate to and empathize with those below them.
Elephant hunting and rent-seeking are activities that both involve power imbalances. Both the poacher and the elites have monopolies upon force, and both the elephants and the masses are exploited. The control exerted by those in power has psychological and economic dimensions, as the powerful use their influence to grant themselves wealth and cultural clout. It is a vicious cycle: as the rich get richer, they gain more influence, which they can use to gain more wealth and more political connections and then more money and so forth. The victims of the powerful have no effective means of resistance. Luckily, the elites are occasionally benevolent. When they sympathize with and feel brotherhood towards the downtrodden, the elites use their power to build systems that benefit those below them. It is unfortunate that this usually takes a war or disaster to happen. World War II beget the GI Bill. The Great Depression beget the New Deal. There are no shortage of disasters that could befall our society. Terrorists, global warming, wars, energy crises and stock market crashes are all capable of destroying our society, and maybe, just maybe, bringing us back together
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