People are Power: Part 1 – An Intro to Arendt’s Thought

This will be the first in a series of essays on the political question of power. The goal in this first essay is to lay out the underlying political theory of power that will inform an analysis of current events in the essays that follow.

 

In face of the events of the last two years, violence has come to preoccupy our discussions. Whether it is the actual violence we witness or the threat of violence to come, it is easy to find reasons for fear and heartbreak. Interestingly, violence is often pointed at as a sign of power and authority, whether it be the newfound capacity for violence President Trump has put his hands upon or the violence of police upon civilians. In some cases this is brandished publicly in hubris and in others it appears to be a consequence of the authority invested in certain individuals. Almost all of these cases though point not to power, but to a breakdown in the ability for our folk concepts of power and violence to comprehend what we see.

After all, if violence is a form of power, why does violence appear to be impotent to bring peace to Syria and Iraq? If violence is power, then why are groups that lack mainstream political purchase the ones that seem most likely to engage in terrorism? If violence is power, then how is it that protesting citizens have brought down or paralyzed tyrannical governments, even if only briefly, across the world? That is because the reality of violence is not power.

This way of conceiving power, as being synonymous to one’s capacity for violence, shouldn’t pass the smell test given the way we usually think of power in other contexts. Consider the origins of the word itself. “Power” comes to us from the Latin word “potis” through Old French, which was much more closely entwined with its other derivatives, “potent” and “potential” (http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=power&allowed_in_frame=0). It meant the ability to act or the possession of a certain capacity or ability. Strangely though, in the 20th century, power became equivocated in political theory as one’s capacity for violence, with theories of sovereignty defining power as a monopoly on legitimate violence or the Realist Theory of International Relations operationalizing power specifically as a state’s weapons and capacities for military violence. This idea even became translated into Leftist thought, best exemplified by Mao’s famous quote, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

In 1969, Hannah Arendt identified this problem and argued that the received notions about power and violence held by both theorists and non-theorists did not actually correspond to the reality of political phenomena. Rather, she argued that we falsely equivocate a pile of terms and ideas, including power, command, authority, and violence. In one of her most concise summaries of her thought on the matter, On Violence, Arendt proposes not only that power is the core political phenomenon, but that it is the opposite of violence (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1969/02/27/a-special-supplement-reflections-on-violence/). She lays out the problem as follows:

“It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our language does not distinguish between such key terms as power, strength, force, might, authority, and, finally, violence—all of which refer to distinct phenomena. To use them as synonyms not only indicates a certain deafness to linguistic meanings, which would be serious enough, but has resulted in a kind of blindness with respect to the realities they correspond to. Behind the apparent confusion lies a firm conviction that the most crucial political issue is, and always has been, the question of Who rules Whom? Only after one eliminates this disastrous reduction of public affairs to the business of dominion will the original data concerning human affairs appear or rather reappear in their authentic diversity.”

(Arendt, On Violence : Section II)

Core to this mistake, in her thinking, is the belief that power is equivalent to the ability for a person to have their commands obeyed by others. She identifies this as one of two major traditions of thought on the relationship between government and power:

“These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody.”

(Arendt, On Violence : II)

This view may very well correspond to your received notion of power, as we often talk about it in terms of people in positions of authority making or legislating commands. It is also a notion that is deeply entrenched in political theory and political science. For example, as mentioned earlier, power is often defined in international relations in terms of getting what you want from others through coercion (military), exchange (economic), or soft (persuasive) power (Such as in Joseph Nye’s theory of soft power: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.2307/20202345/full). While it is tempting to go down this road, as it provides simple capacities possessed by a state that allow one to evaluate its power, it fails entirely to recognize how these capacities are dependent upon the underlying power of social organization of which the state is a manifestation.

Arendt instead draws our eye to another tradition of thought in political theory that, though neglected, has often played a role in the actual practice of politics:

“However, there exists another tradition and another vocabulary no less old and time-honored than the one mentioned above. When the Athenian city-state called its constitution an isonomy or the Romans spoke of the civitas as their form of government, they had in mind another concept of power, which did not rely upon the command-obedience relationship. It is to these examples that the men of the eighteenth-century revolutions turned when they ransacked the archives of antiquity and constituted a republic, a form of government, where the rule of law, resting on the power of the people, would put an end to the rule of man over man, which they thought was “a government fit for slaves.” They too, unhappily, still talked about obedience—obedience to laws instead of men; but what they actually meant was the support of the laws to which the citizenry had given its consent.

Such support is never unquestioning, and as far as reliability is concerned it cannot match the indeed “unquestioning obedience” that an act of violence can exact—the obedience every criminal can count on when he snatches my pocketbook with the help of a knife or robs a bank with the help of a gun. It is the support of the people that lends power to the institutions of a country, and this support is but the continuation of the consent which brought the laws into existence to begin with. (Under conditions of representative government the people are supposed to rule those who govern them.) All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them. This is what Madison meant when he said, “all governments rest on opinion,” a statement that is no less true for the various forms of monarchies than it is for democracies. The strength of opinion, that is, the power of the government, is “in proportion to the number with which it is associated” (and tyranny, as Montesquieu discovered, is therefore the most violent and the least powerful among the forms of government).”

(Arendt, On Violence : Section II)

This is what so interested Arendt: power as that ability which enables us to work together to create a society. For this reason, she defines power as our ability “to act in concert.” She further qualifies power as “belonging to a group” and remaining in existence as long as the group persists. In many of her other works, such as The Human Condition, she explains that by “action” she further means those things we do in the public space that initiate and further a new endeavor. This view implies that power comes into being whenever people associate and is what allows us to cooperate and create a society together.

In contrast, she sees violence not as an end in itself, but a means that can destroy or undermine power – the means by which one can make it so people cannot work together. This may sound strange at first, but consider the way violence is used. For example, in a battle, the goal is not to engage in as much destruction as possible, but to undermine an opponent’s ability to coordinate their attack or to resist. In this same way, government forces, like police, use violence to break apart protests and undermine a group’s ability to communicate and coordinate their actions. And while the threat of violence can sometimes convince someone to obey a command, that threat cannot make someone come up with a new invention or create a new institution. Through collaboration though, we become capable of doing things far beyond what any one of us could achieve alone.

For Arendt, this was not mere armchair speculation, but a matter of experience. While living in France as a refugee from the holocaust, before Germany invaded, she worked to help Jewish refugees like herself escape to safety. No matter what violence Hitler’s forces brought to bear, people working together were able to create a route to safety for those they sought to destroy. When France fell, she then had to flee to New York, once more witnessing the power of collaboration to frustrate and stop the machinations of evil and violence. During her lifetime, revolutions shook the world and countless times she watched as tyrannical, violent leaders were overthrown by the collaboration of ordinary people.

“Since the beginning of the [20th] century, theoreticians have told us that the chances of revolution have significantly decreased in proportion to the increased destructive capacities of weapons at the unique disposition of governments. The history of the last seventy years, with its extraordinary record of successful and unsuccessful revolutions, tells a different story…The fact is that the gap between state-owned means of violence and what people can muster by themselves—from beer bottles to Molotov cocktails and guns—has always been so enormous that technical improvements make hardly any difference…In a contest of violence against violence the superiority of the government has always been absolute; but this superiority lasts only so long as the power structure of the government is intact—that is, so long as commands are obeyed and the army or police forces are prepared to risk their lives and use their weapons.

When this is no longer the case the situation changes abruptly. Not only is the rebellion not put down, the arms themselves change hands—sometimes, as in the Hungarian Revolution, within a few hours…Where commands are no longer obeyed, the means of violence are of no use. Hence obedience is not determined by commands but by opinion, and, of course, by the number of those who share it. Everything depends upon the power behind the violence. The sudden dramatic breakdown of power, which ushers in revolutions, reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to the laws, to the rulers, to the institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent.”

(Arendt, On Violence : III)

This was something that was on display for the world during the Arab Spring. For example, in Egypt, we saw an authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in a matter of days by the collaboration among nonviolent protesters themselves and the noncooperation of the military with his commands (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring#Egypt). Arendt herself brought up the example of the Vietnam War, which was being actively waged at the time, to showcase how violence is impotent in the face of power. This idea has even seen itself given new life in the form of “Selectorate Theory” in the field of political science, which examines how the minimum necessary coalition of people needed to gain and maintain power shapes the behavior of political leaders (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/logic-political-survival).

In times like these, Arendt’s theory of political power is not only insightful, but inspirational. It reminds us that power inevitably rests in our hands and it is the sum of our choices that creates the society we live in. This tells us that no matter how much violence or strength a particular leader or coalition lays their hands upon, the power remains in the hands of the people and we have the ability, if we so choose, to work together to resist and transform events. We are not objects acted upon by history but the subjects that create it.

 

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The Recency of “Heritage”

Taking down statues of Confederate generals is not changing history.

In his statements about the violence last weekend, President Trump walked out a tired old canard, claiming symbols of the Confederacy were a matter of heritage and history, and that to remove them is to change or erase history. He has repeated this claim multiple times since then. The problem is, these public symbols of “heritage” were themselves part of a campaign to erase and rewrite history across the South in the early Twentieth Century.

At the center of these events was a statue of Robert E. Lee that was erected in 1924 (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/13/us/charlottesville-rally-protest-statue.html). For many, that year likely sounds like a mere footnote or reinforces the idea that this is a symbol of history. If you begin to examine the many statues and public symbols that portray the Confederacy in some way though, you will begin to notice they cluster around two periods in the 20th century: the 1920s and the 1950s (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/16/why-is-the-us-still-fighting-the-civil-war). In both of these cases, they embodied revisionist white supremacist movements, with the rise of the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s and the emergence of the “Dixiecrats” and pro-segregationist parties of the 1950s.

The march in Charlottesville was organized by white supremacists and their fellow travelers – “white nationalists,” the alt-right, and neo-nazis. These groups claim that these statues are facts of history and represent “heritage.” As noted above, President Trump has echoed this language, dog-whistling as loud as possible to these groups to signal he supports them. This appeal to history and heritage is by no means an unusual tactic for a group that is trying to legitimize itself or its violence.

Appeals to the historicity of a belief, practice, or symbol, as a means of legitimization and justification, is about as human as it gets. This is such a common theme in anthropology, we can see this in everything from the mythologized narratives described by modern-day neo-pagans and wicca practitioners of the historical continuity from antiquity of their practices (https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/Books/Athlone-History-Witchcraft-Twentieth-Century/B0032Q0914) to how people build new nations and legitimize violence in its name (https://culanth.org/fieldsights/611-how-history-goes-wrong-historical-politics-and-its-outcomes). Similarly, white supremacists attempt to naturalize their ideology by creating a funhouse mirror version of American history that warps things beyond recognition to legitimize their contemporary political positions and violence.

The narratives these movements insist upon suffer from countless ahistorical, revisionist misrepresentations. The most common is the retelling of the Civil War as a conflict about “states’ rights” rather than one about slavery. If you had told that to a Southerner or Northerner at the time, they would have likely been confused by such a claim. To debunk this, one need only look at the declaration issued by South Carolina, the first state to secede and start the Civil War, which explicitly stated the primary reason for their decision was “…increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery” (http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp). That doesn’t even take into account the wider context, such as the years of violence between pro- and anti-slavery partisans that preceded the Civil War (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4p1550.html) or that time Representative Preston Brooks beat Senator Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate (https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/The_Caning_of_Senator_Charles_Sumner.htm) over Senator Sumner’s speech against slavery and the politicians who supported it.

At the center of this revisionism is none other than the KKK. While the KKK did have its origins in terrorism committed by White Southerners in the reconstruction era following the Civil War, it faded away by the end of the 19th century. The modern KKK was instead founded in 1915 and didn’t begin to gain traction until after World War I (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/03/donald-trump-kkk/473190/). This movement was far more involved in mainstream politics and would eventually come to influence national policies in the 1920s (http://americainclass.org/sources/becomingmodern/divisions/text1/text1.htm). It was during this era in which many of the modern symbols of the KKK were created and cemented, as well elements of its ideology such as the construction of “White” as “Anglo-Saxon Protestant” and excluding those whose heritage originated in Catholic Europe. All across the South at that time, statues and public symbols were erected and dedicated that were symbols of the KKK’s mythologized history of the Confederacy and White Supremacy ((https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/08/confederate-statues-congress/536760/)). Rather than being merely a memorial to the history of a slave-holding, treasonous nation, these were explicit statements of a racist ideology cultivated and advocated by the KKK.

Similarly, the “confederate flag” is itself an ahistorical symbol of racism. As many will point out, the modern flag that goes under that moniker was not the flag of the Confederacy, but was specifically the battle flag of General Lee’s army of Northern Virginia (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/8-things-didnt-know-confederate-flag/). Until the rise of the modern KKK and pro-segregationist movements, it was little more than that, and would not have been seen as the symbol of the South that is presented as today. This is probably best illustrated by a quote from the editor of the Augusta Courier in 1951, which the Southern Poverty Law Center chose to begin its discussion of this very topic (https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/whoseheritage_splc.pdf) :

“The Confederate flag is coming to mean something to everybody now.
It means the southern cause. It means the heart throbs of the people
of the South. It is becoming to be the symbol of the white race and the
cause of the white people. The Confederate flag means segregation.”

This flag was becoming a symbol of white supremacy and segregation in 1951 due to its adoption by the Dixiecrat party in 1948. The Dixiecrats split off from the Democratic party specifically due to Pres. Truman’s advocacy for civil rights and the party’s embrace of an end to segregation. In the decade that followed, Southern states began to incorporate the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia into their state flags and other public symbols.

Even if we were to just give these groups the lie of this being history, these are symbols of an army that betrayed the U.S. Constitution and marched against the armies of the United States. These are symbols that have been brandished by hatemongers and terrorists. These are symbols that are soaked in the blood of slaves and victims of the KKK. These symbols should be repugnant to us specifically because of their historical meaning.

To claim these are symbols of “heritage not hate” is either a bald-faced lie, a mark of supreme gullibility, or an addled mind. Symbols of the confederacy, whether it be the flag, statues, or otherwise, were specifically brandished or re-invented in order to propagandize and legitimize ideologies of White Supremacy and terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. That is to say, removing these symbols is not an act of “changing history,” but rather one of restoring history by removing symbols of a recent racist revision of history propagated by the KKK and pro-segregationist groups from the 20th Century. For this reason, let us call these statements out as the lies they are – attempts to change history.

 

The Death of a Right to Silence

I no longer have the right to remain silent.

In the last several months, I had lost confidence in my own voice as a writer and essayist. Our world is awash in the noise of countless opinions and “hot-takes.” I couldn’t help but ask, “What is the point of throwing my own voice into the cacophony?” After all, is it not akin to screaming into a hurricane? Not to mention, our civil discourse does not suffer for a lack of young, White men spouting out their opinions.

Writing this today though, there is a specter lurking behind my introspection – the violence in Charlottesville. As the conflict built and erupted over the weekend, I had been preoccupied with family matters and work.  Truth be told, I had recently chose to lessen my engagement with the news overall following my move back to the States this last month. Between the stress of relocation and my own personal struggles, I felt the need to allow myself a period of passivity to focus on recuperation and readjustment. The nonstop avalanche of treason, hate, and absurdity on display in the politics of the world right now had taken their toll on me and I worried I would slip once more into a depressive episode. While there is a time and a place for that, much in the way one is instructed to first afix their own breathing mask on an airplane before helping others to ensure you are able to actually help, there is a danger to such passivity. Simon Critchley warns us, in “Infinitely Demanding,” that passivity to the world represents a species of passive nihilism – a capitulation to the notion that these things do not matter and focusing purely on the pleasure of private projects rather than engaging in endeavors of meaning. For me, the death of Heather Heyer has undermined the edifice that permitted my own passivity.

Part of what has rattled me is the reality that Heyer could have easily been my friends or myself. Roughly the same age, she had been trying to live her life, but knew that one cannot stand by during times like these. She was not a political agitator or a person who was at every protest, but an ordinary person that said, “No more.” How many people do you know who, in the last year, have come to the same conclusion and decided to engage actively in the citizenship that makes a democratic society work? This was an attack upon ordinary citizens. This was an attack upon freedom of speech and equality. This was an attack upon all of us.

It is, of course, important to recognize that she was not the only one who suffered in Charlottesville. Many others were injured by the man who attacked the counterprotest with his vehicle. Many others were injured in the violence that erupted as white supremacists attacked peaceful demonstrators. Many others have been injured or given their lives in the activism and advocacy that has characterized the politics of the last two years. And we should search out and remember their names as well. Because they are the true heroes of our republic, the people who give their lives in the name of our values while exercising their citizenship.

While much breath has been wasted on trying to extract crocodile tears from the President, it seems to me that we should be raising our voices to honor Heyer’s sacrifice. We often mythologize the “great men” of history as heroes, but Heyer is the kind of real, everyday hero that our age demands. She gave her life in the name of citizenship, equality, and nonviolence. White supremacist militias showed up that day bearing guns  and weapons as a statement of their capacity for violence in the name of their ideology. Heyer walked in defiance of this in a display of nonviolent resistance, and they took her life for it. In her place, we must raise another ten, hundred, or a thousand everyday heroes that will take a similar stand against violence and hate if we wish democracy and liberty to survive the moment of history we have been thrust into.

This is why I can no longer remain silent – because none of us should remain silent any longer. Not because I think I will necessarily have something truly unique or special to say. Not because I think my voice deserves attention more than any other. But because we all must speak up now in the name of those voices that have been silenced forever by hate and violence. It is our voice and our action that they fear and that they aim to terrorize into submission. Instead, let us persist, resist, and act in the name of the world the people like Heather Heyer have laid down their lives for.

Absurd Struggle

“Another thing we have learned is that we cannot accept any optimistic conception of existence, any happy ending whatsoever. But if we believe that optimism is silly, we also know that pessimism about the action of man among his fellows is cowardly.”

-Albert Camus, from a speech at Columbia University (1946)

 

Barely three weeks into the presidency of Donald John Trump, one can already hear the exasperation and despair on the lips of so many. It’s as if the weight of exhaustion distorts time, turning days into months, and stretching the future out into eternity. The specter of burnout and despair already haunt us. One cannot help but hear the whispering temptation of surrender, the path of least resistance.

When faced with such prospects, how does one continue to fight and resist? How do we overcome the despair that follows the frustration of failure? Will we be able to continue trudging uphill when the summit is obscured by clouds and the climb is so difficult?

The answers to these questions are wide ranging. Some turn to art, others to faith, and still others to posterity and fame. All of these have their strengths and are sufficient to sustain many. For others, gnawing hopelessness cannot be easily evaded. After all, when I can think of so many ways for us to fail, and so few ways we might succeed, how can I entertain hope for success?

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian writer made famous by his novel The Stranger in the years following World War II, posed this question differently. In his work, Myth of Sisyphus, he begins with a startling assertion: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

For Camus, the question of suicide was a matter of reason; how can we justify bothering with life if we are unable to find reasons that ultimately justify life? Any success we may attain will eventually be undone by time, all projects are subject to failure, and we will all inevitably die, ensuring that even personal meaning will evaporate from this world. How can we persist when things seem so pointless? And if we cannot find a way to justify life as worth living, then there can be no opportunity to even consider other questions, given the stakes.

This led Camus to identify absurdity as a fundamental feature of the human condition. Absurdity, in this context, means for something to lack reason or justification. Any endeavor characterized by this sense of being ultimately pointless is, in turn, considered an “absurd struggle.” While he initially introduces the absurd struggle in its most literal and radical form, he explains that the question of suicide also serves as a broader figurative question of whether we should continue to strive and persist in our endeavors or if we should admit defeat and give up.

These were not abstract ruminations for Camus, but deeply personal questions. The Myth of Sisyphus was published in 1942, as war raged around him in France. He was cut off from his family in Algeria and risking his life as the editor of “Combat,” an underground newspaper that acted as an intelligence organ for the French Resistance (Isaac, 1992). The struggles of the French Resistance must have often seemed absurd – a ragtag network of private citizens organizing to fight the largest war machine and most powerful totalitarian state that had ever been created. How could they hope to succeed when defeat seemed so certain? Why bother fighting if the only possible outcome seemed to be death?

To answer this question, Camus offers us an image from another time: the Ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a king who played a trick on the gods, and so was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it tumble back down upon reaching the summit. He would then have to repeat this struggle, over and over again, without purpose. How can Sisyphus ever come to terms with his struggle, knowing that he will never truly succeed?

When I consider the image of Sisyphus, I feel compelled to fight on. We stand before the boulder and are presented an ultimatum: to struggle and endeavor onward or to surrender and abandon our aims. If we should choose to give up, we are giving into absurdity, we are saying through our actions that those we wish to fight for do not ultimately matter to us. But when we choose to struggle, we declare in that moment, as we put our shoulder to the task, that what we do is worthwhile. In committing ourselves, we answer the question: Yes, our lives, and the lives of those we fight for, matter.

In the closing paragraphs of Sisyphus, Camus argues that it is possible to struggle onwards, without appeal to hope and in full confrontation with absurdity. He ends the essay, saying, “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

This is not to say that our struggle today is pointless. After all, we have witnessed in these few weeks that our resistance has caused enough friction to slow down the machinations of the Trump White House. In some cases, we have even seen officials backpedaling on legislation and executive orders. Instead, it is my intention to help those fighting for a better world understand that we need not resort only to hope, but can commit ourselves to action when hope feels distant. By choosing to act, we create the meaning and value that makes the struggle worthwhile.

Today we face yet another boulder. Shall we rise to the occasion?

Combat (02/07/2017)

Ministry of Truth

 

Intel

 

Gaining Perspective

 

Take Action

 

Inspiration and Comedic Relief

Tea Leaves (02/06/2017)

This feature will provide a platform for sharing information on pending legislation and executive orders, discussion of potential foreign policy developments, and intel on federal officials that might help understand and predict what is to come. Be forewarned some of these pieces may contain more speculation, though we will curate the round-up to ensure that any speculation is based upon facts. “Counter-narrative” items will also be included that contrast other items to help readers reflect and consider the possibilities.

 

“We seem to have lost the very rudiments of intelligence, the notions of measure, standard, and degree; of proportion and relation; of affinity and consequence…we people our political world with monsters and myths; we recognize nothing but entities, absolutes, finalities.”

-Simone Weil, 1946, As quoted by Jeffrey Isaac in “Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion”

 

What in the World?

 

Shining a Light on the Shadows

 

Trickle Down Corrosiveness

 

Brave New World

The Damage Report (02/04/2017)

“One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is no philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.”

-Walter Benjamin, 1940, As quoted by Jeffrey Isaac in “Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion” on p. 26

Legislation

 

Executive

 

Foreign Policy

 

Economy

 

Trickle-Down Corrosiveness