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Class War Redux: How the American Right Embraced Marxist Struggle

Neither accident nor gaffe, Romney’s 47 percent remark was a declaration of war on a proletariat of feckless moochers.

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Conservatives and Republicans used to keep quiet and private about their views on classes and class war in the United States. They ceded those terms to leftists and then denounced their use. The US was, they insisted, a mostly “classless” society, civilization’s pinnacle achievement. We were a vast majority of wondrously comfortable and secure consumers.

Workers or capitalists, like classes, were antiquated, disloyal, and irrelevant concepts. True, a few fabulously rich people were visible (likely, film or sports celebrities or “entrepreneurial innovators”): their antics and luxuries were fun to mimic, admire, or deplore. An annoying and assuredly small underclass of the poor also existed: likely, persons “destroyed” by drugs or alcohol.

However, over recent decades, that approach has given way to a harsher view of US society, and the world beyond. At first, in their homes, country clubs, and unguarded moments with friends, conservatives and Republicans redefined their prime political enemy as the “moochers”. Those people – Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney called them “the 47%” always voting Democrat – depend on government handouts, and vote accordingly to secure those handouts.

Moochers include welfare recipients, the poor receiving Medicaid, students getting subsidized college loans, illegal immigrants, and, sometimes, also those “entitled” to get social security and Medicare benefits. They are all society’s real “exploiters”, using government to tax the other 53% of the people for the funds doled out to the 47%.

Conservatives and Republicans are thus classifying the population into two key subgroups. Gone are images of the US as one big happy middle class. Instead, one class, self-defined as the upper 53%, comprises self-reliant, hardworking taxpayers: true social givers. The other class comprises the lower 47%: takers who give little as long as dependence saps their creativity, responsibility, etc.

Romney’s campaign showed that conservatives and Republicans increasingly use this class analysis to understand society and construct their political programs. Romney’s campaign also proved the increasing determination of conservatives and Republicans to pursue class war explicitly in these terms. Romney later confirmed publicly what had been exposed in his private appeal to wealthy funders.

A chief Romney adviser, Stuart Stevens, offered this widely-circulated post election analysis in the Washington Post:

“On 6 November, Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters.”

Warren Buffett, the multibillionaire, says that because “his class” is winning, economic inequality is becoming dangerous. He thus wants rich Americans to be taxed more. He presumes – like most Democrats– that class and class conflict are terms that will repel Americans and persuade them to support Buffett’s tax reform proposals.

That presumption is flawed. The political terrain has shifted.

Conservatives and Republicans see advantages in becoming open class warriors. They invite the voting population to join them in fighting the class war. Their program: to liberate the hardworking, self-reliant class (those earning over $50,000) from ruinous taxation. To that end, they will reduce and eventually eliminate handouts to the dependent clients of an overspending state controlled by those clients’ votes.

Republicans promise to end “abusive” taxation and other government programs redistributing wealth and income from the upper 53% to the lower 47%.

This class war aims to eradicate its enemy. The dependents will lose the government handouts that destroyed their self-reliance, creativity and responsibility. Forced to become independent, like the 53%, they will abandon the Democrats, and secure Republican victory. This politics – designed to eradicate the enemy – replicates the strategy deployed earlier against another Democratic voter base, organized labor, after it returned Franklin Roosevelt to office four times.

After this class war succeeds, government will return to its “original purposes” of military defense, law enforcement, and little more. The lower 47% will be freed from debilitating dependence to resume the happy middle-class existence that is the social optimum.

That this class narrative is not evidence-based or factual is beside the point. Of course, vast tax reductions go to corporations and the richest citizens, just as vast subsidies do, and likewise, laws enabling monopoly pricing, tax evasion, and so on. Corporate profits and individual wealth depend on government, too. The class warfare narrative of the US right proceeds anyway, because it plausibly promises tax cuts as relief for Americans in worsening economic difficulties.

To the extent this class war from above succeeds, Democrats will weaken, and government assistance for the poor and working class will atrophy. Such austerity will deepen resignation, bitterness, and depoliticization for many.

However, austerity also generates another kind of class war, in which classes are defined differently. These new class analyses, discourses and struggles are initiatives emerging in and around the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US – and analogous anticapitalist movements elsewhere. They borrow, but also depart from, earlier socialist traditions.

The exploited class (workers) produces the surplus value appropriated by the class of exploiters (capitalists). The capitalists then use that surplus to control politics and thereby sustain a social system that serves them primarily. Champions of the exploited class aim to change the system by ending the division between worker and capitalist inside the enterprises.

Unlike what happened in the USSR and the old socialist world, the focus is now less on changes in property ownership and in the relation of markets to planning. Instead, the emphasis falls more on changing the organization of production, replacing the top-down, undemocratic dictatorship inside capitalist enterprises with the horizontal, workers’ self-direction of cooperatives. The model is less the soviet than the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation. The democratization of enterprises would enable reduced income and wealth inequality and all the political and cultural inequalities that flow therefrom.

How political struggles have changed! Conservatives and Republicans pursue one kind of class war to destroy Democrats and the welfare state with austerity programs. The Democrats weakly resist and mostly “compromise” to survive in that class war. Meanwhile, capitalism’s ongoing crisis and austerity programs provoke another, different class struggle.

Pompous predictions that class struggle was a passé concept have been proved wrong. Quite the contrary, right and left place multiple, contested class analyses and struggles at the center of politics today.