Class warfare has once again entered the vocabulary of mainstream national politics, but this time with a strange twist. Right-wing politicians such as Paul Ryan and various high-profile conservative media pundits and corporate-funded think-tank spokespersons have made visible what ruling classes have long tried to bury beneath the discourse of meritocracy and the myth of the classless society – that is, the harsh consequences of class power, hierarchical rule and savage inequality.
According to the ruling elite, the real class war is being waged against the belief in free and unfettered markets, the reign of unchecked capital, a culture of individualism and happiness itself – in spite of the fact that it is precisely these beliefs that serve the interests of Wall Street elites who brought the world to the brink of ruin in 2008. Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the ultra-right American Enterprise Institute, says it all in defending the legitimating and empty ideology of the rich and elites in his comment: “Free enterprise brings happiness; redistribution does not. The reason is that only free enterprise brings earned success.”(1) In this insipid comment, railing against inequality amounts to railing against earned success. But the secret order of politics that haunts this statement is a fear of democracy matched only by a hysteria that fuels an unabated belief in the virtues of a plutocracy and a disdain for democratic ideals.
The appeal to “earned success” and individual entrepreneurial rings hollow given the millions of dollars in bonuses paid to failed CEOs and hedge fund managers and an economic recovery that has only benefited banks. With CEOs taking in millions in salary and bonuses while major corporations are laying off thousands of workers each month, the assertion that an unrestricted market is the only mechanism ensuring one’s hard work pays off appears both disingenuous and desperate. What Brooks willfully omits is that any society in which morality disintegrates into self-interest and cruelty is celebrated as a central element of a market-driven social order has nothing to do with either freedom or democracy.
Get our free emails
As thousands of young people are marching against corporate power and rallying in protest against the symbols of Wall Street greed across the United States, the political and economic elites respond by engaging in a form of class warfare and clinging to the celebration of the shark-like culture of casino capitalism, revealing all too clearly their own criminal behavior and how it represents a major threat to American democracy.
Of course, ruling elites have had good reason in the past to discredit or neutralize the concept of class warfare because it made visible vast differences of power and inequality between ruling elites and corporations and just about everyone else, especially the working classes and poor. It also functioned to focus attention on the violence and social costs of ongoing class warfare waged by the rich, along with the human suffering and dire material consequences of such struggles. After all, historically, the concept of class warfare conjures up images of American workers fighting collectively and valiantly to secure fair wages, safe working conditions, decent housing and control over their own labor. And the costs were often high. The struggle for decent working conditions and basic economic and labor rights was often met with the brutal acts of violence on the part of employers, rogue detective agencies and the National Guard.(2) A few historical examples include the Ludlow Massacre in which the Colorado National Guard used a machine gun to fire randomly into the tent city erected by the striking coal miners. Nineteen people were killed.(3) The same script, involving state and corporate violence against workers and their families, also played out in different incidents in the Spring of 1920 in West Virginia in what is known as the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain. Hoover-type thuggery also resulted in a government attack on what was known as the Bonus Army in the early 1930s in which the Army shot and wounded 55 veterans. These are just a few of the many and more well-known conflicts waged against working people to protect class privilege over the course of the 20th century.
At the current moment, class warfare has taken a different, if not more expansive, turn. With the triumph of finance capital and the emergence of a second Gilded Age, conscripted thugs, the police and National Guard do not constitute the vanguard or first line of class repression. Physical force, though hardly absent from scenes of protests, takes second place to the war being waged everyday at the level of policy, culture and politics. Labor now is viewed as a disposable population – pensions are decimated, increased health insurance costs are passed on to employees, unemployment benefits are slashed and jobs are outsourced so that capital can relocate “itself to wherever labor is most exploitable.”(4)
With the advance of corporate and financial power, violence now comes in the form of corrupt legislation and a political ideology that strips government of its universal social protections; removes government oversight; builds on fear; decimates the power of unions; defunds public institutions; and expands the culture of cruelty, fraud and avarice through policies that perpetuate a crushing inequality.(5) Of course, this same movement expresses no opposition to “big government” when it promotes militarism, gives tax breaks to the rich, enacts laws that deregulate corporations and defunds valuable social programs.
Meanwhile, a supine and hypertrophied mass media feed the general populace a toxic mix of propagandistic hate, racism, immigrant baiting and labor bashing. The power of the rich and their disdain for vulnerability are strengthened by these emotive discourses, along with the support of a gun culture and unthinking consumption of hyper-violence saturating various screen cultures. Scorn for public servants feeds an authoritarian populism and hijacks democratic language, ideals and social relations.
The dominant media are no longer the mouthpiece of the moral majority and the gatekeeper of the status quo – they are now firmly on the side of the ultra wealthy and the mega corporations. How else to explain the media’s contempt for reason and critical inquiry as they turn news into entertainment and the call for balance into a form of anti-intellectual drivel? At best, the dominant media attempt to neutralize the issue of class inequality, making it largely invisible. At worst, they serve as active accomplices in promoting class warfare through their embrace of neoliberal values and refusal to engage any serious issues that might reveal the terrible human and social costs of the class warfare now being waged by the rich.
We have reached a moment in history when ruling class hysteria has reached an all-time high in its aggressive attempts to prevent the federal government from exercising any form of regulation that might make it accountable to the American people. At the same time, Republican class warriors and their corporate backers seek to hollow out the social state by labeling a government that provides social protections and works in the interest of the public good as evil, repressive and expendable. Robert Kuttner, the co-editor of “The American Prospect” gets it right when he argues:
One of our major parties has turned nihilist…. Government itself is the devil…. Whether the target is the Environmental Protection Agency, the Dodd-Frank Law or the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are out to destroy government’s ability to govern…. the right’s reckless assault on our public institutions is not just an attack on government. It is a war on America.
The most visible face of this war appeared with the economic crisis of 2008 in which Wall Street crooks packaged mortgage debts they knew would fail, implemented widespread fraud on the American public through the promotion of liars’ loans and created a business culture that William Black has called “a criminogenic environment” – an environment that spreads fraud through the lack of regulation and the promotion of a compensation system that creates perverse incentives in which cheaters prosper, “markets become perverse” and honesty is treated as a liability.(7)
And while the historical circumstances producing modes of class warfare have changed, the basic contours of the struggle have been consistent and highlight an ongoing and unjust division between a bloated class of capitalists and financiers on the one hand, and the rest of society largely subject to the reckless policies of the rich and excluded from the vast wealth, resources and benefits enjoyed by the top one percent of American society on the other. Even a child’s reading of history makes clear that class warfare neither is nor was about the rich being positioned as victims. It was more often than not about the use of fraud, violence and force on the part of the ruling elite to control the instruments and sites of power, extending from the workplace and financial institutions to local, state and national governments. Anything could be justified in order to secure their wealth, profits and privileges, even if such practices reproduced vast economic, social, political and cultural inequalities and deadly social costs. Historically, it is clear that class warfare often meant that ruling classes, elites, government officials and corporations did not hesitate to use violence to legitimate capitalism, while also maintaining the status quo and repressing any vestige of worker resistance – however just the demands of workers and other groups might have been.
But power is not just about using an instrument of force. It is also deployed through culture, educational institutions, political institutions and a range of other apparatuses to ensure that the privileges and vast inequalities promoted policies that benefit the rich also keep the dispossessed and disadvantaged securely in their place. The injuries of class, as Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb have pointed out, are often hidden, buried beneath the loss of dignity and hopelessness produced by policies that lead to massive poverty, deadly levels of unemployment, inadequate health care, failing schools, political corruption, and a range of other social and economic injustices. But lately, the empirical registers of class warfare have become increasingly clear.(8) The richest 1 percent in the 1970s only took in about “8-9 percent of American total annual income,” whereas today they take in 23.5 percent.(9) Furthermore, as University of California-Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez states in his study of inequality, 10 percent of Americans as of 2007 have taken in 49.7 percent of all wages, “higher than any other year since 1917.”(10)
In another statistic cited in an editorial in The Huffington Post, 74 of the richest people in the United States make “$10 million in weekly pay … [and] made as much as the 19 million lowest-paid people in America, who constitute one in every eight workers.”(11) Consider the fact that the net worth of the wealthiest Americans is $1.5 trillion, more than the combined net worth of the poorest 50 percent of the population, or some 155 million people combined.(12) David DeGraw points out, “The economic top one percent of the population now owns over 70% of all financial assets, an all-time record.”(13) As Joseph E. Stiglitz makes clear, “In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”(14) According to Robert Reich, one stark measure of the inequality that marks American society today is evident in the fact that “The 5 percent of Americans with the highest incomes now account for 37 percent of all consumer purchases.”(15) Needless to say, the upward distribution of income and wealth is taking place at a time when economic growth has stalled; unemployment has soared; incarceration is booming; crucial infrastructures have fallen into grave despair; and millions of Americans have lost their houses, jobs, health care and hope.
Warren Buffet is certainly right in claiming that there is class warfare in the United States and the rich are winning. while at the same time claiming that his billionaire friends “have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress.”(16) What Buffet misses in spite of the best of intentions is that his billionaire friends and their allies actually now control Congress and are not merely the recipients of its largess. There is no longer any distinction between political and corporate sovereignty. We now have a corporate-controlled state, not a democratic mode of governance. The rich and corporate elite control the system of government and leave a poisonous imprint upon national political culture, perhaps most notably a vociferous disdain for the common good. Matched only perhaps by the clamoring of right-wing ideologues in favor of unchecked militarism and an ideological blindness to the basic ideals of a viable democracy, the voices of everyone else appear muted even as those populations who suffer the greatest costs are rendered utterly invisible.
Political and economic corruption breeds civic indifference and a death dealing cynicism. As more and more citizens are devoid of basic rights, jobs, opportunities and social protections, human resources are squandered. Social investments in education, technology and infrastructure are abandoned in the name of market efficiency; and the state is reconfigured so as to shun its welfare obligations and largely governs through its punishing institutions such as the courts, criminal justice system and prisons. As the foundations of social protections and security are eroded through the mechanisms of inequality, social problems are viewed exclusively as the responsibility of individuals, scorned as a matter of failed character and increasingly treated as a matter of law and order. How else to explain a criminal justice system notable for its racism and reeking of savagery and cruelty – one in which more than two million people are incarcerated? Or the use of prison practices, such as the extensive use of solitary confinement, which “many believe, amount to torture”?(17) Or, for that matter, the public support and more recently barbarous celebration of the ongoing use of capital punishment, even though new DNA testing has proven the innocence of many death row inmates and the often racist failure of the criminal justice system itself.
Yet, class warfare in its updated versions may be even more ruthless and has become more difficult to hide, despite efforts by a corrupt political culture to distract the electorate away from its most destructive consequences. As these practices become more visible, they have not as yet been met with a sustained challenge. Where is the moral and political outrage over the fact that the war on poverty has been translated into a war on the poor, especially poor minorities of class and color? Where is the public indignation over the fact that homelessness is now viewed as a violation of civic order and misfortune is now defined as a threat to law and order? Under casino capitalism, widespread injustice is buttressed by a culture of cruelty in which kindness, compassion and a responsibility for others has given way to a flight from ethical considerations. The abandonment of an ethics of care and trust-all is evident in a hardening of the culture and the growing view that decency, trust and civic obligations are liabilities. Barbarism is now the preserve of the rich not the poor; it is visible in the self-interest, greed and a survival-of the-fittest mind-set that continues to advance modes of agency and policies that further shred the social contract and reek with the arrogance of power.
In a deregulated and privatized regime of casino capitalism, the bonds of solidarity are eroded and shared responsibilities are replaced by shared fears and increasing levels of violence. How else to explain the lack of moral outrage in the face of the official sanctioning of state violence and torture by ruling elites such as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Private concerns now trump public issues and all remaining public spaces are more and more turned into sites of surveillance, detention, containment, incarceration and disposability.(18) Profits for the rich soar as the swollen military-industrial-carceral state reinforces the political and economic policies of the rich.
The figures mentioned above and the policies that produce such grievous social costs and inequalities stagger the mind and are completely at odds with any viable notion of what a democracy should look like or what it means to take seriously the well-being of all members of a society and the importance of the social contract. And these figures and policies that produce them do not even come close to capturing adequately the amount of human suffering and the destructive social costs that many adults and young people experience as a result of class warfare and its ever deepening and rigid class divisions. But they do sound an alarm and suggest the need for further analyses that connect economic policies to ethical considerations of the effects such policies have on those who are caught in an ever-expanding web of human despair and misfortune. It is a curious indication of the rising culture of fraud and cruelty in American society that when the discourse of class warfare is invoked by the rich and powerful it almost never mentions the effects that harsh policies produced by the rich have on the children of this nation.
The spirit of idealism, solidarity and compassion associated with the promise of a democracy appears to be approaching a vanishing point in America today. We have two conservative mainstream political parties, one that seems wedded to corporate interests and a culture of cruelty, and another that has remade itself into a centrist-right party that nonetheless extends and legitimates many of the policies of George W. Bush. Both parties occupy the same side of the class divide, and the conditions of young people are considerably worse as a result of the policies of both parties. What does it say about a society when the elected government invests close to $4 trillion of taxpayer dollars in two wars, offers generous tax cuts for the rich and bails out corrupt banks and insurance industries, but does not provide a decent education and job training opportunities for youth – and particularly its most disadvantaged youth?
The ideals that inform a substantive democracy are utterly at odds with a society that spends $6 billion a year for training Afghan military and police, but fires thousands of firefighters, teachers and other public servants; guts food stamp programs; and refuses to provide health care for millions of children. We drive up the deficit; cut important social programs; and, under the current leadership in a stranglehold by Republicans, attempt to balance the budget on the backs of young people, working people, the poor and the elderly.
The shameful condition of America’s youth exposes not only their unbearable victimization, but also those larger social and political forces that reveal the callous hardening of a society that actively produces the needless suffering and death of its children. This is the real face of class warfare. The moral nihilism of a market society; the move from a welfare to a warfare state; the persistent racism of the alleged “raceless” society; the collapse of education into training and test-taking – all work together to numb us to the suffering of others, especially children. The real face and registers of class warfare can be found in statistics for which every American citizen should feel a sense of moral and political outrage. According to recent US census data, there are 16.4 million poor children in America. Of these, as Marian Wright Edelman points out, “More than one million children fell into poverty between 2009 and 2010; almost a half million fell into extreme poverty.”(19) One in five, or 21 percent, of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $22,050 a year for a family of four. Approximately 90 percent of all black kids will be on food stamps at some point in their lives. And the long-term effects of poverty on children are extensive. As the National Center for Children in Poverty makes clear:
Poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional and behavioral problems. Poverty also can contribute to poor health and mental health. Risks are greatest for children who experience poverty when they are young and/or experience deep and persistent poverty. Research is clear that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s well-being. But effective public policies – to make work pay for low-income parents and to provide high-quality early care and learning experiences for their children – can make a difference. Investments in the most vulnerable children are also critical.
Yet, from the ways in which the dominant media portray the current state of affairs, one would think it is the rich elite and powerful corporations that are the victims of class warfare, not the children who are defenseless against a savage economic system that currently benefits a privileged few at the very top of the economic ladder. Of course, the rich will say that any criticism of their wealth and policies undervalues their hard work and invaluable contributions to economic progress. What is often left out of this insipid and embarrassing logic is that, rather than promote economic progress, they have used their wealth – often made not through hard labor, but through financial transactions and trades that border on corruption – to promote economic ruin for vast numbers of people in the United States. Rather than producing jobs, they have bankrupted the economy through financial mismanagement and corruption, imposing a staggering burden on small businesses, people with mortgages, the middle and working classes and young people who can look forward to a future of unparalleled debt, low wage jobs and little hope.
Trickle-down economics – as one of the legitimating ideologies of market fundamentalism – is really about trickling down to nothing the residual services for the poor, elderly, working class and young people. In the midst of a crushing economic recession, hedge fund managers, banks and corporations have produced soaring profits, made partly through government bailouts. Yet, they continue to hoard their money. It has been estimated that corporations are sitting on over two trillion dollars in assets, while at the same time increasing their capital by cutting further back on jobs rather than creating them. And the country’s millionaire politicians mimic these practices of the hoarding corporations. According to the Congressional Budget office, “a dollar dedicated to the middle class grows the economy three times faster than a dollar devoted to the rich. Yet, Republicans would still give the highest earners another tax cut.” All the while, “Executive and CEO salaries increased by 23 percent in 2010.”(21) Moreover, as Elizabeth Warren has reminded us, nobody gets rich simply by their own initiative. Individual success cannot happen without the existence of a viable social contract that puts in place the conditions that enable personal initiative to take place, never mind succeed. She writes:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there, good for you! But, I wanna be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of the police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work that the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea, God bless, keep a big hunk of it, but part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Class warfare in America is not about the abuse heaped at the rich and powerful – it is about history being written time and again by the victors. It is about elite universities and foundations incubating anti-public intellectuals to further legitimate a war against democracy; public goods; the commons; and, most of all, young people and other groups now deemed expendable. And part of this class warfare is a war against young people in the form of a culture of illiteracy actively produced through the disinvestment and privatization of public education so that it becomes impossible for young people to recognize what the abuse of power and privilege look like and how this abuse is bearing down on their lives and future. It is an illiteracy that seeks to prevent them from addressing what it might mean to become critical and engaged citizens capable of holding official power accountable.
The same culture of illiteracy also operates through the dominant media and other cultural apparatuses. It is a war waged not only via the state, economic and educational institutions, but also through a wider cultural apparatus in various sites that provide the discourses, narratives and frameworks that make the rich and powerful corporations unaccountable, in spite of the damage they do to democratic institutions and those marginalized by race, class and age. As Stanley Aronowitiz has pointed out in his brilliant book, “How Class Works: Power and Social Movements,” class relations are woven into the fabric of American life and, yet, such relations are all but written out of American history, erased from dominant media accounts and disappeared into the language of meritocracy, morality and character.(23)
Class is a powerful category for understanding society, politics, history and justice in ways far removed from official accounts, particularly those recently rewritten by the Paul Ryans of the world. Against Ryan and his wealthy friends and corporate allies, class needs to once again become a central category and discursive tool for understanding the injustices being waged in such a ruthless fashion against young people and other members of a declining and decaying social order.
Class needs to be reclaimed as a crucial critical and political category to be used by all of those groups – including workers, young people, people of color, women and the elderly – against those in power who now view such groups as either feckless consumers or human waste. The inequities reproduced through class warfare in the name of economic progress must be taken seriously by social movements that are struggling to ensure that young people have a future in which democracy is central rather than marginal to their lives. We are currently catching a glimpse of the potential for resistance in the Occupy Wall Street protests being waged by young people in New York and other cities across the United States. For these youth, class warfare resumes its historical meaning in protesting corporate greed, high unemployment, corporate-based education and social inequality, among other issues. Rather than limit their protests to a single issue, they have come together to condemn mass injustices stemming from an economic system that “places profits over people, self-interest over justice and oppression over justice.”(24)
In their recent manifesto, the Occupy Wall Street protesters have marshaled their critical ire against a failing political/economic system that poisons the food supply, takes bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, sells out privacy as a commodity, produces unprecedented disparities in income and wealth, blocks alternate forms of energy, participates in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas and develops economic policies that produce catastrophic financial crises the world over.
The dominant media claim these groups are incoherent and unorganized, while ignoring that they are pushing against the entire system of corporate greed and making clear what the face of class warfare really looks like, as it is being conducted by financial elites and their allies against the American public and the very nature of democracy itself. Progressives should welcome the injection of youthful protest into the national landscape because it makes visible what is often rendered invisible – how material and ideological relations can be structured to promote not only anti-democratic tendencies, but a culture of fraud, cruelty and barbarism.
Class warfare, as appropriated by the rich and powerful, empties democratic politics of any meaning. It reproduces, rather than confronts, the economic, social and political deficits eating away at the ideals of democracy. Yet, it is important to recognize that the elite takeover of the language of class warfare should not simply be surrendered to those committed to an Orwellian distortion of its meaning. Class as a category and mode of politics should matter to everyone because it makes visible power relations that are often hidden from public view. Any viable notion of political struggle needs to affirm the reality of class politics and use it as a category for reinvigorating democratic struggles with a renewed sense of urgency. In part, this means certifying the value of class politics as part of a broader struggle committed to the development of wider social movements and substantive political transformations in the interests of human solidarity, equality and freedom.
The Occupy Wall Street protests may be the beginning of such a movement, one in which the future becomes alive with a new understanding of justice, equality and freedom and a willingness to fight for the promises of a radical democracy. Maybe the Tahrir Square and Arab Spring movement has finally ignited the passion and promise of youth, encouraging them to act in the interest of building a far more just and sustainable future than the one we have created for them.
Also See: Occupied Wall Street Journal
4. Philip Green, “Farewell to Democracy?” Logos 10:2 (2011), online here.
5. Roger Bybee, “Rep. Paul Ryan’s Class War,” In These Times (September 27, 2011), online here. A very different but important critique of economic and social inequality can be found in Richard Wilkenson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Great Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009). See also Robert Reich, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future (New York: Knopf, 2011) and Tony Judt, Ill Fares the Land (New York: Penguin, 2010).
7. Bill Moyers, “Interview with William K. Black,” Bill Moyers Journal (April 23, 2010), online here.
9. Robert Reich, “Unjust Spoils,” The Nation (July 19, 2010), online here.
10. Maxwell Strachan “15 Facts About US Income Inequality That Everyone Should Know (CHARTS),” Huffington Post (September 19, 2011), online here.
11. Editorial, “New Figures Detail Depth of Unemployment Misery, Lower Earnings For All But Super Wealthy (VIDEO),” Huffington Post (November 2, 2010), online here.
12. David DeGraw, “The Richest 1% Have Captured America’s Wealth – What’s It Going to Take to Get It Back?,” Alter Net (February 17, 2010), online here.
14. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” Vanity Fair (May 2011), online here.
15. Robert Reich, “Inequality Has Wrecked the Economy,” Reader Supported News (September 5, 2011), online here.
17. Jonathan Schell, “Cruel America,” The Nation (September 28, 2011), online here.
19. Marian Wright Edelman, “Is Our Nation on the Titanic?” Children’s Defense Fund (September 23, 2011), online here.
20. See National Center for Children in Poverty online here.
21. Robert Weiner and John Horton, “End Trickle Down Economics to Pay Off Debt,” Miami Herald (July 11, 2011), online here.
22. Elizabeth Warren, “Nobody Gets Rich on Their Own,” video posted on Truthout.
24. Chris Bowers, “First Official Statement from Occupy Wall Street,” Daily Kos (October 1, 2011), online here.