In 1895, sociologist Max Weber wrote, “I am a member of the bourgeois class, feel myself to be such, and have been brought up on its opinions and ideals.” Today, “who could repeat these words?” asks Franko Moretti in The Bourgeois. Instead, we have a capitalist class made up of self-described “game changers,” “innovators,” “visionaries,” “leaders” and “job creators.” The latter terms sound a lot friendlier. Just like “Donald Trump” sounds more inspiring than Donald Drumpf.
While the struggle over language is often a poor substitute for materialist politics, it would be dangerous to ignore the role that concepts play in structuring the political imagination. Our world and the changes that may or may not come will be connected to the ways in which we understand social reality and the actors who occupy it.
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The problem with a term like “job creator” is that it belies the relationship between the working class and the owners of this country. As Nobel laureates, secretaries of labor, Pulitzer Prize-winning tax reporters, small business owners and millionaire entrepreneurs point out, the real job creators in this country are consumers and the welfare state. The commodities that fill the spaces of small and large businesses in the US are not going to be purchased if the average American is worried about paying rent, day-care bills or an upcoming visit to the doctor. Lower tax rates on the bottom 95 percent, higher wages, universal health care, overtime, paid parental leave and other Keynesian interventions are what drive economies dependent on the constant production and sale of goods. “All that is solid melts into air,” said Karl Marx when he described the never-ending circulation of commodities under capitalism. However, in today’s post-Reagan Tea Party dystopia, all that is melting into air are real wages and government support for the US working class.
As the overwhelming majority of the population has experienced stagnation and decreases in income and wealth, the rich now possess historically high concentrations of both. Yet, despite the fact that the rich have accumulated more economic power, job creation has not returned to its early Carter years, and the US has not seen a watershed of entrepreneurs taking advantage of low tax rates, which would supposedly result in a “trickle-down” benefit for all. In other words, capitalists have not invested their new capital in a way that would validate the job creator narrative. Fictional Wall Street character Gordon Gekko’s brutal honesty — “I create nothing. I own” — is a more accurate reflection on class positions in a capitalist economy than the aestheticized statistics that simply tell us how many people are employed by a capitalist.
Subsequently, instead of an increased rate of job creation, the tax cuts of recent decades have ushered in an era of polarizing economic inequality that mirrors the last period of US history when tax rates on the rich were this low: the late 1920s. As the financial crises that began in 1929 and 2007 demonstrate, this conjuncture not only poses a threat to the working class but to the US economy. The rich, as economists like Laura Tyson and Owen Zidar argue, also benefit when the working class has the spending power that the economy needs. Even George W. Bush, who sliced taxes for the wealthy, couldn’t help but acknowledge that it is consumers who drive the US economy. In his post-9/11 address, he encouraged Americans deluged with patriotism to “go shopping more.”
Although the debate between supply-side economics and demand-side Keynesianism is not new, the veneer that’s been adopted by the bourgeois class has taken on an especially mystifying appearance in the epoch of neoliberalism. In his TED talk “Rich People Don’t Create Jobs,” venture capitalist and self-described “0.01%-er” Nick Hanauer expounds the way the job creator myth endows the capitalist class with a godlike aura. After refusing the idea that people like him create jobs, he explains,
The language and metaphors we use to defend the current economic and social arrangements is telling. It’s a small jump from ‘job creator’ to ‘the creator.’ This language was not chosen by accident. And it’s only honest to admit that when somebody like me calls themselves a job creator, we’re not just describing how the economy works, but more particularly we’re making a claim on status and privileges that we deserve.
In a corporate, neo-feudal world where subsidies, bailouts, loopholes and tax rates on top earners have created an inverted welfare state, the entitlement rhetoric often leveled at millennials better fits the capitalist class.
Yet, the anger and criticism that should be aimed at the plutocrats toasting behind closed doors is instead directed at those who have the least. Across the United States, the influx of post-Citizens United spending has manufactured victim blaming and hostility towards immigrants, public employees, unions and the unemployed. It’s no coincidence that an unabashed business mogul like Trump, who has never held a political office, was able to (presumably) win the Republican presidential nomination by a landslide at the same time the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the worst jobs report in six years. From the capitalist sanctum of Trump Tower, the Donald proclaimed that he “will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created!” Just like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan told us in 2012, there are “makers” and there are government-dependent “takers.”
While the deification of a billionaire who attracts votes with fascist rhetoric is alarming, so is the way the term “job creator” has marginalized important issues that pertain to working-class Americans. Like the well-crafted political slogan “support our troops” obscures the central question of whether you’re for the war or against the war, the creation of jobs doesn’t say anything about exploitation and maltreatment. Do workers deserve a wage with which they can support a family? Do they deserve health care? Should they have the right to bargain collectively? Should mothers and fathers be entitled to maternal and paternal leave? In the absence of these questions, capitalists like Trump and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick can emerge as godsends in an economic universe that mirrors the simplicity of the creation myths pushed by Christian fundamentalists. Having faith in the capitalist class — rather than skepticism, critique and collective action — is what we are told will deliver us from poverty and inequality.
Ultimately, the war of position that is being waged over language is not just a struggle for a better set of terms and concepts, it is a struggle for better material conditions. One of the great contributions of Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Wall Street encampment movements of 2011 is that they have pushed terms like “billionaire class,” “owning class,” “exploiters,” “union-busters” and “solidarity” into mainstream discourse. As the rhetoric of elites continues to cast a façade over the reality of class positions and economic conditions in the United States, the language of the oppressed will remain as important as ever. Workers, here and abroad, are not just the creators of jobs, commodities, services and affects; they are the creators of history. And history will continue to be a struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors, not “job creators” and unemployment.