The New, Old Class Warfare

There is and has been a war raging inside the USA for over 160 years. The wealthy elite of the country are the side conducting the war. On the other side are the over 90 percent of the population who also happen to be the bottom 90 percent in terms of wealth.

This is not your typical war with cannons, high-altitude bombers, drones etc. Yet, there have been times in our history when the guns have been turned on those who dare to challenge the wealthy elite.

The war is called class warfare and it affects every one of us. I wish to avoid the terms “ruling class” and “working class” because they do not fully describe our condition. Rather, I will use the terms “wealthy elite” and “the rest of us,” for that more accurately describes our condition. Class warfare describes the hostility the wealthy elite have exhibited toward the rest of us for over 160 years.

Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest persons, told The New York Times on November 26, 2006, “There is class warfare all right but it is my class, the rich class that is making war and we're winning.” They are winning because most of the 90 percent refuse to believe there is class warfare and continue to believe the rich class has the best interests of the rest of us in mind even as it plots methods to steal all the wealth created or held by the rest of us.

It wasn't always this way. I use the 1850s as the starting point for the current class warfare because those years marked a leap in military-related production as well as of the USA's invasion of Mexico to wrest what are now California, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada away from Mexico. As always, the poorest of the country were targeted for enlistment with “promises” of land and an enlistment bonus to be paid to the family of the enlistee. Neither land nor bonus panned out.

During this period, the Communist Party was founded – in 1852, two years before the founding of the Republican Party and 55 years before the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. From 1852 to today, the word “communist” is used to paint anyone who desires peace, equality and justice as a radical not to be considered seriously. In the 1850s, there were some strikes forcibly broken by the local, state or federal governments. Strikes usually occurred in response to the wealthy elite's hunger for more profits achieved by lowering wages, extending hours or by firing workers and demanding that the remainder accomplish as much work as the previously larger workforce. This formula also required a rise in prices for basic goods, in an attempt to insure that workers wouldn't dare strike. In the 1850s, slavery had two forms: wage slavery in the North and chattel slavery in the South. The wealthy class used red baiting, race baiting and immigrant baiting to divide and attempt to conquer the rest of us as their primary strategies to maintain the upper hand.

It was the Civil War that created the wealth that still rules our lives today. The demand for war materials created astounding individual wealth never before witnessed on the planet. Industries such as steel making, ship building, railroads, meat packing, mining, manufacturing, communications and banking were the major beneficiaries.

The figure of J. Pierpont Morgan stands out among those of the original “robber barons.” The shadow of Morgan looms large in the 160 years of class warfare. Today, the corporate JP Morgan exists as JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley – preeminent leaders in the world financial industry. Besides co-owning the US government, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and others now own the economies and, therefore, the governments of many European nations. This is accomplished as in the States simply by holding or otherwise controlling the debt of its many government clients. When we learn the market is “nervous,” that means Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, and others want loan repayments to be the priority over the welfare of each countries' citizens. Hence, the demand to get rid of or to drastically reduce public benefits that accrue to all citizens.

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In his mid-20s, JP Morgan avoided serving his country in the Civil War by paying $300 to a substitute, who went in his place. Other young men who did the same thing included: John D. Rockefeller, Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie, James Hill and Phillip Armour, all of whom led the so-called Industrial Revolution and amassed their fortunes on top of the 600,000 or more killed during the Civil War. War profiteering from the Civil War built the fortunes that control the rest of us even up to today. It was said at that time that the aforementioned leaders would have liked the war to continue, so great were the profits. Maybe that is why the USA has been at war or sponsoring a war elsewhere every year since the beginning of the nation.

I say so-called Industrial Revolution because that is one side of the story. What is important to note or discover is that there was an “Industrial Counter-Revolution” as well. Its leadership came from people engaged in farming, share cropping, shipping, mining, railroads, steel, manufacturing, retail etc. From the beginning, organized labor was hampered because nationally recognized labor leaders opposed striking, and banned blacks and women from joining. This, in spite of the valiant organizing efforts of women in the mills of the northeastern USA and the courageous efforts of black citizens to demand basic rights supposedly guaranteed by the Civil War and its aftermath. As early as the mid 1870s, the first nationwide union was formed, the Iron Moulders. Through very difficult organizing city by city, traveling by box car or any other conveyance he could hitch a ride on, William Sylvis finally achieved his objective in 1877. Sylvis also advocated full membership for black workers, realizing the truth that when one group is oppressed, all suffer. The fight to eliminate racism and the fight for justice and equality are the major battlefields in class warfare. The divide-and-conquer strategy serves only the wealthy elite. Most of us have lost between $5-$20 per hour over our lifetimes simply because we have proven ourselves to be susceptible to the divide-and-conquer strategy.

Employment has always been the main focus of the wealthy as a tool for winning the class war. Maintaining high unemployment along with a lack of job security among the employed creates an atmosphere of fear, which makes us vulnerable to crass manipulations. The wealthy elite have feasted on driving wages down; increasing production; nonpayment of overtime; cutting corners on safety issues (resulting in death, disabling injury or simply perpetual pain), and then they raise prices to starve us into submission.

Even this is not enough to satisfy the wealthy elite. They have sent manufacturing jobs first to Southern US nonunion locations and then out of the country in a never-ending search for nearly free labor; no safety regulations; and, best of all, no environmental regulations. These were good paying jobs: they strengthened communities, uplifted families and made it possible for young people to go to college. Oftentimes, the national union leadership along with the banks encouraged these moves in order to protect their pension investments. The disgrace is there was no fight from the national unions. Members at the local level were agitated, union members from many locals were coming together on this issue and the national unions poured ice water on it. How many communities look like bombed-out cities as a result of corporate flight? That is what class warfare looks like.

However, back in the late 1800s, every attack by the wealthy elite against the rest of us was met with strong organized resistance by workers and farmers. Some of the battles included the first nation-wide strike by railroad workers in 1877, the agitation for the eight hour day in the 1880s, which included the Haymarket bombing, many strikes in mines over safety and wages, the Pullman Strike, organization of the Sleeping Car Porters Union, the Western Federation of Miners and other actions. It should be noted that some of the most effective democratic organizations were formed and led by people who were basically illiterate. Many times immigrants fresh from Europe brought over to break a strike joined the strikers because they understood the nature of class warfare.

Almost every strike was characterized by the wealthy elite as a communist-inspired plot to overthrow the government. The wealthy have used this tactic for the past 160 years and it is devoid of truth. Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist; Huey P. Long was a communist – as were all their supporters. Union organizers were communists. People organizing for a better society were communists. We can recall the most effective period of commie naming – the late 1940s and the 1950s when the junior senator from Wisconsin succeeded in frightening the whole country about commies everywhere and destroyed many people's lives with his lies. These lies were supported by the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturing, the American Legion and – amazingly enough – by the American Federation of Labor and most of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The unions cooperated by identifying organizers as commies, then, by expelling them from membership. A variant of this procedure extended to entire unions. Seriously weakened unions, due to the firing of their most successful organizers, were the result as well as the failure to mount any sort of counterattack over the past 60 years. This venal appeal to fear which leads to hate has prevented us from bringing values such as compassion and cooperation into our public life in a meaningful way.

Our history of struggle in class warfare should give us reason to be optimistic. After all, it was our grandparents, our great-grandparents, our great-great-grandparents who fought against all odds to build a more just society. They did so at great sacrifice to themselves in order that their children would not have to suffer as they did.

During every strike, first, the wealthy elite began a commie smear campaign in hopes of neutralizing support for the strikers. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't. The middle class were crucial to the success of a strike, but they were afraid of being accused of supporting commies or, worse, supporting blacks. Their fear of taking a courageous stand was the reason many strikes were broken. Today, we see their reward for not supporting strikes: the middle class has been decimated by the wealthy elite. Also, law enforcement and the military have always been there to provide brutal assistance to the wealthy elite. Many companies hired their own militias or relied on corporations like the Pinkertons to crush strikers. On many occasions, the Army was called back from killing Native Americans to kill strikers. This practice continued well into the 1930s. The story of the Republic Steel strike on Memorial Day 1937 is instructive. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee called for a strike against speed-up (safety), wage cuts and extended hours. Republic Steel and other steel plants spent $43,901.88 (1937 dollars) for machine guns, revolvers, tear gas and bombs to fight the strikers.[1] This does not include death materiel “donated” by the US military and law enforcement. The massacre that ensued on Memorial Day: ten murdered and scores wounded, was captured on film by Paramount. It can still be seen today, but not on corporate media. It is a true indictment of the lack of limits the wealthy elite impose on themselves.

The wealthy elite have always been busy consolidating their wealth. The banker JP Morgan was expert at creating monopolies, including General Electric, American Telephone and Telegraph, US Steel, in addition to dominating three major insurance companies. He bailed out the US government when its gold reserves were depleted – at a great profit. His representatives sat on the board of directors of 48 companies.[2] He could be called the founder of the Federal Reserve Bank, which still works very closely with – or for – Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase.

Despite Morgan's death in 1913, the interests of the House of Morgan Bank were key to US involvement in WWI. In spite of government-professed neutrality, Morgan began lending enormous sums of money to the British and French governments for war materials, which were manufactured in the US and then exported to Morgan's clients, the British and French. The British and French were in debt exceeding 2.5 billion dollars (1913-15 dollars) and not winning or losing the war. If Germany were to win the war, the House of Morgan would surely collapse and take the entire economy along with it. Instead, the US entered the war to preserve Morgan's billions, following an intense and vastly effective propaganda effort. Speaking against the war was made a federal offense. Amazingly enough, in spite of the massive propaganda, many people knew the war was for Morgan and not to preserve democracy. The very same propaganda model continues to be used against us to get us to do what we do not need to do. We even vote against our own interests (and for wealthy elite interests) with the help of this propaganda industry, which spends close to 30 billion a year to keep us “busy” supporting the very same people who are making war on us.

Frederick Townsend Martin's family was quite wealthy, thus, he traveled in the elite circles where only the wealthy elite venture. Somehow, he became sincerely interested with the welfare of the many poor in New York City. He wrote “The Passing of the Idle Rich” in 1911. In it, he summarized the method of control which well served the wealthy elite in class warfare: .”.. It matters not one iota what political party is in power or what President holds the reins of office. We are not politicians or public thinkers; we are the rich; we own America; we got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it if we can by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our political connections, our purchased senators, our hungry congressman, our public speaking demagogues into the scale against any legislature, any political platform, any presidential campaign that threatens the integrity of our estate … The class I represent cares nothing for politics. In a single season a plutocratic header hurled his influence and his money into the scale to elect a Republican governor on the Pacific Coast and a Democratic governor on the Atlantic Coast.”[3] We can see the same recipe being used today, especially the “public speaking demagogues.”

That very same wealth is used today to continue to destroy all hard-won benefits. Those benefits represent the last vestiges of class warfare victories by a united, not divided, rest of us. Today, our wealthy elite have caused state and local governments to starve. Part of the strategy employed is to refuse to fund mandates from the federal to state and local governments. Then local governments are left to deal with fallout of taking money away from children as they are forced to reduce benefits or eliminate programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Grover Norquist, a political operative from the right-wing think-tank industry, has expressed his desire to starve the beast (us) and would delight in watching the last benefits disappear down the drain of a bathtub. We are not far from that event. It appears we are in the final stages of class warfare and losing badly, primarily because so many of us – consciously or unconsciously – collaborate with the wealthy elite. With one in five unemployed or underemployed, the federal government plays games with unemployment benefits (won during the 1930s) by refusing to extend the time a person may receive those benefits. Eighty-five percent or more of what used to be good-paying jobs have disappeared to other countries where production costs are minimal: today jobs which went to lawyers, involving proofreading court decision publications, have been moved to India. Presumably, graduates of law school in India proofread/edit the essential tools of law practice. On top of all this, fraud remains rampant in the financial industry. Financial fraud and unemployment are rampant throughout the history of this class warfare. One of the favorite frauds remains “pump and dump,” whereby an asset is identified by a group of wealthy elite which organizes favorable news coverage of this hot asset. Finally, at some point in the ascent of the asset, the promoters sell their gigantic holdings, making huge profits, while ordinary mortals are left holding the bag. Sound familiar?

Perhaps the most telling declaration of our future can be found in the notion of a “jobless recovery.” That description conveys that the economy has recovered, but the unessential jobs market – the apparently least important aspect of the economy – has not. We are now being groomed for a perpetually precarious existence. There will be some jobs, but not nearly enough for everyone who needs to work. This keeps all of us insecure and frightened, opens the competition of all against all and clears the way for the wealthy elite.

The Great Depression offers many parallels to our situation today. A financial crash, rampant unemployment, harsh suppression measures against those who fought back. We haven't seen such harsh repression because the fight back has so far been limited. However, legislation passed during Bush 2 provides the framework for a gigantic political gulag. Measures used against the rest of us in the 1930s included the Palmer Raids, which terrorized tens of thousands of activists; massacres in the Western mining states when mine workers organized; and the military, police and private militias were commonly used to suppress organizing. It was also the peak period for the Ku Klux Klan in the North as well as the South. The Klan went on a rampage, lynching blacks simply for being a human with black skin. Divide and conquer once more. In spite of this, people continued to organize. Workers, farmers and the unemployed came together, excluding no one because of skin color or sex. This was the opposite of the AFL, which then practiced exclusion – even excluding so-called unskilled workers.

Against these odds, people began organizing, especially from the ranks of the unemployed. Locally, the unemployed organized to agitate for public assistance, unemployment insurance and a stop to mortgage foreclosures. For example, from November 1931 to June 1932, 185,794 families were served with dispossess notices in New York City. Over 70,000 of these were moved back into their homes by the local Unemployed Council.[4] When strikes were called, the unemployed didn't rush to scab, instead many joined the picket line.

This behavior shocked the wealthy elite. For the first time, people were deaf to race baiting, immigrant baiting, communist baiting, and blacks and women were not barred from membership in the newly organized unions. In many cases, blacks and women were chosen as leaders because of their talents and skills. From 1933 to 1938, over five million workers joined the union at their work. Predictably, a wave of strikes swept the nation and the response was brutal. Yet, a new spirit had entered the hearts of people and compassion and cooperation prevailed over manipulation and competition. Thus, was the “New Deal” born.

The New Deal consisted of a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures; provision of unemployment insurance; public assistance programs; Social Security; minimum wage and hour laws; assistance to small farmers; and a massive public works program, including grants for artists of all types. It was surely a new beginning.

However, we have not defended these victories. Each program has been cut and cut until there is hardly anything left but Social Security – and that is next in their sights. It seems any program that reinforces the notion of collective responsibility and the welfare of the citizenry cannot be allowed because it demonstrates the value of mutual respect and compassion. We have taken the bait of divide and conquer and chosen to join forces with the wealthy elite to continue to suppress black- and brown-skinned people. We are not even agitated over the phrase “jobless recovery.” We think it is normal given the “nature” of the mysterious market forces. It is jobless because the rest of us have no value to the wealthy elite save what can be exploited or stolen from us.

Beginning to fight back together for the first time in nearly 60 years means making changes – both personal and social. The best description of what we face was articulated by Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped and went on to become a newspaper publisher, as well as one of the most important intellectuals in our nation's history:

“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”[5]

Today, our most important demand is to reclaim democracy. Without a vibrant movement for democracy, our condition will worsen. Democracy simply means “rule of the governed.”

We can begin to take back the power by learning the truth ourselves. In the preface to “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman suggested one “dismiss whatever insults your soul.” We do not ever need to “speak truth to power”; we need to “speak truth to the powerless,” and that begins with ourselves. We can then begin to develop the conversation necessary to figure out where we are and where we need to go. The best place to do this is in our neighborhoods. We can greatly improve our ability to survive by cooperating with our neighbors to build an alternative economy. Also, starting in our neighborhood, we develop that base of people necessary to reclaim democracy.

We must think about withholding our support from the wealthy elite and search for ways to keep our money away from them. We are funding our own destruction due to our insatiable need to buy things. Remember Bush 2's answer to 9-11-2001? “Go shopping, America is open for business,” he exclaimed, and we did. Our role as consumer instead of as a citizen is reinforced by the mammoth propaganda industry, which now targets children less than one year old to mould the perfect consumer. We continue to fund the military-corporate complex at the expense of necessary services and the dissolution of spiritual values. In the past 20 years, we have funded the bailout of the saving and loan industry, following deregulation of same; experienced the disaster known as the dot com meltdown (remember pump and dump); started an endless war against an idea – terrorism; and funded the multitrillion dollar bailout of the financial industry – benefiting Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase. In 2008, over 99 percent of the presidential vote went to the parties of empire. That sounds and looks like an endorsement of the wealthy elite's class warfare against the rest of us.

Any decision to counter attack the wealthy elite by stopping our financial support of them is a deeply personal one. It is also an example of what Douglass spoke about describing the “need for struggle.” Boycotting is the means to get attention in order to present our demands developed through our neighborhood discussions. If we do not give our money to the wealthy elite and if we stop getting our information from corporate television, then how can the wealthy use the media to manipulate us? We can turn our backs on them; it is a matter of personal and social change.

The Venerable Prayudh Payutto wrote the book, “Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place.” In 1992, he wrote:

“People who get richer and richer while society degenerates and poverty spreads are using their wealth wrongly. Such wealth does not fulfill its true function. It is only a matter of time before something breaks down – either the rich, or the society, or both must go. If people use their wealth wrongly, it ceases to be a benefit and becomes a bane, destroying human dignity, individual welfare and the community.”[6]

We don't have much time left before we are driven to our knees. Our refusal to acknowledge class warfare for the past 60 years has encouraged the wealthy elite to grab control of the entire world economy. The lobotomization of the US population has been critical to that almost-complete effort. In view of our ancestors' heroic efforts and a moral responsibility to at least try to make a better world for our children and our neighbors' children, we need to become better informed, better educated, more agitated and better organized. Today, we have the highest inequality of wealth in our nation's history – along with the least resistance to its impact.

What will our answer be to the children when they ask, “What did you do during the class warfare?”


[1] Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, “Labor's Untold Story,”(New York: United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, third edition, 26th printing 1988) p. 313.

[2] Howard Zinn, ” A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present,” (New York: Harper Collins Publishers; 1999) pp. 254-255.

[3] Boyer and Morais: pp. 77-78.

[4] Boyer and Morais: pp. 260-261.

[5] Howard Zinn: p. 183.

[6] Venerable Prayudh Payutto: “Buddhist Economics: A Middle Way for the Market Place,” (Bangkok Thailand: Buddadhamma Foundation 1992) p.77.