Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Class Warfare

There is a neo-populist movement afoot in the US right how. No one is sure exactly what to call it. Analogies with the original Populist party break down over issues of tariffs and xenophobia. The later "Progressive" movement, which is credited with creating the first round of government regulatory agencies, doesn't fit well either. It didn't have the broad-based working class foundation that is meant when one talks about populism.

These days when critics accuse liberals of engaging in "class warfare" they mean the the working classes are looking to rein in the excesses of the super wealthy. Since this group is tiny, the appeal to defending the rights of Paris Hilton doesn't work well, so they try to include the top 20% as well.

I propose to separate the classes on a different basis than is usually the case. In my scheme there are only two classes: those who have to work for a living and those who don't. Those who work may have different levels of income and wealth, but if they lose their wages they will, eventually, starve.

The blue collar, white collar and professional sectors have more in common than they realize. That the wealthy can disguise this fact is one of the greatest triumphs of social misdirection of the modern age. In the middle of the 20th Century the local town doctor might live in a better home than his patients, but he was part of the community and adverse economic conditions affected him just as much. The same was true for the local banker.

Now we have large sectors of society who make money by dealing in intangibles. These may be financiers, or media people, or others engaged in marketing intellectual property. A dealer in derivatives does not have the same connection to his neighbors as did the town banker. He thus, mistakenly, thinks he has different interests.

What goals do the various strata of the working class have in common?

1. A clean environment
2. A safe local environment
3. Adequate health, education, and retirement services
4. A functioning democracy
5. A stable international political scene
6. The expectation that similar conditions will exist for their descendants

What does the non-working class want?

1. Adequate supplies of material goods of any sort
2. A stable and growing economic system
3. Permanent investment opportunities
4. Freedom to move capital internationally
5. Freedom to relocate when any locale becomes too risky
6. A political system designed to maintain their influence

Why do some in the working class fail to understand where their interests lie? There have been many attempts at formulating an explanation. All seem to have some partial insights. In no particular order: a belief that they will rise to the non-working class and thus they need to support those interests so that they will be in place when they "make it". A feeling of elitism or superiority. Distraction over "values" issues which blind them to the underlying real class concerns. Jingoism or xenophobia which fosters an "us versus them" mindset - another form of elitism. Insecurity or fear which leads to the aim of keeping those who might challenge their position from below being kept "in their place". This latter attitude may not be totally irrational. Many "populist" proposals these days aim at limiting the wealth accumulation of the upper segment of the working class.

The non-working class has every reason to oppose limits on their wealth accumulation since their continuing class membership depends upon the ability to make money from money and not labor. Anything which constrains this will lead to a permanent limit on future wealth growth. Unlike the working class there is nothing they can do to increase their income except have the rules altered. By definition they don't "work" so they can't increase their labor. (I realize that some of the non-working class "work", but they don't have to work to eat they do it for other reasons.)

Now why doesn't a stock trader earning $1 million a year see that his paying a higher fraction of his income is a "good thing"? Doesn't he want a clean and safe environment for himself and his family? Who does he think is going to pay for this? Why the tax resentment? Why does this segment exist only in those countries with a high level of wealth disparity?

As I stated above, I think the problem is one of a misunderstanding of where one's interests lie. In a country with a high degree of wealth disparity (like the US and UK) this imbalance allows too much power to reside in the hands of too few. This not only affects how elected representatives are selected, but also means that the information outlets are in the hands of the non-working classes. The misinformation barrage is thus unchallenged. Politicians who represent the working class don't get elected and voices from this class don't get heard in the press or on the air. With a continual program of class misidentification the working wealthy become blind to their real interests.

A member of the non-working class can leave his home country when things get too bad, but what happens to the financial analyst who thinks he is member of this same group. He is stuck in the muck just like his blue collar compatriots. As the problems of resource shortages spread even the options for relocation will diminish. Perhaps the 400 wealthy families in the US can relocate, but where will they go in 50 years when climate change affects the entire planet?

If you are making $1 million per year, be glad to pay 50 or 90% in taxes and realize that you are still ahead of 99.99% of the rest of the people on the planet. You can't eat gold and you can't buy protection during a revolution, just ask the French aristocracy of 1789. If you are among the most fortunate than you have an obligation to contribute more to society. When did greed replace community as one of the virtues?

The question is how to get people to understand where their interests lie in the face of a generation-long misinformation campaign. I don't have an answer, but perhaps the rise of alternate sources of information will provide the needed wedge. This needs to be defended as well. There are already steps being taken to limit the reach of dissident internet sites as well as to control access to the network itself. Don't expect the legal system to support the working classes. Judges and government workers suffer from the same misunderstanding about their class affiliation as do all the others.

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