The great unspoken two words of American political discourse are class war. The moral and political premise of the modern, post-World War II “American Century” is that the U.S. had overcome class divisions and struggle. Everyone, or nearly everyone save the very poor and the very, very rich, was absorbed into a vast, undifferentiated middle class. [See “The End of the American Century?: Suffering the New Normal,” CounterPunch, September 10-11, 2010.]
The fiction that America is a nation without class, a lie since its inception a half-century ago, gets more and more untenable as actual class struggle daily intensifies. It’s time to accept the simple yet profound fact that America is in the midst of class war – and the super-rich, the American sector of the global oligarchy, is winning.
Class struggle is being explicitly fought out in France and Britain. In France, it is expressed as mass and often-violent resistance, with blood on the streets. In the U.K., it’s being imposed as a ruling class demand for austerity through huge public-sector layoffs, cuts in public services and little overt resistance. In Germany and the U.S., the mediating lubricants of legal niceties and political parties continue to contain and blunt direct class conflict.
The far right throughout the West is the only political tendency engaged in explicit class warfare. Progressive tendencies have been effectively absorbed within the legislative agenda. However, among the far right, politics is seen not merely as an end in itself (i.e., the capture of state power), but as a means to a greater end: the utilization of state power to impose legislative, economic and moral discipline on the body politic.
The Tea Party is a popular movement engaged in (mostly) nonviolent class warfare. It is the voice of the vulnerable Christian white lower- and middle-classes. Their world is in crisis, collapsing around them. Their once-enviable race-based social privileges no longer provide protection against the vicissitudes of corporate capitalism. In response, they have retreated into the secure fortress of rage and aligned with the ideological and moral absolutism promoted by factions of the super-rich, the very sector responsible for their immiseration.
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Class struggle has long been a feature of American political culture. Such battles marked the earliest period of national formation, including the New York Tenant Uprisings of 1766, Shay’s Rebellion of 1786 and the Whisky Rebellion in the 1790s. They flared throughout the 19th century, including the Workingmen’s Movement of the 1830s and Nat Turner’s Revolt in 1831 as well as the post-Civil War populist battles at Haymarket and Homestead in the late 1800s and Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers in 1894. They continued throughout the first-third of the 20th century culminating in the veterans’ Bonus March, farmer’s Penny Auctions and CIO strikes of the 1930s.
Class and class war were forcefully suppressed during World War II and effectively disappeared with the integration of union labor and Taft-Hartley legislation following the war. The domestic program of prosperity and anti-communist McCarthyism combined with a foreign campaign of Cold War military intervention and Marshall Plan economic renewal served as a two-pronged bulwark for a revitalized capitalist order.
This new world order’s ideological value system that absorbed class war was articulated by a group of “post-Marxist” liberal intellectuals that included Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook, James Burnham and Irving Kristol. Backed by the CIA’s Congress for Cultural Freedom, they provided the rationale for the American Century. As Bell wrote: “Abundance … was the American surrogate for socialism.”
And abundance America got, at least for a couple of decades following the war. With the onset of the 1970s oil crisis and recession, the American Century began to unravel. By the mid-‘80s, abundance was a thing of the past. As David Bloom, a Harvard economist, warned in 1986: “There has been a thinning of the middle class. … As society becomes more polarized, it has more ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ with fewer in between.” [Time, November 3, 1986]
Since the Reagan Revolution, abundance for the middle class has increasingly been replaced by debt. With Reagan, the gloves came off in America’s long contained class war. Today, the promise of the American Century is fading and the rich are getting ever richer and the working middle classes are being ever more squeezed.
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In an 1894 poem, the English author Lord Alfred Douglas referred to homosexuality as “the love that dares not speak its name.” In 1895, Oscar Wilde was tried and found guilty of sodomy; during the trial he was asked to define the line of the Douglas poem, thus popularizing the expression. A century later, in much of the West homosexuality is a love that no longer is afraid to speak its name.
A century ago, class war was acknowledged as a distinguishing feature of American modernization. Vast industrial trusts led by Standard Oil ruled America’s economic and political system; and the tycoons who ran them were mockingly referred to robber barons. Given this oppressive situation, class war was an accepted political concept, embraced by Muckrakers, radicals, unionists and ordinary working people. Everyone knew that the only way to fight both the trusts and robber barons was through class warfare.
Today, class war no longer dare speak its name. Manufacturing has given way to financial capital as the defining sector of the global economy. And one of Standard Oil’s progenitors, Citibank, strongly influences the decisions determining federal economic policy. Sadly, today’s super-rich, whether members of the country club set, contributors to the Republican party, subsidizing a right-wing think tank or financing the “populist” Tea Party movement, are rarely derided as robber barons.
Today’s robber barons know that the media matters and have effectively bought-off the popular opinion makers. Stylishly groomed corporate executives and financiers, who are morally no better then slick thieves, have become celebrities. They are flattered on reality TV shows, praised on business programs and voyeuristically celebrated by the popular media. The American media knows better then bite the hand that feeds it.
Class, and especially middle class, is an effectively slippery category in American political discourse. It refers to everyone and no one. The U.S. Census Bureau does not use or define “middle class,” but has set the median income for a family of four in 2008-2009 at $70,000. A 2008 Pew Research survey found half of all Americans describe themselves as middle class.
Most Americans recognize class struggle in, on the one side, the ceaseless reports of high-levels of unemployment, increasing foreclosures and mounting unpaid bills and, on the other, in the skyrocketing stock market and unspeakable bonuses paid to financial wheeler-dealers. This presents one very powerful representation of class difference, but obfuscates the deeper conflict over the growing polarization of wealth in America.
According to NYU economist Edward Wolff, wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated. In the 15 years between 1983 and 2007, the share of wealth owned by the nation’s top 1 percent households grew to 34.6 percent from 33.8 percent; and the top 20 percent of U.S. households in 2007 controlled 85 percent of the nation’s wealth, up from 81.3 percent in ’83. The fate of America’s vast “middle class,” the remaining 80 percent, has only gotten more dire: in 2007, it controlled 15 percent, down from 18.7 percent in 1983.
It is time for Americans to reclaim the concept of class war. This needs to be done for two reasons: first, to actively combat the great squeeze ruining the lives of untold millions of Americans faced with financial catastrophe; and, second, to end the campaign by the super-rich (in league with government tax policies, subsidies and other give-aways) and the media to keep alive the fiction of America is a classless society free of class war.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.