FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

We Used to Make the Rich Poorer and the Poor Richer

by DAVID SWANSON

Many of us have heard the current period referred to as a second gilded age.  Or we’ve seen the current inequality in wealth in the United States compared to that of 1929.  But we have not all given sufficient thought to what ended the first gilded age, what created greater equality, what created the reality behind that category our politicians now endlessly pretend we are all in: the middle class.  We have a sense of what went wrong at the turn of each century, but what went right in between?

This is the theme of Sam Pizzigati’s new book, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph Over Plutocracy That Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.  I take away three primary answers short enough to include in a brief summary. First, we taxed the riches right out from under the rich people.  Second, we empowered labor unions.  And third — and this one came first chronologically as well as logically — we developed a culture that saw it as absolutely necessary for the greater good that the rich be made poorer.

Nowadays, it’s not hard to find people who would like the poor to be richer.  But who wants the rich to be poorer?  It seems so impolite and improper and cruel.  Surely Bill Gates earned, deserves, and needs his $66 billion.  While he might live exactly as comfortably as before if he lost 65 of those billions, how could we expect others to do all the good Gates has done (surely he’s done some) if they can’t expect to also be permitted to hoard $66 billion while other people starve and go homeless.  In fact, without the possibility of hoarding your own $66 billion, nobody will work (will they?) or “create jobs” for others, and in the end if we took $65 billion away from Gates it would vanish into the air leaving the poor even poorer than they’d been.  Or so we like to fantasize.

Pizzigati points to the polling that shows that Americans imagine their nation is much more equal than it is, and that they would like it to be more equal still — would in fact far prefer Sweden’s distribution of wealth to our own.  But what does this tell us about our willingness to do what it takes to get there?  I just saw an article in Mother Jones Magazine claiming that President Obama’s caving in and permitting the continuation of the “Bush” tax cuts for the super wealthy was actually a progressive victory because of other things Obama got in the process.  Such analyses suffer, I think, not just from hero-worship and partisan defensiveness, but from misplaced priorities.  Taxing the rich is absolutely essential to every humanitarian cause and the viability of representative government.

“We can have democracy in this country,” Louis Brandeis accurately said, “or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

The history that Pizzigati tells demonstrates this.  Democracy and wealth concentration rise and fall in opposition to each other.  Limitations on extreme wealth do nothing to reduce work and initiative.  Extreme wealth impoverishes the poor; it doesn’t enrich them.  Trying to enrich the poor while allowing the rich to grow richer is an uphill if not impossible struggle, as the super-rich rewrite the rules to their own advantage.  Thus “Tax Cuts For Everybody!” is an even worse policy than we commonly understand.  It’s not just that Congress rigs such deals to give the wealthiest the biggest cuts, but beyond that the wealthy will gain the power to quickly enact even worse legislation for the rest of us.

In the decades before World War I, authors and activists built an understanding that survived that horror, an understanding that the rich needed to be brought down if the poor were going to be brought up, that a rising tide doesn’t lift all ships, that voodoo economics doesn’t work just because preaching it can get you elected.  It took decades of struggle, partial victories, and many setbacks.  It took civil disobedience.  It took third political parties.  It took a willingness to spend money on World War II that we have yet to compel our government to spend on green energy or infrastructure or education or health.  It took the alternative of communism competing for the world’s approval.  It took until the 1940s and 1950s for success to come.  It was never a perfect success, and it came under greater threat of reversal the more people came to take it for granted.  The success came after some who had worked for it had died.  It came slowly.

And this is what worries me.  Dave Lindorff speculated the other day that the rich and powerful in the United States may be driving climate disaster forward because they actually think that they and their friends will be able to weather the storms (and the millions who will suffer and die be damned).  If at the start of the last century global warming had been what it is now, the struggle for success by mid-century in bringing down plutocracy would have come too late.  We don’t have a half century to play with.  We can’t leave power in the hands of maniacs willing to destroy the planet for a half century.  “Those who succeed us,” said Senator William Andrews Clark at the turn of the last century as he proposed hacking down the national forests, “can well take care of themselves.”  Many U.S. senators clearly feel the same way today under the cloud of greater dangers.

This is not an argument against reading Pizzigati’s book.  It’s an argument for reading it immediately and acting on it even more swiftly than that.  It’s an argument for building a cultural awareness, not of hatred and vengeance, not of violence, not of counterproductive spasms of rage, but of awareness that aristocracy is incompatible with democracy, that in one form or another 99% of us must join together, undo the status of the 1%, and then welcome them as 1% among equals.  There is much we can learn from the history of how the rich have sometimes lost.

Is there ought we hold in common with the greedy parasite

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight?

For the union makes us strong.

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn,

But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

that the union makes us strong.

David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.

David Swanson wants you to declare peace at http://WorldBeyondWar.org  His new book isWar No More: The Case for Abolition.

More articles by:
May 25, 2016
Eric Draitser
Obama in Hiroshima: A Case Study in Hypocrisy
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim
Does Venezuela’s Crisis Prove Socialism Doesn’t Work?
Dan Arel
The Socialist Revolution Beyond Sanders and the Democratic Party
Marc Estrin
Cocky-Doody Politics and World Affairs
Sam Husseini
Layers of Islamophobia: Do Liberals Care That Hillary Returned “Muslim Money”?
Susan Babbitt
Invisible in Life, Invisible in Death: How Information Becomes Useless
Mel Gurtov
Hillary’s Cowgirl Diplomacy?
Kathy Kelly
Hammering for Peace
Dick Reavis
The Impeachment of Donald Trump
Wahid Azal
Behind the Politics of a Current Brouhaha in Iran: an Ex-President Ayatollah’s Daughter and the Baha’is
Jesse Jackson
Obama Must Recommit to Eliminating Nuclear Arms
Colin Todhunter
From the Green Revolution to GMOs: Living in the Shadow of Global Agribusiness
Binoy Kampmark
Turkey as Terror: the Role of Ankara in the Brexit Referendum
Dave Lindorff
72-Year-Old Fringe Left Candidate Wins Presidency in Austrian Run-Off Election
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail