Thursday, January 12, 2012

Warfare Art Thou?

You can't have class warfare without class consciousness. But mere class consciousness isn't enough; there has to be a feeling of injustice to go along with it, plus sufficient motivation to result in action – not just simmering resentment, but out-loud speech and political activity, with the possible addition of physical (“direct”) action.

For one thing, class consciousness of some sort has always been with us – in every known society down through history and in the present day. It is manifested in different ways and called different things, but it's always there, even in the most ostensibly egalitarian societies. (For in those societies, you still have to have someone in charge, and a ruling class or nomenklatura.) So we have classes, castes, estates, orders... what have you, all reflecting what I will claim is the natural state of human society, which is to be, or become, stratified.

But what is, or should be, the basis for this stratification? The old-time royalists will say that “blood” is the thing. A materialist will say land and/or wealth (as will the Protestants with their “prosperity gospel”). Then we have caste systems based on religion, sect, choice of prophet, cult... and race, ethnicity, occupation, place of birth, place of residence... just about anything that can be used to “unfairly” discriminate among people. And make no mistake about it – despite all of our pretensions, all of these factors, and more, come into play in this “democratic, egalitarian nation” when we start thinking, and talking, about social class, discrimination, and all of the thousand different "-isms".

And then we have the more enlightened view, summed up in the term “meritocracy”. This is the notion that people's standing in society should, by rights, be a function of their talents, achievements, and contributions to the general welfare, and that other considerations of the more atavistic kind should not be allowed to interfere. The major flaw in this position is that it ultimately amounts to a popularity contest; after all, who is to judge the worth of a person's talents, achievements, and contributions? Is it a matter of popular vote, AKA the market? Or should it be left to a council of wise persons, the way the Nobel Prize supposedly is? And if left to the market, then to which sector of the market? After all, a billionaire can “outvote” any number of ordinary people in just about any marketplace you care to name. If some Mr. Big decides that Joe Snuffy is the greatest artist since Rembrandt, and decides to built a museum to house his works... and this results in the price of Joe Snuffy's paintings skyrocketing, and Snuffy becoming inordinately rich... well, who is in any position to argue? The marketplace has spoken, and there is no use trying to confuse the marketplace with “public (or popular) opinion” because they are not the same, although they can, and do, influence each other. Public, or popular, opinion at least has the merit of being somewhat democratic, whereas the marketplace can be subject to the most extreme distortions (at the hands of the government, or speculators, or single individuals).

At any rate, we – in this country – have traditionally held that merit, whatever that might entail, is the most appropriate determiner of social status. And that really seemed to be the case in the beginning, with the Founding Fathers as examples – Jefferson most of all, perhaps. When you see prosperity, popularity, creativity, intelligence, and contributions to society going together – coming in the same package – it's easy to sit back and say, yes, that's how things ought to be. It's even easy, in those cases, to humbly acknowledge our own limitations: If I were more worthy, I might deserve more in the way of success, recognition, wealth, power, etc. -- but because I'm not, then I must be content with my lot, and, in fact, appreciate it as my just desert and no more... a manifestation of divine justice, if you will.

Unfortunately, these sterling qualities very seldom – at least in our time – seem to occur in the same person. Are there any Jeffersons out there? Not that I'm aware. So this forces us to choose among many possible signs of merit, and these can come into conflict and contradiction at times. Who is not, for instance, way too familiar with the philistine millionaire who could afford any sort of house and furnishings but seems content to live in the most oversized, kitsch, and tasteless surroundings? And do I even have to mention the obvious fact that talent as an actor or performer is not a good predictor of political sophistication? Supply as many of your own examples as you like; the point is that there is a massive, multi-faceted anachronism in our day between achievements and assessments of overall merit – and this is one thing that has contributed, in my opinion, to the friction and tension between classes. On the most basic level, the notion is that the person above me on the totem pole doesn't deserve to be there. Rather, I deserve to be where he is, or he deserves to be where I am, or both. This is class consciousness with the “wrongness”, or judgment, added to it. All that is missing then is me going down to the polling place and voting for the politician who promises to put that S.O.B. in his place – mainly by taking some of his money and giving it to me. (And if you don't think this is what motivates at least half the voters in this country, I'll have some of what you're drinking.)

But there are those for whom voting isn't enough – or who see it as, basically, a sham (and I can't disagree). So they are more inclined toward protests, demonstrations, writing, speechifying, and what not – hoping that some of the sleepier, more apathetic members of the oppressed class will wake up and join the cause, and ultimately convince, or intimidate, those in power to change their behavior. Or – as a bonus – making some of those who are living high on the hog feel guilty enough to change their behavior... AKA “liberal guilt”, a time-honored tool of the agents of change.

But what if this isn't enough? Then we have the option of violent demonstrations and strikes, rioting, insurrection, and revolution... some, but not all, of which we have been spared in this blessed land. And not to be dismissed is the mere threat of violence – you know, the “long, hot summer”-type rhetoric that is nearly, but not entirely, extinct at this point. What we are left with these days is demonstrations – on both the left (Occupy... whatever) and the right (Tea Party) -- with nothing behind them... no “or else”. It's a combination of moral claims and physical and economic impotence. In other words, it's an appeal to decency and good will – even though we all know that those qualities are notably lacking in the people being appealed to. When confronted with sheer, invincible power, we should not be surprised that there is not even a sham of decency and good will coming back the other way... and I, for one, see this as a healthy curative for so much naiveté among our activist class. Once you realize that the people in power just don't care, you can stop wasting time. But yeah, I know, hope springs eternal, and we have this fetish of free speech, and where there is free speech someone must be listening, right? Wrong. The ruling class of our time has learned to cool it with the ham-handedness, so we get pretty much all we want of the freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, etc. -- only that it does no good, because it's not going to result in any real change. And the reason for that is that the ruling elite has, at long last, consolidated its power to such a degree that it can simply no longer be threatened by anything “the people” think, want, or do. We might as well all be peasants trying to storm a castle with pitchforks and torches, and a moat full of alligators. We are, to put it another way, in that most unenviable and humiliating position -- that of being ignored, like a retarded child locked in a closet. Life goes on for the power elite, but we're not part of it and never will be. Our only strength is in our value as cannon fodder and a source of labor – which is like expecting farm animals to be proud of the fact that they may wind up on the master's table one day.

But let us return to this tantalizing concept of “class warfare” for a moment. What does it mean? Is it real war, like with guns and stuff? Well, it has been at various times down through history – most notably during revolutions, but also in the periods following revolutions (assuming they were successful). I mean, during the French Revolution the ruling class really was sent to the guillotine; this is not just stuff some Hollywood writer made up. Similarly during the Russian Revolution – except that now the bar was lowered to take in some of the bourgeoisie, that group which had been despised by the French revolutionaries but, as far as I know, not exterminated en masse. Then we had the (second) Chinese Revolution, in which not only were the upper and middle classes eliminated, but considerable numbers of the lower class – those who were deemed “uncooperative” or “counter-revolutionary” -- typically members of the peasantry. (I could include the Ukraine in this, vis-a-vis the Russian Revolution, except I'm convinced that was more of an ethnic and religious genocide than a class-based one.) Then we had the various “mini-me” revolutions that took after their larger exemplars – Cuba after Russia, and North Korea and North Vietnam after China. The most extreme case was probably Cambodia, where virtually everyone was considered a counter-revolutionary and undesirable, and it was only because Vietnam (of all places) stepped in that the Cambodians were prevented from exterminating each other completely. And yet that case served as an object lesson – a reductio ad absurdum – to show what the communist ideology ultimately amounted to... and why it was worth waging a struggle against.

But let's step back from the brink a bit and consider the other kind of class warfare – that kind more familiar to Americans, where violence is usually (if not always) replaced by politics. This, as I've pointed out before, goes back at least as far as the Progressive Era, and includes the labor movement, the New Deal, the civil rights movement, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and brings us right up to the present day with Occupy and the Tea Party. And! It includes the media and the commentariat, who are actually using the term “class warfare” more and more these days.

But why? What makes what is going on now – much less violent than its historical predecessors – a “class war”? Does the use of the term just sell more newspapers and magazines, and increase TV viewership, or is there a more serious reason? Well – it's not always the media's fault, let's admit. The middle class and its representatives have been claiming, at least since the 1960s, that some sort of war is being waged on them. The composite working class and non-working (i.e., welfare) class has been claiming the same thing for much longer than that... as have their allies, the activist left. But again, language means something – and I don't recall the term “class warfare” having been in as much use during the Progressive Era, or the New Deal, or the 1960s, as it is now. And what I definitely don't recall – because it didn't happen – is the use of the term by the middle class to describe its own political/social/economic plight; that is something truly new under the Sun.

Let me clarify that. The cultural revolution of the 1960s was definitely a “class war” of sorts, but not based on social or economic class as much as on politics and foreign policy. And it was, above all, a culture war, as E. Michael Jones points out – a war not of class against class, or even between races or political parties, but of one cultural/aesthetic/moral vision against another. There were even philosophical overtones, which took us way back to our own revolution and that of France... and the metaphysical/epistemological aspects were prominent as well, in the endless discussions and debates about drugs. In short, everyone was involved... or could have been if they wanted to. Social class, race, ethnicity, religion, occupation... none were barriers to participation. And sure enough, when you look at the long-term results, they seem to have occurred all up and down the social and economic scales, and among nearly all racial and ethnic groups. In fact, they greatly enhanced the visibility and political power of a number of minorities. Just about the only people who seem to have remained untouched were the white ethnic working class, the farmers, and the ruling elite. What does that tell you? It was basically a revolt of the middle class against itself – or of the youth of the middle class against its elders. And as such, it had much in common with more “traditional” revolutions over the years, which, typically, at least start with a small cadre of disgruntled bourgeoisie and spread out from there. (The middle class has to convince the proletariat that it's oppressed, in other words.)

But because the “revolution” of the 1960s was more about culture and aesthetics than it was about politics, it was never a threat to the power structure. It was, in other words, easily contained and fenced off – so that what we wound up with was the appearance of change, and genuine change in some areas, but no real change in the overall power relationships... in “the way things are”. All you have to do for evidence of this is compare our foreign policy from World War II to the 1960s (including Vietnam) with our foreign policy since. See any significant differences – any real ones? No, me neither. Just substitute “terrorism” for “communism”, and plug & chug. If you want evidence of real change in this society, don't look to the society itself – to its superficialities. Look at its interface with other societies, other nations – that's where it really hits the road. We were “the ugly Americans” before, and we still are. And what makes us ugly is not even our warlike tendencies; that sort of thing has been around forever, and virtually defines “great” nations and civilizations. No, what sticks in the craw of the rest of the world is our pretensions and hypocrisy – the notion that we do what we do for their good, rather than for ours. Would the Romans ever have made that claim? Or the Crusaders? The British colonialists kind of did, but not seriously. No, we may be unique in history as a nation that makes staggering sacrifices for the alleged good of other nations, and receives very little but hostility in return. I suppose it's a tribute to our sheer energy and productivity that we've managed to keep up this charade for so long – and yet, it's finally beginning to show signs of terminal wear and tear.

But I'm not here to talk about foreign policy, honest. The “class war” if it really exists, is primarily a domestic matter. And if we are willing to ignore the media, and politicians, and their endless prattling, we have to admit that there is, in fact, something to the idea. We have moved from class consciousness – which is, as I said, universal – through the “injustice” stage (where we've been before) to the “war” stage... but what makes it so? After all, it could have been claimed, at any number of times in our history, that there was a war on between “the people” and the ruling elite... or between the black race and the white race... or even between men and women (if you want to stretch the definition of “class” a bit). Is what we have now any more war-ish than those examples? I would say yes, in one major respect – namely, that this time around the government has been actively enlisted in the war, on the side of the ruling elite. (Note that "the government" and "the ruling elite" are not synonymous; the government can be described as the visible cutting edge of the ruling elite, but the people who make up the government are, in nearly all cases, no more than highly-paid servants.)

Go back to the Progressive Era, the labor movement, the New Deal, and the civil rights movement, even feminism, and in all cases the government was – or appeared to be – on the side of “the little guy”, “the people”, “the working man”, “progress”, “minorities”, “the oppressed”, etc. The picture is a bit mixed when it comes to the labor movement, but I think we can see that, in the long run – or at least up to NAFTA – labor was favored. Even the income tax, which now reaches down to Joe the Plumber, was originally designed to punish – er, extract a “contribution” from – the very rich.

The first time the government appeared to be on the wrong side of the populist divide was during the 1960s, when – not coincidentally – we were also fighting the most blatantly unjustified and unwinnable war in our history (up to that time). So the government was not only against sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, but it was giving all the young guys haircuts and sending them over to Southeast Asia to be blown to smithereens -- “class war” indeed! The government that had up to that time stood for the people now became an instrument of persecution and vengeance against those people – or at least a goodly portion of them. This, in a sense, was the real seismic/tectonic/quantum shift in the relationship of the American government to its citizenry – or at least the first stages thereof, since the trend continues to this day. Others will claim that the biggest shift occurred at the time of the Civil War, or World War I, or the New Deal – and those were all significant, no doubt. But I say the image, almost more than the role, of government underwent a more radical change during the 1960s than at any previous time. Up to then, only the most die-hard, what we would now call paleoconservatives, would have considered the government the “enemy” -- but since then there has been nothing particularly rare or unusual, to say nothing of scandalous, about that characterization.

But even if we accept that government can, and does, wage war on the people, is this the same as “class warfare”? It is if you consider the ruling elite a distinct class – which they are. But if they are waging war on everyone else, what is it called then? Is it even about class per se, or is it about something even bigger and broader? Because “class” takes in so much; it is a frustratingly rich concept, as I tried to point out in a previous post. But if the rulers are out to crush everybody underfoot, in a non-discriminatory, “equal opportunity” way, it seems to me that's too crude an idea to be described as “class warfare”. It's more like a tyranny of old, where there was the ruler and his bodyguard and his army on one side of the wall, and everyone else (all other classes, etc.) on the other. It is, in other words, neither subtle nor nuanced... and everyone is involved, to some degree; you can't opt out.

Now, admittedly, this is not how most of the aggrieved groups see things. The “Occupy” movement is the inheritor of the populist movements of old, so in their book it's Wall Street vs. the little guy, and the middle class is... well, it's just not important, that's all. The Tea Party, on the other hand, sees the new style of class war as the ruling elite, by means of the government, stomping them all to dust while at the same time throwing their bones to the rabble – leading the middle class to the slaughter, in other words, while placating the unwashed masses... and all on the road to a two-class system with a missing middle. And one facet of this operation – a tried and true one – is to sic the rabble on the middle class, not only directly but through law, regulation, and sheer intimidation (including that hoary hag “political correctness”). Because, as we should all know by now, the chief emotion that motivates the middle class is fear – fear of losing not only their “stuff” but “the country we grew up in”... and also fear of the rabble and of their own powerlessness. And what, after all, are the mainstream media most adept at? Surely you don't think they write, and broadcast, all that stuff for the benefit of the proletariat! No, it's to manipulate and exploit the fears of the middle class. The proles are kept quiet and contained by “games and circuses” (and sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll) and are only occasionally riled up as the need arises (and typically only by “leaders” like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, or their Hispanic equivalents).

So – bottom line time! -- there is a “class war” going on, but there's nothing unusual about that per se. What's new is that the middle class is (finally!) conscious that it's being waged on them... and that it's being waged by the government on behalf of the ruling elite. And see, this is shocking for... well, for a number of reasons. One is that the middle class has always thought they were more or less in charge – through the voting booth, that is. After all, there are more of them than there are of rich people, right? And we all get one vote, right? So what's the problem? Exactly – so this is why the Regime gradually took over, and co-opted, the selection process for politicians so that only the ones who have their stamp of approval have a chance of being elected and of remaining in office. So again – the “right to vote” didn't have to be tampered with, only the amount of difference it made. (See how the fears of the middle class have been kept at bay for so long, and why the Tea Party movement is so significant?)

Now I've already considered, at length in other posts, whether the Regime is really acting in its own best interests in the long run by working to eliminate the middle class. For one thing, who's going to pay all the taxes? I guess in a true slave state there won't be any need for taxes – it will be the ultimate Marxist nightmare where a select few will own the means of production and the vast bulk of humanity will work at subsistence wages. In other words, the slavery is the tax. But I can't help feeling that there will be a major structural problem if the middle class vanishes – kind of like what would happen to a person with no backbone... nothing between the rib cage and the pelvis but a bunch of loose meat. But that's a discussion for another day.

The real question, at this point, is not whether there is a class war on, because there is. Why it's suddenly being called that is another matter – and I suspect that most of the people doing the calling are the self-styled victims, namely the middle class. They have, in other words, expropriated a favorite term of the left for their own use – causing great resentment, I'm sure. When a catchword of the red-flag-waving agitators, anarchists, and “wobblies” becomes a middle-class tic, you know things are evolving in an interesting direction.

For further evidence, take a look at who's saying there's _not_ a class war – mainstream politicians. And the media basically agree, because their position is that only the radical right-wing loonies actually believe there is a class war going on – imagine! With no Molotov cocktails, no barricades, no mass arrests... some people have mighty easy criteria for declaring something a “war”. And yet, if you're middle class, the assaults you see happening on your lifestyle and well-being are every bit as severe in your eyes as strikebreakers beating union members over the head with nightsticks would have appeared back in the era of severe labor strife. It's all a matter of perspective and expectations, in other words. The middle class never expects to get beaten about the head and shoulders, or thrown in the cooler, and they typically aren't – but they have seen their morals, customs, values, and culture assailed non-stop for close to 50 years, and are now witnessing what may be the mother of all battles – the war against their prosperity and their pocketbooks... against frugality, thrift, and responsibility... against long-suffering good citizenship and “working within the system”... against sobriety... against bourgeois refinement and good manners... and all the rest of it. And what must gall them even more is the spectacle of politicians and candidates who seem to be like them, more or less, going off and becoming members of the enemy camp – becoming the oppressors! (Oh, that left-wing word again – and it sounds so weird when it is spoken by middle-class lips... but these are desperate times.)

But if politicians refuse to admit there's a class war on, they nonetheless use the term “middle class” in every other sentence these days – which is in itself quite notable. Since when have they stood up for the middle class? After all, don't we, as I said, have a history of standing up for “the little guy”, “the people”, “the working man”, “minorities”, “the oppressed”, etc.? Isn't that about class? But it was seldom identified that way, perhaps because it would have been considered too provocative – or too condescending. After all, if you're “for” the working class (defined, I guess, as people who “work” with their hands rather than with some other body part), don't you have to be “against” the middle class? Because, after all, the economic model the government has gone by for many decades now is a zero-sum model; for someone to win, someone else has to lose. So any loose talk about the “rights” of the lower classes was seen – and rightly so – as an existential threat by the middle class. “We're coming to get your stuff” was the message – and if the ghetto riots of the 1960s hadn't been so tightly controlled by the Regime, it might have turned out that way.

As I've said before, politicians typically start talking about something just before it's about to be taken away or lost – and this case is no different. Suddenly, politicians who've spent a lifetime railing against middle-class people, values, and priorities have turned into their champions – don't be fooled! It's all a way of preparing for that day when they will have to say, “Well, we tried, but what could we do? The banks, mortgage companies, and brokerage houses were too big to fail, and you weren't.” Or words to that effect. Not that the middle class (or what's left of it) will ever rise up in arms, but politicians do, still, like to be liked – that is the one remaining weakness in their character.

But consider, for a moment, what the non-middle class must think when they hear all of this babble about the middle class (assuming they listen to, or read, any speeches or statements by politicians). Don't the old class resentments bubble up? “I mean, what's this guy got that I ain't got? Does he work any harder? Or even if he does, why does that make him more deserving than me? I mean, people are people, y'know? We all have the same needs, so why does the government let him have more than me?” And so on. You can hear it in any tavern in Pittsburgh – or anywhere else in the country, I'll wager. It seems that politicians like Obama are taking a big chance when they get up and start defending the middle class, that they're going to offend more people than they please. In Obama's case, he's going to offend his base, just to please some people who might or might not vote for him. Unless it's all a sham, and is being done just so they can say “I did what I could”. I'm sure Obama's base is quite secure no matter what he says – and once again, who's listening? It's the middle class, quaking in fear, that hangs on the words of politicians; the lower class just goes on about its business (or lack thereof).

So... anyone who thinks all this class talk is just theory, or paranoia, needs to listen to politicians. They don't say anything, or use any terminology, that their masters would disapprove of. Talking about the middle class in those terms, in public, is a political ploy, but it's also a warning signal. What it means is that this is a real issue, we don't deny it, and we already know how it's going to come out, because that's the plan. Sayonara, baby.

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