Saturday, April 28, 2012

War and the Middle Class

I forget exactly how it came up in a recent discussion, but the theme, which offered all kinds of rich possibilities for insight, was the relationship between war and the middle class. But – you might say – isn't war something nations do? Isn't it, therefore, a collective, and therefore class-free, phenomenon? Right – tell it to the people who still believe that it was, by and large, the working class that provided the cannon fodder for the Vietnam war, since it was (1) larger in number, (2) more economically needy, and (3) had fewer defenses against the draft. I had no firm arguments against this at the time, and I've discovered none since.

The point is not that war is a conflict between the middle class of Country A and the middle class of Country B. And it's not simply that war is, by and large, something the ruling class comes up with and gets the lower classes to actually fight, with the political and financial support of the middle class. That is a good summing-up, but still misses many of the nuances.

What I find intriguing is the causal relationship between war and the entire class structure. Let's try and model the situation for a moment – remembering that models always tend to oversimplify. Take a country, nation, or society that has enjoyed peace for a considerable period of time – and, presumably, also a lack of other stressors like plague, famine, drought, natural disaster, etc. If this society is reasonably free – i.e. non-totalitarian and not overly socialistic – it will tend to have given rise to a middle class, i.e. a class of prosperous peasants (not a contradiction! “Peasant” simply refers to someone who farms, or works on the land. A peasant can be a millionaire.), skilled tradesmen, merchants, professionals of various sorts, middle managers, etc. And why is this? It's because a peaceful society tends to allow people, even on the lower economic levels, to produce more than they need for their own personal consumption. (Contrast this, for example, with the massive displacements of populations caused by war in places like sub-Saharan Africa, where people cannot even provide for their own survival needs since they have been separated from the land.) Plus, resources are kept at home and not squandered on war – said resources including young, able-bodied individuals. So people enter the marketplace and trade their surplus for someone else's surplus – or for goods and services they would not otherwise been able to afford... ones that are, one might say, invented in order to take advantage of increased wealth and surpluses. Hence we get the rise of a new class of goods and service providers, AKA the middle class. And, the ruling classes find that they want more than to sit in their fortresses overseeing a slave army – so they too wind up using the goods and services provided by this new class. Plus, economic freedom naturally leads to, or at least implies, downward distribution of political power (AKA subsidiarity), with the result that various ranks and levels of local, regional, and provincial government arise, along with an accompanying legal system, and these too are, by and large, made up of middle class individuals.

So this very roughly sketched-out and simplified model is what one might call the “peacetime model”. But what happens in times of war? Right away the ruling class – the warmakers (if not warfighters) – realizes that it needs more resources. So it taps the lower classes for manpower, which right away cuts down on the number of people who might be enjoying some measure of upward mobility through their labor... and it taps the middle classes for money, which makes everyone a bit poorer (and makes people at the lower levels of the middle class back into lower-class individuals). So there is an overall economic chilling effect, AKA (for propaganda purposes) “sacrifice” or “austerity” (but you'll notice the ruling class never seems to have to make any sacrifices of this sort). And if a war, or a series of wars, goes on long enough, we will see an erosion of the middle class – a decrease in its numbers as well as in its relative standard of living – which is likely to be permanent. For example, if you carefully study middle-class life styles prior to World War I – their homes, their clothing, their servants (!), etc. -- you will find a world that, basically, vanished with nary a trace, largely as a result of the “sacrifices” and economic displacements necessitated by the war. This was a true middle class – high enough on the scale to afford servants (who were from a true working class) but still no closer to the upper class than their descendants are today. (Small but telling example – my maternal grandfather's house, built right around the time of World War I, had a back staircase for the help. He was a small-town banker, and the house was no “McMansion”, but there was this staircase – which, by the time I came along, had long since been converted into storage space. They were, and remained, middle class – but what that meant had changed drastically. The entire economic structure of society had shifted, and the war had a lot to do with it, in my opinion.)

Now, you might say, “But! But! What about the fact that war creates millions of jobs... and what about the 'postwar prosperity boom', etc.?” Well – those millions of jobs are, number one, created at the expense of other goods and services (can you say “rationing”?). Number two, they extract a cost in the form of higher taxes and borrowing, AKA the national debt. And what does war, in turn, contribute in the way of goods and services? Nothing, really – unless you happen to deal in scrap metal. So I'm going to say that, despite appearances, war is always a net economic liability. True, it does have an energizing effect, and can get some people into the habit of working again... and it can serve as a kind of social mechanism to shame slackers and free-loaders. And, it can also stimulate people to either retrain or move to where the jobs are – more, even, than the Depression did. War is, after all, like any other government program, a jobs program. But if you want to contrast 1950s prosperity with the 1930s economic doldrums, you're going to have to come up with something besides World War II to convince me. I think the 1950s were prosperous despite the war, or – at best – as an unintended consequence. And after all, prosperity did not follow immediately on the heels of the war... and let's not forget that no sooner did we get back on our feet than the government got us involved in a new war, namely the one in Korea. So whenever you think that war contributes to prosperity, you have to ask, how much more prosperous would we have been if there had not been a war?

So I'm going to say that, in the long run, war is a detractor and a hindrance when it comes to a nation's economy – not to mention its politics, individual liberties, morale, self-image, and so on. And this is aside from the energizing effects of war, as mentioned above, opposed to the soporific effects of peace. Some people will always be lulled into semi-consciousness by peace and prosperity, and be shown the only real meaning in their lives by war. But I don't think we should let these types dominate our thinking. And I don't think we should be deceived by the rapidity with which some nations rebuild from the ruins of war. You can put up all the skyscrapers, superhighways, and malls you like, but it won't reduce the patient load in veterans' hospitals one iota... and neither will it repair the scars left on the “national psyche”. Wars create neurosis – in both people and in nations. We are still, in a sense, in the post-Vietnam era psychologically, in this country; the new novelties of wars elsewhere have not served to erase that trauma. And the novelties of future wars will not serve to erase the traumas of Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., which are already quite apparent. In that sense, “rebuilding” is an illusion, and a form of denial. It's a way of papering over a deeper reality – one which will only die when the last combatant dies, but not even then, as witness the lingering bitterness about the Civil War, 150 years later. Why is most history about war? Because war leaves a more permanent mark on a society, and on its people, than any other type of event – although plagues can come close, as was the case with the Black Death.

But now we come to the ironic part. If peace and freedom give rise to, and reinforce, the middle class, and if war serves to suppress the middle class economically... then you would think the middle class would be, by and large, anti-war and pro-peace. But the true case is just the opposite! Who was out there on the street protesting the war in Vietnam? The children of the middle class, yes – but not their parents. And those children have, since then, developed a strange new respect for war, as long as it's being led by a president of the correct political party. The other protesters were the more conscious and/or radical components of the lower/working class and minorities. They knew that the war was a scam, that it was all about business, and that they were being exploited, misused, and abused. “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” Crude, but it cut to the heart of the matter. The ruling class at the time was in it for – well, for money, as always... and also to expand the American empire, and for the sake of raw power. Oh, I suppose there was some sincere anti-communism in the mix, but I imagine the people for whom that was Job One were being duped and exploited by cynics.

But where were the “true believers” -- the real, live anti-communists – when it came to the war in Vietnam? The middle class, of course. They were the ones who voted for war over and over again – who never once expelled a politician from elective office for being too much of a warmonger – and who even sent their own sons off to fight, if it was really necessary. So we had the lower class – victimized by way of the draft as well as by the erosion of (and by) social programs – doing the heavy lifting for the ruling class, with the full political and economic (via taxation) support of the middle class. But did this mean that war was not damaging to the middle class – to its prosperity and, ultimately, to its liberties? Not at all. All the middle class got for their support of the war was higher taxes and a government increased in size many times over – the very things the “Tea Party” is demonstrating about in our time.

But that was Vietnam, right? Old news, right? After a brief period of self-flagellation, AKA the Carter administration, we got back down to the business of building the economy back up again, under Reagan, Bush I, and even Clinton. The middle class breathed the fresh air of... well, not freedom exactly, but at least superficial prosperity -- “superficial” because of the gathering storm of the housing bubble, savings and loan failures, the national debt, increased commitments overseas, the gradual turning of our political and economic sovereignty over to the Europeans, etc. And yet all seemed well... and it seemed that the Age of the Middle Class had returned – especially given that so many radical movements had been co-opted and neutralized by the government. “Black power”, La Raza, and radical feminism were like so many annoying but harmless gnats, or fading memories, in the sunshine days of the 1980s... and even the non-stop soap opera that was the Clinton administration was little more than harmless amusement (unless you were a Branch Davidian or a resident of Belgrade, etc.). Besides, by the early 1990s, the enemy we had known for so long – namely the Soviet Union – had dried up and blown away. That should have been good news, but instead it left a gap – an “enemy gap”. You see, an ideational society thrives not only on its own self-image as the best of all possible societies, but it also requires a dark side – a concept that “they hate us because of our freedoms” -- or because of our McMansions, or cable TV, or fast foods, or whatever. Materialistic, humanistic ideas can only thrive when contrasted with their supposed opposites – and not only contrasted, but entered into regular conflicts with people of other convictions. The Cold War was, first and foremost, a war of ideas – at least for (again) the middle class. (The lower classes weren't convinced that the Soviets didn't have a point – and the ruling class didn't care.) So an enemy gap gives rise to an idea gap – a period of uncertainty and doubt... and surely we can't have that. This is why the attacks of 9-11 were like unto manna from heaven – not that they were seen that way at the time, but they served to re-inspire the American middle class and give them a new cause, and a new crusade – a war on Islam! Finally a chance to get even for the Medieval Crusaders being unceremoniously booted out of the Near East! Am I saying that this was a conscious agenda (the way it might have been for the other side)? No – but the ancient meme was there, implanted in public school history classes for generations: Moslems are bad and evil people, and Islam is a bad religion. Communism – a pseudo-religion – had been conquered (more or less) through just waiting for it to self-destruct. Islam might be an even tougher nut to crack. But we can do it, because we've got good old American know-how, and a capability for self-sacrifice that would put the most ascetic monk to shame.

And thus was born the Next Great Cause of the American middle class – and the process, as always, was overseen, controlled, and manipulated by the cynical members of the Regime. They had the votes, the political support, and few would complain about taxes as long as they were going to fight “rag-heads” and not to support welfare queens. And who knows, the middle class might even cough up some military volunteers. But if not, no problem, we always have the proletariat, whose economic desperation readily pushes them into uniform.

But I say again – and the events since 9-11 offer overwhelming proof – war is bad for the middle class (and “other living things”, if you like). What were the Tea Party protesters protesting? Whether they knew it or not, they were protesting the political and economic impact of perpetual war. If you had asked any one of them if they were pro-war or not, you would have gotten a dollop of the same old Neocon pap – but the connection is there, whether they realize it or not. In the long run – if you exchange every old war with a new one, in perpetuity – what you're going to wind up with is the gradual extinction of the middle class... and this is aside from domestic policy and taxation. You will wind up with a warring state on the ancient or Medieval model – with a ruling elite and an army of slaves, with very little in between. You will wind up with, in a sense, a military model of society, which is what the ancient world seems to have specialized in. And yet this model is being aided and abetted by none other than the people who have the most to lose.

So the bottom line – for the time being, at least – is that each succeeding war causes the middle class to lose ground... and they are lucky if they manage to make it up before the next war comes along – a war which they, undoubtedly, will do everything they can to support. But this is based on a model in which war and peace are cyclic. What we have now, since World War II and especially since 9-11, is a perpetual war model, where no sooner do we conclude (more or less) hostilities in one country than we initiate them somewhere else. And it is this model which virtually assures the destruction of the middle class – and this process is already underway, as can be readily seen. The Tea Partiers are right about that much. What they are mistaken about is how things came to this pass, and the extent to which it's their own fault.

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