Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hitchcock: What's Wrong With Class Warfare?

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted to the Idaho State Journal by Professor Leonard Hitchcock. Hitchcock is a professor emeritus at Idaho State University.


Republicans have reacted to the Occupy Wall Street movement with contempt for the cause and disgust at the participants. They have revived epithets they once reserved for the hippies, and stigmatized the demonstrators collectively as a “mob” that is engaged in “class warfare.” This reaction is, needless to say, just as it should be, for Republicans are the defenders of precisely that class of Americans against which the protests are directed.

It’s unclear, however, whether Republicans deplore class warfare simply because their interests are threatened by it, or because they believe it to be un-American to assume that classes exist in this country, or perhaps because, while admitting that there are classes, they reject the notion that the ruling class in American is anything but deserving and beneficent.

It is unlikely, I think, that any Republican could be so willfully blind to the economic facts as to deny that there is a describable class of American citizens that are properly called “the super-rich”. Nor could any Republican pretend not to know that though there was a time when such a class was composed of “captains of industry,” the current crop of those enjoying multiple dwellings, yachts, private jets and Lamborghinis have largely amassed their wealth by figuring out ways to make the money that they already possess multiply like rabbits, without, in the process, producing anything of tangible value or use to the general public. There may be the occasional Bill Gates or Steve Jobs among that class, but, to a considerable extent, these billionaires have never made a widget in their lives. Instead, they’ve contrived ways of doing clever things with loans, mortgages and securities that bring in floods of profit without employing anyone but bankers and accountants.

But let’s be fair: even if there is a layer of the hyper-affluent that floats atop the national economy like pond scum, that doesn’t justify class warfare. After all, the rich, as the Bible says, will always be with us. What entitles us to blame them for our troubles? To answer that question, let’s consider an archetypal case of class warfare, the French Revolution.

By the latter half of the 18th century, France had indulged itself in several unnecessary wars -- wars that it had funded largely by borrowing money. Since the higher strata of French society -- the clergy, the nobility and, the King and his bureaucracy -- had become accustomed to lives of considerable ease and opulence, when the country found itself deeply in debt it sought frantically to increase the national income, largely through the imposition of new taxes and higher tax rates. Because the privileged classes were legally exempt from the most severe of these taxes, and successfully evaded most of the others, the burden of taxation fell, perforce, upon the lower and middle classes.

The French peasantry was, at that time, experiencing greater poverty than it had endured during the Middle-Ages. What little protection the mutual obligations of serf and lord had provided for them during the Feudal period had now vanished and the land-owning classes aimed only to extract more profit from their estates. Peasants paid taxes to clerical and noble land-owners for the right to work the fields and then paid consumption taxes on the wretched provender that kept them alive. They had no voice whatsoever in local village government because the Crown made it a practice to sell municipal positions to the highest bidders to augment the state’s income.

In the cities, members of the urban working class were treated like beasts of burden by the bourgeoisie and the upper classes. Few had work on a regular basis, most lived close to starvation, and their political power was nil. Beneath them were swarms of unemployed beggars, prostitutes, and petty criminals, all of whom lived in even greater misery than the working class.

It was perfectly clear to any member of the lower classes that his enemy was not just the king, or his local landowner, or his bourgeois employer; it was the entire class of owners and exploiters, those who collectively ran the country and arranged the affairs of state to benefit themselves. It was also clear that those privileged classes, however much they might be in conflict with one another, had a shared interest in preserving their hegemony over the lower classes, and every intention of preserving the system that provided them with lives of luxury and security.

And what is our current situation, those of us who belong to the 99%? We seem to live in a plutocracy masquerading as a democracy. The rich write the tax laws and the banking regulations. The rich buy the politicians and are therefore able to reimburse themselves from the public till when their investment gambles fail. The corporate aristocracy has emerged from the economic catastrophe that it caused richer and more powerful than before. It seems capable of decimating the public sector, of crippling organized labor, and of thwarting those who seek to implement traditional measures to aid the unemployed and the helpless. Is that aristocracy not the ruling class, and have we no cause to go into the streets to denounce it?

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