Have An Opinion: The Great Upper-Class Swindle

It is a sign of the confidence — indeed, the audaciousness — of the current conservative movement that they are making real headway in an attempt to strangle the union movement, already gravely wounded, once and for all.  It was Reagan who dealt the unions their first critical blow beginning with the PATCO strike, and Clinton who provided a incalculably damaging stab in the back with the passage of NAFTA.  The efforts to behead capitalism’s bête noire stalled for a while, with the notable exception of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an immensely cynical move that allowed the government a virtually critic-proof work-around to employing unionized workers.  Now, however, the boldness of an important election victory and the daring brought about by a new infusion of energy from the Tea Party movement has led a number of states to go after two of the last remaining bastions of unionism — public sector workers and teachers — with a sharpened dagger in their hands and a murderous look in their eyes.  Wisconsin has succeeded in stripping these unions of vital collective bargaining rights, albeit after a prolonged and ugly public battle and a shabby end-run around the spirit of the law; Ohio did much the same with more stealth, and Illinois is preparing a similar assault.

This is unfortunate, but not exactly unexpected.  The right has always loathed unionism for the sole reason that those followers of Adam Smith’s vile maxim cannot abide conditions under which the working class might secure for themselves some of the same comfort and certainty enjoyed by the masters of man, even on a much more modest scale.  It is critical to the success of a pure market-capitalist ideology that everyone but those in charge must be forever off balance, eternally one paycheck away from ruin, constantly in a state of dread that they will be unable to pay for shelter, transportation, education, or good health.  It is in this way that they can be kept placid, willing to accept low pay, no benefits, poor working conditions, and other privations that add to the bottom line of the men in charge.  That it essentially lowers the mass of mankind to the level of slaves does not trouble their sleep, since they are only obeying the dictum of their self-invented philosophy.  A vastly wealthy sliver of humanity in permanent control of an impoverished mass of the rest of us (without even the patrician noblesse oblige of a more structured class system) is their preferred definition of the state of nature, and it has no place for a middle class of people who can be thought of as comfortable and secure, if not rich.  So there is nothing shocking about the attempt to knock out unions, whose entire existence is dedicated to creating and preserving such a class.

What is surprising is the rhetorical approach they have taken to the current war on labor, and the degree to which it has become successful, being aped not only by a bought-out press but by many members of the very working class it is intended to cripple.  The erasure of history is now nearly complete; having succeeded in getting Americans to forget how they not too long ago sought to destroy the unions by literally murdering them, and having convinced many working people that “class warfare” refers not to the attempt of the rich to restore the poor to conditions of serfdom but to liberals pointing out that the wealthy do not wish to carry their share of fiscal responsibility for the country that allowed them to grow fat beyond the dreams of Croesus, the right is now attempting to further the false consciousness they’ve instilled in the common man by convincing them that this attempt to put working-class advocacy in its grave is a simple act of budgetary pragmatism.  There is simply no money left, goes the argument advanced by many but most notably employed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.  Tight budgets mean deep cuts and a plethora of pain, and that pain must be spread around; it must be shared, it is said, by the ‘parasites’ who have fattened themselves on pensions, salaries and health care sucked from the public tit.  The time for equal sacrifice has come, and abusers of this new egalitarianism — beginning with teachers and government workers — must be made for us an example.

It is shocking the degree to which this pernicious balderdash has been accepted in every quarter.  So complete is the belief that reducing the national debt is the paramount issue of the day that it is never even questioned in the most ‘liberal’ of media outlets; it is mentioned in public opinion polls as almost an article of faith, and is so ingrained in the national consciousness that it is a fool’s errand to inquire as to how it got so large in the first place, or how budgetary priorities might have worsened it along the line.  But what is even more shocking is the widespread tolerance of the notion that we are simply out of money — that, rather than having relocated the wealth of the nation through a long and very deliberate process of concentrating it into an ever-shrinking number of pockets, we have simply pissed it all away on frivolities like union pensions, health care for the elderly, and $100 tennis shoes.  Michael Moore, a man I do not normally think of as an especially inspiring speaker, nonetheless struck at the very heart of the truth of this issue in a speech he gave to public workers in Madison, Wisconsin recently; he quite correctly, and with a minimum of tiptoeing around the point, described the way that wealth has been transferred from government coffers and working peoples’ paychecks to the financial portfolios of the richest people in the country.  He also noted with a courage frustratingly lacking in Democratic Party leaders that the media is complicit in the message control that allows this lie to be perpetuated, that permits the bosses and their toadies to spin the narrative that a massive monetary swindle is in fact a budget crisis.

Put simply, money which should be made available for public use — for allowing the government the resources it needs to govern — has been systematically been made unavailable for that purpose.  And anyone who thinks that this is not a deliberate action is sorely mistaken.  It is the intended goal of generations of conservative ideologues who have taken various approaches — the ‘starve the beast’ attack of deliberately defunding social programs; the systematic draining of tax coffers through property tax freezes, restrictions on capital gains, corporate, and estate taxes, and endless upper-class tax cuts; and the use of ‘disaster capitalism’ to forsake a preventive approach to various catastrophes, from hurricanes to financial industry deregulation to the mortgage crisis, in order to necessitate massive taxpayer-funded bail-outs — to create an artificial monetary shortfall, a deliberately manufactured budget crisis.  It is an intentional political goal that has been pursued with murderous deliberation since the 1980s, and its most fierce advocates — your Grover Norquists, your Richard Vigueries, your editorialists in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and Forbes — have been quite open about it.  Books have been written about it, speeches have been given about it, courses have been taught about it:  the notion of deliberate financial mismanagement as a means by which to bankrupt the government (and thus reduce the tax burden on the rich) is not only not new, it is practically a grand old religion.

The new development, then, is the strange pseudo-populist approach to this method of fattening the fat and starving the thin, and the degree to which that bogus populism has been embraced in even the lower quarters.  Suddenly, middle-class Medicare recipients are turning up at rallies to denounce recipients of government aid; working-class Americans who struggle to get by are bristling with anger at people who are losing their houses; lifelong private-sector union members are demanding that teachers give up their pensions.  Gripped with a fever for the possibility of upward mobility that becomes ever more distant the more they embrace it, they display a false consciousness beyond Karl Marx’s imagination.  Stranger — and more frustrating — still, they ignore the most basic contradictions of their new-found corporate populism.  Invoking the specter of lean times and demanding an attitude of shared sacrifice, they ask for concessions from the lowest rungs of the middle class, but never seem to ask why the richest of the rich are not pitching in to this new spirit of collective deprivation.  The harsh demands of a new economic reality require the poor to give up even the most basic government assistance, at a time of crippling un- and under-employment; it does not require the rich to give up the lowest tax rate they have been asked to pay in generations.   To pay off our debts, even those accumulated in bad faith, social programs to aid working families — which often constitute the sole lifeline keeping them afloat — are up for grabs; taxation of the richest percentile of the American rich — which always constitutes pure excess — is not even on the table.

Even more amazing than this — a pure triumph of the propagandist’s art — is the way the nature and origin of wealth has been redefined in order to reduce that of the working class and protect that of the bosses.  Money in possession of the rich, even when it comes from all manner of financial chicanery, or from inheritance, or from sweetheart deals or government contracts, is defined as ‘earned’, and is protected by the sacred rights of property; to ask the ultra-rich to contribute to the financial health of the country that made them that way is considered socialistic highway robbery, one step removed from mugging at gunpoint, and cursed with the name of ‘confiscatory taxation’.  Money in possession of the middle class, even when it is gained through sweat labor, or in the form of legally acquired pensions and benefits that are contract-consecrated and hard fought for through years of bargaining and negotiation, is defined as the product of parasitism or thuggery, and may be taken back at leisure.  A law which states a guaranteed pension is part of one’s terms of employment may be revoked when a politician of the right stripe says so; a law which states the rich must pay a certain share of their income to the upkeep of the nation is considered an imposition — or worse, a joke, a law which can be easily circumvented by using some of that income to hire a clever lawyer or accountant.

Working Americans are quite able — and willing — to deal with the concept of sacrifice.  Ask anyone who lived through the Civil War or the Great Depression.  Ask anyone who took a beating, or a bullet, for their union, in hopes it would mean a better life for their children.  Ask anyone who lost a family member, or simply held up under rationing, during the Second World War.  Ask the people who proudly serve in our armed forces, even when they’re asked to fight a war for which there is no end and no justification.  Ask any of the millions of working people who struggle to get by, but still donate their time, energy and money to churches, causes, and charities.  Americans need no lecturing about the need for giving up a little comfort for the greater good; we have always been eager to do so when we felt the need was great and the cause was just.  What we must not do, though, is go along with an unneeded sacrifice in order to allow others to avoid a needed one.  What we must not do is allow ourselves to be told there is no money left, when the money has simply been transferred to someone else’s bank account.  What we must not do is be duped into decades of deprivation, uncertainty and fear by a big lie; to give up the hard-won gains of a century to allow the richest among us to get even richer; to agree to take part in an entirely one-sided ‘sacrifice’ that will punish us for generations for the sake of further comforting the comfortable.  The only thing worse than these attempts to swindle the working class in order to enrich the rich would be our knowing and willful participation in it.

10 SHOTS LICKED so far.

  1. jeff
    03/11/2011 at 4:59 PM

    Truth, brother. I just wish I could do something, anything, to reverse our nation’s disastrous course. But I’m just a middle-class schmuck without a think-tank or a global media conglomerate to my name. In other words: I don’t count in this country any more.

  2. Marina A.
    03/11/2011 at 7:49 PM

    All true. One thing you’ve forgotten: the money that we have been duped into believing the rich have earned – not only was it not earned by them, it was produced by us! We make the boss and his accursed “small business” (for whose sake just about anything goes – if they could bring back slavery, it’d be fair game) rich.

    That boss skims the profit from our labor, our days in the factory/classroom/street/fire/hotel…, our sweat and our pain. His only claim to any of that is well, that he’s the boss. I am that I am said someone a while back…

    I feel like I’m in Orwell’s 1984: black is white, white is black, up is down, down is up, the richest of us are victims, the poorest of us are bandits, their bonuses are “contractual obligations”, our pensions are handouts…

    The one thing that people have been duped into believing (and is at the heart of the American dream) is that we, regular folks, we just don’t get along. Human beings are by nature thieves, every man for himself, and the nastiest will rule us all. That’s why you can convince us that if we’re just nasty enough, selfish enough, greedy enough, we too will become billionaires. So, instead of asking yourself why don’t I have a union, release your frustrations about this whole damned unfair, dehumanizing way of life on the few, the very few who have been lucky enough to still hold on to the unions. It is a self fulfilling prophecy, I’m afraid.

  3. Ron W
    03/12/2011 at 11:07 AM

    If the issue is bad rich people that are bosses, why not become a good rich (or not rich) boss? Jobs, goods, and services come from businesses or from the the taxes generated by these businesses. Enterprise and wealth creation is at the core of our well-being whether we are in the public or private sector. Get inspired, take the risk, work harder than you have ever worked, start a business, generate wealth, become a good boss, and share the wealth as you see fit.

    • LP
      03/12/2011 at 11:54 AM

      1. The issue is not “bad rich people that are bosses”. The issue is an unsustainably imbalanced distribution of wealth. What you are describing — a small number of benevolent bosses upon whom the lower classes depend for charitable largesse — is one of aristocratic patronage, and its historical moment has passed, a fact which should come as a relief to us all.

      2. An argument could be had over whether it is businesses and business owners who generate wealth or the people who work for those businesses, but it may be beyond the scope of this venue. However, I will repeat that it is this country and this government that allows our capitalist system to thrive, so businesses and the wealthy, who benefit from the most from that system, ought to feel a greater responsibility for maintaining it.

      3. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur. Not everyone can run a business. Not everyone who works hard will be rewarded with wealth and success. These are not statements of ideology; they are facts — facts, indeed, on which the capitalist system depends. There must be more workers than bosses for the system to work. So what are those who have no talent for business, or who have no entrepreneurial abilities, or who work hard and still don’t make it, supposed to do? Wait for some well-meaning big-shot to give them a handout? Or support a system where everyone can get their basic needs provided for?

  4. Huey
    03/12/2011 at 12:05 PM

    My favorite part of this scam is the justification “We can’t raise taxes on the rich; those are the people who CREATE jobs!”, conveniently forgetting both the ‘greatest generation’, where the US experienced incredible job growth and a healthy middle class with the highest tax brackets about three times what they are now, and the fact that most jobs are created by small businesses that are owned by upper middle-class people who likely won’t be touched by an incremental tax increase on income over $250,000.

  5. Ron W
    03/12/2011 at 5:51 PM

    I completely agree that not everyone has the necessary skills and abilities to be a successful entrepreneur. But it is entrepreneurs and business owners that create a venue for workers to utilize their value-creating skills and abilities.

    Are we concerned about our standard of living or someone else’s? John Brewer notes, “In the 1950s and 1960s, a working man could support a family at a middle-class standard of living with just one income. It might surprise you to learn that one person working full-time, even at minimum wage, can still support a family of four at that standard of living. Nowadays we call that “living in poverty.” http://www.wisebread.com/our-high-high-standard-of-living-1

    I don’t buy the premise that if they, the rich, have it; they must have gotten it from someone else. Let’s say you create a product that saves energy in homes. You decide to take a risk and start a company with your product. You hire people capable of producing the product, pay them fairly and you end up getting “rich”. Where did the wealth (that you have, that you paid to your employees, that you paid to the government in fees and taxes, that you paid to your suppliers, and that you used to build your business) come from? Did your wealth come from the poor or from the middle class? Didn’t their standard of living increase because of your product? The pie is not limited. This is newly created wealth as we battle the entropy of nature.

    Society will not find wealth creators willing to take on the full consequences of failure but only a very limited portion of the success. Then, everyone’s standard of living suffers.

    • Jim
      03/12/2011 at 7:49 PM

      Asserting that “one person working full-time, even at minimum wage, can still support a family of four at that standard of living” would be more convincing if there were any calculations or research connected to it. Those are not present in your link.

      The minimum wage is 7.25. One person working “full-time” at that wage would make $290 a week, $1,160 a month or $15,080 a year. I’m not sure whether this is supposed to include entitlement programs like food stamps, but given the nature of the link, I’m assuming the answer is no. I suppose one might be able to afford a “dilapidated shack,” as Philip Brewer proposes, at that income level. But I’m not sure why we think it’s laudable for someone to raise two children without running water in this day and age.

      And I don’t see a realistic assessment of how people are to secure or hold down a job without access to a telephone (cell or land-line) or an automobile in the present – especially since Republican legislators at the state and federal level have targeted transit programs for cuts. And I’m not sure how many of these “good bosses” are likely to hire people who they can’t call.

      • LP
        03/13/2011 at 12:17 AM

        And, of course, there are reasons that people could support a family on a single income in the ’50s and ’60s while they can’t now: union membership was much higher, tax rates (to fund things like college tuition, home loan programs, and relief for people who were out of work) were much higher, tons of men bought their homes or got their college educations on the G.I. bill, real wages were higher, and it was still possible for people to make a living in fields like manufacturing, trades, and factory jobs, almost all of which are gone now.

  6. Ron W
    03/13/2011 at 8:09 AM

    The point is not that we should revert to the low standard of living of the ‘50s but rather that the standard of living for everyone today is considerably higher than in the idealized ‘50s. I am not supporting Phillip Brewer’s ideas or the content of the link but I do believe he makes a case that the standard of living that was considered comfortable, middle class in the ‘50s and ‘60s would now be considered poverty. So whether you’re considering house size; safe, reliable, long-lasting cars and appliances; travel; access to entertainment and information; communication; food availability; gadgets; etc. we all live better. This increase in standard of living over the last fifty years did not occur in all quarters of the globe.

    Is the point that because of high union membership and high taxes in the ‘50s, a single earner could provide a standard of living that would now be considered poverty? Have union membership and high taxes moved us to today’s standard of living? Or have innovation and entrepreneurship (which are antithetical to high taxes and union practices) moved our society to this much higher standard of living? Would it be better if we all were living a much lower standard of living as long as no one was doing that much better than anyone else? Would it be better to have union rules and punitive taxes so that no one tried to innovate and excel?

    We are in agreement that the disappearance of low-skill work in our country is of concern. In the past, we were able to leverage low-skill into high-value. Today, low-skill means low-value means low wage. We are not preparing our citizens with the ability to appropriately contribute in today’s economy with over-priced liberal arts degrees on one end and high, high school drop-out rates on the other.

  7. here
    06/02/2012 at 8:14 AM

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