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Our Irresponsible American Ruling Class Is Failing

The American ruling class is failing us — and itself.

At other moments in our history, the informal networks of the wealthy and powerful who often wield at least as much influence as our elected politicians accepted that their good fortune imposed an obligation: to reform and thus preserve the system that allowed them to do so well. They advocated social decency out of self-interest (reasonably fair societies are more stable) but also from an old-fashioned sense of civic duty. “Noblesse oblige” sounds bad until it doesn’t exist anymore.

An enlightened ruling class understands that it can get richer and its riches will be more secure if prosperity is broadly shared, if government is investing in productive projects that lift the whole society and if social mobility allows some circulation of the elites. A ruling class closed to new talent doesn’t remain a ruling class for long.

But a funny thing happened to the American ruling class: It stopped being concerned with the health of society as a whole and became almost entirely obsessed with money.

Oh yes, there are bighearted rich people when it comes to private charity. Heck, David Koch, the now famous libertarian-conservative donor, has been extremely generous to the arts, notably to New York’s Lincoln Center.

Yet when it comes to governing, the ruling class now devotes itself in large part to utterly self-involved lobbying. Its main passion has been to slash taxation on the wealthy, particularly on the financial class that has gained the most over the past 20 years. By winning much lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends, it’s done a heck of a job.

Listen to David Cay Johnston, the author of “Free Lunch” and a columnist for Tax Notes. “The effective rate for the top 400 taxpayers has gone from 30 cents on the dollar in 1993 to 22 cents at the end of the Clinton years to 16.6 cents under Bush,” he said in a telephone interview. “So their effective rate has gone down more than 40 percent.”

He added: “The overarching drive right now is to push the burden of government, of taxes, down the income ladder.”

And you wonder where the deficit came from.

If the ruling class were as worried about the deficit as it claims to be, it would accept that the wealthiest people in society have a duty to pony up more for the very government whose police power and military protect them, their property and their wealth.

The influence of the ruling class comes from its position in the economy and its ability to pay for the politicians’ campaigns. There are not a lot of working-class people at those fundraisers President Obama has been attending lately. And I’d underscore that I am not using the term to argue for a Marxist economy. We need the market. We need incentives. We don’t need our current levels of inequality.

Those at the top of the heap are falling far short of the standards set by American ruling classes of the past. As John Judis, a senior editor at the New Republic, put it in his indispensable 2000 book, “The Paradox of American Democracy,” the American establishment has at crucial moments had “an understanding that individual happiness is inextricably linked to social well-being.” What’s most striking now, by contrast, is “the irresponsibility of the nation’s elites.”

Those elites will have no moral standing to argue for higher taxes on middle-income people or cuts in government programs until they acknowledge how much wealthier they have become than the rest of us and how much pressure they have brought over the years to cut their own taxes. Resolving the deficit problem requires the very rich to recognize their obligation to contribute more to a government that, measured against other wealthy nations, is neither investing enough in the future nor doing a very good job of improving the lives and opportunities of the less affluent.

“A blind and ignorant resistance to every effort for the reform of abuses and for the readjustment of society to modern industrial conditions represents not true conservatism, but an incitement to the wildest radicalism.” With those words in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt showed he understood what a responsible ruling class needed to do. Where are those who would now take up his banner?

By: E. J. Dionne, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 17, 2011

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Capitalism, Class Warfare, Corporations, Deficits, Democracy, Economy, Education, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Koch Brothers, Middle Class, Minimum Wage, Politics, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Inherent Relationship”: A Primer on Class Struggle

When we study Marx in my graduate social theory course, it never fails that at least one student will say (approximately), “Class struggle didn’t escalate in the way Marx expected. In modern capitalist societies class struggle has disappeared. So isn’t it clear that Marx was wrong and his ideas are of little value today?”

I respond by challenging the premise that class struggle has disappeared. On the contrary, I say that class struggle is going on all the time in every major institution of society. One just has to learn how to recognize it.

One needn’t embrace the labor theory of value to understand that employers try to increase profits by keeping wages down and getting as much work as possible out of their employees. As the saying goes, every successful capitalist knows what a Marxist knows; they just apply the knowledge differently.

Workers’ desire for better pay and benefits, safe working conditions, and control over their own time puts them at odds with employers. Class struggle in this sense hasn’t gone away. In fact, it’s inherent in the relationship between capitalist employer and employee. What varies is how aggressively and overtly each side fights for its interests.

Where else does class struggle occur? We can find class struggle wherever three things are at stake: the balance of power between capitalists and workers, the legitimacy of capitalism, and profits.

The most important arena outside the workplace is government, because it’s here that the rules of the game are made, interpreted, and enforced. When we look at how capitalists try to use government to protect and advance their interests — and at how other groups resist — we are looking at class struggle.

Capitalists want laws that weaken and cheapen labor. This means laws that make it harder for workers to organize unions; laws that make it easier to export production to other countries; laws that make it easier to import workers from other countries; laws and fiscal policies that keep unemployment high, so that workers will feel lucky just to have jobs, even with low pay and poor benefits.

Capitalists want tax codes that allow them to pay as little tax as possible; laws that allow them to externalize the costs of production (e.g., the health damage caused by pollution); laws that allow them to swallow competitors and grow huge and more powerful; and laws that allow them to use their wealth to dominate the political process. Workers, when guided by their economic interests, generally want the opposite.

I should note that by “workers,” I mean everyone who earns a wage or a salary and does not derive wealth from controlling the labor of others. By this definition, most of us are workers, though some are more privileged than others. This definition also implies that whenever we resist the creation and enforcement of laws that give capitalists more power to exploit people and the environment, we are engaged in class struggle, whether we call it that or not.

There are many other things capitalists want from government. They want public subsidy of the infrastructure on which profitability depends; they want wealth transferred to them via military spending; they want militarily-enforced access to foreign markets, raw materials, and labor; and they want suppression of dissent when it becomes economically disruptive. So we can include popular resistance to corporate welfare, military spending, imperialist wars, and government authoritarianism as further instances of class struggle.

Class struggle goes on in other realms. In goes on in K-12 education, for example, when business tries to influence what students are taught about everything from nutrition to the virtues of free enterprise; when U.S. labor history is excluded from the required curriculum; and when teachers’ unions are blamed for problems of student achievement that are in fact consequences of the maldistribution of income and wealth in U.S. society.

It goes on in higher education when corporations lavish funds on commercially viable research; when capitalist-backed pundits attack professors for teaching students to think critically about capitalism; and when they give money in exchange for putting their names on buildings and schools. Class struggle also goes on in higher education when pro-capitalist business schools are exempted from criticism for being ideological and free-market economists are lauded as objective scientists.

In media discourse, class struggle goes on when we’re told that the criminal behavior of capitalist firms is a bad-apple problem rather than a rotten-barrel problem. It goes on when we’re told that the economy is improving when wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, and jobs continue to be moved overseas. It goes on when we’re told that U.S. wars and occupations are motivated by humanitarian rather than economic and geopolitical concerns.

Class struggle goes on in the cultural realm when books, films, and songs vaunt the myth that economic inequality is a result of natural differences in talent and motivation. It goes on when books, films, and songs celebrate militarism and violence. It also goes on when writers, filmmakers, songwriters, and other artists challenge these myths and celebrations.

It goes on, too, in the realm of religion. When economic exploitation is justified as divinely ordained, when the oppressed are appeased by promises of justice in an afterlife, and when human capacities for rational thought are stunted by superstition, capitalism is reinforced. Class struggle is also evident when religious teachings are used, antithetically to capitalism, to affirm values of equality, compassion, and cooperation.

I began with the claim that Marx’s contemporary relevance becomes clear once one learns to see the pervasiveness of class struggle. But apart from courses in social theory, reading Marx is optional. In the real world, the important thing is learning to see the myriad ways that capitalists try to advance their interests at the expense of everyone else. This doesn’t mean that everything in social life can be reduced to class struggle, but that everything in social life should be examined to see if and how it involves a playing-out of class interests.

There is fierce resistance to thinking along these lines, precisely because class analysis threatens to unite the great majority of working people who are otherwise divided in a fight over crumbs. Class analysis also threatens to break down the nationalism upon which capitalists depend to raise armies to help exploit the people and resources of other countries. Even unions, supposed agents of workers, often resist class analysis because it exposes the limits of accommodationism.

Resistance to thinking about class struggle is powerful, but the power of class analysis is hard to resist, once one grasps it. Suddenly, seemingly odd or unrelated capitalist stratagems begin to make sense. To take a current example, why would capitalists bankroll candidates and politicians to destroy public sector unions? Why do capitalists care so much about the public sector?

It’s not because they want to balance budgets, create jobs, improve government efficiency, or achieve any of the goals publicly touted by governors like Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Rick Snyder, or John Kasich. It’s because of the profit and power they can gain by destroying the last remaining organizations that fight for the interests of working people in the political sphere, and by making sure that private-sector workers can’t look to the public sector for examples of how to win better pay and benefits.

Other parts of the agenda being pursued by corporate-backed governors and other elected officials also make sense as elements of class struggle.

Selling off utilities, forests, and roads is not about saving taxpayers money. It’s about giving capitalists control of these assets so they can be used to generate profits. Cutting social services is about ensuring that workers depend on low-wage jobs for survival. Capitalists’ goal, as always, is a greater share of wealth for them and a smaller share for the rest of us. Clear away the befogging rhetoric, the rhetoric that masks class struggle, and it becomes clear that the bottom line is the bottom line.

If class struggle is hard to see, it’s not only because of mystifying ideology. It’s because the struggle has been a rout for the last thirty years. But a more visible class struggle could be at hand. The side that’s been losing has begun to fight back more aggressively, as we’ve seen most notably in Wisconsin. To see what’s at stake in this fight and what a real victory might look like, it will help to call the fight by its proper name.

By: Michael Schwalbe, Professor of Sociology, North Carolina State University, Originally Published March 31, 2011, CommonDreams.org

April 3, 2011 Posted by | Capitalism, Class Warfare, Corporations, Education, Governors, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Media, Minimum Wage, Politics, States, Unions, Wisconsin | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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