Class War in America: the Book
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How to Destroy Traditional
Conservatives have had a real challenge: How could they convince the public to vote for politicians who favor big corporations and the wealthy—and, no less, at the expense of middle- and working-class Americans? They have met the challenge with amazing ease.
All they had to do was gradually change our traditional American values of fairness and justice for workers to the conservative values of greed and materialism for the established and emerging wealthy. The only way they could succeed at this was to pervert our traditional values by changing their meanings.
It’s gotten to the point in the U.S. that wealth is now automatically a sign of virtue and hard work, and—not incidentally—good genes. Poverty, even middle-class affluence, are, in themselves, signs of the indolence and depravity of people with questionable heritage.
By twisting words and concepts around, conservatives have made union members, truck drivers, and secretaries look like greedy, money-driven reprobates who create inflation—and investment bankers, chief executive officers, and professional athletes look like social workers who provide jobs for others.
Where Is the Outrage?
In the final weeks of the 1996 presidential campaign, Robert Dole and the Republicans won the values debate by default. They repeated over and over, “Where is the outrage?” They were referring to Clinton’s personal sex life and his private business dealings of 20 years previously.
Their unanswered attacks were so effective that most Americans gave the Republicans credit for maintaining the moral high ground for family values. Congressional Republicans were seen as a political balance to Clinton—not only as guardians of America’s sexual standards—but also as defenders of workers against welfare cheats, taxpayers against “big government,” small businesses against excessive regulation, and, in general, the moderate citizen against liberals.
If Democrats had understood the importance of the battle of values, they would have stressed the opposite side of the argument: Where was the moral outrage about what the Republican Congress did, tried to do, or proposed to do, to middle- and low-income families?
After all, Dole had to know that his tax proposals would greatly benefit the wealthy, that middle-income families would benefit very little, and that those at the bottom of the wage scale would actually lose benefits. Yet he constantly told the public that the purpose of his tax plan was to benefit typical working-class families. Where was the outrage about that kind of moral bankruptcy?
Republicans used every opportunity to weaken labor unions, explaining that they were defending workers against labor bosses. Yet history tells us, and current conservative financial publications confirm it, unions have always been a major force for increasing wages and improving working conditions for working-class Americans. Where is the outrage, in terms of traditional American moral standards, about deliberately reducing the power of the only organizations whose primary goal is to defend working American families?
On issue after issue, Republicans have become masters of the art of capitalizing on one set of values—power, greed, and materialism—while, at the same time, convincing the public that they hold a quite different set of values: the traditional values of work, compassion, and fair play. Basically, they do this by changing the definitions of what were once solid American values.
The Hard Sell
Some conservative assaults on our traditional values have been blatantly transparent. The Wall Street Journal, bless its avaricious heart, surprisingly and objectively described how conservative “Christians” are trying to convince us, and themselves, that wealth is a virtue and that money isn’t about materialism. Under the head “More Spiritual Leaders Preach Virtue of Wealth,” the Journal observed that “God has a new co-pilot: Midas”:
In a convergence of the conspicuous consumption of the 1980s, and the more spiritual focus of the 1990s, the relationship between wealth and religion is becoming a hot topic in books, church programs, financial seminars and spiritual retreats. Some spiritual leaders even preach that there’s a biblical imperative to making money.
At Seattle’s Christian Faith Center last month, a lecture by Paul Zane Pilzer, author of “God Wants You to Be Rich,” drew 500 people who paid $50 each to attend. The church’s pastor, Casey Treat, says his congregation was hungry for the message because of its “positive perspective. If we’re all poor, who’s going to help the poor?”1
It’s the old conservative ploy: if you want to be a Christian, but don’t want to live the life—then redefine what Christianity is:
§ The first step for those who want to feel good about taking ruthless advantage of working Americans is to “pick a new set of spiritual leaders” who can give “the Midas touch” a whole new meaning—spiritual, of course.
§ However, “conspicuous consumption” doesn’t exactly fit: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)
§ If you are a rich conservative, $50 is probably well spent if it can convince you that there is a new way to interpret: “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)
§ Just “help the poor”? Why not use the massive funds of our well-financed conservative think tanks to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9) If the rights of working Americans were well protected, they wouldn’t be poor in the first place.
Fortunately, as the Journal also pointed out, some religious scholars are speaking out against the materialism movement. Unfortunately, only those who still believe that fairness and justice are virtues will listen to them. Conservatives have done a fabulous job of discrediting fairness and justice. For example, one-time Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp equated fairness with class warfare, of all things, in The Wall Street Journal column “Notable & Quotable”:
Today we hear much in our politics about division—of rich against poor, black vs. white—indeed almost of class warfare, disguised as one word—“fairness.” In today’s political vocabulary, “fairness” seems to have become a euphemism for redistribution of wealth. But any true conception of fairness must recognize the necessity of a link between reward and effort.…
At the very moment when liberal democracy, private property and free enterprise are bringing down the Iron Curtain and tearing down the wall between East and West, we in America are being asked to choose between two opposing ideas—the politics of class warfare or Lincoln’s all-embracing vision of boundless democratic opportunity.2
All through the 1980s, Republicans denied that the income and wealth disparity between rich and poor was growing into a chasm. Now that the income disparity is acknowledged by virtually everyone, Republicans like Kemp say that the income disparity that has been increasing for the past 20 years is as American as apple pie, and anyone who disagrees is waging “class warfare”:
§ Of course, Kemp ignored the fact that conservatives have been rapidly redistributing the wealth from working Americans to our richest citizens by using the class warfare methods described in the first two sections of this book.
§ And does Kemp seriously believe that a person working in a chicken processing plant doesn’t put as much effort into his work as, say, an investment banker who makes a thousand times as much? Can he really believe that our current links between reward and contribution to society are fair?
§ Is it possible that Kemp is unaware that Lincoln had something to do with an actual, real war to get fairness for blacks? You might even say he wanted freedom to be “redistributed” to blacks. So who were the class warfarers in the moral sense: Those who made blacks slaves—or those who went to war to free them?
Conservatives go to extraordinary lengths to sanctify their elimination of fairness or justice from their list of virtues. An apparently favorite method is to:
1. Find an obscure speech by a renowned dead white leader, say, Abraham Lincoln.
2. Then lift a quote from it that totally distorts his intent, and
3. Then claim that Lincoln had a peculiar notion of “justice.”
For example, consider Gregory Fossedal’s op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, “The American Dream Lives”:
America’s dynamism ultimately challenges our notions of justice. Justice can’t be “shared” across society; the essence of justice, of course, is its particularity. “Equal pay for equal work” is an accepted maxim, which to have any meaning must imply “unequal pay for unequal work,” and even “no pay for no work.”
The principles of true justice never change, as Abraham Lincoln insisted in a 1859 speech: “A few men own capital; and that few avoid labor themselves and with their capital, hire, or buy, another few to labor for them…. This, say its advocates is free labor—the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” 3
Watch out. Whenever a writer on the Journal’s editorial page says he’s going to clarify “our notions of justice”—realize that he’ll define it in such a way as to make our greediest investors appear “just.” The Journal is always able to find a right-wing crackpot somewhere who is willing to put a conservative spin on almost anything.
Fossedal’s quotation is from Lincoln’s address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 30, 1859.4 He was speaking out against slavery, for Pete’s sake.
He compared two ways of looking at capital and labor. The “mud-sill” theory assumes that labor is available only through someone having capital, who either hires laborers or buys laborers! The mud-sill theory also assumes that workers, hired or bought, are forever locked into their position in life (slavery, or a form of slavery). Admittedly, not a very nice theory.
To describe the alternative theory, our honorable Mr. Fossedal selected an excerpt from Lincoln’s description of the “free labor” theory, which states that some people provide capital, some work for others, and some work for themselves and eventually may become rich enough to hire others to work for them. It all seems to fit in perfectly with modern conservative economic thought.
However, earlier in this same speech, Lincoln said that the free labor theory holds that “labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed—that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence, … labor is the superior—greatly the superior—of capital.”5
Now why do you suppose Fossedal ignored this part of the quotation he chose? To fit the editorial policies of the prestigious Wall Street Journal, defender of wealth and greed?
Naturally, the Journal doesn’t have a monopoly on right-wing zealots. Newsweek, supposedly a moderate news magazine, has its own screwball-in-residence. Under the headline “Economic Amnesia,” Robert J. Samuelson reported his concern that Alan Blinder, then vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, could succeed Alan Greenspan, and judged that he wasn’t qualified:
Put simply, Blinder is “soft” on inflation. [He has the idea] that the Fed should raise and lower interest rates to keep the economy at, or close to, “full employment” without worsening inflation.
Blinder’s views are spelled out in great detail in his 1987 book, “Hard Heads, Soft Hearts: Tough-Minded Economics for a Just Society….”
Blinder and those like him see themselves as economic engineers who can manipulate the whole process. As his book’s title implies, the ultimate aims are to promote social justice and help the poor. Blinder is a decent man, and these are worthy goals. But except indirectly, they are not what the Fed is about. Price stability, not social justice, is the Fed’s job.6
Horrors! Blinder is soft on inflation, and wrote a book about a just society. This one simple word, “just,” is enough to terrorize Samuelson and his right-wing friends. Justice for working Americans is plainly un-American—bordering on communism or, at least, socialism—in today’s conservative political environment.
Funny, isn’t it. According to Samuelson, “price stability”—when the Fed raises the prime to slow the economy and keep wages from going up—is its legitimate job. If it should lower the prime so working Americans can get better jobs and higher incomes—that’s “economic engineering” and a “manipulation of the process.”
It’s remarkable how modern conservatives hate any references to the traditional virtue of justice. And, speaking of justice, it’s refreshing to read in the following two excerpts about the real motivations of those who are destroying the incomes of working Americans, and the way conservatives view the process. Under the head “Mr. Price is on the Line,” Fortune explained that
(Michael) Price’s passion is polo, where the primary piece of equipment is a $40,000 pony.… One reason Price gets his way is that many investors simply agree with what he’s trying to accomplish. And what exactly is that?
He doesn’t bother hiding behind the sanctimonious rhetoric of the 1980s raiders—that they were trying to take over companies and show the world how they should be run. He admits flat out that all he’s trying to do is get the stock price up and if his tactics are a little rougher—all right, a lot rougher—than those of most other mutual fund managers, well, it works, doesn’t it?…
Price saw to it that Al (Chainsaw) Dunlap was brought in to raise the price of Sunbeam’s stock, which guaranteed large layoffs, 12,000 employees. The stock went up 50% when Dunlap’s hiring was announced.7
So what’s the big deal? It’s all “psychological” anyway. Two weeks previously in another article, “Are Layoffs Rising Again?” Fortune had observed that
Although layoffs are a small part of the overall employment picture, they seem to have an inordinate psychological impact, and they seem to be rising.
Nearly 10,000 more people were laid off in September than in August, and for the first nine months job cuts are up 20% from 1995.8
If we’re going to create a new class of American royalty—polo players with $40,000 ponies—we’ll have to force working Americans to make some sacrifices. A way to do this is to pressure CEOs to fire many of their employees—thus forcing those remaining to work harder and to become more productive.
We can now forget the “sanctimonious rhetoric.” The reason for most personnel cutbacks isn’t, and never has been, to manage more effectively. It takes brains, talent and experience to manage effectively. However, any idiot can make a corporation more profitable by victimizing American employees, or by shipping their jobs overseas where other workers are openly brutalized.
Congratulations to Mr. Price, however. Finally, an investment manipulator tells the truth: All that counts is raising the price of a stock and increasing his own personal wealth.
Not to worry about workers, though. Layoffs merely create an “inordinate psychological impact.” Of course, the numbers actually fired are not what is important: What is important is that modern barbarians like Dunlap are able to terrorize working Americans—nationwide—with the constant threat of downsizing. What a great set of corporate values we’ve created.
The Subtle Sell
Probably the most successful recent effort to pervert our moral values was William Bennett’s Book of Virtues. It has been widely acclaimed in the news media and it’s probably the slickest, most devious philosophical attack on working Americans yet published.
Take a look at the list of virtues that Bennett chose to head each chapter in his book:
The Book of Virtues9
by William J. Bennett
This is a powerful book because it does two things. First, it omits from any substantive discussion the virtues most important to the treatment of workers—fairness and justice.
Second, it allows wealthy conservatives who caused the income disparity between rich and poor to feel virtuous about themselves and to publicly claim the moral high ground. Note that, with the absence of fairness or justice, any greedy and materialistic chief executive officer today could meet the criteria for virtue on the basis of this list.
They’re disciplined, give money to charity, are responsible to their shareholders, have friends at the county club, “work” hard, have the courage to fire thousands of employees, persevere in their efforts to make a profit, are honest (follow the laws that are biased in their favor), are loyal to the politicians who do them favors, and pretend religious fervor occasionally.
In other words, with a few rationalizations, the qualities of greed and materialism can easily be embraced by Bennett’s list. His strategy: If you can’t make greed a virtue, by blatantly calling it so, you at least can make the pursuit of greed a virtue by calling it work, perseverance, discipline, and so on. Of course, leave fairness and justice—in the ways work is rewarded—out of the picture entirely.
Admittedly, it’s still a good list of virtues. Who can argue with loyalty, compassion, responsibility and so on. Still, how could anyone—that is, anyone who gives the subject more than five minutes of thought—leave out fairness or justice from a list of virtues?
It’s not likely that Bennett simply didn’t think of them, because he included “Plato on Justice” as a minor essay in his Chapter 8, which dealt with “Honesty.” Look at Bennett’s introduction to Plato’s essay, and Plato’s definitive statement about justice. Bennett:
The ancient Greek word for “just” is a slippery one for modern translators. Depending on the context, it can mean honest, pious, fair, legally correct, lawful or obligated, to name a few possibilities. In the end, it may be that the meaning of Plato’s “justice” comes closer to our modern notion of “integrity.”10
Plato on Justice, from The Republic:
But in reality justice was such as we were describing, being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to the work of others—he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals—when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business; always thinking and calling that which preserves and cooperates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance.11
Bennett’s confused introduction is revealing. To include justice in his book, he must have searched for days to find an obtuse essay by Plato that has justice in the title, but has nothing to do with our modern concept of fairness.
In fact, when you read Plato’s definitive statement about justice, you have to wonder: Does Bennett himself have the foggiest notion of what the hell Plato is saying here? (Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. Plato did say all that in one sentence.)
So why did Bennett omit fairness and justice from his list of virtues? Easy: These virtues are not consistent with the political strategies of Wall Street and its supporters.
That’s why the only references to these virtues in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune, Barron’s and Business Week are those that, in one way or another, justify greed and materialism. They have to say these absurd things in their publications. Their ability to maintain any semblance of a clear conscience and a pretense of virtue is to deceive each other and the public about their pretended moral superiority.
Look at some other curious things in the “Book of Virtues,” especially Bennett’s definition of “work”:
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” is a question about work. What is your work in the world going to be? What will be your works? These are not fundamentally questions about jobs and pay, but questions about life. Work is applied effort; it is whatever we put ourselves into, whatever we expend our energy on for the sake of accomplishing or achieving something.
Work in this fundamental sense is not what we do for a living but what we do with our living.12
This perversion of the definition of “work” has become an important part of the defense of greed. Financial conservatives align themselves with one of the most potent symbols of American values by expanding the definition of work to include just about anything. To give their own activities moral respectability, they make them equivalent to the work done by real workers.
Attila the Hun, Money-Changers-In-The-Temple, stock brokers, investment bankers, professional athletes, Hollywood actors, chief executive officers, real estate agents, politicians, and some of the greediest members of society fit Bennett’s definition of “work” better than do truck drivers, assembly line workers, secretaries, farm laborers, janitors—and so on.
Most manual laborers work for the money. They have to to survive—not because, in some inspirational moment, that’s what they choose to do with their lives (which, apparently, Bennett feels is a more virtuous motivation to work).
The Selective Scrooge
Bennett’s selections of materials to put in his book are instructive. Of all the passages he could have taken from A Christmas Carol, Bennett picked:
from A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
(After Marley’s Ghost complained of his “chain I forged in life,” he described how his lack of compassion had led to his plight.)
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
“At this time of the rolling year,” the specter said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?”13
Bennett chose a passage in which Marley’s Ghost doesn’t discuss his deplorable treatment of employees. Instead, he describes his failure to go outside his business to seek out the poor and give them charity.
So, what is the lesson we get from Bennett? After you become wealthy by screwing your employees—and making them poor—go to their homes and give them charity. How redeeming. How inspirational. How perfectly Republican!
Instead of this excerpt, what could Bennett have selected from Marley’s Ghost? Why not use Dickens’ description of the deplorable way Scrooge treated his clerk? His clerk worked “in a dismal little cell,” and warmed himself with a comforter because Scrooge threatened to fire him if he used too much coal. No, that wouldn’t serve Bennett’s purposes—Scrooge’s behaviors sound too much like the behaviors that modern conservatives endorse.
Or, from “The First of the Three Spirits,” why not pick Dickens’ description of Old Fezziwig? Fezziwig was Scrooge’s former boss and he treated his employees decently. Scrooge observed that “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil.”
No, that wouldn’t do either—it sounds too much like a virtue that today’s corporate bosses should have, but obviously don’t. And, of course, these are the same guys who finance the campaigns of Republican and conservative Democrat politicians.
Or, he could have quoted the passage from “The End of It,” where Scrooge said to Cratchit, “I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon.” Obviously, an undesirable concept in a book intended to make today’s financial barbarians appear virtuous.
The Real Conservative Virtues
When conservatives extol the virtues of “hard work,” they’re saying:
§ If your parents didn’t send you to college, you are virtuous if you work two jobs in manufacturing plants or fast-food restaurants, develop carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, have no medical coverage in the process, and end up at the age of 65 with no retirement funds. Oh, by the way. Be a disciplined worker, be loyal to your employer, don’t cheat your employer, get your satisfactions from your friendships, and be courageous. You must not be envious of the rich, or complain about how little you make compared to your bosses, or complain about your terrible work conditions. On the other hand,
§ If your parents send you to college, or you inherit huge sums of money from them, you are virtuous if you have the discipline to go to France to study art, become an expert in French impressionist painting—and spend your life “working hard” by traveling all over the globe giving lectures. Oh, by the way. You have a moral obligation to complain about how much money uneducated or poorly born waiters and assembly line workers make for doing such uninspired and uninteresting work.
Greedy and materialistic people never change their behaviors to meet moral or religious standards—they redefine their moral or religious standards to justify their egocentric behaviors. And when enough of them gain control of government, their concepts of morality become the new national standards for behavior.
The New Conservative Journalistic Virtues
These new national standards have enabled conservatives to develop—with clear consciences—weapons of economic warfare that are both subtle and incredibly effective. One of the most disturbing developments is their deliberate corruption of the journalism profession. Traditionally, journalism students have been educated to be as objective and fair as possible in informing the public about what is actually happening in the world.
Traditionally trained journalists have stringent professional ethical standards by which their communication performance is judged. Their news stories must be complete enough to be properly understood, important qualifications must be included, and facts must be verifiable. If a journalist should violate any of these standards, his boss, his peers, and his professional associations would judge him harshly.
The right-wing Intercollegiate Studies Institute is changing all that. In its “America’s student newspaper,” Campus, it described how conservatives are “Advancing Student Journalism.”14 It bragged that “Key Conservative Leadership Organizations Unite to Provide Training and Tradition” to journalism students on college campuses. Although they claim that “We’re not here to politicize anything,” they state that
The IPJ’s (Institute on Political Journalism) mission is to expose underclassmen to the free-enterprise system and encourage them to support it through sound journalism….
“We hope students come away with a real understanding of the free-market and sound principles and values,” said IPJ Director Bill Keyes.15
It’s downright scary. Right-wing conservatives are systematically “educating” underclass journalists about how to more effectively spread their “sound” economic values throughout modern America. That might help explain why, after the riots in Seattle over the World Trade Organization meeting, even supposedly “moderate” newspapers rushed to publish the standard conservative defense of our policies that destroy workers’ incomes.
Under the head, “World Trade Helps the Poor,” the Charlotte Observer chose to quote Bernard Wasow of the conservative Century Foundation:
There is an irony in the choice of world trade as scapegoat. The United States would still do very well if it drastically cut down its trade with poor countries. The reverse is not true: The woman sewing a shirt in Bangladesh needs that income more than I need another shirt….
If we shut down the opportunity to trade, in the name of justice and rights, we will create a world in which there is greater poverty, slower decline in population growth, greater pressure on natural resources and more misery than otherwise.16
Conservative “journalists” have learned to effectively incorporate into a brief quotable statement their two-step justification for waging class warfare on workers. First, claim that liberals’ attempts to create a just society for workers actually create a more unjust world. If we would let free market greed rule business decisions, everyone would be better off.
Then, provide the totally distorted heart-rending example, the “woman” (or child) that liberals want to prevent from having a job, even though it is at starvation wages.
What’s missing from this pathological misrepresentation of reality is the rest of the story. First, the woman in Bangladesh took the job from the woman in Korea, who took the job from the woman in Taiwan, who took the job from the woman in South Carolina, who took the job from the woman in America’s Northeast.
That’s the way the textile industry moved—always seeking women desperate enough to work for less money and under more brutal working conditions—and thus driving down the wages for all women at every previous stage of the process.
Of course, conservatives don’t limit their hypocrisy to women. They also claim that their compassionate conservatism benefits Third-World children as well—when they give them the jobs formerly held by much higher-paid American men and women.
It’s Not Fair and It Isn’t Just
Who profits most from the movement of investment funds from country to country, based solely on which country has the lowest wages and the worst working conditions? Global investors, corporate executives and all those associated with the money and investment markets.
Who benefits from the cost savings of this kind of world trade? Everyone who buys the inexpensive products made by brutalized workers, including workers themselves—at least for the short term.
But who makes all the sacrifices, which are substantial and often permanent for vast numbers of people? Workers everywhere. Those who make up the majority of the world’s citizens.
As a result of this disgusting process—with the total elimination of fairness and justice from our moral standards—modern conservatives have created a whole new class of American royalty.
Now go to: