September 2011

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Class Warfare

by Jonathan Wallace

The sight of those young people running down streets, smashing windows, taking property, looting, laughing as they go, the problem of that is a complete lack of responsibility, a lack of proper parenting, a lack of proper upbringing, a lack of proper ethics, a lack of proper morals.--British Prime Minister David Cameron, quoted in the New York Times for August 11, 2011
I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!--Captain Renault, "Casablanca"

A personal history of class

I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in one of the largest houses on our middle class block. My parents were both doctors, and we never had to worry about eviction or the electricity being turned off, like my wife's family did in those same years.

Many years later, when I drove an ambulance across Brooklyn, I was astonished to discover how much of the borough consists of black neighborhoods. We rode our bicycles from one adjoining white enclave to another, and never knew that wasn't the world.

The less fortunate kids lived in the apartment buildings around the corner on Ocean Avenue. We knew they weren't as well off as we were because they didn't have houses. The economic line in our neighborhood, the only one we knew, was between the homeowners and the renters. We were all white and went to the same schools.

Class warfare was something which happened at a distance, which we read about in the newspapers. We knew there were poor and dangerous neighborhoods, even of our own ethnicity, where there were street gangs; we knew that "Brownsville" and "Harlem" were out there somewhere. But they weren't realities to us. In 1968, urban riots were something which happened distantly, which frightened us but didn't seem to have any prospect of invading our safe neighborhoods.

I reached my twenties believing that America was an almost classless society. In my vision, 90% of the country was composed of the middle class, possibly 7% was the desperately poor and 3% the super-rich. But these other two classes were invisible to me.

The poor, in my estimation, were distinct from the "working class". Working people in America belonged to unions, and owned houses and cars. They didn't live in my neighborhood (where everyone's dad was a doctor, lawyer, teacher or accountant), but in areas of smaller houses nearby. As I got older and more reflective, I believed that the American triumph had been to invite the workers into the middle class. I remember, in college, reading a book by a French socialist, who said, "I don't know what to say about the United States, where even the workers drive two ton automobiles".

I never saw poor people, but understood from the media, largely the pre-Murdoch New York Post, that "Cadillac-driving welfare queens" were the epitome of a group of people who refused to work, who wanted to be supported by the nation. I supposed also there were desperately poor people living in shacks in Appalachia.

(This is not an article about race; I will save that for another essay I have been contemplating for years. Disposing of it quickly: there is no genetic or cultural correlation between race and poverty. People of other races wind up impoverished in this country, not because they won't work, but because they are denied the opportunity, due to the racism of the white majority.)

The rich I also largely knew about through the Post. Earl Wilson, The gossip columnist, reported on their activities. The wealthy were a harmless class of American eccentrics, whose money enabled them to engage in adorable antics, like the rich in 1930's screwball comedies.

In college, I dated and thought I would marry a girl from Philadelphia, whose family was listed in the Social Register (which I had never heard of before). Her step-father, a stockbroker, was worth about three million dollars, which at the time seemed a fabulous amount, though it is very modest in 2011 dollars. The night I first met her parents, they took us out to the Union League club in New York. I knew they disapproved of me, because I was "poor" and Jewish; but even though I resented this, I had absolutely no sense that a "ruling class" exxisted or that they formed part of it. To me, they were an insular Philadelphia society invisible and irrelevant to the rest of the world, busy vaunting themselves to one another.

One of the interesting factors in American life is that we don't talk about class, so in those rare places where the classes do mix, like college, you don't really know who is richer than you are. In the movies, the millionaire's son may come to school in a fur coat and monocle, but in the 1970's, when everyone wore jeans, there was no way to tell. One of the people I vaguely remember from Harvard Law School was a quiet Orthodox Jewish guy. He inherited a family fortune of about two hundred million dollars. After law school, he became a hedge fund manager who took the easy out of turning all the money over to Bernie Madoff, instead of investing it himself.

I suspect that I confronted class distinctions at Harvard without ever becoming aware of them. The professors rubbed shoulders every day with the very wealthy, as benefactors, alumni, contributors to the political causes with which they become involved. I think there was an active "favor bank" where professors reached out to certain students whose parents had done them favors in the past--pure supposition on my part, because as far as I was concerned, Harvard was just another middle class environment, and any class-related activities were invisible to me.

Only in my forties, when I went to work on ambulances, did I go into other neighborhoods and into the apartments of desperately poor people. I learned a lot from that experience. On the one hand, I visited some apartments in which there was no furniture other than a huge flat screen television. On the other, most of the places I entered belonged to people just as concerned as my parents were to make a life for their children. I saw rampant asthma, caused by the dust and cockroach detritus in the air everywhere in poor neighborhoods. Epidemic diabetes, linked with obesity, from the poor quality of the food. I saw young single moms, whom the Post had pre-conditioned me to regard as being welfare freeloaders, working desperately hard to support the children who gave meaning to their lives. I learned that the hardest working people in America, who put in insane hours at low pay with no complaint, are the illegal Mexicans who come here to find a better life. And that the majority of the American poor are just like us: they want a job, a roof, warmth, food and the opportunity for a better life.

The American dream

The phrase is trite but only because (like other beautiful things: Beethoven's Ninth or Hamlet's soliliquy) it has become stale from over-exposure. The reality is that the America in which I grew up was based on the cornerstone idea that everyone has the opportunity to do much better in this country.

This was the history of everyone I knew. My grandparents came here from the Ukraine and Poland with nothing, fleeing pogroms at home. My mother's parents became furriers, my father's dad was a wholesaler of wooden furniture. Their children became doctors. The expectation was I would go out in the world and do even better. When they sent me to Harvard, my parents were very proud; my mother had a story of an interview she'd had at Yale Medical School in the 1950's, when the dean had spoken to her dismissively of "her kind" not contributing to the school (culturally? financially?) and there had been no offer. My time at Harvard fit into the over-story of the constantly rising American, in which we all devoutly believed.

New York Magazine seems to have spotted the decline of the middle class before everyone did-- but, like Cassandra, to be dismissed as frivolous or hysterical. As early as the 1980's, the magazine revealed that the children of certain successful Americans knew they would never be able to afford to live in the neighborhoods where they grew up.

Two weeks ago, I took a job as a temporary attorney doing document review. I have learned more about the latest evolution of the American dream in those two weeks than I had in ten years before that. People who do document review are largely of two types: young lawyers who have just graduated who cannot find any other job, and lawyers in their thirties and forties who were laid off from other work and also can't find anything else. The work is hourly paid, and insecure (projects last from two days to four months, get canceled or postponed very easily, the rates are sliding downward, the law firms are constantly threatening to outsource the work to India, and most reviewers have weeks or months of unemployment every year). I was stunned to find that people whose hourly rates annualize to $60,000 and more (with both unemployment and overtime factored in) and have the ability to make $100,000 (if there is no unemployment, a high hourly rate, and lots of overtime) cannot afford health insurance. Almost nobody I spoke to has it.

Everybody is carrying student loans. One recent graduate I met is staggering under a $214,000 burden. Rents on a modest one bedroom apartment in New York City are over $2000 a month. The electric bill is $250 (I remember never paying more than $50 not that many decades ago). Chicken breasts are $11 a package. "We will never be able to retire," several people told me. The most startling thing I heard was from a man my age, a former litigator who lost his job: "This is not my country any more."

Document reviewers believe that the American dream is a crock. They were told, and believed, that if they took student loans and went to law school, they would get jobs which would enable them not only to repay their loans, but to have the house in the suburbs, drive a nice new car, and pay for their children's college tuition. Instead, they are trapped in a white collar underworld which has substantial elements of blue collar life (from before or after the age of unions). They are middle class people who don't feel middle class any more, because there is no upgrade available, no route by which they can make their situation more secure, or give more to their children than they themselves had.

The personality of classes

As an emergency medical technician, I went into mouse and cockroach infested places, rescued people whose cheap ceilings had collapsed on them, carefully navigated the apartments of hoarders who had stacked every newspaper for years and some of whom kept their own urine in jars. But I also went into huge Park Avenue apartments of astonishing opulence.

Some of the calls were nonsense, but I handled enough dire situations to get some additional insight. When I did CPR on a poor man, the family was stoic: they knew death, and responded with prayer, or by trying to help me in any way possible. By contrast, a wealthy woman once put her attorney on the phone with us to threaten to sue if we stopped CPR. The poor would never have dreamed of telling us how to do our job. The poor understood death as a constant visitor, a backdrop to life, its natural end. To the rich, death is an intruder, an interloper who had no right to spoil their day. The poor, when told they are being evicted or their benefits cut off, often sit there impassive, their minds racing to find a solution, to think what to do next. The rich have tantrums when they believe that the barrista at Starbuck's forgot to use decaf coffee in the latte.

The years I worked on the ambulance, I loved being blue collar, and the people I worked with--the realistic, modest people who knew how to get the job done, organize their own lives, get by, improve their circumstances--have earned my respect for life.

They were new entrants to the middle class. Most had grown up in the poor neighborhoods in which we worked. I would see male EMT's surrounded by admiring women, and it astonished me at first that anyone in such a modestly paid job would attract such attention. A woman partner, herself from the neighborhood, educated me: "Its the fact they have a J-O-B at all." I watched as EMT's, married to other EMT's, were able, circa 2004 at the height of what we now know to be the real estate bubble, to pool their resources and buy houses a three hour commute away in the Poconos. I have lost touch now, but wonder how many lost those houses after 2008.

I read in the Times last week that an entire black and Latino middle class, which was created in the last fifteen years via home ownership, has now been elminated as those houses have been foreclosed. That the difference between median white wealth and that of blacks and Latinos is eighteen or twenty to one.

An underclass

Marx believed there were three classes, the working class, the middle and the upper. We barely glanced off of Marx in school--it was simultaneously important that we understand a little, so that we could refute him, and not too much, for fear we would believe him. He argued that the workers should own the means of production, and demonized the middle classes as the "bourgeoisie", to be converted to work or swept away entirely with the upper class. Marx's distinction between middle and upper class was not very clear, as seen from the perspective of the worker.

Marx, as I recall, also envisioned an unemployed underclass, which he called the "lumpenproletariat".

I had the impression, growing up, that American prosperity had succeeded to the extent that anyone with a job was automatically a member of the middle class. There had been a working class once in America--the young women in flames, falling shrieking from the windows of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, were its representatives-- but it had successfully, through unions and the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, been merged with the middle class.

Since the super-rich were, depending how you looked at them, individual eccentric and harmless clowns very peripheral to the workings of American life, or, according to some, also members of the middle class but with more money, America seemed to be the closest thing ever invented to a classless country. Class could not be eliminated entirely, but there were only two: the middle class and the underclass of people who would not, or for some dubious reason, could not work.

Us or them

One of the fundamental questions in any political culture is whether you regard the underclass as part of an "us" or a "them". This is subsumed into the larger question, of course, of your treatment of others (based on race, religion, sexual preference, etc.) in general. There is a philosophy which in recent decades has been largely identified with the Democratic party, that the poor are "us" but less fortunate, and should be extended a helping hand (and also encouraged to vote in large numbers). And there is an opposing philosophy, epitomized by the words of David Cameron, that the poor are "them", different, despicable, immoral, lazy and not in any way a class created by us,or for which (amusing in light of the lecture on responsibility) we are responsible. We did not make them; they grew somehow like a fungus on our beautifully manicured lawn. And they should, by the way, be discouraged from voting, via laws which require them to show picture id's they do not have, and risk arrest if they cannot prove themselves to be who they say they are.

One of the concerns which led me to create The Ethical Spectacle, and publish it every month these seventeen years, has been the significance of compassion in American life. I found that I gave not a fig for anyone who feels none, and was amused and amazed to discover a Republican attack on the very idea, exemplified in a book by Marvin Olasky called "The Tragedy of Compassion". Social conservatives believe that government goes wrong when it is officially compassionate; that the objects of its mercy are greatly harmed, not helped; that compassion should be left to private charities and nonprofits; but that even there, its objects are not very deserving, because selfish, violent and dirty.

It is interesting to note at every turn how un-Christian the conservative Christians are. There is no concept whatever of the poor as brothers, as they were to Christ. Nor is there any humility in American conservative politics, no sense of "There but for the grace of God go I."

I like to imagine what I would do if offered a brand new, fresh, uninhabited Earth-like planet to settle, with ten thousand of my closest friends. I would want to create an inclusive world, in which elected officials would at all times remember that they are governor or president of all the people, rich and poor, and look for solutions which exist on the middle ground, which allow everyone some room to move. A government of responsibility for every brother and sister. We would at all times be aware that we have contributed to the misfortune of some, either by actively creating the conditions causing suffering (slavery or wage slavery) or by tolerating them (segregation, inadequate education, crime). While government cannot cure every ill (it will not spend billions to retrieve one child from a well), it can certainly choose whether to run things so as to ameliorate suffering, or cause it.

I fault the Republicans for their wilful ignorance of the fact that large subsets of the people they govern, when they come to power, are part of the polity. Are their responsibility. The Democratic governors of New York and Connecticut just achieved consensus on needed cuts by bringing the unions into the conversation and getting them to agree. The Republican governors of Wisconsin and Ohio threw the unions off a cliff. I blame Republicans not just because their social policies are wrongheaded and will lead to grinding poverty, but because their outlook and way of doing business are relentlessly and needlessly cruel.

The Republicans vaunt themselves for cutting costs. But they don't do so by making life more bearable, more possible, for everyone. They mainly don't save money at all, as they might by intervening to ensure that the prices of health care were reasonable. Instead, they do so by transferring costs off of the rest of us onto that subset of us who can least afford to bear them.

The rhetoric

For most of a lifetime, I have participated in a somewhat removed, intellectual and arid debate about compassion, outreach and inclusiveness regarding people who lived somewhere else, whom I never met in person until my ambulance days. But the one thing I never dreamed in my life until now, was of the idea of downward social mobility (even though New York magazine had ben warning us all, for decades, it existed). That a large number of us, could be pushed by the "invisible hand" toward that underclass. And not just gradually, as had been happening, it turns out, for thirty years; but catastrophically, overnight, when the value of our homes melted away.

At the center of the highly dishonest and deceptive dialog that is taking place in this country today, is the rhetoric devoted to the question of who to blame for vanishing real estate prices, jobs and health insurance, and rising prices for gas, groceries, rents and tolls. Here are the various Republican answers to this question:

1. It is nobody's fault, just an act of God, something which happens sometimes.

2. It is the fault of government. Not our government, as we controlled it for most of the last forty years via Republican presidents and/or Congressional majorities. It is the fault of the Democrats. In fact, the problems today, if we cannot blame anyone else, are the fault of Franklin Roosevelt. They are the fault of the Democrats who last governed effectively in the 1960's.

3. Elements of your own class, you who read this, are at fault. If you don't belong to a union, we want you to blame those who do. They were greedy and asked for too much. (Dividing groups against themselves, so they don't have the clarity and unity to fight the real enemy, is a classic tactic from the dawn of time.)

4. Its your own damn fault. You weren't good/smart/careful enough to avoid this.

Kirk Douglas said variations on the same line of dialog three times in his career. In "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" and "Shootout at the OK Corral", he said, "Its not your fault, its not my fault, its nobody's fault." At the end of his career, in "Saturn III", set in a dystopian futgure, he said, "Its not your fault, its not my fault, its everybody's fault". I hold with that. The best boss I ever had once wrote a memo, "I take 100% of the responsibility. How much do you take?" The worst bosses out there, such as Rupert Murdoch and David Cameron, take none whatever. They are exceptionally good fellows, and everything that goes wrong is always laid at someone else's door.

Why eliminate the middle class?

The diminishment of the middle class in America is NOT an act of God. It is the obvious result of policies championed by Republicans, which allowed Wall Street players to create mortgage-backed securities and corresponding collateralized debt obligations, and sell and buy them in an almost complete absence of government vigilance. The death of the middle class was foreshadowed by the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act (by Republicans, but with Bill Clinton's support) in 1999: it had been created in 1933, on Roosevelt's watch, to guard all our interests. The rhetoric supporting its repeal, about how Wall Street didn't need Washington watching it to design safe, lucrative instruments, coincided with the collapse of the Internet bubble and preceded by only nine short years the collapse of the mortgage bubble.

Now that nobody can deny that the middle class is eroding, the question becomes why anybody would permit that to continue. In the dream world of truly responsible leadership--the kind who really understand personal responsibility, instead of making empty lectures about it--a leader would say, "We fucked up and we are going to fix it." The one thing you never actually hear an elected politician say in this world.

The importance and former primacy of the middle class in America was so well established, that there is nobody publicly saying, "The middle class is bad, deserves this, we don't need them in this country". Instead, the public response, as with any great catastrophe we caused and refuse to face (global warming discourse is no different), is the rather contradictory answer: "It isn't happening. And it can't be helped."

When I try imagine the dialog in private clubs and conference rooms where the billionaires talk to one another in low murmurs, I cannot. Are the Koch brothers, who have crusaded for thirty years to destroy the middle class, so self-deluded that they really believe the Libertarian nonsense they have done so much to propagate, that a rising tide lifts all boats, that the "invisible hand" of the market will be more compassionate than the intentional hand of government? Or is there some horrendously cruel conversation that will never receive a public airing?

The answer is, it doesn't matter what they think or say to each other, only what they do. When Primo Levi asked the cruel guard, "Why?" he received the answer, "There is no why here."

Are we obligated to lie down?

Through-out history, autocrats who seized or inherited power have concocted complicated stories justifying their own supremacy and explaining that their subjects have an obligation to permit their depradations. These rationales have included inherited kingship, where people who started out mere bandits and buccaneers launch lineages that rule for a thousand years; and Christian doctrine, such as humility, rendering unto Caesar and turning the other cheek. It is very rare that an autocracy completely lacks a story, and devolves to "We have the guns and can shoot you" as its only explanation (which seems to be the case in Syria today). When a dictatorship has no other story to tell, it is usually not long for this world.

What this means is that even violent dictators rule to some extent by the consent of the governed. There was a fascinating example in the Times last week: Prime Minister Putin depends on polling data, though he has long since consolidated all power in himself. His peoiple apparently believe he brings order, paid for by a significant loss of freedom, and are content to make that particular deal with the devil.

It is certain there has never been a single government on earth that would not fall in a night, if all of its citizens rallied and walked towards the guns.

It is particularly odious today that the governing American story, proposed by the Tea Party types and to a great extent, weakly and uneasily endorsed or tolerated by Democrats (who have advanced no effective counter-story) goes as follows: we have a moral and practical obligation to tolerate the depradations of billionaires.

In fairness, this cover story was first concocted in an era when most of us would never be aware of any personal impact on our lives from the romping and rioting of the billionaire class. As long as it was something happening far away from us--personal jets, notorious divorces, bikini clad assiatants on sunny islands--we might accept the rationale, "These people are creating jobs for you, so let them be a bit wild."

In today's world, most of us have experienced the loss of a job or a house, or the struggle to pay a mortgage, and the endless war to find and keep health insurance, or to live without it, and cover health care expenses. We are watching prices rise, interest rates and income dwindle. All of our problems are directly caused by the people who sold mortgage backed securities while buying collateralized debt obligations. When we emerge from that fog referred to above, in which we believe that the present misery is an act of God caused by no human, we are confronted with the argument that we must go with the flow, let the billionaire class take our jobs and homes so that they may give them back later.

Of all the reprehensible lies that humans have invented to tell each other, the lowest is the one announcing to people they must accept being robbed and victimized.

Americans seem disturbingly complacent--compared to the British, Israelis, Greeks and Arabs of every nationality who have taken to the streets this year. However, we used to be a shrewd, practical and skeptical people, and may be again. I hope the day will come soon when we put the pieces together, understand the causation, listen to the explanations and respond, "That is bullshit."

The next stage is likely to be the use of governmental force, especially if we wake to reality under a government domiinated in all three branches by the Tea Party types. Certainly, in American history, we have shot our share of resisting or escaping slaves, of strikers and anti-war demonstrators. We have already had the rhetoric of rejecting and demonizing the other; when you hear it, violence is not far off.


At school, we had relentlessly drilled into us the words, "consent of the governed." Unlike the complacent Russian majority who have apparently agreed to trade freedom for order, did most of us who are sinking and suffering here ever consent to goverrnment by the Koch Brothers? I didn't, did you?

Putin is visibly and incontestably the authoritarian leader of Russia. But the billionaires guiding America are hidden in a fog of misinformation, of misdirection, while they invest millions anonymously in political outcomes through blandly named 501(c)(4) organizations. There cannot be consent without knowledge in the first place. How do we consent to government by people who won't even acknowledge they are responsible? The question, which should be answered "no", was never properly posed in the first place.

Self defense

When the smoke clears, when the chips are down, when (insert other useful cliche here), most people are able to revert to an ancient Greek or Old Testament form of morality: we defend our friends and seek to harm our enemies. It is, in fact, a bracing moment, like coming out of a patch of fetid fog into clear mountain air, to brush the nonsense away and understand you have the ability to defend yourself and no "obligation" not to.

We are being manipulated and robbed, and it is time to see our way clear to protecting ourselves, to defending what we still have. In New York City earlier in the week, a crowd came out to prevent the city marshall from evicting an elderly woman from the house she has occupied since 1965. I want to see much more of that. The billionaires broke the law and the rules of civil morality we thought we all had consented to; why are we the only ones expected to stay within the bounds? We are not the ones who launched class against class. We didn't go looking for the billionaires, they came seeking us. This is one of those decisive moral moments, in which you get to answer the question: What kind of person do I want to be? You may not prevail, but at least you will not have consented to being crushed.