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Wednesday, November 25, 2009


The classical political economists -- Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and -- the greatest of them all -- Karl Marx -- conceived of society as divided into classes defined by their role in the system of what Marx called the social relations of production. All four of them saw England, and by extension the burgeoning capitalist world, as consisting of a landed class, an entrepreneurial or capitalist class, and a working class. All of them, of course, were well aware of national, religious, linguistic, regional, and cultural distinctions, some of which cut across class divisions in complex ways. But they thought that the best way to understand the social world was to attend first to class divisions.

The great German sociologist, Max Weber, although deeply influenced by Marx, believed that a classification by status, rather than economic class, would yield a better insight into the behavior of groups in society. Status, as he understood it, was defined by a number of characteristics, among which income [not position in the social relations of production] was clearly one of the most important.

So what?, you might ask. Well, to put it as simply as I can [nothing was simple for Weber!], if Marx was right, then we could expect minimum wage workers and well-paid industrial workers to recognize their common interest, and hence have a tendency to join forces against a common opponent, capital, despite the fact that the minimum wage workers lived hand to mouth in cramped apartments while the industrial workers owned their own homes and even sent their children to college. If Weber was right, then the industrial workers, able to sustain a "middle class existence," could be expected to make common cause with small businessmen in the protection of property rights. And so forth.

At the present time, we are experiencing a right-wing populist revolt against Obama's policies that confounds those of us who cling to Marx's way of understanding the world. For virtually a generation now, as Thomas Frank pointed out in his book, What's The Matter With Kansas?, we have seen large numbers of Americans vote steadily against their economic interest. As Frank rather trenchently put it, the peasant mob storms the castle, and when asked what they want, they cry, with righteous indignation, "Give tax breaks to the rich!"

One need pay only the slightest attention to the Tea Party movement, the Birthers, and the Sarah Palin phenomenon to recognizae that these are people who are deeply, bitterly resentful and offended about matters that have little or nothing to do with their class interests.

As a first hesitant step toward understanding what is happening, let me advert to a William F. Buckley "Firing Line" television show that I saw many years ago. [For those of you who cannot recall who Buckley was, let me simply say that he was a writer, ideologue, and tv talk show host who burst onto the scene with his youthful book, God and Man at Yale, and went on to found and for many years to edit The National Review, the first and the most influential of the right wing magazines of opinion.] Buckley had a faux patrician manner accompanied by a perpetual sneer, a voice that dripped condescension, and a pretention of exquisite intellectualism not often justified by his actual opinions. He was Roman Catholic, and hewed closely to the official Church line on matters of doctrine.

On this particular show, Buckley's guests were a Southern couple who had objected to evolution being taught to their children in the local public school, together with their lawyer and the lawyer for the school board. Both lawyers were big city types brought in for what offered some promise of being an epic courtroom battle -- shades of Inherit the Wind. The couple, by contrast, were modest folk, dressed in their Sunday best, which was quite manifestly not in style. They were hesitant, not well-spoken, and visibly terrified by being on national television. They were also, clearly, decent, God fearing, painfully honest people who had no concern at all beyond what they conceived to be the well-being of their children. I believe that they were, unlike Buckley, Fundamentalist Protestants, not Catholics [the Catholic Church gave up some while ago on denying the truth of evolution.]

Now, the thing you have to understand is that this was supposed to be a friendly interview. Buckley was on the side of the parents, and opposed to the effort, as he saw it, of liberal ideologues to cram their views down the throats of religious conservatives. But as the interview progressed, a strange thing happened. Buckley and the two lawyers in effect made common cause against the poor parents. All three men were well-educated, sophisticated big city types, accustomed to moving in circles in which an array of verbal and cultural traits serve to allow people to identify their social equals. The parents were of a totally different background and social status. Their speech, their manner, their clothes, their body language marked them not as economically lower class but as not part of the educated elite. And despite his ideological predispositions, Buckley could not conceal his disdain for them. Not his disagreement with them, not his opposition to their cause, but his disdain for them.

It seems to me that a very large part of the passion motivating the current crop of populist rebels is a bitter resentment at the disdain that they feel is directed against them every day by the dominant culture of American society. That is why, quite irrelevantly and inconsequently, they so often rail against Obama's "Ivy League" connections, despite the fact that George W. Bush, for example, was a product of Yale and Harvard.

These folks are not stupid, and they are not wrong. People like me do feel disdain for someone who denies the facts of evolution. We do ourselves quitre often have Ivy League credentials, even though I, for one, have during my entire life been a more active and determined critic of the elite educational sector than they, and have even spent time and money opposing Harvard's policies. My contempt for Sarah Palin is -- let us be honest -- strengthened by her grotesque declasse mannerisms -- winking at the camera, punctuating her remarks with "you betcha", claiming [falsely, as it turns out] to be a moose hunter. In this classless society, an upper class has emerged, and it is defined as much by education and culture as by money or ideology. Buckley is reputed to have been a good amateur harpsichordist, given to enteertaining his guests at dinner with a little Bach or Scarlatti.

It is a paradox that we must try to understand that socially and economically progressive public policies are so often vigorously supported by people who themelves have little to gain from them, and violently opposed by those in whose interest they are advanced.

I invite comments.


Unknown said...

Thank you for the helpful background on Buckley. To the extent that education can be a successful route to upward mobility, perhaps Palin's politics of resentment has some foundation in "reality." That leads to some follow-up questions. Who can make use of that mobilization, and how? Is her support necessarily regressive? How can we turn that sentiment into more support for public higher education (I wish)?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

A quick response:

1. Her politics do have a foundation in reality, even though she herselfr has only a marginal grasp on reality. The reality is that increasingly, American society is divided into two worlds -- one in which education and the stigmata of class more or less ensure a decent life, and the other in which one is at risk of job loss and downward mobility and is closed out of the good jobs with the good pay and perks.

2. In the last election, it was Obama and the Democrats who successfully mobilized the very large masses of people who identify themselves as part of the educated elite. At the moment, it is the right wing that is successfully mobilizing the resentment of the other portion of the society.

3. Although the economic crisis is hurting education along with many other sectors of the economy, my guess is that the long term prospects for public higher education are good. What is NOT good is the prospect for the humanities, the arts, and for the security of tenure, on which has rested so much of the impetus for progressive politics in recent decades. The universities were, in the 50's and 60's and 70's and 80's and 90's, what unions were in the 20's and 30's and 40's.