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Friday, November 11, 2016


I have been very deeply moved by the responses to my brooding meditation earlier today.  I just finished reading an e-mail from a man in India who is, it seems, a regular reader and felt a desire to communicate with me about what I had to say.  The truth is that from the point of view of eternity, it makes very little difference whether we live for eighty years or eight thousand, nor is Trump’s victory of great significance against the backdrop, so brief in time, of recorded human history.  Few of us can recall the names of more than a handful of Roman emperors, and yet I am sure to their contemporaries, it made a great deal of difference indeed which of several competitors got the job.  What does matter, it seems to me, is that while we are alive, we find comrades with whom we can make common cause to fight a good fight.  I know now that I have found some comrades, and I am much comforted.

So let us begin to think our way out of the trough into which our wagon has fallen.  I am going to leave to others the speculation concerning the next Democratic Party Chair [Keith Ellison seems like a splendid choice] or precisely what tactics ought to be adopted by our champions in the Congress [I am quite content to rely on the instincts of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and the others.]  Instead, I will start by reflecting on some very useful thoughts posted here by Chris, whom many of you have come to know through his participation in the on-going conversation on this blog.  By the way, my comment on Krugman was intended simply as a snide snark, but that is neither here nor there.  Here is a part of what Chris wrote:

“But I think we seriously need to take stock of the points Taibbi, Greenwald, and Thomas Frank are making, which is that we now live (justifiably I might add) in an anti-establishment society…. The only counter here is a left-wing anti establishment approach, which can win Michigan, Wisconsin ….  The whole "vote Hillary because Trump will destroy everything" argument was exactly what predicated a VOTE FOR TRUMP, people want the system to be hit with a sledgehammer, fine let's swing that hammer leftward not rightward... No?”

Chris is right, but there are enormous obstacles to such a project, and we need to be clear about them if we are to make progress.  Let me begin with some remarks about the phrase “middle class,” which has lately become the mantra of politicians.  Originally, of course, the term quite literally referred to the portion of the population in a capitalist economy whose income placed it between the huge working class and the small, rich, powerful upper class.  The petit bourgeoisie, as the French would say.  Shop keepers, big farmers, government functionaries, and perhaps [in the early days of capitalism] master craftsmen, the proprietors and Masters of the old Guilds.  By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, in part as the result of the theoretical work of Max Weber, the term “middle class” had shifted somewhat so that it came to refer to people whose socio-economic status, as the Sociologists put it, placed them in life style, educational attainment, and political and cultural orientation, as well as in income, between the lower classes and the upper class in a social status ranking.  It came to be commonplace to refer to the Lower Class, the Lower Middle Class, the Upper Middle Class, and so forth.  People securely located in one of these social statuses could be easily identified by where they lived, what clothes they wore, what amusements they preferred, even whether they drank beer or wine.  In England, which door of a pub you entered told the entire story of your life.  Leftwing political movements looked to the Working Class for their support.  Middle Class reformist movements looked to the educated classes, to polite society, for support.

Much has been written about supposed American exceptionalism, and many left-wing theoretical writers have spent time debunking that self-congratulatory phrase, but in one respect America has in fact been somewhat exceptional because of the central role of slavery, and then of systematic racial discrimination, in its economic development.  [Since I can never resist the opportunity to tout my own books, I will call your attention to Chapter Three of my least successful book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.]  From at least the early nineteenth century, if not before, rich Whites have been conning poor Whites into accepting their economic disadvantage by reassuring them that however poor they were, at least they were not black.  Dirt poor farmers in the South scrabbling a living from the soil and worlds away from the possibility of owning even one slave made common cause with their natural enemies, the great plantation owners, because of their common Whiteness.  Nineteenth century northern labor unions struck devil’s bargains with exploiting mill owners, accepting lower wages in return for a guarantee that Black workers would not be hired.  The Suffragist Movement that fought so valiantly for the right of women to vote accepted the exclusion of Black women and men from the franchise as the price of support for their cause from “progressive” White men.

During the progressive period following World War II, economic expansion and government support programs combined to promote such marks of Middle Class status as home ownership, a family car, and paid vacations for White workers.  In recent years, college education has been added to the identifying marks of Middle Class existence in America.  To be sure, the ranks of the Middle Class became somewhat racially integrated, but along the way, the term “Middle Class” came to be a euphemism for “not a ghetto dweller,” which is to say not non-White.

Thus, in this last election, as in several before, even those supposedly on the left of the Democratic Party spoke endlessly about protecting the Middle Class.  This was true even of Bernie, by the way.  The old familiar call for Working-Class solidarity has all but disappeared from American mainstream political discourse.

Now let us remind ourselves of a few elementary facts about America.  First of all, this year, median annual earnings for full time employed workers are roughly $41,000.  That means, for those of you statistically challenged, that half of all full time employed workers are earning less than $41,000 a year and half are earning more.  So the middle of the income pyramid for fully employed workers is, let us say, from $35,000 to $50,000.  But when politicians speak about “not raising taxes on the Middle Class” they make it clear that they are talking about people making less than $200,000 or $250,000 a year.  They are not even thinking about people making $41,000 a year, probably because they do not know any!  [Median household income is roughly $52,000, by the way.]

Second, almost one-third of American adults have a Bachelor’s Degree, which means that two-thirds do not!  So when Bernie talked about lifting the burden of student loans, he was talking to, at most, one-third of young people.  [When I went off to Harvard in 1950, by the way, the fragment of the adult population with college degrees was 5% -- so few that high schools in New York City held two graduations a year, assuming that few if any would wish to go on to college in the Fall.]

I want you to pause and think about these statistics for a bit.  If “Middle Class” is taken to mean earning at least 70-80 thousand a year and having a college degree, then only a very small fraction of the population is Middle Class – probably not more than a quarter. 


If we are to follow Chris’s advice and “swing that hammer leftward,” then it is going to have to be wielded by an alliance of men and women making anywhere from $14,500 a year [the minimum wage] to, let us say, $75,000 a year, with some class traitors [like me] pitching in.  What is more, those with their hands on that great hammer are going to have to be willing to grasp it and swing it regardless of whether their hands are next to White or Black or Brown hands.

The economic interest is there.  The challenge is to overcome the racial, cultural, religious, and educational differences that have set the swingers of that hammer against one another for so long.

1 comment:

Guy Tennenbaum said...

Professor Wolff,

I was moved by your reflections in your last post. If it is any comfort to you, know that you have described to a tee how I am feeling as a result of this disaster, and I am on the opposite side of the country from you. This is a shared grief. And it is certainly greif. Here we are three days later and the feelings of dread and sorrow have not abated -- shifted and transmorgified yes, but not abated. The sheer physiological shock may have begun to wear off a bit -- just a bit -- but no stable emotion seems to have come in to take its place. We are all "working throug" something, as they say.

I just woke from six hours of uninterrupted sleep, the most I have managed since the night of the 8th. In fact, I don't think I had been managing more than hour-long snatches here and there. I wonder how I have been maintaining my sanity, but perhaps I haven't been.

As for the substance of this post, it's been said that Bernie's momentum never recieved that crucial jolt because he failed to appeal to minority voters, especially in the South. And what this is supposed to mean is that he lacked support among blacks, especially. Well, now that the establishment candidate has lost thanks to low turnout from the usual "coalition", this situation seems to me likely to change. Bernie (and who else besides him is there? Warren is terrific not as stirring) has four years to make his pitch to black voters, which unfortunately came too late this time around. Remember, in 26 years Democrats have lost the popular vote only once. Cultural, educational, religious and racial disparities are a problem, to be sure. But when it comes to the task of getting our candidates into the White House, we will win if the people already on our side show up.

To end on a hopeful note, I have a very positive feeling about these public demonstrations. It seems to me the backlash has only begun to gather force, now that people have begun to remove their jaws from the floor. People are shocked and pissed. Which portends well for the fight against complacency.

I just read that Michael Moore is calling for a renewed Occupy movement. Let's hope there is success in that arena. I am encouraged by people saying that they will not "give T***p a chance," as the usual craven establishment people are beseeching us to do. He deserves exactly the same courtesies that he and other Repubs granted Obama, which is none. He is not normal nor in any way acceptable. Will the people show up to be a constant presence reminding the world of that? I know I'll be there on inauguration day.