Pew-Pew-Pew: Shots from the Class War

The new Pew Foundation report on trends in “middle class” wealth and public opinion about class relations is worth a read.

Here, for instance, is the latest on how U.S. residents perceive the nation’s class structure:


Interestingly, though Pew lumps together upper and upper-middle in its own data reporting, the population isn’t far off on the definition of “upper class.” Only 2 percent place themselves there. Not unreasonable, though such a wide definition obscures the true heights of wealth and clout.

Conversely, you also see here what happens when “working class” has been banned from a capitalist culture, as it has been in market-totalitarian “America.” WAY too many people think they are some kind of “middle class.” The only reasonable definition of “middle class” is the group of people who have the capacity — via special training and credentials — to receive abnormally high wages and buy or bargain for small claims against corporate capitalisms’ various property-income streams. “Working class,” meanwhile, denotes all those who lack such protections and claims, and must therefore rely only on their raw ability to do labor to make ends meet (or not meet).

In a society where only 2/3 “own” their own housing, and in which only a quarter of all mortgage holders have greater than 50% of their mortgage paid off, the fact that 89% of us see ourselves as “middle class” members speaks volumes about the power of ideology and vested interests.

The Life Cycle of Social Classes

Here’s a new item for those who are, like TCT, tracking the theme of the rise and decline of dominant social classes.  The prevailing spin on this new result is to see it as a question of “culture.”  In reality it is pure class: the aspiring hegemons are at the top, and the declining emperors are in laughable decline.  And it absolutely figures:  Comparatively wide-spread educational excellence is meaningful and important in societies whose ruling elites are still young and open enough to at least consider exploring unconventional, reality-based answers.  In places like the United States and Britain, meanwhile, the superannuated corporate overclass nailed its windows shut 30+ years ago, and keeps adding new layers of boondoggle and cant to wall out the world.  Despite its de rigueur claim to care about “catching up” again, few things would be more threatening to long-established patterns of domestic stratification than a sudden wave of actual concern for good teaching and popular educational advancement.


[Source: The New York Times, December 7, 2010]

Twin Quotes for Late 2010

“It’s not just the fact that the elites have all the wealth in a society, but that they are disconnected from the problems. If the rich and powerful still live the good life as society is spinning downhill, they are not motivated to solve the problems.” (Jared Diamond)

marie antoinette

Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Ali Dibadj saw in the third quarter a “decoupling” of the luxury and prestige markets, also including LVMH and Elizabeth Arden, from the mass marketers. And the results extended beyond beauty, as Macy’s and Nordstrom showed increases in customer traffic year over year last quarter even as the U.S. Walmart division last week reported continued year-over-year declines in traffic for the quarter ended Oct. 31, albeit improvements from the prior quarter.

“The luxury consumer is shopping again, and we are seeing our strategy contribute to … prestige beauty growing faster than mass in many parts of world,” said Estee Lauder CEO Fabrizio Freda on a conference call with analysts last month. He pointed to U.S. beauty sales in department stores and Sephora growing 4% last quarter, according to NPD Group, while sales in mass channels grew only 1%.  (Advertising Age, “Prestige, Luxury Products Thrive as Mass Market Sputters,” November 22, 2010)

American Symmetry

Today’s New York Times contains a piece reporting that:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

In other words, our rate of jailing is generally equal to our rate of hogging and squandering the Earth’s natural resources.

The Times’ explanation of this shocking, disgusting, embarrassing, massively wasteful and evil incarceration rate is utterly stupid, of course: all speculation about culture, and zero consideration whatsoever about our equally shocking, disgusting, embarrassing, massively wasteful and evil levels of class inequality.

“Pain” Reaches the Overclass

One way to understand the connection between corporate capitalism and social classes is to think of it in terms of the “last hired, first fired” problem faced by victims of racism. In reality, the racial version of the first/last process is part of a larger class patterning, in which the prior possession of money, education, and other assets places people in different places in the social line-up.

Corporate capitalism, of course, exists to enrich corporate shareholders. In practice, because the ownership of corporate shares and claims is so radically concentrated at the top, the normal operation of the system primarily* serves those who are already established, rich and mega-rich “major” investors.

But the inequality of wealth and income is not the whole story. There is also a huge inequality of timing that occurs: As big business performs its core function of further enriching the already rich, it also generates powerful differences in peoples’ first/last situations.

For the working class — those who have little or no accumulated wealth, and therefore have no choice but to seek paid work in order to survive — corporate capitalism ensures that the pain of bad economic times will hit first and hardest. Lay-offs, pay cuts, debt collectors, eviction notices, shrinking government programs, suffering schools — such is the stuff of recession for most people. In other words, the class of those who must find a job, any job, is always the first to suffer, and the last to “prosper.” (Note the parentheses.)

So how do things go at the top of the social pyramid, where major investors own a huge chunk of the nation’s income-generating assets and only work when they choose to do so? Well, check out this story from today’ s New York Times. In a story titled “In Rare Miss, G.E. Profits Fall Short,” the Times reports the tragic facts of recession at the top:

General Electric reported a 5.8 percent decline in first-quarter profit on Friday, falling far short of expectations and stunning investors who consider the company one of the nation’s most reliable earners….a company known for rarely missing its estimates,.

The company reported net income of $4.3 billion for the quarter, or 43 cents a share, down from $4.57 billion, or 44 cents a share, in the period a year earlier. Analysts had been expecting about 51 cents a share in net earnings, and the company had projected earnings of 50 to 53 cents a share.

As he fielded questions from disgruntled analysts on a conference call Friday morning, Mr. Immelt insisted that “the core business remains solid.” But he acknowledged that recent financial developments, including the collapse of Bear Stearns, took a severe toll. Earnings at the company’s financial services operation plummeted 19 percent for the quarter.

Mr. Immelt said he regretted the poor performance. “We hate missing our numbers,” he said.

Months and months after hiring has halted and the must-workers have lost jobs and homes at an accelrating pace, the overclass starts to receive (perhaps) a shade less property income from one of its Old Faithfuls.

In other words, the first to prosper are the last to “suffer.” (Note well the parentheses.)

*In his generally apologetic Pulitzer Prize-winning 1977 book, The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business, Harvard business historian Alfred D. Chandler admitted that the super-rich “remain the primary beneficiaries” of corporate enterprise.

The Rock Touches the Hard Place

Last week, the great Jared Diamond, whose Pulitzer-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is the greatest thing since Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, published an op-ed in The New York Times. Titled “What’s Your Consumption Factor?”, the piece hits one of two very big political nails right on the head:

[W]hether we get there willingly or not, we [residents of the USA] shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

This is all very true, as far as it goes. But it only goes half-way.

What Diamond is basically saying is that, if we were to use our democracy to end the criminally insane and egregiously outdated reign of the automobile over transportation (and life in general) in the US, we could have a higher quality of life and also finally get serious about genuinely helping the world’s other people live better.

The big problem, however, is the fact that our extremely well-entrenched economic overclass is quite literally and intractably addicted to perpetuating autos-ueber-alles in America. Without the auto-industrial complex’s trillion-plus-dollars-a-year “stimulation” of a huge array of business opportunities, corporate capitalism would quickly implode into an intractable economic depression.

Meanwhile, as Diamond argues, replacing our cars with world-class railroads and towns reconstructed around rails, bikes, and human feet is not only possible and desirable. Thanks to Peak Oil, it is, as Diamond almost says directly, simply the only imaginable way forward to a decent future.

And here’s exactly where Diamond’s rock meets the still-unmentionable hard place: Both because it is certain to be managed as an urgent, profits-NOT-first public project, and because it would put an end to the vast, self-renewing flows of capitalist-friendly economic waste (and investor profit) that inhere in our existing cars-first arrangement, ending autos-ueber-alles is simply verboten as a subject of public consideration. Modern railroads and cities that favor human-muscle-powered locomotion, you see, are exactly as bad for long-term profit-making as they are healthy and vital for the welfare of ordinary Earthlings.

Hence, until we commoners learn to see the light and put our collective foot down, our economic and political overlords will continue to shove the issue of decent survival raised by Diamond down the “un-American” hole. The reason is simple and classic:

“Après moi, le déluge!” [“After me, the flood!”] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society. To outcries about physical and mental degradation, premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: “Ought these to trouble us, since they increase our profits?”

Hence, if we are to do what Jared Diamond rightly says we must, we will have to conduct one hell of a fight just to get the human future onto the public agenda. History’s richest (and, thanks to the “market” structure of capitalism itself, most deniable) ruling class, armed as it is with history’s greatest mass-sedative (TV), is simply not going to permit the choice Diamond highlights to reach the public mind.

It will only do so through our own conscious and militant insistence upon it. Of necessity, a big part of this consciousness will have to be (hold onto your hats!) class consciousness. If we don’t begin to acknowledge, emphasize, publicize, and combat corporate capitalism’s addiction to selling cars, the jaws of historic defeat will finish snapping closed.

This coming struggle is not just a fight for the world’s children and grandchildren, it is, as Diamond says, a literally necessary one. Hence, as somebody on a crashing airplane once famously said, “Let’s roll!”