As Americans, we are not supposed to talk about class. I’m sure you’ve heard feel good nonsense like, “There are no poor Americans — only soon to be rich Americans!” The idea is that anyone can grow up to be rich in America — if only they try. But the truth is that among peer countries, the United States is the most class based. If your father was poor, you’ll be poor. If your father was rich, you’ll be rich. It doesn’t matter that some poor children will become rich. As a statistical matter, people are locked into their classes in America.
Consider Shakespeare. Through his financial wisdom and his abilities as a writer, he was able to move out of the middle class and into the aristocracy. Does that mean that Elizabethan England wasn’t a class based society? According to the modern conventional wisdom in the United States it wasn’t. But that is very clearly wrong. Similarly, Daymond John doesn’t prove that we aren’t a rigidly class based society. George W Bush proves that we are. Because if we actually lived in a meritocracy, Bush wouldn’t have president; he would be living in a halfway house somewhere.
It is important that we Americans put away childish things. And the most childish thing is our delusion that we live in the land of opportunity. We don’t. The last four decades have seen the power elite manipulate how resources are distributed. And like the spoiled the children that they are, the power elite have seen fit not to share anything with the rest of us. Rats are far more humane than our human “betters.” (For the record, I’m very fond of rats.)
In the following lecture by Richard Wolff, he goes over the reasons why we need to embrace class. Basically: we need to do it because it is the only way out of this trap. Accepting the framing that there is no class is exactly what the power elite want. It stops us from even questioning the morality of people having more money than they could ever spend while other people live without sanitation. It also allows the middle class to live their whole lives in fear that they will lose their jobs. It makes for an extremely compliant workforce as well as electorate.
I know the conservative response to this. It involves how the capitalist makes everyone richer and that the capitalist is doing all this important work by moving capital around to where it is most useful. This is all fine. But there are a number of problems. The biggest one is simply what Wolff shows: the capitalists have been making themselves richer over the last four decades, but none of this has gone to the worker. So why should the worker continue on with this system? We still have a democracy, right?
Another issue not brought up in the lecture is the fact that modern institutions and technologies allow the few to benefit in ways that they never could before. For example, without the interstate highway system and container ships, Sam Walton would not have been one-tenth as rich as he was. How is it moral to allow someone to make far more money simply because of other factors that he had no part in creating? Similarly, why should an actor make millions today with movies when the same actor would have made far less in the theater of a century and a half ago, when she would have had to work far more? There is nothing “natural” about this state of things.
The point of all of this is that we need to see the class structure that we have in this country. It doesn’t matter that some people manage to move from one class to another. That doesn’t mean the classes don’t exist. If we can see the classes clearly, we can make explicit decisions about the morality of our class based system. And I believe a close look will show that we’ve long ago abandoned any semblance of morality.