What do you have to say about class warfare?

9 Nov

“Class warfare.” It’s a popular, but really more provocative than edifying phrase that’s getting a lot of airtime these days. Exactly who is declaring war on whom?

Apparently, “the poor” are declaring war on “the rich.” The rhetoric suggests a populist revolution: the people getting fed up and storming the palace gates. Interestingly, most US Americans identify as neither. Below is a chart illustrating how people self-identified when asked about their class membership (Barkan, 2010):

Overwhelmingly (89.1%), people self-identified as working or middle class. While distinctions among lower, working, middle and upper class membership (the language used in Barkan’s study) are up for debate, what matters here is how people choose to identify. Yes, there is an unequal distribution of wealth in the US to back up this bulge between class extremes. And I also see a shying away from being identified as too poor or too rich, as if one is just as bad as the other.

This inevitably shapes how we use and hear the language of “class warfare.” The majority of us who identify as neither rich nor poor then become spectators, inevitably rooting for one side over the other. And in choosing the rich, we don’t just choose them: we choose the possibility of becoming them.

Now back to the war, whether you’re in it or on the sidelines: how’s it going?

Well, according to the Congressional Budget Office (http://abcnews.go.com/Business/income-doubles-top-percent-1979/story?id=14817561), the income of the US’ richest 1% grew 275% from 1979-2007, while the income of the US’ bottom 20% grew 18% over that same 28 year period.I’m not sure exactly when the poor declared war on the rich, but if recent history is any indication, it’s not looking good for the people.

In a 2003 interview, Warren Buffet responded to the idea of class warfare by stating bluntly, “Well, I’ll tell you, if it’s class warfare, my class is winning.” From Buffet’s perspective, it would appear that class warfare of the poor on the rich is more like class domination, in the reverse direction.

Yet, still–and particularly around the subject of tax increases for the wealthy–there is a cry from those who identify as or with the rich, protesting “class warfare”! As if to say that the idea alone of increased taxes assaults their very being, their safety and their right to peace. Because embedded in the language of “warfare” as it is used here is the suggestion that the poor are belligerent and angry, while the rich are peace-loving and just want to have what it rightfully theirs.  

… which brings me to Elizabeth Warren’s “come to Jesus” video on youtube? Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XcFDF87-SdQ

Warren, a Massachusetts Democratic US Senate candidate, responds to the notion that it is “class warfare” to raise taxes for the wealthy by arguing “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own.” Wherever you stand on taxes–Warren makes a critical point: wealth is usually the product of a community, even when it’s claimed and consumed by an individual. In our culture of individualism, in which we mythologize the act of pulling oneself up by time-tested boot straps, we tend to overcredit the individual for the team effort, and that’s partly how we end up at “war”: because if I get to say it’s mine, then I come to believe it’s mine, and you better believe I’ll defend what’s mine.

The misnomer “class warfare” is particularly treacherous because of its sleight of hand effect: as our attention turns to see who is wielding the pitchforks, we don’t notice the uneven terrain that this battle is supposed to be waged on. We don’t notice that to mount an actual attack in Congress would require building a bridge across a wide and treacherous moat–and the poor simply don’t have the materials to make one. We can’t see the forest for the trees–or in this case, the complexity for the satisfying metaphor.

As sexy a term as “class warfare” is, I think there are clearer, more honest ways to name what’s happening in the US right now: A capitalist conundrum. An argument over taxes. A struggle to define what’s fair for individuals and families of diverse socioeconomic means to pay for getting to live in the US. I’m sure you can do better. Let me know what you come up with.

And as we try to bring truth back to naming, I’d like to suggest that it’s incumbent upon each of us to challenge others when they use those buzzwords that get people nodding without thinking. So the next time you hear someone refer to “class warfare”, what do you have to say?

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