What’s Wrong with Class Warfare, Anyway?
This morning marked the first time that I heard someone ask the seemingly obvious question: “What’s so wrong with using the term ‘class warfare’?” And while this may just as likely have been said, though for entirely different reasons, by the likes of Sean Hannity or Mark Levine as by Rachael Maddow or Al Sharpton, this question was instead posed by the endearingly buffoonish Donny Deutsch, chairman of Deutsch Inc. and frequent contributor to MSNBC’s Morning Joe program.
Very few media pundits, writers, bloggers or newscasters have willingly embraced the term ‘class warfare,’ and while politicians may perhaps be excused their reticence in this regard, busy as they are presiding over warfare of the military-grade bloodsheding kind, the rest of us are not so easily excused. Because ‘class warfare’ is not, as Mitt Romney and Fox News would have you believe, a vilifying invective or an inducement to reissue the guillotine in the service of public executions. And this is perhaps where some clarification is required so that we may all, willingly and comfortably, describe our nouveau gilded-age America and the politics of reform in precisely the terms they deserve: class warfare.
The prevailing concern with the use of the term ‘class warfare’ may best be expressed as a concern of unduly vilifying the rich. While this is a concern typically held by the rich themselves, it is somewhat justified. Vilifying the rich makes the mistake of indicting the outcome rather than the system that produces inequality. The problem is the playing field and its rules, not its winners. And while some of those winners might resist a change to the rules that could undermine their victor’s status and partly diminish the size of their trophy (no sexual double entendre intended, though take it if you’d like), many such winners are not. And so when segments of the Occupy movement raise banners advocating that we eat and/or fuck the rich (I’d prefer the latter, and begin with Zoe Saldana), they make the mistake of perceiving everyone, both rich and poor, as necessarily behaving only in their own self-interests.
Insofar as OWS refuses to cohere around a common set of ideas, so too might they often see their opposition as likewise unable to cohere around common ideas. This is symptomatic of the same mistake that sees the Occupy movement’s 99% as engaged only on behalf of their own self-interests, and the 1% correspondingly engaged only on behalf of their own. But because this sort of division does not represent a difference of ideology but rather a difference of where one stands with regard to one’s bank account, Occupy Wall Street’s lack of ideological clarity only ends up reinforcing the perception that ‘class warfare’ amounts to a difference between subject positions—a difference between one person’s standing and the other’s. But insofar as rich people might also be supporters of OWS (and there are many), they act not in their own self-interests but on behalf of an adherence to an ideology. Likewise there are many among the 99% who are staunch opponents of OWS’s protest against inequality. And so class warfare should be expressed not as a war against the rich (which it isn’t) but a war against the class structure that produces concentrated wealth among 1% of the population at the expense and often abject exploitation of the remaining 99%.
In this way rich people do not inherently represent the opposition; the opposition is rather those who believe that a system which produces a concentration of wealth among 1% of the population is justified. And because an ideology doesn’t care about the money in one’s bank account, one may find rich advocates of the Occupy movement as well as poor people who defend a corrupt and imbalanced economic structure. This explains in part why Fox News, the Tea Party and Libertarianism have become so popular—their massive popularity cannot be wholly derived from among the 1%. And so there are plenty of Joe the Plumbers who yet believe that the nation’s economic class system is designed to reward anyone who takes advantage of it and plenty of Libertarians who believe that all citizens should remain beholden to corporate interests. Less a mark of inconsistency, the fact that there are 99%-ers who side with 1% interests and 1%-ers who side with 99% interests speaks to the inherent consistency of ideological differences. It furthermore speaks to the need for movements like OWS to cohere around a clear set of ideological principles, and class warfare is a suitable enough term to describe them.
In this way the ‘class warfare’ does not and cannot be a battle between those who have money and those who do not, between two opposing identities defined by their relative subject positions. It must rather be a contest between two opposing beliefs about how the system that produces this inequality should be corrected, a contrast between those who believe that our system is justified and those who believe it is not. In this way does Donny Deutsch’s criticism of his fellow millionaire Hamptons residents’ vehement resistance to tax increases and increased financial regulations make sense when he asks the question: “why in God’s name aren’t we openly embracing the term ‘class warfare’?”