In Defense of Class Resentment
February 14, 2000
As a teacher of courses on inequality and justice I've often speculated
about why Americans put up with so much economic unfairness. Media misdirection,
the Horatio Alger fantasy, learned helplessness, false consciousness,
psychological miscalculation, historical ignorance, moral blinders--there's
always some supposed explanation for why the income and wealth gap between
the top of the economic pyramid and the broader base fails to generate
a sense of public urgency. But the truth is I just don't get it. Where's
the mobilization of class resentment when you really need it?
The gap is real, and growing. Since 1977, average real income for the
poorest fifth of US households has decreased by almost 10 percent, and
the middle fifth has increased just 8 percent; but the income of the richest
1 percent has more than doubled. Corporate CEOs now make 419 times as
much as the average worker--up tenfold from 1980's 42:1 ratio. In booming
Massachusetts, 6 of the 10 fastest growing occupations pay under $19,000
These facts are consistent with other trends: Mind-boggling housing prices
force long-time residents out of the neighborhoods they were born in.
Poverty persists and even worsens despite the decline in welfare rolls.
Journalists salivate over a bounding stock market, failing to ask presidential
candidates what they propose for those without portfolios.
What saddens me most is that so many people grow up aiming for privileged
lives. We don't have just an income and resource gap. We have an expectations
Inflated expectations are everywhere. Twentysomething entrepreneurs aim
to retire at 50 with enough money socked away to spend more years in retirement
than on the job. Finance columnists advise parents on which kid-friendly
websites will best teach children how to invest their money. The newly
rich tear down half-million-dollar houses to build bigger ones, and the
butler business is booming. The next President's salary will double to
$400,000 a year and some people think it's not enough.
We all lose when society routinely legitimizes desires such as these.
The fantasy misdirects us. It entices us to play the market, to aim for
the high-paying career regardless of its human cost, to define the American
Dream as a golden parachute rather than a better life. It encourages politicians
committed to those at the top rather than to the majority. And it reinforces
both institutional and personal disregard of those whose lives have worsened,
people dismissed as just too lazy or too stupid to log on to ETrade.
During preliminary discussions of competing views of capitalism I offer
my students a simplified discussion of competing political philosophies.
The traditional conservative, I suggest, believes that life is
always a struggle, a fight among people with inherently unequal strengths.
Life's like a Monopoly game, but with a difference--the winners keep their
property at the end, and start the next game already ahead.
Liberalism at least tries to turn capitalism into a reasonably
fair fight. There are still winners and losers, but that's tolerable if
education and other factors are somehow equalized, and if the state offers
the victims enough support to keep the winners from feeling too guilty.
In the idealized liberal world and in the real Monopoly game--but not
in the real world--winnings go back into the pot and the game starts afresh
Radicals propose something different: life doesn't have to be
a fight for survival, especially in societies such as ours where there's
more than enough to go around. For anarchists and anti-WTO activists,
Marxists and populists, for many feminists and environmentalists and new
agers, Monopoly is an exercise in selfishness rather than foresight. We
can choose instead to construct a society not defined as a war of all
against all. We can construct a society in which the rich and power hungry
can no longer depend on societal institutions to protect their suspect
That should be our goal.
But where are the mainstream presidential candidates tapping into justified
class bitterness, calling on people to vote for a more egalitarian society?
Do we all suspect the old anarchist slogan--if voting could change the
system, it would be illegal--makes even more sense today than in the past?
If it takes the threat of class warfare to force a change, what will
it take to start the mobilization?