“I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”
– Railroad baron Jay Gould, 1886, during the Great Southwest Railroad’s hiring of strikebreakers.
This column is not for everyone. It is for those who are serious about power in the building of democracy, about expanding democracy for the majority while protecting the rights of the minority as the better part of American traditions. It is for those who are serious about understanding and overcoming the obstacles that a powerful minority have always arrayed against every democracy, even as some of that minority, to protect their control and wealth, have acquiesced to reforms.
Before getting into the specifics of topical issues that will be the subject of future columns, it is important to emphasize that this column is not about launching class war; it is about adequately responding to the class war that has already been launched against most of the middle class to benefit the top 1 % of the population that already controls a whopping 40% of America’s wealth.
There will always be a top 1% in every society, utopian dreams notwithstanding. The question is whether the top 1% is given free license toward unlimited aggrandizement of society’s total wealth, and, if so, to what extent a bias for that aggrandizement perpetuating control by the top 1% is embedded in the social and political structure to limit reforms, to the detriment of true democracy defined by Lincoln as “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
For the purpose of clarity, we will start with a little background on how the rise of the top 1% occurred not in some social vacuum, but as a result of their relation with other social classes, particularly working people. The social relations between the 1% and the rest of us seldom get examined in history, political science or sociology classes. This is a subject rarely taught in our schools, and then most often in business classes in evaluating “human resources.” As anthropologist Laura Nader (sister of Ralph Nader) has pointed out, “studying up” – looking at the upper classes, instead of “looking down” at the lower classes — is rarely if ever part of a university’s curricula. The history of the American economy is portrayed as mostly about businessmen, with working people usually given no more than scant attention, and then as mere appendages to the story of the corporate economy that portrayed the great fortunes of the upper class as incidental and justifiable reward. Corporate excesses are seen not as endemic to the system but unnecessary abuses by 19th century “Robber Baron” monopolists like oil’s Rockefeller, gunpowder’s du Ponts, banking’s J.P. Morgan, railroads’ Harriman, and steel’s Carnegie.
Along with the class biases that are transmitted through corporate foundation-funded universities comes a deep-seated, corporate-favored historical amnesia, amnesia about how the slavery of kidnapped people from Africa built the profits of not only Southern slaveholders but also Northern merchants and early textile and tobacco companies on both sides of the Atlantic; amnesia about how the corporate “Great Barbeque” of the American frontier by cattle, grain and mining companies profited off the genocide of Native Americans; amnesia about how previous wars of conquest were billed repeatedly as “accidents” in building an “accidental empire” abroad for corporate investments; and amnesia about how injustices toward the majority of working people in America has been built into the social structure that predictably builds wealth and power for those in control: the top 1%. With amnesia comes lack of recognition. Maneuvering through corporate shells, foundations, and the executives they hire, the top 1% remain unrecognized, all but invisible except in the society pages of big city newspapers and magazines. It is the intention of this column not to replicate the deception of just naming corporations, but, in the name of accountability so crucial for democracy, to name those among the 1& who control and are ultimately responsible for the managers they hire.
During the “Roaring Twenties” President Calvin Coolidge, a native of my own Vermont, asserted blandly that “The business of America is business.” The excesses of the 1920s were seldom challenged within the corporate upper class, not only because they benefited from them, but because they flowed out of the normal business ethic that held increasing sway over the imagination of the American people, including its waves of immigrants: the lure of unlimited aggrandizement of wealth.
The Twenties’ era of greed was not an example of American exceptionalism in the world; corporate upper classes in other countries eagerly participated, just as they did in recent decades and still do now. Nor were such eras of greed anomalies in the boom-and-bust cyclical growth of the American economy.
The key difference from today, however, is that after the 1929 crash ushered in the unprecedented suffering of the Great Depression, there were upper class leaders who were actually embarrassed about it, who still had a sense of noblesse oblige and realized that their continued sway over the American people required reforms to save their corporate system from the anger of the majority.
We think of this working majority today as the middle class. But this was not always the case. For most of U.S. history the term “middle class” meant the self-employed shopkeepers and professionals who stood in the middle between the working class and the wealthy upper class. Except for the most highly paid skilled craftsmen, hardly any working families were considered middle class. The poor were not seen as separate from the working class because most of the working class were poor.
With the rise of industry replacing crafts with machinery run by unskilled workers, however, came also the rise of demands by these workers for decent lives, for an end to child labor that stunted children’s growth, for an end to 12 and 14 hour work shifts in factories, for time to properly raise and enjoy their families, for a wage that could support a family, for free elementary and secondary education for children regardless of income – in brief, for human rights. Sound familiar?
All these were won through hard and often bloody struggle, not through depending on the charity of the upper class. Charity by the upper class was seldom forthcoming and then only as long as their own high standard of living and privileges were not affected. Such upper class indifference forced working people in the large industries to organize themselves into labor unions. These people organized along broader industrial lines, rather than along skilled crafts that had left most of the industrial workers unorganized and outside the old American Federation of Labor (AFL). United as the Congress of Industrial Workers (CIO) in the 1930s, the industrial workers fought the corporate upper class for their rights. In the course of that struggle, they became a strong political force that backed and pushed for the reforms of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
It seemed that American working families, the overwhelming majority of the population, had finally won access to what had earlier been admitted by the upper class “Founders” as “inalienable” in the Declaration of Independence – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (the latter wisely being substituted for the originally drafted “pursuit of property” in order to win popular support for the Revolution). A new middle class was being born. It is that middle class, the self-improving embodiment of what became known as “the American Dream,” that is under deadly attack today by the very system that once nourished it.
What does this have to do with the mortgage crisis and the pillaging of working people’s home equity? Persistent unemployment? Environmental pollution, species destruction, and climate change? Europe’s debt crisis, labor unrest, the crucial difference between China’s and India’s growth, and Japan’s nuclear devastation? All of these have to do with the system of corporate power, and it is not just about individual greed. It is about a system orchestrated culturally around materialistic greed as a way of life, of consuming corporate goods and services and extolling the unlimited accumulation of personal wealth, and of the top 1% of America who not only have long benefited by this system; they cannot conceive of any other.
In the future, we will see why and how this world view is manifested in their actions and increasingly desperate and conflicting policies for maintaining their rule. Often, they are not even aware of the economic and social forces acting behind the backs of their leading actors.
And, hopefully, we will also find some humor in the tale. We need it.
Next week: The Middle Class’s Twin Dilemma: The Top 1% and the Liberals’ Keynesian Dream.
© Gerard Colby.
Gerard Colby is the author of DuPont: Behind The Nylon Curtain (Prentice Hall, 1974), DuPont Dynasty (Lyle Stuart, 1984), and with Charlotte Dennett of THY WILL BE DONE, The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil (HarperCollins, 2005). He has taught international economics, political science and the history of Latin American political economy at various colleges, has lectured throughout the U.S. and Brazil, and has done investigative journalism for national and local news services for over 30 years. From 2004 to 2009 he served as President of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 of the Professional and Technical Division of the United Auto Workers.
[Photo from Flickr by bogieharmond]