Class and Conflict
CLASS AND CONFLICT
Most of us become uncomfortable when there’s talk of class divisions in the United States. It’s long been viewed as largely irrelevant to our society, even alien to our way of life.
Pursue the matter and expect several explanations for this. Class awareness, we’re informed, is something that has forever defined European societies, long pre-occupied as they were with inflexible stratifications – royalty, aristocracy, serfs, peasants, etc. Those who left there and came to America rejected these rigid classifications and understood how liberating that was once they embraced our free and open society. We in America were eager to differentiate ourselves from Europe and therefore determined that its class structures would not be allowed to invade our shores.
To acknowledge class and recognize class barriers might force us to admit to class antagonisms, perhaps even the prospect of class warfare – surely not a happy state of affairs. Americans recoiled when left wing ideologies in Europe took up the cause of the working classes and, in many instances, supported violence and broad social upheaval to achieve a radical reshuffling of society, the bottom layers rising to the top. Accordingly, Marxism, Socialism, Communism were viewed as unwelcome, invasive intrusions into the United States.
A belief in American individualism represented a formidable barrier to class awareness. It held that a person was to be judged according to his distinct character and talents. Here in America every individual had been liberated, was free to define himself and not be limited by pre-existing categories.
America’s long standing commitment to equality clearly precluded class hierarchies. With “all men are created equal” as a bedrock belief, class divisions could be viewed as artificial and transient constraints. Even when distinctions were self-evident, as when some were indisputably privileged, others demonstrably disadvantaged, they could be explained away. The presence of dynamic levels of social mobility enabled everyone to improve their prospects, elevate themselves, thereby confirming just how porous class divisions actually were in the U.S.
Finally, if these arguments against class consciousness did not persuade, there was always the unmistakable presence of the middle classes, a gathering of the legions of the satisfied and the successful, those neither rich nor poor, neither arrogant nor discontented. An ever expanding middle class society was America’s self-assured response to sharp class divisions elsewhere.
It should not surprise us that all the long serving explanations offered above were in part a smokescreen, an effort to mask and deflect attention away from the realities of our history. Without dispute the lower rungs of our society have consistently been well populated: the poor have always been with us. Independent farmers, sturdy yeomen for a time were abundantly present but far more numerous over the years were indentured servants, slaves, farm workers, migratory laborers and share croppers. Proud, independent craftsmen and skilled workers have long been celebrated, but at all times one could count far more unskilled workers, day laborers, often unemployed, most earning subsistence wages at best. These groups did not consider the United States to be classless, were acutely aware of America’s sharp and seemingly unbridgeable social chasms. Often enough they encountered fierce and even armed resistance from employers supported by government authority when they organized unions, attempted to bargain for improved wages and working conditions in order to move up in society.
Those who occupied the top rungs of the social order and commanded a disproportionate share of the wealth might have made public pronouncements about the absence of classes in America, but they never, for a moment, believed it. It was largely a way, when challenged, of confirming the prescribed national narration and diverting attention away from their privileged status. Indeed, the aristocratic elites who controlled colonial America considered a European like hierarchical society to be a natural arrangement superior to any other form of societal organization. After the Revolution, many of these same folks spoke openly of a “natural aristocracy” and assumed it was they who rightfully occupied society’s ruling positions. Later on in the 19th Century, those at the top decried the “dangerous classes” at the bottom and did all they could to establish and maintain exclusive spheres for their “own kind” (country clubs, prep schools, social registers, debutante balls, etc.). They grew increasingly anxious because new immigrant waves would, they feared, augment the growing legions of “undeserving poor.”
At the same time the “thinking classes” applauded the likes of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner when they insisted that those occupying society’s upper strata fully deserved, as the fittest in the ongoing struggle for survival, their privileged positions. Class cleavages had by the turn of the 20th Century, become so severe that men like Teddy Roosevelt called for bold actions to heal the rift and avert open conflict.
In recent times it’s become much harder to overlook class differences or deny heightened class tensions. Pressures on the laboring classes have intensified, its members contending with the consequences of automation, globalization and ongoing wage stagnation, while incurring heavy personal indebtedness, sparse savings along with health insurance and pension insufficiencies. On the other hand, wealth inequality has reached epic proportions, as growing numbers of billionaires accumulate wealth at once unimagined levels. Current government policy implicitly acknowledges this severe imbalance, but oddly enough seeks a legislative remedy that only further adds to wealth accumulation by the upper strata, somehow hoping that this will result in a spillover effect (“trickle down”) and nourish those below far less well off. Most emphatically the situation at this point calls not for merely a “trickle” but rather a torrent.
Finally, let us consider the middle classes usually viewed as the essential ballast, the stabilizer of our social system. Its numbers, we’re now informed, are thinning. Those still within its ranks are increasingly anxious about maintaining their position, worried even more about their children’s ability to do so. Current publicity about tax reform emphasizes major support for the middle class, but few of its provisions seem designed to address the problem.
All along, we’ve been discouraged from speaking in terms of class and class conflict, cautioned that it’s “un-American” and that there`s little truth to any such analysis. Still, it’s hard to avoid the fact that such assurances are a balm, that abundant evidence throughout our history contradicts such a conclusion. We need, therefore, to unmask these deep enduring rifts even as we search for possible remedies.