A 1%er Looks at Inequality

This is a presentation Oscar Mayer heir Chuck Collins, author of Born on Third Base, gave on November 9th. At age 26, Collins made the brave decision to give his fortune away. He currently works as a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC. In his leisure time, he works to educate 1%ers about inequality and their ethical obligations to society. He has campaigned heavily with Bill Gates senior and other billionaires to retain the estate tax and to oppose tax cuts for the wealthy.

Most of the presentation concerns his efforts to challenge the views of other 1%ers on privilege and the grave threat inequality poses to American democracy and the planet.

The Q&As, in which he talks about Donald Trump’s election upset are the best part of the talk. Collins credits Trump’s victory to the dismissive way Democrats view and talk about the working class (ie “the deplorables”). He highly praises  the late Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus for its exploration of this issue.

The best question is when an audience member asks if true equality is possible under capitalism.

Q&A’s start at 41:00

Has the Left Abandoned the Working Class?

working class

Liberals and progressives frequently bemoan the absence of blue collar workers in their meetings and protests. It’s pretty hard to organize a movement large enough to take the streets with only 20% of the population. Estimating the size of the US working class is difficult. According to the Department of Labor, roughly 60% of Americans work for an hourly wage. Approximately 2/3  of them work for less than a minimum wage worker earned in 1968. Add roughly 20% to those figures, the true proportion of Americans who are either temporarily or permanently unemployed.

Traditionally the unemployed and working poor opt out of politics, though roughly half will vote every four years during presidential election years. Those who do vote mainly choose right wing fundamentalists who enact policies (such as cutting unemployment benefits, scrapping public services, and gutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) that are harmful to their economic interests,.

As Wilhelm Reich notes in his 1933 Mass Psychology of Fascism, fascism and reactionary politics have always exerted a powerful attraction for men (and some women) from authoritarian working class families. Karl Rove and the spin doctors behind Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck and Fox News all know this and cleverly play on these sentiments. They are also masters at painting liberals and progressives as politically correct intellectuals whose main goal in life is to moralize and dictate lifestyle choices for low-income Americans.

The late Joe Bageant, author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, feels the organized left plays into the hand of right wing demagogues. Based on my own working class background, I agree. Because progressives fail to recognize the firmly entrenched US class divisions, they always end up on the wrong side of lifestyle campaigns. By jumping onto the anti-smoking, anti-obesity and anti-gun bandwagon, they only solidify their reputation as the politically correct lifestyle police.

The US Class Divide: the Real Culture War

The corporate media likes to depict the US as a profoundly polarized nation consisting of red and blue states. Red states are supposedly populated by highly religious, family-centered conservatives, and blue ones by social libertines who value community welfare over individual liberty. The concept, which total misrepresents the broad diversity of American society, is yet another example of mind-bending propaganda designed to keep us from uniting against our real enemy: the corporate state.

I agree with Bageant that the real cultural divide is between the college educated and the 80% who don’t attend college. Owing to limited social contact between these two groups, many educated Americans fail to appreciate the existence of discrete working class culture, with its own distinct values and language. Spin doctors like Karl Rove know all about working class culture. Why else would he remake George W Bush into a plain talking simpleton who refused to read books?

What many on the Left also fail to recognize is that it’s not just the police and slick ideological propaganda that keep the capitalists in power. These two forces are aided by an army of middle class “helping professionals” – teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, social workers, doctors, psychologists, etc – who play a crucial role in instructing the working class in appropriate and politically correct behavior.

This dynamic frequently gives blue collar Americans the sense that educated professionals are demeaning them – particularly when they moralize about smoking, junk food, changing lightbulbs and the evils of guns.

Courting the Working Class

Can progressives and liberals win the working class back from the New Right? I believe they can, but only if they’re genuine in their desire to do so.

They will definitely need a totally new approach to organizing that prioritizes the nitty gritty hardships faced by low income Americans. People struggling with joblessness, homelessness and/or starvation wages will find it really hard to get excited about climate change and electoral reform.

Moreover, low income and unemployed activists are going to have real time survival needs that more well-off activists will be forced to address. In the 1930s, coalitions that incorporated the unemployed formed welfare committees to help fellow activists with food, clothing, child care and even temporary accommodation.

Progressives will also need to be far more sensitive to the cultural differences associated with social class. In the early feminist movement we did this by conducting meetings in fishbowls. Low income and minority women began the meeting at the inside of the fishbowl, while more affluent educated women sat in the outer circle and observed and listened.

Finally progressives need to take a hard look at their association with “lifestyle” campaigns that low income workers view as personal freedom issues. They will also need to reexamine their dogmatic stance around non-violence. Non-violent resistance is an alien concept in most working class communities. This relates in part to authoritarian family life and, particularly in minority communities, constant exposure to police violence.

photo credit: Tymtoi via photopin cc

Deer Hunting with Jesus

deer hunting with jesus

Deer Hunting with Jesus

by Joe Bageant

Book Review

Deer Hunting With Jesus is a graphic account of the abandonment of the white working class by the American left. And how this left the door wide open for right wing fundamentalists to claim their allegiance.

The book’s format is largely autobiographical, as the (now deceased) college-educated journalist Bageant describes his return to his working class roots in Winchester Virginia. He’s dismayed by the deterioration of living standards. The people he grew up with in the fifties and sixties no longer have any job security, nor input into their pay or working conditions, nor employer-sponsored health or workers compensation benefits. Yet instead of being angry with the factory that exploits and demeans them on the daily basis, his former schoolmates have been conditioned to deflect this anger onto educated liberals.

According to Bageant, class warfare is very real in the US. Unfortunately it isn’t between workers and the employers who exploit and demean them. It’s between the educated and uneducated. The goal of Deer Hunting With Jesus is to examine exactly how the white working poor of the rural south and Texas have come to internalize key values of the gangster capitalist class. For example

  • Labor unions are bad because they have priced Americans out of jobs.
  • Entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, food stamps) are handouts that encourage laziness.
  • The rest of the world envies us (these are people who are one paycheck away from the street) and wants to steal our freedom.
  • Wars are good because countries get out of line and need to be put in their place.
  • Wall Street should take over Social Security because they’re better at managing money than bureaucrats.

The Advantages of a Cheap, Unquestioning, Compliant Work Force

The conservative PR specialists who spawned Fox News and talk radio personalities like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have been extremely skilled in exploiting the fear and ignorance of this demographic. An ignorance, according to Bageant, that Republicans have deliberately created by systematically dismantling the public education system. There’s nothing the corporate elite likes better than a cheap, unquestioning, compliant labor force that pays high rents and medical bills.

According to Bageant, approximately half of all Americans are illiterate, semi-literate or functionally literate. He breaks down the statistics as follows:

  • Approximately 30% of Americans can’t read at all.
  • Another 10% can’t read well enough to fill out a job application or understand food labels.
  • Another 12.5% can’t read well enough to understand a business contract.

Liberals Feel Uncomfortable Around the Working Class

Redirecting blue collar anger against liberals has been incredibly easy, as the working poor have far more contact with rich Republican business leaders and slum lords – in small town churches, taverns, and fraternal organizations like the Elks. Liberals feel uncomfortable around them and shun them socially.

Their only contact with liberals is when they go to a doctor, lawyer, social worker, or parent teacher conference. Where they are often talked down to and insulted. Unintentionally of course. Most educated people are unaware that they do this. Based on my own working class background, I can confirm how common this is.

The Scots-Irish Roots of Fundamentalism

The highlights of the book are the chapters in which Bageant discusses the Calvinist Scots-Irish heritage of what he describes as “Middle America” and the major blunder liberal Democrats made in leaping on the gun control wagon.

From the early 1700s, America has always fostered two parallel belief systems, the Yankee liberalism that characterized the New England colonies and the fundamentalist Calvinism that would come to characterize the southern colonies.

How Democrats Bungled the Gun Control Issue

Given my personal opposition to gun control, this chapter was my favorite. According to Bageant the only good call the Republicans every made was to side against the gun control lobby. Unlike the Democrats, they understand the deep reverence for guns and meat hunting that is passed down over generations in rural communities. While urban liberals with no experience with guns – and who never have to take the bus alone after a graveyard shift – typically decide they know what’s best for everyone.

This section includes detailed analysis of Congressional Budget Office research about the decline of gun violence and women’s use of firearms to protect themselves against sexual assault.

1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey was totally mainstream and pro-Vietnam war. It’s really sad how radical his views on gun control sound in 2014:

“The right of citizens to bear arms is just one more guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard against the tyranny which now appears remote in America, but which historically has proved to be always possible.”

Link to Bageant’s website for other great books and articles: http://www.joebageant.com/joe/