I am reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for the first time. It is a painful read. I am only halfway through the book physically, which puts me to just before the first World War. Thematically, over and over, I am struck with how close at hand poverty is to most peoples at most times. Plutocrats and governments working together to convince the rest of everybody to fight the plutocrat’s fights, convincing us of the separations between us and the inevitability of our fate.
I don’t want to spoil the book for those who have not read it, but suffice it to say that this country’s wars and infrastructure were built by the blood of the poor, and there was more in common between the races and between men and women than there was keeping them apart. But kept apart they were, by government and corporate and church promoted racism and sexism and jingoism. The millions of white poor and black slaves in the antebellum South had more in common with each other than they did with the few, rich, white landowners who kept them down. The male manufacturers who struggled for a fair work day had much in common with the female manufactures who sought the same. But sexism kept them mostly apart and kept them at odds with each other for the right to work. The Irish and Italians, once marginalized and kept down and beaten by nativists, did the same to the Eastern Europeans who flooded the labor markets at the turn of the century.
The great moment of progressivism came and went, dying shortly after the regulator orgy of the FDR administration, and chipped away, bit by bit, over the last half a century, until today, where right to work has become more important to us than the right to go home for the day. We reward the plutocrats for taking risks which endanger our economy and our lives, for we have managed the delightful trick of outsourcing the worst of manufacturing to other parts of the world. Enough of us own little plots of land that we can almost afford, that we do not mind that someone else is working the 16 hour day in the factory that, a century ago, we would have had to do.
And we are still divided, the progressives, the liberals, the radicals. Divided over what is the most important focus. Caught up in issues of race or feminism, being sex-positive, organic food sourcing, eliminating war. Good causes all, but they hide the issues of class that are the real dividing line between us. We shy away from the phrase “class warfare.” It is a dirty word, a scary word, conjuring up vague images of rioting and beheaded French royals. But it is class that keeps us apart. We believe the plutocratic lie that people deserve what they get, and if that is ungodly wealth, above and beyond the needs of anyone, than that is acceptable. Similarly, we believe that if what people get is death and poverty, obesity and homelessness, drugs and an early death, than that is also what they deserve for not being one of the wealthy.
This is a cold world we have created for ourselves, and growing colder with each year as more wealth is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands, and so few Americans desire to do anything about that. We relish our fate of just enough, count ourselves lucky that it could be worse, and refuse to believe that anyone is just taking it all off the top, because that would mean referring to ourselves as losers. That guy beside you in the BMW? Did they work harder, are they a better person? Would they have any road to drive on if the guy making $10 an hour didn’t build it for him? Do they realize that the guy making them a latte each morning has to work two jobs to support his children, and hopes to hell that the car doesn’t break down because that will mean putting more money on a credit card just to get work?
The central question we should be asking ourselves, distracted as we are with less important differentials between us (i.e. sex, race, political affiliation, etc.), is whether all these struggles between us are really class struggles, and if we resolved the class problem, would it also resolve the other? And if it would, then why are we talking about anything else?