“Class warfare.” Lately, it is breaking out everywhere. The phrase, that is. Over the last 10 days commentators, pundits, comedians, and, finally, Democratic politicians have gotten into the game. Elizabeth Warren, the new wonder woman Democratic Senatorial candidate in Massachusetts went viral with her plain-spoken rebuke of the Republicans’ use of the term “class warfare.” In an amateur video made by one of her volunteers she explained how factory owners benefit from the roads and the schools that the rest of us pay for: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.”
And just last Wednesday, in a move that seemed inspired by the popularity of Warren’s Youtube video, Obama gave an inspiring speech in front of a bridge to somewhere — the home districts of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell: “There’s a lot of people saying, ‘this is class warfare.’ Well, if saying that billionaires should pay the same share in taxes as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare, then you know what? I’m a warrior for the middle class.” Obama has been urged by dozens of columnists, including Sally Kohn of the Washington Post and Chris Weigant of Huffington Post to take the language of class warfare seriously, and to fight hard on the side of the not-rich.
Why? Because there is a war going on, and the working- and middle-classes are losing. Last week America’s most widely read economist, Paul Krugman, gave us four reasons why “class warfare” is top down, rather than bottom up. You can see a great visual distillation of Krugman’s point with this cartoon from Clay Bennet.
It turns out that this kind of class warfare—the kind that comes from the top down — is pretty bad for the economy. You can read from the IMF report that shows the negative economic effects of the wealth gap, or take a gander at new September CIA rankings for income inequality. The survey is based on the “Lorenz curve,” in which “cumulative family income is plotted against the number of families arranged from the poorest to the richest.” It ranks the US as 39th worst out of 136 counties surveyed. The people of Yemen, Pakistan, Poland, Egypt, and Vietnam, just to name a few, suffer less disparity between the rich and the poor than we do.
In the Wealth of Nations, the economist Adam Smith weighed in on the problem of the rich accumulating too much profit. He railed against the “merchants and masters” who complained about high wages, but not their own high profits: “Our merchants and masters complain much of the bad effects of high wages in raising the price and lessening the sale of goods. They say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits. They are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains. They complain only of those of other people.”
In the meantime I find the invocation of the term “class warfare” completely fascinating, in part, because, as columnist Robert Mentzer argues, the term “class warfare” actually gets us talking about class. On the other hand, when the term is used, it is usually referencing some change in wealth distribution, and not actual warfare—nothing akin to real battles, pitch-forks, or heads on a pike. When was the last time that the working class was organized enough to do any real bodily harm to the capitalist class?
The last time the term “class warfare” was used often and sincerely to refer to a violent revolution by workers was during the Gilded Age in the US and Britain. The best example comes from the the son-in-law of Karl Marx, Edward Aveling, in a published lectured titled “The Curse of Capital”:
You will ask: ‘Will you not have a frightful struggle and will it not end in bloodshed?’ Possibly. I do not know. ‘Is it not setting class against class?’ Yes; and Socialists mean to devote their lives to setting class against class. We preach class warfare. We hope it may not be a warfare of bullets and steel, but if it is class warfare even this, alas! is possible. It is a warfare of the labour class against the capitalist class.
That was some real class warfare being proposed by an English radical at the height of the trade union movement in Britian, in 1884. But good luck finding similar moments in American history.
Here, most working-class radicals have stayed away from violence. One of America’s most violent working-class incidents, the Haymarket Affair, took place in the midst of a massive (and, we should remember, successful) national movement for the eight-hour work-day. After two workers were killed at a protest outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in May of 1886, Chicago anarchists called for a rally to protest the deaths of the slain workers in Chicago’s Haymarket square. During the rally, which had been calm and peaceful up to that point, someone threw a pipe bomb at a police line. Police and some of the protesters opened fire, killing crowd members as well as other officers. Eight anarchists were tried, found guilty, and hung.
Just before he was hung, the anarchist August Spies shouted, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” The Haymarket Affair was one of those moments in which class warfare became truly violent, and from the top-down as well. Reading the last words of the Chicago anarchists, who were likely falsely accused, poorly tried, and tragically executed, I am led to reflect upon the execution of Troy Davis last week. After he was killed, my friend Robert Perkinson, who is a prison scholar and the author of Texas Tough, posted a photograph in his facebook feed from the 1930s of a banner hanging out of a window in New York City that read: A MAN WAS LYNCHED YESTERDAY.
While he was not actively engaged in class warfare, Troy Davis is a casualty in the war on the working class. His execution is just one more terrible reminder that when class warfare becomes violent, that violence tends to flow from the top down. As Cynthia Tucker wrote in Grio last week, “If Troy Davis had been a high school principal or a funeral home director or the proprietor of a soul food restaurant, he probably wouldn’t have landed in the middle of an investigation into a police officer’s murder. Had he been a member of Savannah’s black middle-class, he likely would have been treated with a bit more deference by the criminal justice system.”
For many of us who believe that the death penalty is wrong, and that Davis’s execution was particularly wrong, it has been a sobering week. We can take some comfort from the fact that the national discourse has turned powerfully and seriously towards class.
As for class warfare, most of us who are fighting with, for, and in the working class are not about to issue—or answer—a call to arms. But if it is a war of words that is in the offing we have a lot to say. We will not be silent.
Kathy M. Newman