Thursday, January 12, 2012

Class Conflict 101

More See Conflict Between Rich and Poor:

Conflict between rich and poor now eclipses racial strain and friction between immigrants and the native-born as the greatest source of tension in American society, according to a survey released Wednesday.

About two-thirds of Americans now believe there are “strong conflicts” between rich and poor in the United States, a survey by the Pew Research Center found, a sign that the message of income inequality brandished by the Occupy Wall Street movement and pressed by Democrats may be seeping into the national consciousness.

The share was the largest since 1992, and represented about a 50 percent increase from the 2009 survey, when immigration was seen as the greatest source of tension. In that survey, 47 percent of those polled said there were strong conflicts between classes.

“Income inequality is no longer just for economists,” said Richard Morin, a senior editor at Pew Social & Demographic Trends, which conducted the latest survey. “It has moved off the business pages into the front page.”

Well, I'm not sure it was ever just on the "business page" as much as inequality has traditionally been framed by other demographic differences. In other words, class issues have always been the driving force behind racial conflict, gender conflict, age conflict, immigrant conflict, and so forth.

What's changed is people are now recognizing that it is class stratification, more than anything, which creates conflict in society.

Traditionally, class has been less a part of the American political debate than it has been in Europe. Still, the concept has long existed for ordinary Americans.

“Americans have always acknowledged that there are Rockefellers and the lunch-bucket guy,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center, based at the University of Chicago. “But they believe it is not a permanent caste, but a transitory condition. The real game-changer would be if they give up on that.”

Going by the survey’s results, they have not. Forty-three percent of those surveyed said the rich became wealthy “mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education,” a number unchanged since 2008.

This would suggest false consciousness, but the article doesn't quote from the rest of the survey on this topic: namely, that 46% now believe the rich became wealthy "because they know they right people or were born into the right family." That may not have changed much either since 2008, but it suggests a solid plurality recognize that ascription is more important than merit.

What is particularly noteworthy is the sweep of recognition regarding class conflict. The usual demographics no longer hold true.

The demographics were surprising, experts said. While blacks were still more likely than whites to see serious conflicts between rich and poor, the share of whites who held that view increased by 22 percentage points, more than triple the increase among blacks. The share of blacks and Hispanics who held the view grew by single digits.

What is more, people at the upper middle of the income ladder were most likely to see conflict. Seventy-one percent of those who earned from $40,000 to $75,000 said there were strong conflicts between rich and poor, up from 47 percent in 2009. The lowest income bracket, less than $20,000, changed the least.

The grinding economic downturn may be contributing to the heightened perception of conflict between rich and poor, said Christopher Jencks, a professor of social policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“Rich and poor aren’t terribly distinct from secure and unemployed,” he said.

On the political spectrum, those who are usually most aware of inequality and the difference between rich and poor tend to be Democrats and Independents. What's surprising in this survey, and now playing out in the primary races currently being held, is that Republicans and conservatives are "playing the class card" as well.

And in extremely vicious ways too.

Mitt Romney’s rivals this week intensified their attacks over business failures that happened on his watch at the investment firm Bain Capital. But even the successes touted by Romney’s campaign involved some painful decisions and layoffs.

Both the successes and the failures reveal the candidate’s faith in “creative destruction,” the notion that the new must relentlessly replace the old so that companies and the economy can become more efficient.

Like Romney’s work on all the businesses Bain invested in, the primary goal with these companies wasn’t job creation but making them more profitable and valuable. This meant embracing aspects of capitalism that have unsettled some Americans: laying off workers when necessary, expanding overseas to chase profits and paying top executives significantly more than employees on lower rungs.

Supporters of Romney rival Newt Gingrich released a video on Wednesday accusing the former private-equity financier of laying off workers and profiting from the results. Yet Romney has never shied away from proclaiming his belief that job cuts are sometimes necessary.

The video, by the Super Pac Wining Our Future, is a truly astonishing piece of work considering the pac is associated with Republican/conservative causes, and is being used to attack fellow Republicans/conservatives. Romney ("When Mitt Came To Town" subtitled "The King Bain") is variously referred to as a "vulture," a "looter," and a "bag man for Wall Street goons." By other Republicans.

While others have written more eloquently about the splintering of the Republican party, the video appears to be manna from heaven for Democrats.

Mr. Romney’s own words have stoked the rivals’ fires, giving Democrats more grist. Republicans mocked him for telling New Hampshire voters that he, too, has feared “pink slips,” calling the claim implausible for the Harvard-educated son of a multimillionaire governor. And they pounced on his statement, captured on videotape, that “I like being able to fire people,” though they took it out of context since he was complaining about companies that do not provide good service, specifically insurance companies.
True, but like 2004, when John Kerry's "I voted for it, before I voted against it" was taken out of context and hung around his neck for the duration of the campaign, Romney's statement regarding firing people will no doubt resonate, fairly or unfairly, given the class conflict bubbling throughout the nation. I would guess you'll hear his firing statement ad nauseum from now until November.

But back to the video, a last thought: in some ways, the growth of these Super Pacs, a direct fallout from the Citizens United Supreme Court decision two years ago, is creating an irony I don't think many people saw coming: we now have wealthy political donors, exploiting down and out workers on film, to beat up on other wealthy political donors.

The social conflict isn't only unidirectional (the poor v. the rich); we now have a case where the rich may be turning on each other; the rich eating the rich, and to the victor goes the spoils.

We seem to be in state where class consciousness appears to be hardening: the rich v. the poor, the poor v. the middle class, the middle class rebelling against the wealthy, the wealthy turning on one another.

You know who predicted these things 150 years ago, and is probably having a hardy laugh right now from the great beyond? None other than the evil Karl f'ing Marx.

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