One of the curious fables in the Book of Genesis involves the episode involving the Curse of Ham. The story goes that the patriarch Noah had been planting, and one day drank too much wine, passing out naked in his tent. Ham, the mythical father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and later told his two brothers, Shem and Japheth, who then took their own cloaks and walked backward to Noah, covering him so they would not see. When Noah later woke, he somehow knew of Ham’s transgression, and he said the Canaanites would be cursed to be servants of Shem and Japheth.
A prominent interpretation of this myth is that it performed a foundational ethnocentric justification for the patriarchal lineage Noah, and justified the racial subjugation of Africa to Europe and Asia. But it shows another curious underside to the story, that the son who transgressed and acquired forbidden knowledge, suffered for his knowledge – a common mythical theme. But the two obedient sons, motivated by shame and duty, conspire to cover up the patriarch, and hence carry on his legacy.
I’ve always thought this myth told us something important about power’s ability to distort perceptions. Those in thrall to power have a knack of really believing anything in order to comply with the laws of power. They will go through all manner of acrobatics to cover up the naked truth of anything in the name of duty, honor, or obedience. Knowledge of this obedience to patriarchal authority persists, while simultaneously wiping fingerprints from the crime. Karl Marx, and Ludwig Feuerbach before him, saw in religion the mythical obfuscation of social reality, the tensions of which were sublimated, justified, and given an externalized story with which to relieve anxiety – which is basically the Marxist definition of ideology- a mendacious story energized by the corruption of class consciousness keeping the masses ignorant of their condition. Ideology takes continuous energy to perform, maintain, and repeat every day, requiring a semi-conscious act of walking backwards to put their cloak on Big Daddy and propitiate his mighty law – especially when it’s unjust.
So what happened to the language of class struggle?
One subject that is forbidden today in mainstream discourse is class and wealth inequality, despite the fact that this is the BIG STORY of our age. It is apparent everywhere around us. Prominent main stream capitalist economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Mark Blythe, Thomas Piketty, Robert Reich, Paul Mason, and even Jeffrey Sachs warn that wealth inequality and the march of the plutocratic class are rapidly heading, by end of his century, into a dynastic neofeudal world without ice caps. It is the big economic story of the century, yet this has not become mainstream political discussion with few exceptions – which I shall return to later.
Class in America has always been a contentious issue because we are dominated by this ideology called the American Dream based on the myth of America as a land of opportunity and social mobility. Plutocrats in the 19th Century used this myth/ideology to lure cheap labor to the frontier to build the railroads, forge the steel and prepare the land for resource exploitation. It was a convenient ideology for them that also served to cover up the fact that the wealth of America was, by and large, created on the backs of a slave and caste system – through chattel slavery, debt slavery, indentured servitude, the genocide of the frontier, and later the servitude of new immigrant workers. True wealth was then, and is to this day is transacted mostly through inheritance. And it just so happens that those generations of wealth, the landed gentry, remain today, very white. So, it’s an ideology. As George Carlin remarked, “We call it the American Dream because you’ve got to be asleep to believe it.” And this is precisely how ideology functions, it works when we are unaware, when we are sleepwalking, when we sidestep the notion of class altogether. The hidden topic of class is one of the original sins of America. Nancy Isenberg, in her book White Trash, argues that without confronting class, the hopes for democracy will always be unfulfilled. (1)
Our economic policies and ideologies, however, are going in the opposite direction. Neoliberalism has eradicated any acknowledgment of class with its aim of a libertarian wonderland of strong businesses and weak government. The effect of neoliberalism, and in fact the aim, as David Harvey has argued in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, is to restore and expand the power of the aristocratic class. It is hard to dispute that that is precisely what has occurred. Tax policy, trade policy, energy policy – all enhance the power and wealth and influence of the top one percent of the one percent. And there are so far no signs of slowing this down. In fact, under a Trump agenda, this hoovering up of public assets and siphoning off of wealth from the poor and working classes is bound to enter a hyper drive under a great big mendacity called austerity where millionaires, billionaires, and those who worship them, will tell the public that the people cannot afford public services while they get their own tax cuts and subsidies. They will also tell you that companies are doing so badly in America that they cannot afford to pay workers living wages. This, despite the fact that the average CEO is paid 443 times the amount of their front line workers. Last year, Wall Street bonuses topped out at 27 billion dollars (just bonuses – not salaries and not dividends or capital gains or other assets), while the total amount paid to all minimum wage workers in this country was 14 billion dollars. (2) There are all kinds of astonishing statistics around this. Here’s a few more – real wages for the working classes have not grown in almost forty years. The Walmart family is doing so well that alone their wealth is more than the bottom forty-three percent of this country. As of today, 8 people have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world, some 3.6 billion people.
Economists pretend like this system is complicated, but this fact is really rather simple. It is all an effort to not see the naked truth, and to put a new cloak on Noah, and shame anyone who says different.
So what happened to the language of class struggle? This is a long story with many steps, too long for my purposes here. But it suffices to say that organized labor, which was the institution of the working party, has had a tough go of it in US history. Communism, Socialism and Anarchism proper have never gotten traction in America, and have posed no real threat to the capitalist class in over a century. Chris Hedges documents this history of failed revolutions from Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs to the Black Panthers in his The Death of the Liberal Class, which is good reading.
What concerns me here is the social psychology of a more recent phenomena. Any mainstream discussion around class consciousness seems to have ended almost fifty years ago in the 1960s, when the American culture had vanquished radicals in two Nixon terms, backlashism, the Southern Strategy, the disheartening and dispiriting Cold War and Vietnam War, counterrevolutionary tactics from the FBI, CIA, Governor Reagan, and the growing savvy of the culture industry to appropriate and banalize cultural dissent. We became a Debordian society of spectacle, where talk of being dissolved into having which dissolved to appearing. Society dissolved away, becoming mere commodities, a system of objects, and a final assault on alienating human subjectivity itself. And along with it, went all class consciousness. This is how we got from talk of a Great Society, a government by and for the people, to “Morning in America” and “government is the problem.” This is how politicians turned from servants of the public to saboteurs of the public, the valets of the corporate state. The power of the public was auctioned off in a fire sale, subjecting everything under heaven and earth, even our ideas, to the cultural logic of late capitalism.
The Simulation of Class
The conspiracy of surfaces did many things, but it was mostly smoke and mirrors that disguised class while reinforcing both class and the mastery of the corporation as a social institution. This level of postmodernism gave us a cynical language where we are hesitant to make any claims about reality, and at its worst, dissolved into cultural relativism and consumer culture.
Before the epistemological apocalypse called postmodernism, class struggle through dialectical materialism was the stuff of history itself. Afterward, we were timid to make any claims at all. Social institutions like unions that held the promise for democratic socialism (that is, by definition, by and for working class people) were eroded. In the 1950s, 34 percent of American workers were in unions. In the 2000s, this was reduced to 9 percent.
So what happened to class struggle? I propose that late capitalism has shifted away from a dialectical struggle between the old embedded liberalism of the working class against the corporate elite managerial class and has instead become a cultural tug-of-war between corporate conservatives versus corporate liberals, each resenting the other in an entrenched feedback loop, and reinforcing, never changing, the economics guiding it all. What we have today is class without economics. We have a war of image and value, a war of appearances. We have only a mere simulation of class struggle.
So we have conservative populists, who think of themselves as the humble, honest, simple folk of real America. They identify themselves with their products – their boots, trucks, Walmart shopping, country music, guns and Christian family values. They resent liberals, who live on the coasts and are not “real Americans” and who they stereotype as smug, gay, selfish, bookish, economically powerful latte-drinking elites who are ruining the country with help of their socialist Ivy League professors. They think liberals ruined God’s country, ruined the Jeffersonian pastoral dignity of the family farm, ruined family values with their libertine pop stars swapping spit on MTV, and so forth. They think that all social problems have to do with liberals, “vote Republican to get even with Wall Street. (3)” Thomas Frank writes further:
The situation may be paradoxical, but it is also universal. For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.” (4)
What the right wing populist, (voiced by pundits like Ann Coulter), is raging against – they do not realize – is against a corporate state which has the mere appearance of lefty hipsters and beats that were decades ago appropriated. Today’s liberals are just more corporate people, like conservatives themselves. They don’t realize that there is no Left left, there is no real Left actually there – just a banal, hollow corporate simulation of the left conjured up by the culture industry in Hollywood and Madison Avenue and the latte-sipping liberal corporations of Silicon Valley.
It’s an amazing paradox in the body politic, that in their conservative resentment for the state of global capitalism, they move right, and then further right, and then even further. Moving right is the only move that much of the country knows, and in their effort to punish their villains, the liberals – who they blame for the downfall of everything – they essentially vote to further purge public institutions and cut taxes for the one percent, which furthers their misery all the more.
The right functions on a reactionary basis. They consider anyone just a tick towards moderation a radical. The right today is so very radical that Ronald Reagan may be far too liberal for them. Obama, who governed as a centrist and sought to negotiate on some mythical common ground with the right, found a Republican Party who had no interest in collaborating on policy. This represents a government that is not grounded in reality, but in politics of tribalism and identity. It is, I claim, not a real party system, but an ersatz party system, a pale simulation of a politics. This is the effect that late capitalism has on politics in general – it is a kind of impotent simulation of politics because there is really no authentic political opposition. Sheldon Wolin called it an inverted totalitarianism. I myself see no need to qualify it with the word “inverted” – it’s just postmodern, and it has confined all alternatives to silence.
As craven and conniving as the Republicans are, the Democrats are equally complicit in this conspiracy. After the Reagan revolution, the democrats regrouped. But instead of opposing the Republicans by strengthening liberal institutions and big labor, they did something astonishing. They gave up. The old New Deal Democrats were liquidated by the Southern Leadership Council, headed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore. On his way to approving NAFTA, outsourcing America’s manufacturing, blowing up welfare, doubling down on the war on drugs, ending Glass-Steagall, had secretly planned with Gingrich to end social security (a plan stopped short by a scandal involving an infamous blue dress), and making quite a profit himself in politics, Clinton’s New Democrats turned the party of the people into a corporate shill. What did the reactionary party have to run against? Clinton turned the democrats into republicans, so the republicans went insane. Really, they all went insane, because no one was left to represent the forgotten classes, those who were losers of global capitalism.
The liberals, today the hollow remnants of the left, are just as deranged at the conservatives, who they resent right back. They think conservatives are a bunch of illiterate, racist, hawkish and Christian-fascist bigots who are going to bring on the Christian apocalypse. The culture industry is partly to blame for this stereotype as well – there is little acknowledgment of for forgotten middle of the country, which is rarely represented in the simulacra of mass media, and when they are, they are depicted as fanatical uncouth rubes of the woods. Much is said of the right’s terrible paranoia, but the liberals too have dug their paranoid stereotypic trenches in this simulacrum.
Undercutting all of this cultural battling however, the liberals and conservatives have both associated more with the corporation which as appropriated it. There is less concern for class struggle or economic justice, more comfortable themselves with civil rights with some friendlier capitalism. (5)
Ralph Nader was right in 2000 when he claimed that there was no longer any difference between the two parties, it was like choosing between Coke and Pepsi. I’d rather say its Coke and Diet Coke (Capitalism or Diet Capitalism: one give you cancer, one gives you diabetes then cancer, take your pick). The idea is that both parties are thoroughly corporate, and make up today what is firmly the duopoly of empire. This is why political discourse has devolved into social issues and personality politics – there is a basic agreement about the basics of the economy. Any dissent to this consensus is relegated to the fringes, and certainly not covered in corporate media. Democrats and Republicans have cozy good cop, bad cop routine, in which they offer only slightly different courses of neoliberal capitalism. Their rhetoric avoids any talk of class, preferring to talk in the euphemistic terms of dog-whistle capitalism – “job creation,” “innovation,” “growth” and “opportunity.” The illusion of choice has helped them consolidate power and continue siphoning wealth to the one percent.
Walter Benjamin wrote “behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” The proof is in the pudding. We suffer under a fascist revolution and a populist right exactly because we have not allowed ourselves a populist left. We have been asleep for decades, long hypnotized by this idea that we are a post-ideological, post-racial, classless society. The trick is to divert blame – find a scapegoat, and the liberals and conservatives can enter this mutually reinforcing feedback loop in which all social relations are discussed absent their economic context.
There is a fable that goes like this – a billionaire, a tea party guy and a liberal sit at a table where there are thirteen cookies. The billionaire takes twelve, then points to the last one and say to the tea party guy, “the liberal wants that one.”
This divide and conquer strategy has worked out really well, and has done so by not even talking about class, but has efficiently used race. Lyndon Johnson once remarked to Bill Moyers while traveling in the poor south, “I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it. If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” This pretty much explains the mentality that stopped Reconstruction short and lead to Plessy versus Ferguson, it was poor victimized whites resenting poor victimized blacks. And it has now led once again, externalizing this economic stress onto a demonized other – illegals, immigrants, terrorists – a politics of fear to distract us once again.
Again, it’s Shem and Japheth covering up the master – blame Ham instead.
Confronting Big Daddy / A New Hope
A recent article called “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich,” in The New Yorker examined a trend among the billionaire class of doomsday preppers. (6) These folks, mostly Wall Street and Silicon Valley types, are basically beset by any number of Neo-Malthusian anxieties -a knowledge that the reliance on computers and the over-complicated society we have created is really a tinderbox for social breakdown – particularly when public agencies are being eroded and confidence that the government could competently respond to crises either social or economic has evaporated. The thought is that if the government did not have the structure or organization to respond to Katrina, how could it respond to climate change, a massive outbreak, or some other public health crisis? They are also aware of great disparities of wealth and have what they call the fear of “torches and pitchforks.” This, of course, presumes that the people will eventually rouse from their sleepwalking and come to the Piketty realization that we are plummeting into not just environmental collapse but into a plutocratic neofeudal oligarchy set to hold onto every last bit of wealth and good land they can. So they aren’t necessarily using their money to prop up public institutions, nor running for government, nor supporting social democracy, but are instead creating “escape hatches” in secluded places, islands abroad, one even in an abandoned atomic age missile silo in Kansas (where, curiously in an unrelated matter, formally 95 percent of the world’s LSD was synthesized by William Pickard, now caught by the DEA and serving two life sentences). It’s kind of like a plan of Dr. Strangelove’s mine shaft gap. Perhaps they think it’s too late for social change. Are they nuts? Or are they so sane that everyone else looks nuts?
In reality, this whole thing is totally insane. Remember C.G. Jung’s quote that “people will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.” We need a culture that is willing to be sane, grow up and face realities. In terms of social health, we need a language of economics, to reckon with class and race in an honest way. We need a just answer for Ham’s unjust punishment, to commute his absurd sentence. What is it like emotionally to confront the patriarch, to name things what they really are?
I kind of imagine that Tennessee Williams gave us a version of the son’s rapprochement with his father in his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s about a dying aristocratic Southern patriarch everyone calls “Big Daddy.” Big Daddy has an older son he’s proud of who is willing to carry on his father’s legacy. And there is Brick (Paul Newman in the movie), the disgraced and hobbled former football star who is implied to be a closeted homosexual and may not give Big Daddy (Burl Ives) a grandson. Brick struggles with depression and alcoholism and suffers with his wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) who struggles with fits of hysteria. And it is clear in the play that everyone talks around the wealth and power of Big Daddy and compete for his attention and favor, hopeful to be heirs to his enormous land holdings. The film builds to an amazing climax and an emotional confrontation in the family basement where Big Daddy has stored vast troves of European antiquities – a storehouse of distant and dusty cultural memories, and heritage that Brick wants no part of. Brick breaks the family curse by confronting his father, who crumbles before him. Big Daddy, confronting the dread of his own mortality, confesses he too is tired of his own wealth and legacy, and feels repressed by its junk, able to admit that it was all somehow empty and mendacious … “there is nothing to live with but mendacity, is there?” (clip)
The psychodynamics of this confrontation are similar to the ones calling out for class and economic justice. Who among us can pierce the conspiracy of surfaces, the fear, the mutual back biting of blame and the culture wars? Who can transcend left and right to confront the real, actual power brokers of the culture in the name of social and economic justice? Who can stand up to Wall Street? And who will listen? Is there a new hope within the Evil Empire?
The most powerful person in this movement is Bernie Sanders and the Berniecrats of the populist left. Watching his town hall meeting with the voters in Kenosha, Wisconsin in December was pretty amazing. He talked to blue collar Trump voters face to face. A number of consistent themes came up among these voters, and one by one, Bernie deconstructed all of their fears, hesitations, false consciousnesses and the mendacious ideologies that keep our people paralyzed. They didn’t seem to realize the obscene wealth gap in this country. They seem to have been taught the lesson in austerity, believing that the public coffers are empty and that we can no longer afford welfare or public schooling. And they tended to not blame the vast wealth inequality on college-educated people and tenured professors rather than on corporate greed. (Point the finger anywhere but to the top!) Time and again, Bernie patiently taught these folks and encouraged them to think about the power structure of our society and the power of the people to change this fundamentally unfair system. After the election, unlike Clinton, Sanders didn’t disappear. He’s still out there fighting for people, fighting for 15, fighting for the 99 percent.
How does Sanders do this? Sanders is not a New Democrat or Cold War Democrat. He is – like FDR and MLK – a Social Democrat whose formative years were in the 1960s. He hearkens to a time before the Neoliberal amnesia of the last forty years. He’s a throwback to civil rights and the Great Society. And most remarkably, his primary message has been consistent for decades. He can focus on economics without distraction. He tries to speak to both sides of the isle, even going to ultra-conservative Liberty University, where one commentator likened him to one of the Hebrew prophets (Amos maybe?) Sanders recognizes that the populist right is really the proletariat today – the humble blue collar red state real Americans that rallied behind the likes of Palin and Trump. It’s instructive that he did well in precisely those counties that Trump won in the election. A man with integrity, standing with the people, orienting toward the true powers of the mendacious Big Daddies of Wall Street. If somehow the evangelical types of the world could unite with this message – as they used to under figures like William Jennings Bryan – it could be a transformative force for good.
(1) It is a bit ironic too how conservatives often wax nostalgic about the post-war boom economy in America and its lauded conservative family values, but ignore the economic fact that this was a New Deal America under Keynesian economic theory, strong public institutions, and high taxation for the wealthy classes. It is the only period in American history with a robust middle class. Their conservative white nostalgia is also clueless to the struggles in the Civil Rights movement and conveniently side-step any talk of bus boycotts, voting rights, or the struggle of labor in Chicago and Memphis.
(2) see Mark Blyth here.
(3) Frank, Thomas. What Happened to Kansas? 24
(4) Ibid. 110.
(5) Just last week, when 3 million people were demonstrating at the ‘Million Women March,’ democrats were hunkered down in fundraising activities with their donor class. They are already plotting how to “talk to” big labor to further the neoliberal corporate state of the Clinton-Obama variety. Remember – the Obama administration extended the Bush tax cuts, capitulated to a Republican plan on his Affordable Care Act, opened up federal lands to gas exploration and fracking, opened up new shores on the Atlantic and Gulf for oil exploration, paved the way for new pipelines, endorsed extrajudicial killings and drone strikes, did not enforce anti-trust laws, deported millions of undocumented, and perhaps most egregiously, did not prosecute the Wall Street criminals for fraudulent lending practices leading to the collapse of 2007-2008. This is not a populist leftist that the public wanted in 2008, this is a simulation of a liberal. There really is no left. There has not been a true progressive for fifty years. While there is no left, there certainly is a right. But the right needs an enemy to function, so they invented a straw man version of Obama and ran against that in all of its paranoid, anti-intellectual cynicism.
(6) Osnos, Evan. “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.” In The New Yorker. Jan 30, 2017. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/doomsday-prep-for-the-super-rich