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The unmentionable five-letter word, Part 2

We continue the examination of class. The late historian Howard Zinn stated that “this is a class society.” From our founding, we have had the very rich and the very poor, a pattern that has been reproduced throughout U.S. history. The fifty-five men of wealth who came together “to promote the general welfare” and sign the Constitution were deeply concerned about the class divide in the nation — and desperate to maintain it.

Zinn argued that a “strong central government was set up to protect [the founders’] interests.” The U.S., therefore, “was founded on the idea of big government.” In 1913, the prominent historian Charles Beard stated that the founders were not “We the people of the United States”; they created a document that benefited themselves.

The progressive changes in that document and the nation that we now embrace have been the result of struggle, stated powerfully by the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never did and never will.” The historical record supports Douglass: democratic reforms have been achieved only when working people rose up and waged a class struggle against the elite.

The historical record supports this assertion. It was the working class — often through labor unions — that brought us “the eight-hour work day, the franchise [progressive] banking legislation Social Security, Medicare, etc.” These progressive benefits were gained in the face of capitalist elite opposition, forced by militant pressure from below (Jason Hirthler, Counterpunch, July 26, 2019).

Even the Godfather of capitalism, Adam Smith, admired by those who cite the virtues of the capitalist “free market,” addressed the class divide and conflict in his day. Speaking of manufacturers and merchants of that era, he stated: “Their interest is never exactly the same with that of the public: they have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it” (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). You will not hear this Smith quote on the nightly television business report.

In an article on “Big Capital, the Working Class, and U.S. Imperialism” (Counterpunch, May 2019), historian and Ashland author Chuck Churchill argues that working people “have the greatest incentive, and also a long history, of fighting back against” class inequality. They represent “the only social group that can counter big capital” and end the staggering economic divide in this nation. “Organized workers have represented a revolutionary threat to corporate power. They can disrupt ruling class expansionary plans, up to and including imperialist wars.”

The working class is the fundamental group that produces wealth for the elite, but many within it struggle to survive. According to scholar Rajan Menon, “One-third of all workers earn less than $12 an hour and 42 percent earn less than $15. That’s $24,960 and $31,200 a year.” Try raising a family on such wages, which are completely inadequate to cover the fundamental necessities such as food, rent, car payments, and healthcare (The Nation, July 16, 2018). What workers do as an organized class about deepening inequality and their own survival, therefore, will determine the economic fate of this nation. Will it be a genuine democracy or a continuation of rule by the rich and powerful?

The 19th century Romantic poet Percy Shelley wrote about class inequality and conflict in response to the 1819 Peterloo massacre after the English army charged a crowd of some 60,000 people near Manchester who had gathered peacefully to demand governmental reform and raise grievances about famine, poverty, working conditions, and wages. Eighteen were slaughtered in the army charge. Two-hundred years after they were written, Shelley’s words ring true in this age of deepening economic injustice.

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number —

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen you —

Ye are many — they are few.

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears.

John Marciano lives in Talent.