Archives for posts with tag: class

The 1% get a lot of flak. They’re told that they ought to pay for all the world’s problems. They need to pay so that lazy poor people can continue to be lazy under the luxurious welfare system. Socialism means that those who earn their money have to pay for those who don’t. The current liberal media demonizes wealth, suggesting that even heaven is out of reach for the 1%, comparing it to being equally likely as passing a camel through the eye of a needle. Oh wait no, that was Jesus.

Before Jesus was Plato, who believed that the corrupting influence of wealth ought to be excluded from leadership. His Guardian class would be isolated from any form of money, to prevent greed tainting their decisions. Aristotle after him declared that inequality of wealth prevented the function of democracy, though not in the traditional left-wing sense. He believed that if a minority hoarded the wealth, then the majority poor would overthrow them. Since revolution is a bad thing, Aristotle suggested wealth redistribution to avoid the potential for a disastrous calamity. Machiavelli too saw that there is an issue with an unrestrained bourgeoisie, and noted that the aristocracy is always inclined to amass more fortune, whereas the common people simply want to live their lives. Given this observation, a government is necessary to mediate between the two classes, lest the one exploit and oppress the other unduly.

Looks like the rich have been considered assholes long before even Marx got around to taking a stab at condemning them. So why are people so mean to the 1%? What have the rich ever done?

Since I don’t really have any sources for Biblical times to see the deeds of the rich with which Jesus disagreed so much, I’ll use modern examples. Like the Bhopal disaster of 1984! A pesticide plant exploded in Bhopal, India, which killed thousands and injured hundreds of thousands. It’s considered the world’s worst industrial disaster, and is still impacting the area today, since, you know, chemicals exploded everywhere. The most likely reason for the explosion is the same one that caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion which inundated the gulf of Mexico with a gigantic oil spill: cutting corners to save money. Now, Union Carbide, the corporation who owned the pesticide plant, says that it was sabotage, but then in the subsequent legal suit, it paid $120 million more than the plaintiff against them said would be fair, despite the alleged mountain of evidence dismissing them of any wrong doing. Rather than face the courts of India, the CEO of Union Carbide, after having been arrested in Bhopal, was immediately bailed out and smuggled out of the country with the help of the Indian government. Despite being charged, he never returned to India.

To return to Machiavelli, average people usually try to buy sturdy, long-lasting equipment because they know it’s cheaper than constantly replacing things in the short term. Of course, blatant poverty precludes that kind of financial managing, but BP and Union Carbide are not exactly begging mendicants. However, any kind of expenditure for the safety of the population or the environment gets in the way of the largest profit possible, so fuck it, right?

Foxconn, an electronics factory in China, had a suicide problem. Workers would routinely hurl themselves from the roof since their jobs were essentially sweatshop labour. After a huge media outcry, since Foxconn produces America’s iPads, Foxconn decided to make new employees sign a waiver saying the company would not be blamed if they decided to kill themselves, and then they put up nets to catch any falling bodies that had decided that risking literal hell is worth fleeing Foxconn’s metaphorically hellish conditions. The aristocrats, always trying to get more, stoop to these levels in order to do it.

Normal people are actually making less and less money. Real wages have stagnated since about the 1970s, even though workers are producing significantly more. It’s pretty stark when you look at it:

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With globalization driving down wages, the decline of unions, increased automation, and other factors putting workers into a tailspin toward oblivion, the rich are celebrating. Flexible labour markets, which basically means part-time shift work with no benefits or job security, are touted as the necessary requirement to economic growth. The argument goes that if a person isn’t tied down, they can follow work wherever it goes, tramping across the country in a boxcar, asking in at every town if work is available; you know, like back during the depression. This is great for businesses because it means that there will always be new workers, and they’ll never have to pay them very much. It’s great for workers too because everyone is always losing their job, so if you’re unemployed, certainly a new opportunity will present itself soon! I mean, if a worker wants to start a family, settle down, and, you know, live, well then I suppose a flexible labour market doesn’t really help them there.

You remember slavery? Terrible thing. Interesting enough though is that plantation owners fed, clothed, and sheltered their slaves since the slaves obviously couldn’t afford to do those things on their own, being that they were, as mentioned, slaves. When slavery ended, business owners realized that they could actually pay their employees less than would be required to keep them alive, and then simply blame them for their poverty if they didn’t make enough money to provide for themselves. This is why the term “living wage” gets thrown around in reference to the “minimum wage”, since ideally businesses should put in at least as much effort into keeping their employees alive as slave owners.

Workers obviously try to fight back every now and then. Unions are a thing. Civil rights groups are a thing. People notice when they’re being fucked over, and propaganda can only go so far. Except the rich fight back, and they’re the ones with all the money. During the early 90s, Caterpillar employees went on a few strikes. After the first strike, Caterpillar Inc. started making a bunch of money, and rather than use that money to improve the conditions of its already frustrated workforce, it built excess capacity factories abroad. The next time the workers went on strike, Caterpillar could continue producing their wares in the areas it had built new facilities, thereby allowing them to ride out the strike while the workers obviously could not. The factories were not built because there was any increased demand, they were built so that the corporation could crush dissent in its workplace. This is why free trade agreements are so popular among the ownership class: it’s a lot easier to move capital around than it is labour, so companies can set up shop wherever is easiest for them to make money, and then if conditions become too difficult, move again to another place starved of employment. Labour wars are wars of attrition, and the system is rigged in the favour of the rich.

Not content with simply allowing the rigged system to continue its merry course, the rich actively try to rig it even further. Lewis Powell, a former president of the Chamber of Commerce (a corporate lobby group in the US), wrote a memorandum in the early 70s that basically stated that the woe-begotten rich, who have never had any influence over how the country is run, ought to do more to influence policy. Powell was mad because consumer advocacy groups were complaining that car manufacturers and cigarette companies were knowingly murdering their consumers, and people were getting pretty upset over it, and were trying to change the way businesses were run. According to Powell, it’s totally fine to knowingly sell people death traps, you can even lie to them about the risk involved. If you try to change things though, and, you know, avoid being literally killed by corporate greed, well then you’re going to get the full force of the rich man’s power coming down on you. Powell’s memorandum focused heavily on influencing educational institutions, not just university students but children too, and sought ways within them to inculcate the beauty and magic of capitalism. Powell was later appointed a Supreme Court judge, and since the memorandum, universities in particular are now run like businesses with an emphasis on profit over education. Students are now loaded with over a trillion dollars of debt, and what better way to make them succumb to capitalism than with the imposing threat of debt looming over their heads?

Now, #NotAllRichPeople is an important distinction to make. I’ve been making generalizations this whole post for the sake of audacity, but the reality is that a lot of rich people are decent human beings. Identity politics should not enter into a legitimate discussion on class, but this is a blog, so I’m allowed a few liberties for the sake of panache. However, the #NotAllRichPeople is a useful comparison, since even the most ardent #NotAllMen advocate wouldn’t suggest that we abolish rape laws. Think of Glass-Steagall being repealed which contributed to the 2008 global financial meltdown. Think of the subsidies that governments bequeath to the already super rich. Think of how cutting social spending to reduce taxes is basically getting poor people to pay so that the rich don’t have to (If a program gives 100$ for a bus pass to the poor, and that program gets cut to lower taxes, that means the poor person now has to pay the $100 that the rich person gets back). Inaction against oppression leads to the same outcome as condoning it, and political participation, especially by the wealthy, goes a long way. Not every company is a Caterpillar, a BP, or a Union Carbide, but the complicity of silence allows these companies to behave as they do.

Post-script: What about doctors, lawyers, and others who aren’t business owners? Though not directly responsible for the same catastrophes as corporations, their role in wealth redistribution is still vital. Now, you might think, a doctor earned their position without exploiting anyone, why should they have to pay more taxes? Well except the term “earn” is debatable. University professors have put in just as much time and money into their education, but live in relative squalor. Artists have usually dedicated their entire lives to their craft, and make even less. Wealth is based not on any individual achievements or efforts, but on social demand. Society says doctors are more important than professors and artists, so they get paid more. The distinction is arbitrary. The perfect example is motherhood. Despite popular belief that motherhood does not have a salary attached to it, it does, but it only presents itself very rarely: divorce courts… maybe not so rarely. While mothers perform many traditionally paid roles (nurse, maid, cook, chaperone, teacher, counselor, social worker, etc.), they don’t get paid for them until they leave their husbands, and then they get approximately half of his earnings. Her economic value as a mother is based entirely on the man she gets lumped together with. Like I said, arbitrary. And before you say that nurturing is natural to women, and that’s why they don’t receive traditional compensation, let me remind you that providing is allegedly naturally male. If natural behaviours don’t merit pay, then things like farming and house building shouldn’t be paid either. Since wealth is arbitrary, redistribution becomes much more palatable, even for doctors and lawyers.

Nobody likes the concept of privilege. Being told you have privilege makes you feel like the person is calling you an entitled prick that has never had to work a day in their life. People are the heroes and heroines of their own story, and having someone claim that all of their tribulations weren’t that bad can come off as patronizing. Of course, not many people are aware of privilege because it’s invisible. It’s like a ghost, but not like some harmless Caspar bullshit, it’s some mean poltergeist asshole. It’s all up in everyone’s face, just wrecking their shit.

Now, I’m not going to list out privileges because fuck lists. If you like lists and are offended at my dismissal of them, you can look at Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack. It does a fair job of looking at white privilege and provides a good introduction to privilege in general. Since you’re a list-lover, I’ll even give you a fucking Buzzfeed page where you can do a quiz. What I’m going to do is examine a specific aspect of my life and see how privilege fits into it.

I am currently a university student studying social work. I am doing well because I’m a smart guy. I do all the reading in a timely fashion; I study hard; I have quality writing skills; some might say I earn my grades because of my effort and intellect.

How did my intellect develop? Well, I read lots and write lots. In fact, you’re reading some of my writing right now! How did I get into reading and writing though? I grew up in a home where my parents were both university educated, and they would read to me as a child. This instilled in me a love of reading that I have carried with me to this day. We also had enough wealth to place me in extracurricular activities that allowed me to focus on my personal development, allowing me to explore different paths my life could take. My intellect as it relates to my current grades is also affected by the amount of time I have to dedicate to studying. Again, through no contribution of my own, my parents had the economic foresight (and available resources) to invest in an RESP – which allowed me to graduate from my first post-secondary art degree without any debt, allowing me to collect enough money to pursue this second degree without a side-job interfering with my studying time.

Yes, I have exerted some willpower and made some choices in my life, and I could have just as easily chosen the much more fulfilling life path of a debilitating cocaine addiction, but my point is that the reason I even have the opportunities for choice that I do was foretold long before I contributed anything meaningful to it. I will likely succeed in my life goals, but certainly not due to any kind of meritocracy, even despite my genuine merits.

Does this mean that I am the result of my parents’ status and nothing more? Partly, but it would be naive to assume that my parents were not privy to privileges of their own. Class, and to an even greater extent racial, privilege is so entrenched in our genealogy that consequences from centuries ago can influence the lives we live today.

What does this mean for me and my classmates? We are graded on equal terms, yet compared to someone who had a much more tumultuous childhood, how is equal grading fair when one of us has had a significant head start? Let’s generalize this some more here. How is equal opportunity in any situation fair if there are those of us who start the race just a few feet from the finish line? Would a drive toward fairness not necessitate a redress of this discrepancy? Everyone seems to be in agreement that discrimination is, you know, bad, when it comes to hiring practices and so on: it’s in our Charter, but we seem to fall short when it comes to addressing the discrimination or privilege that is inherent in spewing out of our mothers’ vaj.

It’s like if we went into a store, and certain people were given a million bucks just for walking in the door. Nobody asked for the million bucks, but that does not negate the fact that they received it. Now, the store doesn’t charge more on any item for any particular person, so the prices themselves aren’t discriminatory, but the system itself of unequal distribution of privilege is.

This is a very brief example, examining only one aspect of one privilege out of the many that I possess. I do not feel guilty for my leg up; as I explained, I did not choose this life. I am, however, benefiting from this system of privilege at the cost that others pay for me, and I would be a massive asshole if I just settled in for the cushy ride.

What about you? What about your success? Where did it come from? It’s hard to tell because privilege is invisible. If only there were a list that could give people some insight…