The Protests Are Not Class Warfare!

classwar

“Romney: Wall Street Protests ‘Class Warfare’” reads a headline from the National Journal, among other media sources reporting on a statement by Mitt Romney made during a visit to a retirement community in Florida. Here’s the gist from this source.

Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney on Tuesday compared the current anti-Wall Street protests to “class warfare.”

“I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare,” Romney said to an audience of about 50 people in response to a question about the protests over such issues as high unemployment, home foreclosures and the 2008 corporate bailouts.

He made his remark while greeting members of an overflow crowd that was unable to get into his official appearance before a larger group of about 300 at this central Florida retirement community.

The Wall Street protests, organized by a confederation of progressive groups, have spread beyond New York to other cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston. Two groups also have announced plans to set up an encampment in front of the White House as well.

Here we have another example of the irresponsible and inflammatory political rhetoric being used to scare people and create bogeymen. Class warfare is only a metaphor for a struggle against social and economic institutions—the political economy— that have created differential circumstances of such magnitude that they disadvantage and deprive large masses of the society. Wall Street is a symbol of the form of capitalism that dominates our society today. Romney’s words are instructive in making clear that a class, the very wealthy, is tied to this institution. The protesters are not warring against the individuals that constitute the class but against the institutions that have made them unfairly wealthy.

It is the unfairness and other injustices that are the real targets of the group. Protests and revolts aiming at social or economic classes rarely target the individual members of the class, but the way the political economy has unfairly set them apart and provided privileges unavailable to the commoners. By labeling this current protest a form of class warfare, Romney is attempting to deflect attention from the very real conditions that are tearing apart the cohesiveness of our society. The program he panders to would only exacerbate the conditions, separating the wealthy further from the rest of us.

This protest which started on a very small scale is spreading in spite of attempts by the police to squelch it. Another protest coming through a different route, the Internet, has also sprung up to point out the unfairness and excessiveness of levying a steep increase in banking fees by Bank America. Well over a 100,000 people signed on in just a matter of days. Protests against institutions come only when there are people available to man the picket lines. With tens of millions of Americans unemployed and many others barely making it, having seen their assets shrink year by year, the reserves for these and other demonstrations are vast. These events can only serve as omens for further signs of system dysfunction and more push back. I asked earlier in this blog when the Wall Street protests began whether this was the first sign of an American Spring, mimicking the recent events in the Middle East.

The real lesson for both the right and left is to begin to recognize that it is the system that is the culprit. The system I speak of is the complex system of institutions, beliefs and norms that constitute our social and economic life. It is constructed from smaller, nested complex systems operating at different time and spatial scales. After the upsets of WWII, our socioeconomic system slowly evolved, built on a complex interconnected set of subsystems that regulated the growth and assured that all would have access to the vital nutrients of well-being. For years, the well-being grew and was shared fairly. But over time, the governance mechanisms and balance among the component subsystems have shifted with unforeseen and, perhaps, unintended consequences. It can be argued that the outcomes were deliberately fashioned. In the language of complexity, the socioeconomic system has grown rigid and brittle; its balance has disappeared such that the known governance mechanisms do not work or simply don’t fit the present world.

The present protests and those that are certain to follow, given the ability to mobilize armies of the disaffected via the Internet, will continue to expose systemic problems. To mislabel them in a collective ad hominem way as Romney and the rest of the Republican hopefuls are doing can only push the possibility of finding effective solutions further away. What is most important for the health of the country and all who live here is to stop attacking convenient targets and start addressing deeper issues. We are in serious straits today. The threats to the environment have been around for decades, without any real acceptance of their seriousness. The threats to the society from without (terrorism) and now within (injustice and unfairness) are newly visible, exacerbated by a recession, but cannot be ignored without great risk. As a lifelong liberal, I have my favorite set of “solutions,” but know I must put these in the closet for a while until the real problems deep in the system are revealed and addressed. Sustainability has always depended on this kind of process, but given the signs of incipient instability appearing, near-term actions also need this kind of scrutiny. Please, Mr. Romney and other “hopefuls,” address your invectives to the real culprit, not the easy targets.

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1 Comments

Ralph Meima said:

John, I don't know if this is class warfare, but I certainly got a sense of a new class consciousness yesterday in New York, where I spent time at Liberty Plaza and followed the enormous march to Foley Square and back to Wall Street. The signs, the chants, and the comments in conversations about jobs, student loans, the middle class, the banks, government corruption, and more were passionate, angry, strident, and deeply convinced about an enormous shared disappointment and humiliation that the vast majority of Americans are experiencing together. The 99%, as this majority is being termed, have found common cause across racial, ethnic, geographic, educational, and other lines that used to divide us. The 99% is a different class than the ones we used to refer to. Perhaps it is unprecedented. But it can be seen as a class: inclusive, non-hierarchical, diverse, yet a class in terms of a common interest, a common injury, common suffering, and now - in the occupations - an infectious, irreverent, charismatic, youthful symbol of common hope and recovery. I cannot think of anything more potent in the political landscape today.

Two reference points for discussing the 99%:

"We can have great concentrations of wealth, or democracy, but we cannot have both." - Louis Brandeis

"Wall Street has become an engine of unfairness." - Michael Lewis, interviewed on NPR 10/5.

Finally, here is one place where a broad, collaborative effort is underway to create an economic policy response/action plan for the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City, 9/29: http://bit.ly/pg5PN7