Thursday, August 30, 2012

Class warfare and the presidential election

An article in Fortune by Joel Kotkin claims that there is an unseen class war that could decide the presidential eletion. Unfortunately Kotkin does not define "class". The hidden conflict he ultimately describes is not between classes but at most two strata of the middle class using "class" simply to refer to income levels.
Historically the two main theoretical views of class are those of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Put very simply the Marxist theory of class is as follows:
In Marxist theory, the class structure of the capitalist mode of production is characterized by the conflict between two main classes: the bourgeoisie, the capitalists who own the means of production, and the much larger proletariat (or 'working class') who must sell their own labour power
Note that this is a theoretical concept and is used to explain the basics of how capitalism operates.Class is not determined by income as in the common usage of the term in much discourse now. Max Weber thought that the Marxian concept of class was too narrow. Weber's position can be summarized as follows:
Class: A person's economic position in a society. Weber differs from Marx in that he does not see this as the supreme factor in stratification. Weber noted how managers of corporations or industries control firms they do not own.
Status: A person's prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society. Weber noted that political power was not rooted in capital value solely, but also in one's individual status. Poets or saints, for example, can possess immense influence on society with often little economic worth.
Power: A person's ability to get their way despite the resistance of others. For example, individuals in state jobs, such as an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or a member of the United States Congress, may hold little property or status but they still hold immense power.
The common usage nowadays however lacks any theoretical role but refers mostly to levels of income: There is a very powerful and rich upper class owning much of the means of production. Next there is large middle class of professional workers, small business owners, and managers who have a middle range income level and finally the lower class that would include workers in jobs that do not pay much and others with little income. Kotkin uses the term class in his article in this common usage sense. His first two sentences make this clear:
Much is said about class warfare in contemporary America, and there’s justifiable anger at the impoverishment of much of the middle and working classes. The Pew Research Center recently dubbed the 2000s a “lost decade” for middle-income earners — some 85% of Americans in that category feel it’s now more difficult to maintain their standard of living than at the beginning of the millennium, according to a Pew survey.
Kotkin notes that there is no true class solidarity among the rich since no one threatens their status. How true? In terms of Marxian class concepts the presidential election involves a system where those who must sell their labor to live do not threaten the rich capitalists who hire them. The system ensures that class conflict is limited to a choice of the representative of capital who may preserve some of working class benefits and rights, the Democrats, and a representative who would tend more to taking some away. The system is meant to channel class conflict into a system that ensures the capitalist class in general is not threatened. Both parties are beholden to large corporations and capitalist interests that provide them funds for their expensive campaigns.
Kotkin points out that Obama enjoys support from financial interests that benefit from government debt and stimulus programs and also "green" capitalist entrepreneurs as well as Silicon Valley capital. Microsoft and Google are big Obama supporters. Republicans depend upon oil, coal and gas and energy industries that are often unpopular generally. What Kotkin has shown is that there is conflict among certain strata of the capitalist class. He dismisses this as showing that the action is not really there. This does not seem to follow. It will be important for these strata who wins out in the election.This is precisely why the oil and coal capitalists put more money into the Republican than Obama campaign and green industries donate more to the Obama campaign.
Kotkin concludes that the real class war is going on lower down "the economic food chain". Kotkin next invents a name "the clerisy" which includes: lawyers, teachers, professors, media, and public sector workers. This is not a class in any sense of the word but simply a strata most being in the middle class and some perhaps even in the lower class. Anyway this group apparently adores Obama. This class thrives on government payouts and hence is for larger government and more government programs that improve their situation. This is, according to Kotkin, a new privileged class who live high on the hog. Of course most of the media are privately controlled and not government subsidized. It is not clear how office workers in media giants are somehow living high off the hog. Kotkin obviously has a right wing slant to his analysis:
Essentially, the clerisy has become a new, mass privileged class who live a safer, more secure life compared to those trapped in the harsher, less cosseted private economy. As California Polytechnic economist Michael Marlow points out, public sector workers enjoy greater job stability, and salary and benefits as much as 21% higher than of private sector employees doing similar work.
So the class conflict is between a privileged strata including unionized workers and what he calls the Yeoman Class..
The GOP, for its part, now relies on another part of the middle class, what I would call the yeomanry. In many ways they represent the contemporary version of Jeffersonian farmers or the beneficiaries of President Lincoln’s Homestead Act. They are primarily small property owners who lack the girth and connections of the clerisy but resist joining the government-dependent poor. Particularly critical are small business owners..
However Kotkin goes on to claim that the Yeoman Class contains people in farming, fishing, forestry, transportation, manufacturing and construction. This is what Kotkin calls actual production. Yet Wall Street is the biggest supporter of Romney this time around and Romney's experiences with Bain Capital are hardly Yeoman in character. One could mention too that farmers among other yeomen jealously protect their government subsidies and when disaster strikes request help from government.
Kotkin thinks that this conflict between clerisy and yeomanry will settle the battle. Although Kotkin is clearly on the side of the yeomanry he fears that Obama has the tactical advantage. While Kotkin may have broadly identified important target groups for the competing campaigns the conflict he describes has little to do with class conflict but conflict within certain strata within the middle class. This conflict is just one among many that may determine the results.
In Marxian class terminology the strata that Kotkin identifies as the Yeoman class is somewhat akin to that of the petite bourgeoisie who hire workers while working themselves and hence have an ambiguous relation to the means of production and the capitalist class. As hiring workers they may tend to oppose labor rights and minimum wages but they may themselves be exploited by large capitalist suppliers and subordinate relationships to big corporations. The group also has to face expensive paperwork due to government regulations. Hence they may express anger at the power of both large corporations and big government.

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