How do you know when the memes-‘n’-tropes of an ideology, and its policy corollaries, have become the defining features of our mental reality?
When nice Irish girls from Brooklyn use them, as if they are not hortatory (and certainly not revolutionary) but simply descriptive.
I noted in my last piece on Sarahnoia that Peggy Noonan, in doing her best to take down Sarah Palin, insisted with rather startling vehemence that Palin is not from the “working class.” Said Noonan:
She is not working class, never was, and even she, avid claimer of advantage that she is, never claimed to be and just lets others say it. Her father was a teacher and school track coach, her mother the school secretary. They were middle-class figures of respect, stability and local status. I think intellectuals call her working-class because they see the makeup, the hair, the heels and the sleds and think they’re working class ‘tropes.’ Because, you know, that’s what they teach in ‘Ways of the Working Class’ at Yale and Dartmouth.
As I pointed out, distinguishing “middle class” from “working class” is a Marxist construct. It is not accurately descriptive of indigenous patterns in American society, nor does it accord with quintessentially American ideas about society and class.
Even today, after decades of ascendancy in American academia, the Marxist view of “working” versus “middle” class is merely a theoretical construct overlaid on the actual patterns of American social demography, rather than a conceptual scheme becoming, over time, more confluent with reality.
And yet – everyone recognizes this construct. Everyone remembers being taught about society and history in its terms. Many people don’t even recognize it as Marxism. Even if they think the whole “downtrodden labor” thing is overblown, and never use the expression “proletariat” except in sarcasm, they can’t automatically think of any other lens through which to perceive either our society, our economy, or our polity.
The concept of “capitalism” itself was created by Karl Marx, not by economic thinkers who valued free enterprise. When we speak of capitalism today, we are in fact using a term of Marxism, not of free-market theorists. The focus is not on the value of property ownership in defining liberty, or on the power of free markets, but on a single aspect of the Marxist construct: the concentration of capital with an economic class called “owners.”
This whole development is important, because the ascendancy of Marxism in popular theory obscures two of the most significant, unique, and deliberately cultivated aspects of the American idea.
One is the point Peggy Noonan missed the mark on, by pegging Sarah Palin as middle class, not working class. This is a very un-American distinction. The contrast it forms is with the truly American concept, in which a man’s capacity for labor is something he owns and directs freely like his property, his religion, and his ideals. The existence of slavery in the American South is a moral blot on our nation’s history, but it was an aberration from the American ideal – justified by its practitioners (unsoundly, of course) on the basis of race – not a part of that ideal.
Individualism in the labor of a person’s life has been the defining American pattern. Everyone belongs to the working class. Farmers work their land; craftsmen and tradesmen sell their expertise and their products; professionals establish themselves in fields of expertise, usually after extensive years of “higher” education, hard work, and internship; small business owners and contractors earn a living offering independent services and retail sales; businesspeople work their way up through the ranks of management and decisionmaking. Hereditary or entitled subsistence is a marginal phenomenon in America, not the norm. The opportunity to work is an American ideal, one that the archetypical American is grateful for and can make use of.
And there is nowhere else on the planet where it is as true as it is here in the USA, that class distinctions are weak to nonexistent. The high-school teacher does not think of himself as “middle class” while apostrophizing the factory worker as “working class,” in the invidious way implied by the Noonan piece. Neither is the converse true. The factory worker may well be better paid than the teacher, and enjoy greater employment benefits. Either one, statistically, will be able to own a home, buy one or more cars, and even purchase recreational equipment, in almost every part of America. Either one can send the kids to college, plan on retiring to Arizona or Florida, travel overseas, invest in real estate.
There are a few professions whose members tend to believe they are actually smarter than the other people in the country. College professors in the social sciences, the arts, and literature are often in this group, along with journalists and politicians. There is a healthy and enduring skepticism about the self-concept of these groups, across other professions and elements of society. Nowhere is there so little agreement as in America that self-appointed aristocracies are due any of the acknowledgments they solicit.
Nor is there, anywhere else, so little agreement that “labor” is either a bad thing in general, or is to be decried in relation to business owners, or in relation to different professions and kinds of work. It is simply not embarrassing to an American to be a teamster, a fisherman, an oil refinery worker, a miner, or a longshoreman.
There are always local social hierarchies, in any society, but in America they are transient to the point of ephemeral. Even in the American South, where sociologists have focused a lugubrious criticism for years about the relations of black and white, social evolution has progressed at what would be a cataclysmic pace in many other places on the planet. There are parts of Asia, the Middle East, and southern Europe where local peoples whom outsiders cannot even distinguish from each other retain invidious, and unbreachable, ethnic distinctions whose origins stretch back for centuries. Such distinctions are still evident in how groups are consigned to occupational fields, as well as in the unthinkability of intermarriage or business partnerships. Accommodation or moral justification of such patterns is antithetical to the American idea. Immigrants here are assimilated to the point of intermarriage and full participation in whatever occupations seem good to them, by the second generation.
American stereotypes tend to be ethnic, not economic. This is not an excuse of stereotypes, but it does invalidate the whole idea of Peggy Noonan’s un-American distinction between “working class,” which she says Sarah Palin is not, and “middle class,” which she proclaims that Sarah Palin is. The American truth is that Sarah Palin is both – as most of us are. An American veterinarian of Japanese ancestry is a middle-class person who works for a living, and so is an American steelworker of African ancestry, as is an American soldier of Scots-Irish ancestry, and an American dentist of Cuban ancestry. Some we might call “white collar” professionals and others “blue collar,” and still others “pink collar,” but everyone works for a living, and is a member of the middle class.
Because in America, “middle class” is a political idea, not an economic one. Sociologists have long noted that just about everyone calls himself middle-class in America. This is not self-deception, it is reality. The ticket to being middle-class in the USA is not a level of income or education, or a particular relation to the means of production: it is an attitude of responsible self-sufficiency and citizenship. Poor immigrants come to America and have this attitude from their first step on US soil; a small minority of native-born Americans go their whole lives without it. But no one is condemned by birth, financial limitations, or the systemic organization of “capital,” to fail in grasping it, or living up to it.
The other aspect of the American idea that is too often subverted by Marxism is that of small entrepreneurship. In Marxist theory, capital is wielded in large concentrations by an “owner” class that has exclusive control of it. Americans have come to reflexively think of “capital” as something Chevron and Microsoft use, and Goldman-Sachs keeps track of, and lets third-party investors in on the profits from. This is a Marxist concept of capital – and it is not the quintessentially American experience.
The true “forgotten man” in the American economy and polity, in the period since the Great Depression, has been the small entrepreneur. This individual is the small-scale wielder of capital. America has demonstrated, as no other nation in history has, the incredible economic power of small entrepreneurship – and in doing so, has invalidated the Marxist principle that the only model of capital and labor is that of big capital and mass labor, drawn from the economic organization of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.
The implication of Marxism has always been that capitalism is itself simply a form of collectivism, imposed coercively by an owner class; and that therefore the idea of individual liberty under capitalism is a chimera. When socialism supersedes capitalism, it is one form collectivism – a more “just” one – succeeding another.
But the broad opportunities in America for small-scale use of capital, in small entrepreneurship, have amply shown that capital and profit are not, in fact, forms of coercion imposed on a collectivized labor force. Millions of Americans – literally millions – are owner-capitalists whose livelihoods derive from profits. Most of them have, at some time in their lives, been “labor,” whether they worked harvesting berries, herding cattle, cleaning offices, flipping burgers, or driving delivery trucks. Many were professionals – engineers, accountants, architects – employed by others, before deciding to start their own businesses; and many earn less as business owners, at least when they are starting out, than they did as employees. Many more are wives and mothers whose children are grown, or retired couples, who use savings or home equity to finance their later-life entrepreneurial ventures.
Being a “capitalist” means owning a small business, for millions of Americans. The deliberate fostering of this opportunity is a key element of America’s unique contribution to the world’s civilizational heritage. The opportunity to wield capital on a small scale is a part of average, common, baseline life in the USA, in a way it is nowhere else on earth.
This is why it is particularly interesting that our government’s view of America, through policy and statistics, has for years been obtained via the lens of Marxism. We never think critically about this, but measuring the elements of the “consumer price index” assumes that working people are essentially wage-earners and consumers, and that the measure of their well-being, and of the proper functioning of the economy, is what their consumption power is.
In a sense, this methodology of our government economists is far more emblematic of our “all being Keynesians now” than even Nixon taking us entirely off the gold standard. Keynesian theory looks at modern economies as consumption-driven, with the underlying assumption that what labor – the mass work force – does with its earnings is consume. This assumption is wholly Marxist in nature, in that it dismisses the most American of economic phenomena: “labor,” or people who do not start out as big capitalists, wielding “capital” – on the scale of small entrepreneurship. The measure of an average person’s ability to do that might well serve as a better index of macroeconomic health than his power to consume.
There is no place for this phenomenon in Marxist theory. (This is a key reason why American filmmakers invariably depict small businessmen, if they are supposed to be sympathetic characters, as people who hate profit, who spit on profit, who think profit is a terrible, terrible thing, and who somehow live from year to year, running unprofitable businesses, on their winning smiles and kindly hearts. The filmmakers all learned Marxist social theory in college.) Indeed, political Marxism is dedicated to convincing people that capitalism itself – the very idea of property, capital, and profit – makes it impossible for them to “get ahead.”
That the US government keeps track of consumption power for the wage-earning work force, but does not emphasize keeping track of the economic environment for small entrepreneurship, ought to be very informative for us. Think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation do focus on things that affect the viability of small entrepreneurship, like the burden of regulation and taxes, and the cost of debt financing – but when was the last time you saw economists from the executive branch of the US government acknowledge that these factors matter, specifically due to their impact on small entrepreneurship, to the performance of our economy?
Small business start-ups and expansions typically account for 70% of all newly-created jobs, in any calendar quarter you look at. The economy is functioning well and expanding when this is the case. Government has never been able to “rescue” the economy by establishing itself as the main creator of new jobs, a truth we are seeing unfold around us in Obama’s first months in office. But also significant is the fact that in a healthy economy, it is not the major corporations that are creating most of the new jobs. The big players in the finance industry, the automakers, General Electric – the enormous sums being poured into them by the federal government are mistargeted, if the intention is to generate jobs. They are not “where the jobs are.” They are, instead, where big capital and organized labor are.
This matters, and matter tremendously, because we are actually, right this very minute, operating on a false and fundamentally Marxist theory: that significance in the economy resides with big capital and mass labor. Of all the peoples of the earth, it is we Americans who ought to be able to see beyond that construct. We ought to be able to see how poorly it describes our economic reality. Who and what we really are is captured in the outline of the small entrepreneur, the middle-class person – in fact, more typically, the middle-class family – that has access to a small amount of capital, and adds to it a large amount of hard work, to generate profit, and opportunities for new investment (first), and (eventually) for a moderate amount of higher-end consumption.
Heavy tax and regulation burdens fall hardest on the small entrepreneur. Our politicians on the left routinely speak in terms of “business” and “the rich” paying “their fair share,” which invariably means “more than they are paying now.” But implementing what they consider “fair” carries the consequence of suppressing economic activity: making small entrepreneurship progressively harder to break into, driving existing business owners to limit their horizons lest new regulatory burdens kick in at higher employment and income thresholds, and even putting them out of business altogether.
If you want to know why you have to be Wal-Mart to avoid going out of business, look no further than the tax code, and regulations on employment, environmental impact, and other regulatory burdens that raise costs for businesses. The truth about Wal-Mart is not that it puts small retailers out of business. The truth about it is that you have created Wal-Mart by demanding the regulation and taxation that steadily, year after year, raise the bar for smaller businesses that cannot spread high costs and local losses over vast and differentiated markets. These “fiat” costs, imposed by government, are actually a comparative advantage for large nationwide bargain retailers. The Wal-Mart phenomenon was not created by “capitalism”; Wal-Mart was made inevitable by regulation.
Yet our politicians – even some on the right – continue to press for precisely the forms of regulation and taxes that drive small entrepreneurs out of business, and function as an advantage for the larger players in an industry. Why? Because we define all the issues in Marxist terms, as if the large players are the only “capitalists,” and their employees are “labor,” a permanent economic demographic consigned to the one-dimensional role of wage-earning and consumption.
Oh, yes, we are all Marxists now. Government policy assumes we exist and function in Marxist patterns. It chooses to measure and weigh us in those terms, and no others. It imposes burdens on us as if those terms describe reality – as if all “capital” is big business. Our chattering class speaks in Marxist terms even when it is merely in an elite snit about Girlfriend Who Just Won’t Admit She’s Been Pizzowned Already. So many Americans have responded to Girlfriend’s political message and persona precisely because she is not a Marxist construct, as most of our political leaders have been for years now – but when everyone who talks, writes, and makes policy decisions is a Marxist, that becomes harder and harder to get across.