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Vol. 80/No. 24       June 20, 2016

(feature article)

Are they rich because they’re smart?

Class, privilege and learning under capitalism

“The struggle for workers power, and the transformation of property relations necessary to open the transition to socialism, are possible only as working people begin transforming ourselves and our attitudes toward life, work, and each other. Only then will we learn what we’re capable of becoming.”

Jack Barnes

Questioned during a December 2015 radio interview about the tens of thousands of workers turning out at rallies for presidential contender Donald Trump, President Barack Obama chalked this up to the fact that “blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck.

“You combine those things,” Obama added, “and it means there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear — some of it justified but just misdirected.”

Only in some make-believe past did factory workers in the United States ever receive a “bargain.” Workers resisted — and will never stop resisting — abusive treatment on the job. They joined together ever more broadly to organize unions, waged strikes against the employers and the government, and won what they were strong enough to take without organizing on the political level independently from the bosses’ parties.

What’s most remarkable about Obama’s language, however, is not its patronizing tone toward “blue collar men.” It’s the fear that exists at the highest levels of government (and among well-remunerated “professional” layers) about what’s building up among working people in cities, towns, and countryside. It’s the fear that is shaking both parties of the capitalist ruling families.

“There hasn’t been nearly enough blaming of the people most responsible for [Donald Trump’s] rise: his voters,” writes liberal Washington Post columnist Charles Lane. These workers, he says, want to “blow the system to hell.”

Venting in the stronghold of the conservative wing of this anti-working-class alliance, National Review writer Kevin Williamson more explicitly and crudely denounces “white working class dysfunction.” These “downscale communities … deserve to die,” he says. “Economically they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

We’re living through the biggest crisis of the capitalist parties in the lifetime of anyone reading these pages. If anything, the disarray is greater in the Democratic Party than the Republican. The millions who’ve flocked to Bernie Sanders’s call, resuscitating “Occupy” in bourgeois electoral garb, pose an unexpected obstacle to Hillary Clinton’s anointment as the Democrats’ 2016 candidate, and her election if nominated.

But what is surfacing in the 2016 presidential election is neither unexpected nor unexplainable. Its roots go back several decades. If you want to understand it, there’s no better place to start than this book.

Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? Class, Privilege, and Learning Under Capitalism contains three articles by Jack Barnes, National Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, taken from talks and reports he gave to large public audiences between 1995 and 2009. More recent statistics and subsequent events that shed light on the economic and social contradictions fueling today’s political upheaval have been taken into account by incorporating them directly into the text. This spares readers from the distraction of frequent footnotes and parenthetical material. The original articles are available in the books indicated in accompanying source notes.

The growing disorder of the world capitalist system has unfolded with jumps and starts over the past forty years — since the 1974-75 global recession, Vietnam War-fueled inflation surges, and “energy” crises of that time. Those shocks laid the groundwork for the 1987 Wall Street crash, which — like jittery animals sensing a coming earthquake — foretold the cumulative effects of the capitalists’ falling profit rates and contraction of rate of investment in capacity-expanding plant, equipment, and employment.

In an attempt to postpone a shattering collapse, the US ruling families and their rivals resorted to a renewed debt spree — this time worldwide, and even more mammoth than the lending bonanza of the 1980s. They’ve fought tenaciously to press wages down, enlarge the reserve army of unemployed labor, intensify speedup on the job at the cost of life and limb, and make further progress in weakening the unions. They’ve done everything in their power to foster competition and conflict among workers. The employers’ hope is to create the conditions necessary to induce a new wave of capital accumulation and sustained expansion of production and trade before confronting a rising challenge by the working class and labor movement to their inhuman system of exploitation.

This book comes off the presses during the eighth year of what Washington logs as an “economic recovery.” For working people in the US, from big cities to farming areas, that “upturn” has been marked by rising rents and home foreclosures, a fall in median household income, and historic lows in the percentage of workers actually holding a job (the government’s headline unemployment figures notwithstanding).

Interest rates are at their lowest levels in the history of the imperialist world. Short-term rates have scraped zero year after year in the United States, and in parts of capitalist Europe and Japan interest rates have been pushed into negative territory — a tax on the bourgeoisie imposed by money capital with the will-o’-the-wisp goal of somehow facilitating growth. For the working class and lower middle classes, both zero and negative rates are a ruinous tax on those who depend on a pension or “savings” account for help to get by.

In short, capitalism is well into a slow-burning global depression.

What’s more, the US rulers have engaged in nonstop wars and military operations since the turn of the millennium (not to mention the bloody 1991 Gulf War and the first war on European soil since World War II in the former Yugoslavia during the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton). Just since September 11, 2001, the presidencies of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama have fought wars or carried out airstrikes, shelling, drone assaults, and Special Forces operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere.

Hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants in these countries have been killed or maimed by all sides in military conflicts since 2001, and millions left homeless, hungry, and dispossessed. Nearly 7,000 US soldiers have died and more than 52,000 have been wounded — disproportionately young men and women from rural areas and urban working-class neighborhoods, who’ve faced scandalous neglect on return.

All the above are among the reasons so many working people are coming out to listen to and vote for Donald Trump. And they explain large elements of why other workers, even if smaller in number, give a hearing to Bernie Sanders, as well.

Contrary to the drumbeat in the corporate media, this crisis in the capitalist parties has nothing to do with a nonexistent rise of racism within a nonexistent “white working class.” There’s a working class in the United States. Among other things, these workers are Black, Latino, Asian, African, and (for now and decades to come) a majority are Caucasian. More and more are of mixed race as well. Racism and racist acts have been pushed back as a result of the conquests of the mass, proletarian-based struggle for Black rights, including among the growing numbers of working men and women of various skin colors, mother tongues, and national origins who work together side by side in factories and other workplaces day in and day out.

“I have never voted, and I’m not here to represent the Republican Party. Quite frankly, I don’t give a damn about the Republicans,” said former basketball coach Bobby Knight to tumultuous cheers as he introduced Trump to some twelve thousand participants in an April 28 rally in Evansville, Indiana. “I don’t give a damn about the Democrats either.”

At least on these double “don’t give a damns,” Knight echoed the sentiments of growing millions in the working class and worse-off middle classes across the United States.

Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? puts a spotlight on the sharpening class inequalities in the United States, especially the relatively recent and accelerated expansion of a high-earning professional and upper middle-class layer in US capitalist society.

This “self-designated ‘enlightened meritocracy’” — of millions, if not tens of millions, the author says — is composed overwhelmingly of those pursuing “careers in the universities, the media, ‘think tanks,’ [as well as] highly paid supervisory personnel, staffers, or attorneys [for] foundations, ‘advocacy groups,’ NGOs, charities, and other ‘nonprofit’ institutions.”

They are determined “to con the world into accepting the myth that the economic and social advancement of its members is just reward for their individual intelligence, education, and ‘service.’ Its members truly believe that their ‘brightness,’ their ‘quickness,’ their ‘contributions to public life’ … give them the right to make decisions, to administer and ‘regulate’ society for the bourgeoisie — on behalf of what they claim to be the interests of ‘the people,’” an imaginary and classless “we.”

Just during the week this book was being readied for the presses, two articles — one in the liberal Washington Post, the other in the conservative Wall Street Journal — captured to a “T” the spoken or unspoken class attitudes of many in this meritocratic layer.

“Never have so many people with so little knowledge made so many consequential decisions for the rest of us,” wrote David Harsanyi in a May 20 Post column headlined, “We must weed out ignorant Americans from the electorate.”

Then, two days later in the Journal, Andy Kessler wrote, “Hollywood movies notwithstanding, capitalism is not about greed. It is a system that weeds out dumb ideas from smart ones.” It would have been impolitic for Kessler to come right out and say it’s a system that “weeds out dumb people from smart people,” but people both “dumb” and “smart” are able to read.

As Barnes points out, this social layer has a special place in overseeing one of the shifts that marks the evolution of the US imperialist state since the closing decades of the twentieth century: the centralization of powers initially reserved in the US Constitution to the legislative branch of government (the House of Representatives and Senate, and their counterparts on the state level) in a more and more dominant executive branch (the White House and its multiplying “regulatory” agencies and “administrators”).

There’s no way for the working class to vote or legislate itself to power, or to the revolutionary expropriation of the propertied ruling families and the transition to socialism. But the expanding concentration of power in the hands of the presidency — including the de facto power to declare wars, and to bypass legislation and debate by issuing Executive Orders — is dangerous (ultimately a bonapartist threat) to the interests of workers, working farmers, and the labor movement.

Today there is even an Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House, established by Executive Order in 1993 during the Clinton administration. The agency’s director during Obama’s first term, Cass Sunstein, coined a term for this aspiration of middle-class meritocrats to administer and regulate the lives of the unwashed masses, who can’t be trusted to know what’s in our own interests. He christened it with a book titled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (that is, getting us to do what they think is “best for us,” without us having a say or figuring out they’re trying to manipulate us).

The actual scope of the expansion of the imperialist state is much greater and more invasive in the lives of working people than just “nudges,” of course. According to Washington’s own figures, there are some 510 federal departments and agencies today, none of which are elected and whose decision making is never seen on CSPAN or anywhere else.

What’s more, under cover of “national security” and “fighting terrorism” (and now vastly aided by “social media” technologies), the tentacles of police surveillance at the federal, state, and local levels have increasingly penetrated every aspect of our lives and eroded hard-won rights that protect us against the state. This massive snooping has become an emblem — a hated emblem — of imperialist America the world over.

There is as yet no rising working-class social movement in the United States in response to assaults on our wages, living conditions, and political rights. But over the past few years there have been strikes and resistance to lockouts by members of the United Steelworkers, Communications Workers of America, Teamsters, farmworkers organizations, and other unions. Fast-food and other low-paid workers are demanding a $15 hourly minimum wage.

Tens of thousands have come into the streets to protest police killings and brutality and demand the arrest and prosecution of the cops responsible. Workers and their families are raising their voices against the massive penal system in the US, with its draconian sentences, brutalizing solitary confinement, and official barbarities. Immigrant workers and their supporters have organized to speak out against deportations, E-Verify victimizations, and other indignities. Mounting attacks on a woman’s right to choose abortion continue to be met with protests.

Above all, there is growing confidence and openness among workers everywhere in the United States to discuss and debate the broadest social and political questions, including the stakes for the working class in organizing the unorganized and rebuilding our unions as instruments of solidarity and struggle.

These political opportunities are not an impression from outside the working class. They’re the practical conclusion from half a decade of efforts by members and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party going door to door in working-class neighborhoods of all kinds across the country to talk with and exchange experiences and views with fellow workers.

The heart of these discussions — whether on a porch, at an apartment door, at a strike picket or social protest, or life on the job — is never simply about “issues,” even political questions of great importance to the working class. It’s about the way forward. It’s about what Jack Barnes points to in the closing article in this book as “preparing the working class for the greatest of all battles in the years ahead — the battle to throw off the self-image the rulers teach us, and to recognize that we are capable of taking power and organizing society.”

That’s the conclusion that’s decisive for workers everywhere today. To act on the necessity, as we gain confidence and experience fighting alongside each other, for the working class to recognize our humanity, our capacities, and the traditions our class has forged during well over a century and half of struggles, including revolutionary battles and victories. “To broaden our scope,” to discover our “own worth,” as Malcolm X was always explaining.

“Learning as a lifetime experience,” as the author puts it in these pages — what better reason to make a socialist revolution? “What better reason to get rid of the capitalist state and use the workers state to begin transforming humanity, to begin building human solidarity? And we have the living example of the Cuban Revolution to show how it’s possible to start down that road.”

These are the stakes addressed in Are They Rich Because They’re Smart? Class, Privilege, and Learning Under Capitalism.

May 30, 2016

Copyright © 2016 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

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