Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ethics: Social Class & Karp

Power dynamics exist in earliest societies between the ruler(s) and the common people. Hierarchies exist in ape societies and the earliest human societies. We saw the divide in Grossman of the officers from the soldiers, of those who make the call and those who carry out the orders. We have seen how in the Egyptian wisdom the earliest societies created systems of class and ability as they gathered cultures and technologies and developed them.

Class is a very important issue for Americans today. From propaganda week, we know that A, we are systematically taught that ‘there is no class in America because it is a freedom place’, and B, ‘class is something that OTHER cultures are brutal with, but we are free of that problem’. This was what we said about the Soviets, and they said about us. We amplified our accusation of them in our media (including both news and fiction), and muffled anything that could help their accusation of us. The same messages go on today with Islam and China. In truth, class and power have been a very familiar problem since we were apes. Power and authority are a two edged sword. On the one hand, one wants leaders and followers to organize and coordinate human society. On the other hand, one also wants equality and sympathy which power tends to distort and ignore.

America is caught in this bind still today (as is all of humanity). According to some statistics, the powerful today own more than ever before in history, both in amount and in percentage, in spite of the equal and opposite truth that the middle class and class mobility are also larger today than ever before. With modernity and life saturated with devices, humans are more enabled than ever before. This means that the common people are more enabled than ever before AND the gap between common people and the powerful is greater than ever before, which is counter-intuitive. Consider that in the year 1000 in Europe, the average nobleman owned one horse, one sword and shield, and often could not write their own name. The gap today between rich and poor is far greater than the gap between the toiling serf and the noble lord of the middle ages. This is very similar to Grossman remarking that Alexander only lost 700 soldiers in his entire quest for empire in 300 BCE, an absurdly low body count for a modern conflict.

What is Class?
Class is any division of people into recognizable groups. If any group is recognizable to themselves and other groups, this is enough to claim the group is a self-conscious social class. When talking about social class, we often concentrate on the differences of power and ability that people have in a society. There are two types of class status, ascribed (born with it) and achieved (gained in time). The common indicators of ascribed class status are ethnicity (race and tribe), family (royal lineage), gender (male, female or other), and culture (religion, language). The common indicators of achieved class status are position (job or role in society), wealth (property which includes money), ability (skills, education and experience), and fame (honor, success, celebrity).

There is plenty of evidence that apes know the difference between a privileged position on top and a marginalized position on the bottom. In Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy In the Flesh, Lakoff (a Berkeley professor of ability and fame) says that the human mind is ‘hardwired’ to think up as powerful and down and weakness. Thus we can draw a simple chart of upper and lower class. While the extremes have always been there, as society has developed we have developed and complexified the arrangement. The growth of the middle class is an age old process, but with modernity and devices the middle classes have become quite complicated.

On top in society are those who have enough that if they hold on to it they do not need to work. On the bottom are those who have so little that if they do not work then they have nothing at all. In the middle are those who are using all sorts of strategies to get employed and gain property.
The middle thus includes everyone from field workers and janitors to doctors and attorneys.

In ancient societies, often the leaders were from privileged families that had it made in the shade owning everything, and beneath them would be warriors, merchants, artists, farmers and workers. What we have seen over time through the common history of cultures is that as the devices increased different groups gained power and could raise their status. This leads all the way to the complex middle class of today. We saw in ancient Egypt how the classes of scribes flourished, and specialized classes of scribes leads us to academia today. Both Mahavira of Jainism and the Buddha both came from the warrior 2nd caste in India between 800 and 500, which scholars have said indicates that the second class was making power grabs from the highest priest Brahman class at this time. Consider that artists were not rich or famous among the population until modern art made the painter a celebrity.

The complex of the middle class today shows us many types of people who have condensed cultures and strategies for maintaining their position and authority. Consider that a doctor’s opinion is worth something to the patient or the toothpaste company advertising agent, but the doctor has to be backed by the state. Doctors have great power, and thus the ability to acquire greater status individually through money, ability, fame, marrying into the right family, but the doctor who has to earn money is still not upper class. A true upper class member does either management or no work at all and simply owns property. A doctor who sees patients is thus upper middle class, or professional class.

The one to bring all of this out into public discussion was Karl Marx, who we already heard from in objection to utilitarianism (though Marx could be called a utilitarian himself). Marx was disillusioned by the German failed revolutions of 1849. Moving to England, Marx saw the growing classes of factory workers and others in harsh conditions, and began writing books. The French Revolution had shown everyone that the leaders can be removed (the French noble families). Marx was convinced that just as the French had removed the noble families, there was a new upper class that was settling into modernity that would have to be removed. The old upper class in all societies were the noble families. Now, just as warriors had risen up against the Brahmins in the time of Buddha, the merchants and traders had come in modernity to raise themselves with wealth to be equal to or even above the nobles. This means that modernity has seen wealth rise to trump family as the biggest class indicator. This is not to say that family or ethnicity no longer matter (consider the Walton family who founded Wal-Mart, three of whom are in the top 10 wealthiest individuals in the world), but now an owner of a wealthy company is as upper class as one can get in America. This is in part due to American culture which ditched the British nobility system in its breaking off from the Empire.

In America today, in spite of ditching the British noble heraldry, the top 1% are ‘super-rich’ upper class (who earn over $350,000 a year or get that in returns on investments), the next 5% are ‘rich’ upper class (over $100,000 a year), the 44% are middle class (over $40,000), and the remaining 50% are ‘working-class’ and lower class (under $40,000). This means that the lowest upper class members earn just under 9 times what the lowest middle class members earn.

How in America is such power and privilege maintained? Don’t we have a democracy in which everyone can be heard? Didn’t we ditch the British nobility? How is it that the rich and powerful seem to be able to do whatever they want without much attention, but when the common people need schools or medical coverage there is always too much resistance?

In the first short article I gave you from the Race, Class & Gender reader, Class & Inequality, Sklar puts together interesting statistics on wealth and poverty in America. All gains in household income since 1975 essentially went to the top 20%. Since 2000, the US has gained 76 billionaires (putting the number at 374) and 5 million additional people below the poverty line (to make 37 million, the population of the East Coast). Our infant mortality rates, especially for inner city impoverished people, rival rates in Malaysia and India.

In the second article, Media Magic, Mantsios argues that the media (TV and movies in particular) make class disappear from America. In propaganda week, we talked about the messages that the Soviets and US sent back and forth. In American media, not only are black people as tokens doing just great (often as cops and soldiers), but no one is starving or living in their car with their family, picket fenced houses have plenty to eat and a large shopping budget, and class difference rarely makes a difference. In the 80s there were many evil rich guy villains, but the fantastic plot always thwarts the evil guy with too much money and a moustache (great example is Goonies, where the families were going to loose their houses to a golf course run by evil rich father and son, up to the father’s final line ‘No one will ever loose their house again!’ while throwing pirate treasure up into the air).

Poverty is increasing at twice the population growth rate, yet less than 1 in 500 articles in the NY Times is on poverty (and ask Chomsky, they set the nations news). Welfare cheats and aggressive pan handlers take up a sizable portion of the space given to the impoverished in print. Visually, they are never given a face with photographs or clips (a particularly important factor – tell people to go look up the whistle tips clip, compare the tipsters to the middle class white woman complaining ‘I have to get up for work’). Whenever the poor are covered, it is ALWAYS from a middle class white perspective, never from the perspective of the poor. This is lined up next to Democrats unabashedly supporting the middle class but never the poor with words and programs. Obama as other Democrats support “middle class families”, and no one mentions needed programs to help the impoverished get out of poverty. They have to speak as if there IS no poverty, that America’s way of life does not have harmful and increasing side effects.

It is estimated that 2/3rds of the Senate is composed of millionaires. This is quite disproportionate to the population. The media never point this out or indicate it is a problem.

Walter Karp’s Indispensable Enemies
Walter Karp (1934-1989) was a writer and journalist largely for Harper’s magazine. His favorite subjects are the crooked nature of America getting into wars, which he argues are power grabs for the upper class, and the shallow and deceptive two party system of American politics, the subject of Indispensable Enemies, which he argued is a device to keep power in the hands of the upper class and out of the hands of the common people.

Some great quotes:
“The left and right wings of the party establishment- two claws of an ancient bird of prey.”
“The public school system…a 12 year sentence of mind control…destroying the exerxise of intellectual inquiry, twisting it instead into meek subservience to authority.”
“The most esteemed journalists are the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources.”
And, my favorite: America has one party with two wings.
(Note similarity to spectrum within one communist party system, left and right leaning)

In Indispensable Enemies Karp starts by noting that in American politics there is always a powerful ‘other’ to blame for not getting what one’s group wants, but no group seems to be able to get what it wants for itself. Karp gives as example country and city folk (farms vs. roads and schools), where both seem to stop the other from getting what they want but neither can get what they want. Karp will spend much of the book examining the two party system in this light.

Karp argues that we are being given the run-around. We are being told that this is the unfortunate bi-product of living in a diverse land of freedom, but the powerful get what they want and the powerless are being told that they get nothing because they and the other groups of powerless are free and opposed to each other. We live in the most powerful nation thus far in history, but we can’t get anything done for the common people and are told this is BECAUSE of the common people and how free they are to oppose one another in their opinions. Karp says: this does nothing to explain how the things that get done do get done, and how they do benefit particular (and powerful) interests.

Karp argues that the basic assumption that parties are trying to win elections needs to be questioned. We need to rather ask what the two parties have done in the last 150 years (the time in which America has risen to be the wealthiest nation). When you look at it this way, we see that the two parties have controlled 50% of the country split down the middle since the civil war polarized the country. A landslide in American elections is 60-40, and neither party seems to push lasting popular legislation. Most states stay blue or red for decades, if they ever change at all. This means that, through all of the changes that Zinn, Grossman, Chomsky, Carson and the Corporation have been talking about, the two political parties have remained exactly the same.

Karp argues that, when we realize that the two parties are trying to maintain control over their 50%, we can see many things. This is the thesis of the book. We can see that anyone too left or right of center is sabotaged by the party. A party would rather see the other side win a district for a while then see someone who is intent on pushing forward real change. You must prove your loyalty and centrality to be big and get elected. If you show any independence or disloyalty the party will kill your campaign with the help of the other party and wait for the next election, concentrating on keeping a tight and simple lock on the 50%, not on pushing forward a program. Thus Karp charges that we have one party, with two wings, not two parties at all.

Remember that Karp started writing as a college student during the Vietnam War. He saw how the Democrats weakly criticized the way the war was run but helped kill the peace movement by “keeping the war out of politics”. This is what we have seen since Karp’s death in the middle east conflicts. We can say in light of the Corporation that both parties also keep corporations and their ability to pay both sides to play ‘out of politics’.

In addition, both parties collude to keep third parties out. If either gets significantly over 60% of the vote, one party could break into two. It serves the simple interests of both to keep just about 50%. That way, both can bank half the population without fear of a third party taking part, and the two can drive the people against each other with empty ideology and there is no competition either for the liberal or conservative establishment such that they would have to do something.

In political science classes, you can learn that most Americans do not vote because they do not believe that they can get anything done. Karp is arguing that the parties are in fact trying for this, to involve one with a polarized party such that one votes merely for right or left and nothing else concrete. You also learn that most powerful corporations and figures straddle both sides of American politics, contributing to both Democrat and Republican campaigns. This is the way that the device works. The upper class pay and play for both sides and further the interests of American power (which is held in particular American hands). The common people are set against each other and told that because the other side is as free as they are nothing can get done. The parties are not in fact trying to please the public at all, but merely polarize liberals against conservatives while getting next to nothing done any direction for the common people. The parties want your allegiance but no enthusiasm or interest. The decisions that are real, that affect power dynamics and class relations, are to be made by the powerful and not put into the awareness of the people at large. This is how the powerful maintain their ability and the common people are kept from doing anything meaningful or lasting. For example, if a war is on the table, all of congress votes for it and then the Democrats start hemming and hawing to the public about how this war could be better managed. What Karp describes of the Vietnam war, we see again post September 11th. Obama shifts the war back to Afghanistan, yet does not say the war should never have happened. BUT: conservatives can’t lobby congress to get complete freedom for gun ownership for the common people.

Karp argues that the real issues that deal with power in America are never put on the ballot. Consider gun ownership and gay marriage. These two issues will likely be kicked back and forth between liberals and conservatives without much concession. No matter which way either goes, opposite pressure can be mounted easily, and the upper class is not effected in the slightest. However, whether medical coverage should be free rather than owned by powerful people is an issue that changes class relations, and thus it is not a decision that should be given to the common people. It is clear that both liberals and conservatives would vote for free medical coverage even with conservative spin against government spending. Karp argues this is the reason you do not see anything like this on the ballot. In other words, it is all a game of good cop, bad cop, similar also to Operation Margarine.