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The Class War That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Mother Jones had an eyepopping, in the sense that they were both visually stunning and intellectually horrifying, set of charts in their March-April issue. If you want a visual representation of what is wrong with the United States, these charts are a pretty great resource, because they illustrate both the depth of the current income inequality, and the historical trends behind it. 10% of the population of this country controls 2/3 of the net worth in the United States, and the top 1% alone holds 34.6% of the net worth in the United States. 34.6%.

Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot, who prepared the piece, note that some of these numbers predate the financial crisis, and that the truth is even worse; for the bottom 60%, the housing crash was devastating, because 65% of their net worth was tied up in their homes. For the top 1%, that number was just 10%.

Eleven years ago, I was in Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention, sweating like a pig and shouting ‘what do we want? Class war! When do we want it? Now!‘ We didn’t get it then and we need it now more than ever, as these numbers illustrate. Even a casual flick of the newspaper provides ample backup for the argument that it is high time for a disruption of the class system in the United States; the system that dare not speak its name has a stranglehold on politics, culture, and human lives in this country.

California has been extremely hard hit by the financial crisis and the state is entering extreme ‘budget austerities,’ which means vicious cuts to social services; disabled Californians, poor Californians, and California kids (keep in mind that there is considerable overlap between these groups) are receiving the short end of the stick and in some cases it will be fatal. Slashes to funding go across the board, from day services for disabled adults to the gutting of programs providing childcare assistance to members of the working class. The state, like the nation, is attempting to hold the line on taxes and insists that it will not raise taxes to cover the budget shortfall, instead squeezing blood from a stone to avoid offending delicate sensibilities. Apparently killing disabled people is less offensive than raising taxes.

The state hasn’t stopped with social services. Cuts to law enforcement and fire services are also ramping up. In Mendocino County, we have no sheriff in the small hours of the morning because there isn’t enough staff to provide coverage (meanwhile, the Sheriff’s office is requesting donations from members of the public to fund basic services). As someone who lives outside the jurisdiction of the police, that means that if I need assistance from law enforcement during those hours, I’m in trouble. The Press Democrat, covering neighboring Sonoma County, noted recently that Santa Rosa’s fire services are on the cutting table, despite the fact that they had just passed a sales tax increase to avert this very situation. These kinds of cuts are not unique to California, but our cuts are among the most extreme, and should be a warning sign to other states where ‘austerity measures’ are looming.

As the charts at Mother Jones point out, overall wealth has been building in the United States over the last 100 years, but it hasn’t been building equally. In fact, income inequality has been increasing at an extremely rapid rate. The top one percent shoots high, high above the rest of us. 90% of the population makes an average of $31,244 a year. In contrast with over $27 billion earned by the top .01%. Meanwhile, we are facing the development of a new lost generation, young people in the United States who have been able to attend college are struggling under mounting student loan debt they have no realistic chance of repaying, and many of us have wealth counted in negative figures because debt is the cost of living, and the deeper in debt you go, the harder it is to pull yourself out.

Millionaires skate by paying very, very little in taxes, and the companies they own are even more extreme. Some, like GE, not only don’t pay taxes, they actually get money back from the government. Some of that money came from me, a taxpayer squeezed in every direction as a consequence of being self employed, in an awkward tax bracket, and unable to hide any of my income. Some of that money may have come from you. It certainly came from social services agencies that are struggling to make it on not nearly enough money even as more of the population is needing them because of unemployment and financial desperation.

What this country needs is a class war. People should be enraged by the current economic situation, and instead the response seems to be largely apathetic, despite the work of groups like US Uncut. Many people seem surprised to learn about how many social issues, how much inequality and injustice, comes around to class in the end; having trouble caring for a disabled child? It’s not because disability is an overwhelming burden that you can’t surmount, it’s because you don’t have the class status to have, say, an accessible home. Respite services. Actual medical support.

Class is something many people in the United States are reluctant to engage with. It goes against many of our mythologies, myths built and maintained by the wealthy to create a fairy tale dreamworld where we dare not go against our oppressors. For the wealthy, there is a distinct advantage in perpetuating the legend that anyone can get anywhere through hard work, that everyone in the United States has a fair shake, that everyone can forge their own destinies and shape their own fortunes. For the wealthy, there are distinct advantages in making members of the lower and middle classes (the rapidly vanishing middle classes) believe that raising taxes is bad; they tell us that we shouldn’t promote tax cuts because then the government will take all our money away, because someday we will be wealthy too, and then we will be sad about the tax rate. For the wealthy, the endurance of the bootstrapping myth is catnip.

The refusal to engage with class inequality in the United States makes it fundamentally challenging to address other inequalities as well, since class is tied in with so many of them. Inequality is a structural and social, not personal, issue, but it is often made out to be the fault of those experiencing it. This, too, is a legacy of mythologies created by the wealthy; reinforcing the legend that it’s your own fault if you experience inequality means that society has no responsibilities to you, because you need to bootstrap out of wherever you are. This carries over into the simplistic and narrow way many people, including people who consider themselves activists or feminists or social justice advocates, talk about and deal with inequality; as a personal problem, not a social and structural one. To smash inequality, we must dismantle the society that creates it.

We all know how to fix the looming deficit, and the answer isn’t austerities. It’s raising taxes on the wealthiest members of the United States, and it’s making corporations cough up their tax bills. A recent McClatchy poll showed 64% of respondents supporting an increase in taxes for those making over $250,000. Yet, those in a position to put such a measure through are reluctant.

I can’t imagine why, after all, only 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires.

21 Comments

  1. Laughingrat wrote:

    Preach it!

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  2. Geek wrote:

    People don’t realize that it’s so much easier to build wealth at those income rates. All so true. Those charts..woo. Even in the top 10% I KNOW I’m never getting the American Dream of being super-rich. I’m never going to be one of those 250K/year people, and trying to convince me not to ask them to pay more tax is ridiculous (heck, I could probably pay a bit more but let’s start at the top :) .

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 11:54 am | Permalink
  3. ripley wrote:

    We already have a class war going on. It’s been waged against the poor for years and years, and against everyone who is not a multimillionaire as well. As I think someone at “Making Light” said: every time a price is attached to a basic necessity of life (or when that price goes up), given income inequality like we have here, that is an act of class war.
    what was the bailout of the banks? an act of class war. Cutting funding for education? class war. handing over responsibility & pricing for healthcare to private companies (including Obama’s plan forcing us to pay those companies)? class war. They’ve been warring on us for a long time. We’ve gotta recognize it and start fighting back.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  4. E wrote:

    I had to laugh at your comment about raising taxes in California. I left California precisely because the 9.3% income tax and the 9.25% sales tax were already ridiculously high. I save thousands every year by virtue of having moved to a state with a more reasonable tax policy.

    Also, California’s budget problem arises from having become dependent on a high income tax. When the recession caused high income earners to lose their jobs, the state lost a huge percentage of their income. States that rely on more stable sources of income do much better in recessions.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  5. InfamousQBert wrote:

    i just sent this link to my representative. maybe she’ll share it around the house and raise the awareness of at least a few of her colleagues.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  6. Alyssa wrote:

    Damn straight. I live in one of the areas in the US with the highest taxes and you know what we have? Excellent public education and excellent public transportation. You don’t have to pay for private school because the public schools are just as good. Taxes are not the enemy people. We have them for a reason. I for one would be happy to pay more taxes (and I am by no means wealthy) for more stability and piece of mind.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  7. samanthab wrote:

    E, the 9.25% sales tax is a grossly unfair attempt to compensate for the inane property tax cap that’s been in place since 1978 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_13_%281978%29 ) High sales taxes hit everyone equally, no matter their income, while a property tax cap is a pretty nice deal for someone with a $15 million house.

    And you’re arguing against your own conservative beliefs. If income disparities lead to economic instability, how’s about we address them?

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Just lost my job after 6 1/2 yrs, so you are preaching to the choir here, but just wanted to lend my support to this awesomely true post.

    Palin elected fellow “mama grizzly” Nikki Haley (Ayn Randoid) governor here in SC, and we are even more fucked now than we were before. If that’s possible.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink
  9. Chai Latte wrote:

    Wow, this really hit home…especially this part:

    Meanwhile, we are facing the development of a new lost generation, young people in the United States who have been able to attend college are struggling under mounting student loan debt they have no realistic chance of repaying, and many of us have wealth counted in negative figures because debt is the cost of living, and the deeper in debt you go, the harder it is to pull yourself out.

    That’s me right now. After getting laid off from my teaching job, I decided to pursue my dream to become an animator. So now I have loans and shit in addition to no income–though not for lack of trying to find a part-time job, that’s for sure!

    It isn’t only the debt that’s screwing over young people. It’s the fact that we are denied financial independence no matter how hard we work. And THAT means that we cannot move forward in our lives. We are trapped in a vicious cycle. We didn’t create it and we should not be responsible for paying it–we have nothing to give.

    This part especially rang true:

    This, too, is a legacy of mythologies created by the wealthy; reinforcing the legend that it’s your own fault if you experience inequality means that society has no responsibilities to you, because you need to bootstrap out of wherever you are.

    This to infinity. I am beyond sick of being told it’s my fault that my life is stuck in neutral. FUCK THAT SHIT RIGHT NOW.

    Also, one thing that bugged me about this article…I really don’t think it’s ‘apathy’ so much as ‘total exhaustion’ on the part of us peasants. I mean, if you’re working all the time in school and/or two minimum-wage jobs and trying to feed/clothe your kids,etc., how much time and energy are you going to have left for activism? Yet another way the upper classes are fucking our shit up.

    Personally? I want a class war like whoa. I’m rereading “Les Miserables”, and let me tell you, if I thought building a barricade in the streets would help, I’d be all over that shit. (I’ll even crochet us a bunch of Phygian bonnets, if somebody else brings the tri-color sashes.)

    I don’t know what WILL help, but thanks for the US Uncut link–I will check that out and get involved. (“Students, workers, everyone…”)

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Jenny wrote:

    Ironic that they’re finally focusing on class now considering they’ve had apologists for neoliberal revolts against democratically elected socialists in foreign countries:
    http://www.swans.com/library/art16/barker47.html

    And they’ve been soft on Obama:
    http://www.distantocean.com/2011/03/why-i-dont-read-mother-jones.html

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink
  11. FB wrote:

    9.3% income tax? In California? I pay 33.3% procent in the Netherlands – and that’s low. Then again, if I need healthcare, I pay only €10,- for the basic package – the government pays the rest. And though I -am- being discriminated against for being disabled, if I needed an accessable home, I could get government subsidized legal assistence to get me one. And the government subsidized my stay in Germay, where I studied for four years for a mere €400,- a year. Hence no student debt.
    But sure, socialist practices will make everyone poor. Strange, though, that the Netherlands are still one of the richest countries in Europe.
    We are not an ideal society, much less a fair one – but higher taxes *do* help diminish abject poverty and provide some chances to get out of it.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 4:06 am | Permalink
  12. Cecile wrote:

    Agreement – but the top 0.01% make $27 million, not billion according to that infographic.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 5:52 am | Permalink
  13. Great post, as usual! Here in Minnesota, our former governor Tim Pawlenty appeased his conservative base by refusing to raise taxes for eight years–which had the effect of making my Minneapolis property taxes skyrocket out of control. I can afford them, but thousands of people in my community on fixed incomes, and those who got snagged in the housing bubble and/or got canned in the recession lost their homes. Mpls also got hit with a tax increase so the millionaires in the Pohlad family could have a new baseball stadium. Shall I go on? I could.

    Now T-Paw is running for President, promising to bring these fiscal policies to YOUR hometown! Watch your wallets, people!

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  14. raddad wrote:

    @FB – I like the idea of us all being poor together than a few of being rich and the rest struggling along. It reminds me of The Disppossesed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dispossessed. There was a famine in the anarchist society, everyone was hungry but no one starved.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  15. Catherine wrote:

    In the Midwestern county where I’m from, I don’t think the sheriff’s dept. is staffed at night, and people there certainly don’t have police (at night, not even for the people who live in town). The fire dept. is volunteer. The situation might not be at all comparable to yours, but I am now wondering if anyone knows where statistics might be found showing how many people in the U.S. do have access to police and fire services?

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  16. Mary Tracy wrote:

    Excellent. I love it when feminists bring up Class. Well done!

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  17. kt5000 wrote:

    FB – just curious – do you have national, state, and local income taxes, and does the 33% represent all of your income tax?

    E was noting that California’s *state* income tax was high, and that’s being paid in addition to federal income taxes. I believe some counties and municipalities also have income taxes.

    Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  18. E wrote:

    KT5000, so true! For example, San Francisco has an additional 1.5% city income tax. So a married couple living in San Francisco that earns $250,000 has to pay $60,281 in federal income tax; $23,250 in state income tax; and $3,750 in city income tax for a grand total of $87,281! Of course there are some deductions, but if you’re living in San Fran it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to afford a house and get the benefits of a deduction for mortgage interest.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink
  19. E wrote:

    SamanthaB, I didn’t say that income disparities lead to economic instability. I said that high state income taxes lead to the government’s economic instability. Your statement makes it sound like I think there would be more stability if everyone made the same amount of money.

    Also, the state income tax is pretty flat too just like the sales tax. Everyone making between 47k and a million a year pays 9.3% income tax. Those making over a million have to pay an additional 1% (10.3% total).

    I agree that the state property tax situation in California is ridiculous.

    I’m also not suggesting a solution, I was merely pointing out that raising income tax in California on the rich wouldn’t solve anything. I came from nothing and have a fantastic job now because I worked very hard to put myself through school so I can’t support the OP’s argument that we need a class war.

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  20. Catherine wrote:

    “So a married couple living in San Francisco that earns $250,000 has to pay $60,281 in federal income tax; $23,250 in state income tax; and $3,750 in city income tax for a grand total of $87,281!”

    E, I’m a little confused: are you saying it’s bad to take home $162,719? I know SF has a high cost of living, but my own two-income household makes half of that *before* taxes, and we consider ourselves among the rich. (We actually are among the top 5% worldwide.)

    Friday, May 6, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  21. samanthab wrote:

    E, yeah, I get that. You’re not properly following the conclusions to be made from your own information- that’s *my* point.

    And, y’know, it’s great that you worked hard, but it’s damn arrogant for you to assume that Americans struggling to make ends meet aren’t working extraordinarily hard themselves. There’s an abundance of Americans working 2-3 part time jobs, getting nickled and dimed, and getting no access to health insurance. Once again, you’re disproving your own argument. You’re showing precisely why there’s a need for a class war; you’re convinced that you’re entitled to your inequitable income because you’ve worked hard as if that’s something rare and extraordinary. If you got out of your own bubble of entitlement- one that seems to be characteristic of the US’ higher earners- you might see that this is not the case. But then how would you justify your callousness?

    Saturday, May 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Permalink