Monday, August 20, 2012

Responding To A Shallow Liberal Take on Class-Struggle

So, I'm done school...for real, completely, totally done. Contrary to what I expected when I wrote in early July, I no longer feel as much urgent need for acute detox from the way that school has shaped my practices around time, reading, and writing -- I for sure still need to loosen the grip of practices shaped in the academy, but I was able to start the process in some ways before I actually finished and did not have to wait until I pressed "send" to submit my last assignment.

As I first suggested in that post and managed to realize twice (1, 2) while school was still in progress, part of that detox process has already involved and will continue to involve what I've been thinking of as my Good Men Project Project. That is, for a limited time I will set aside two or three one-hour chunks of time per week (less than that before I actually finished school) to do time-limited responses to articles posted on the GMP site. I originally set out to do this knowing little about the site and expecting it to be quite focused on questions of masculinity, with an uncertain political orientation. It turns out that its focus is broader than that, though it tends to assume a liberal male audience. Anyway, I'm still going through with this little project.

The post I've chosen to respond to today in a one-hour(ish) timed writing is "Eat the Rich" by someone called Brandon Ferdic, about whom I know nothing. This piece is not about masculinity at all, but I'm going ahead with it because none of the top bunch of stories on the site were about masculinity in any way that interested me.

This piece is just not very good at all. It is subheaded "Both the rich-defenders and the rich-haters are right in their own way, given what they're focused on," and it is exactly the sort of shallow, liberal response to class struggle that sentence implies. It lays out why, in today's tough economic times, some folks who aren't doing so well might want to go after those at the top. It acknowledges that much of the current mess was caused by rich people and their institutions. However, it then goes on to make a distinction between those parasitic rich people who messed things up and those rich people who are "the lifeblood of an economy." Those people protesting the 1%, says Ferdic, can only do so because of the past good deeds of these productive Richy Riches, and argues that taxing the productive rich less while regulating the "'bad' rich folks" more stringently is the key to fixing everything. It closes with a vaguely pro-labour, pro-regulation position.

I want to make a few quick points in response.

The first is its focus on the affective relationship that non-rich people may or may not have towards rich people -- the first few paragraphs include words like "rich-haters," "jealousy," "scorn," and "mad at rich people." These are things, the author says, that are understandable given the economic crisis, but that can lead to bad policy. The implication seems to be that redistributive politics are a result of understandable but inappropriate affect. In other words, it's a kind of scolding of poor people and telling them that they don't really know what's in their own best interest. Not only is this patronizing, it is also a backhanded way of discrediting politics that are much more often about a sense of fairness and a desire to eat than any particular vindictiveness towards the rich (though some individuals may certainly feel such vindictiveness, of course).

The second is the assertion that "a protester wouldn’t have the luxury of spare time and extra money to take off of work and buy the paper and markers needed to make and hold up his sign" without these productive capitalists. To seriously argue this, you have to base what you are saying on some pretty untenable assumptions. For instance, you could say that given that our current way of organizing making and doing over the last few centuries has an integral role for capitalists, then leaving all else the same while removing capitalists from the equation would create nothing but a big mess. However, not only is that not the only possible consequence of reorganizing things such that there are no capitalists -- see below -- but they are hardly the only integral element of how things have been in the last few centuries. It makes more sense to think of change not as removing people but as shifting relations, so you don't get a vacuum, you get a different whole. Even more significantly, this statement is historically ignorant and really insulting in that it denies the fact that having time off and a little extra money is more about histories of struggle by ordinary people, many of whom were killed and brutalized in those struggles, than about any generosity on the part of the historical antecedents of today's supposedly productive rich people.

The third is what Ferdig has to say about the relationship between wealth and work: "For most rich people, their wealth is an indication of how hard they work, what they do with their money, and the resultant growth they generate to the economy and job market." While I'm sure many rich people work hard, the relationship between wealth and work that this implies is just wrong, and is harmful to the rest of us who work hard but aren't rich. Hard work helps rich people, certainly, and for some but not all rich people it is even a necessary ingredient to their wealth, but hard work on its own has very little relationship to wealth. Wealth is more about unearned privilege -- inherited assets, but also often racial privilege, as well as being able to benefit from the hard work of others. In some instances, just plain luck plays a role too. Many rich people were born rich, and most if not all fortunes can be traced back to theft and exploitation -- taking from that which is produced by the hard work of others -- at some point in their history. Nelson Rockefeller, Conrad Black, Bill Gates, the Queen -- that's just how it works. It is everyone else's hard work that generates the wealth that make rich people wealthy.

So even granting that lots of rich people work hard, the problem is that their hard work gets rewarded so disproportionately. That is, that they get to take the fruits of so many other people's work. Ferdic may be unaware, but trying to raise kids on social assistance in a tremendous amount of work, and his position implies that it either isn't as hard as being a rich person, or it isn't as important as the work that rich people do. This also connects back to the first point -- it isn't "jealousy" or "scorn" to say "we made this wealth, and we want it to be distributed differently." It's about values and about a recognition that raising kids or cleaning toilets or bagging groceries are no less hard than whatever it is that rich people do, and it is just not fair to allow a tiny proportion of the population to benefit so disproportionately from the work that the rest of us do.

The crux of his argument, though, is that it is to the benefit of all of us to let the "good" rich people stay rich, and perhaps even to get richer. It is supposedly in our best interest, that is, to let a small proportion of people appropriate the benefits of the hard work that the rest of us do, so they can reinvest in creative and useful ways. In part, he builds on a distinction similar to one common in many parts of the left between productive capital and financial capital, and the argument that the latter got too powerful, caused the crash, and we need to regulate it while supporting the former.

There are a few problems with this line of argument. One is that it is much too cavalier in assuming that those productive capitalists, the good rich people in Ferdic's language, necessarily do things that are to the benefit of all of us. Certainly some of us benefit from some of the processes that involve a capitalist making unilateral, profit-based decisions about what to do with her money, but the situation is much more complicated. For instance, I don't have time to track down links, but I know there are plenty of instances of Whole Foods markets -- the owner is an example he uses of a good rich person -- treating people that work for them badly, exploiting them, and contributing to the growth of an unsustainable and environmentally harmful food system. There are plenty of other examples of "productive" uses of wealth that kill people, kill the planet, treat people horribly, and so on, even if they are productive, even if they make things, even if they innovate.

This argument also rests on the assumption that there is only one way for making and doing to be organized: primarily through the dictatorial decisions of private capitalists. That, of course, is not true. Even a centralized, state-planned economy -- which I am not arguing for -- is capable of a great deal of productivity and innovation, contrary to neoliberal myths (though of course it has other drawbacks). And I believe that social relations that are neither market nor state are possible -- social relations that are democratic, participatory, just, and not based on exploitation. Profit is not necessary for creativity, by the way...this article does what capitalist pieces often do and conflate human creativity and ingenuity, which can be motivated by lots of other things besides exploitative profit, with particular ways of allocating resources. And I think grassroots participatory democracy in realms of making and doing is the key to the latter. (How to get to that point is, of course, another story.)

Anyway...if this was not time-limited, I could do a much more effective job of laying out what I mean. There's the whole complicated but important argument of how social relations of capital are woven through other forms of difference infused with power, and vice versa. And I know that a short anti-capitalist piece is unlikely to convince anyone who is already steadfastly opposed. But at least take what I've said as laying out some points of disagreement to explore elsewhere. Anyway, the idea that rich people deploying their disproportionate resources to increase their own wealth is in the best interests of all of us can only make sense if you ignore the immense and diverse harm that capitalism does, and if you refuse to consider other ways of relating the needs that all of us have, the forms of making and doing that we are capable of, and the participatory and democratic processes that are possible.

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