Mystery: Where is class consciousness?

An absolute precondition for class warfare is class consciousness. And one of the great mysteries of American history is that with just a few transient exceptions, there has been near zero class consciousness here. Or, more precisely: The very rich have been well aware of their class privilege and have labored mightily to protect and defend it, but the vast (and now declining) middle class, as also those nearer the bottom of the income distribution, have given little evidence of the kind of resentment that their status might be thought to warrant. They do not even require bread and circuses to keep them tame; they require, so it seems, only belief in the dream, the classic American dream that promises ever-upward mobility. No matter that the path out of the economic doldrums becomes increasingly potholed; never mind that the data on economic mobility in the United States show far less mobility here than in Canada, France, Germany and most of the Scandinavian countries — the dream persists.  And if the world of work offers little upward opportunity, then on to the casinos, on to the lottery, on to the racetrack; fantasies are just dreams with longer odds.

Currently, income inequality is all the rage — but it begets more clucking of the tongue than the kind of outrage it likely would in other countries. Over the course of the last 30 years or so, the rich have become much richer, and the very rich — the top .01 percent of us — have become vastly richer. Between 2009 and 2010, their income grew by 21.5 percent, providing them an average income of nearly $24 million. According to most measures, between 1979 and 2007, the real after-tax income of the bottom fifth of us rose by 18 percent; for the next three-fifths, the increase was 38 percent; for the top fifth, the increase was 65 percent. And within that top fifth, the increase at the very top — the top 1 percent — was 277 percent. And: Since the year 2000, the number of our fellow citizens living in poverty has increased by nearly half, from 31.3 million to 46.2 million; the number of the very poor (living at half the poverty line or less) has risen by more than 60 percent, from 12.6 million to 20.5 million; and the number of children living in poverty has risen from 11.6 million to 15.4 million — 22 percent of America’s children.

Yet, the best the Democrats can seem to do as they press for a modestly higher tax rate for the very wealthy is to whine. There is no sustained assault on the tax rates, save by the Occupy people, who gave us the 1 percent versus 99 percent, by now already a tired cliché rather than a call to organized outrage. Essays and books on the dangers of growing inequality proliferate; public policy remains near comatose.

All right then — Americans are simply not alarmed by the rising inequality. And we may presume that a major reason they are not alarmed, beyond the near-collapse of the labor union movement, is their abiding belief in the “American Dream”: Work hard, play by the rules, and you will be rewarded, you will climb the economic ladder. That belief, in the wake of rising college costs, of the rape of pension funds, of under-water mortgages, of all the dizzying decline in this generation’s condition and in the next generation’s prospects, is, evidently, part of the American DNA. This although 54 percent of us believe that when government intervenes, it is most often on the side of the rich; just 16 percent think government helps the poor, 7 percent the middle class and 6 percent “people like you.” Why is that perception alone inadequate to fuel a political assault on the reward system of our economy, to frame a consciousness and politics of class?

Again and always, the dream, likely the most deeply embedded element of the American belief system.

Still, dreams and beliefs aside, the harsh facts of American life include a broad stratum that is essentially locked into its poverty. That stratum suffers much higher rates of incarceration, much lower social and economic supports than its European equivalents, more single-mother families, greater public health problems — in general a more debilitating poverty than can be overcome with hard work. 

We may wonder if they dream, and of what they dream, but history teaches that it isn’t the very poor who make revolutions. It is the middle class, the aspiring class, the people whose sense of injustice is fueled by their proximity to the good life. And America’s middle class does not appear to be anywhere near a mature sense of injustice. Often, it prefers the handy scapegoats: a corrupt government, “waste and fraud,” immigrants, unions. 

The American dream versus the American data: So far, the dream remains way ahead. The radicals’ dream: That “so far” is not forever, that a continuing souring of the American prospect and mood will one day generate the missing consciousness. Otherwise? Otherwise, Langston Hughes proves prophetic as he asks what happens to a dream deferred: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? … Does it stink like rotten meat? … Or does it explode?”

Leonard Fein has written and advocated for progressive Jewish causes since the 1960s. In 1974 he founded Moment magazine, the journal of Jewish ideas, and in 1985 he founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.