Economics/Class Relations

“Class War” and the Lessons of History

I would generally agree with this author’s argument, following Aristotle, that diamond-shaped societies are better than pyramid-shaped societies, though I disagree with his analysis of how to get there (“Viva Roosevelt!”). Social democracy is like treating cancer with aspirin.

By David Brin

One aspect of our re-ignited American Civil War is getting a lot of air-play. It is so-called “class war.”

That’s the tag-line ordered up by Roger Ailes. The notion: that any talk of returning to 1990s tax rates – way back when the U.S. was healthy. wealthy, vibrantly entrepreneurial and world-competitive, generating millionaires at the fastest pace in human history – is somehow akin to Robespierre chopping heads in the French Revolution’s reign of terror.

That parallel is actually rather thought-provoking! Indeed, can you hang with me for a few minutes? After setting the stage with some American history, I want to get back to the way things got out of hand during that earlier 1793 class war in France.  There are some really interesting aspects I’ll bet you never knew.

Wealth-of-NationsBut in fact, “class war” has always been with us. If you ever actually sit down to read what people wrote in times past – for example Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, or even the Bible – then you know struggle and resentment between social castes was the normal state of human affairs for 6000 years, or much longer.  Seriously, randomly choose (or “roll-up”) a decade and locale from across the last few millenia! Tell me who oppressed freedom and competitive markets in that time and place. I’ll wait.

In fact, today’s American perspective that there is no-such-thing as class – so blithely exploited by Fox – seems rather quirky and charmingly innocent.  Baby Boomers, especially, were raised under  unusual circumstances — perhaps the only stretch of time in which a great nation experienced a (fairly) flat social order.

Now this calls for simplifying – so let’s set aside the battles over racial and sexual equality, etc. – but squint with me here, for a minute.  It’s fairly obvious that the period following the Second World War was (for white U.S. males) the least class-ridden of all time.  Disparities of wealth were at an all-time low and the middle class, flush with WWII savings, good wages and GI Bill-fostered competitiveness, experienced a generation of utter dominance over the American experience. A confident dominance that got woven into popular culture through TV and all other media.

= Pyramids and diamonds =

Instead of the classic human social pattern — pyramid-shaped with a tiny, fierce nobility lording it over peasant multitudes — ours was diamond-shaped with a well-off middle that actually outnumbered the poor! A miracle nobody in all the past ever foresaw. Except perhaps Smith. Certainly not Karl Marx! In fact, nothing so undermined the honey-seductive mantras of Marxism so much as the living example of the U.S. middle class. Which the whole world wanted to join.

And now the penultimate point (before getting back to 1793 France). Our post-WWII flattened-diamond pattern did not quash or undermine competitive capitalism!  Not at all. In fact, never before or since has there been such fecund, vigorous entrepreneurialism as during the flattest and most “level” social order the world ever saw.

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