With the seeming deconstruction of the Biden Administration proceeding at a rapid clip, many on the right hope for an end to the conscious stoking of class resentments that has characterized progressive politics. Yet despite the political meltdown, America’s class divides have become so wide, and so bitter, that Biden’s presidency may prove more a prelude than a denouement for the future of class warfare.
Under both parties, American society, traditionally egalitarian, at least in theory, has become ever more divided by financial class. Today, the Federal Reserve demonstrates that the top one percent have more assets than the 60 percent who occupy the middle rungs. The remarkable rise of the tech oligarchy has paced this change, creating a gusher of wealth for the chosen few, including youthful, unproven start-up CEOs turned instant billionaires—as well as an unprecedented boom on Wall Street. The pandemic has accelerated this trend, vastly enriching the elites, and raising executive salaries to the highest ever. Meanwhile much of the working and middle classes may become increasingly dependent on what Marx called “the proletarian alms bag.”
In the process, the traditional ballast of American politics—a striving aspirational middle and working class—has been decimated. Our system rests on the notion of class mobility in both directions, without which everything devolves into a struggle over limited assets. Not surprising, notes Pew, most Americans are alienated from the political system. Roughly half of all Americans see capitalism as causing more harm than good, notes the recent Edelman trust survey, and a large majority fears being “left behind” economically. The prelude to autocracy and an expanded state, whether in twentieth century Europe or places like Chile today, rests upon alienation and a market that seems incapable of providing opportunities for the most families.
The new serfs
The biggest loser in early twenty first century America has been the working class. With the exception of wage gains made during the first three years of the Trump Administration, this class has seen its real income decline. Today, wages are rising again, but inflation is reducing real incomes, and leaving more Americans, particularly the poorest 50 percent, struggling to make ends meet. The pandemic lockdowns, whether justified or overwrought, have pummeled low-income workers and made more vulnerable those living in crowded housing.
Under lockdown the working class could not retreat, like the laptop class, to their computer screens. Barely 3 percent of low wage workers can telecommute versus 50 percent of those in the upper middle class. Workers at restaurants and shops have faced hard times, but professors and teachers continue to teach on-line, and senior bureaucrats remain on the job. And even when employed, observes the leftist journalist Glenn Greenwald, these workers, “the servant class,” remained masked while their charges, including at the recent Obama birthday celebration, cavort unmasked.
In our pandemic apartheid almost 40 percent of those Americans making under $40,000 a year lost their jobs in the first few months. Some 44 percent of Black households and 61 percent of Latino household, notes Pew, during the first year of the pandemic suffered a job loss or pay cut, compared to 38 percent of whites. “Lockdown fanatics,” thunders the widely circulated “labor populist” blog The Bellows, “have helped manufacture consent for a brutal reorganization of labor that will plunge millions of people into serfdom.“
Will the serfs rebel?
Where will the serfs go politically? They do not have a sympathetic audience among the progressive gentry. A writer at The New Republic has called for “blue states and cities to effectively abandon the American national enterprise,” dismissing the rest of the country as “crazy, deadbeat in-laws.” Calling people “deplorables” or “clingers” may well be part of the reason that working people, including many minorities, have shifted to the GOP. Salon recently published a piece that applauds the tendency among young progressives to ostracize and avoid contact with Trump supporters, not just politically but in daily life.
Progressive author Joan Williams has accused the national elites of “class cluelessness,” which leaves them vulnerable to authoritarian solutions. “If we don’t take steps to bridge the class culture gap, when Trump proves unable to bring steel back to Youngstown, Ohio, the consequences could turn dangerous,” Williams avers. What the working class wants, she suggested in a recent episode of Salon Talks, is not more welfare and transfers, as Biden has proposed, but “respect and solid middle-class jobs.”
But don’t count the working class out. The pandemic revealed how those of us in the laptop class depend on the efforts of people who work in restaurants, factories, and warehouses, who drive delivery trucks, and care for the sick. This class now appears to be gaining some consciousness of their real worth, as illustrated by the “Great Resignation,” workers deserting the workplace, and demanding more money for their labor. A wave of strikes has hit industrial firms but also “new economy” companies like Starbucks and Amazon, which has a history of labor abuses, as well as progressive icons like the New York Times and inside academia, where woke politics conflict with the realities of a bifurcated labor market between tenured faculty and low-paid teaching assistants.
The deep labor shortages, particularly evident in industry, will not go away even when the pandemic fades. Its roots lie in demographics, with low labor force growth and a sinking birthrate. There’s also a growing sense that work does not pay off among younger people, driving quit rates, notes Challenger and Grey, to record levels. Labor strife, in other words, could just be beginning.
Read the rest of this piece at American Mind.
Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.