There came a rare amusing moment in this election campaign when George Bush (who has $220 million dollars for his campaign) accused Al Gore (who has only $170 million dollars) of appealing to “class warfare”. It recalled the 1988 election campaign when Bush’s father (is this a genetic disorder?) accused candidate Michael Dukakis of instigating class antagonism.
I noticed that neither of the accused responded with a defiant “Yes, we have classes in this country.” Only Ralph Nader has dared to suggest that this country is divided among the rich, the poor, and the nervous in between. This kind of talk is unpardonably rude, and would be enough to bar him from the televised debates.
We have learned that we mustn’t talk of class divisions in this country. It upsets our political leaders. We must believe that we are one family – me and Exxon, you and Microsoft, the children of the CEOs and the children of the janitors. Our interests are the same – that’s why we speak of going to war “for the national interest” as if it was in all our interest; why we maintain an enormous military budget for “national security,” as if our nuclear weapons strengthen the security of all and not the securities of some.
That’s why our culture is soaked in the idea of patriotism, which is piped into our consciousness from the first grade, where we begin every day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance “…one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. I remember stumbling over that big word “indivisible” — with good reason, although I didn’t know the reason, being quite politically backward at the age of six. Only later did I begin to understand that our nation, from the start, has been divided by class, race, national origin, has been beset by fierce conflicts, yes, class conflicts, all through our history.
The culture labors strenuously to keep that out of the history books, to maintain the idea of a monolithic, noble “us” against a shadowy but unmistakably evil “them.” It starts with the story of the American Revolution, and, as the recent movie The Patriot tells us once more, (kindergarten history, put on screen for millions of viewers), we were united in glorious struggle against British rule. The mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers is based on the idea that we Americans were indeed one family, and that our founding document, the Constitution, represented all our interests, as declared proudly by the opening words of its preamble – “We, the people of the United States….”
It may therefore seem surly for us to report that the American Revolution was not a war waged by a united population. The hundred and fifty years leading up to the Revolution were filled with conflict, yes, class conflict — servants and slaves against their masters, tenants against landlords, poor people in the cities rioting for food and flour against profiteering merchants, mutinies of sailors against their captains. Thus, when the Revolutionary War began, some colonists saw the war as one of liberation, but many others saw it as the substitution of one set of rulers for another. As for black slaves and Indians, there was little to choose between the British and the Americans.
This class conflict inside the Revolution came dramatically alive with mutinies in George Washington’s army. In 1781, after enduring five years of war (casualties in the Revolution exceeded, in proportion to population, American casualties in World War II), over a thousand soldiers in the Pennsylvania line at Morristown, New Jersey, mostly foreign-born, from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, mutinied. They had seen their officers paid handsomely, fed and clothed well, while the privates and sergeants were fed slop, marched in rags without shoes, paid in virtually worthless Continental currency or not paid at all for months. They were abused, beaten, whipped by their officers for the smallest breach of discipline.
Their deepest grievance was that they wanted out of the war, claiming their terms of enlistment had expired, and they were kept in the army by force. They were aware that in the spring of 1780 eleven deserters of the Connecticut line in Morristown were sentenced to death but at the last minute the received a reprieve, except for one of them, who had forged discharges for a hundred men. He was hanged.
General Washington, facing by this time, 1700 mutineers – a substantial part of his army — assembled at Princeton, New Jersey, decided to make concessions. Many of the rebels were allowed to leave the army, and Washington asked the governors of the various states for money to deal with the grievances of the soldiers. The Pennsylvania line quieted down.
But when another mutiny broke out in the New Jersey line, involving only a few hundred, Washington ordered harsh measures. He saw the possibility of “this dangerous spirit” spreading. Two of “the most atrocious offenders” were court-martialed on the spot, sentenced to be shot, and their fellow mutineers, some of them weeping as they did so, carried out the executions.
In Howard Fast’s novel, The Proud and the Free, he tells the story of the mutinies, drawing from the classic historical account by Carl Van Doren, Mutiny in January. Fast dramatizes the class conflict inside the Revolutionary Army, as one of his characters, the mutinous soldier Jack Maloney, recalls the words of Thomas Paine and the promise of freedom and says yes, he is willing to die for that freedom, but “not for that craven Congress in Philadelphia, not for the fine Pennsylvania ladies in their silks and satins, not for the property of every dirty lord and fat patroon in New Jersey.”
When the war for Independence was won, class conflict continued in the new nation, as the Founding Fathers fashioned a Constitution that would enable a strong federal government to suppress any rebellion by their unruly children. The new government would serve the interests of slaveholders, merchants, manufacturers, land speculators, while offering white males with some property a degree of influence, but not dominance, in the political process.
The history of the next two hundred years was a history of control of the nation by one class, as the government, solidly in the hands of the rich, gave huge gifts of the nation’s resources to the railroad magnates, the manufacturers, the shipowners. Charles Beard, in the first years of the Great Depression, wrote caustically about “The Myth of Rugged Individualism”, noting that industrial and financial leaders were not rugged enough to make their own way in the world, and had to be subsidized, and silver-spoon fed, by the government.
When the ruling class (I’ve tried to avoid that old-fashioned radical expression, but it expresses a simple, strong truth) faced resistance, as they did all through the 19th and 20th centuries, by slaves, working people, farmers, and especially by the indigenous people of the continent, they called upon the government to use its armies and its courts to put down the ingrates.
Political leaders, then and now, would become especially annoyed when someone dared to suggest that we live in a class society, dominated by the moneyed interests. Thus, when Eugene Debs, opposing World War I, told an assembly in Ohio that “the master class has always brought a war, and the subject class has always fought the battle”, this could not be tolerated. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the spirit of patriotic liberalism, affirmed the sentence for a unanimous Supreme Court.
Even the slightest suggestion that we are a nation divided by class brings angry reactions. All Gore had to do was to talk ominously about “big money” (while pocketing huge amounts of it for his campaign) for Bush to become indignant. Surely he need not worry. Gore and Lieberman represent no threat to the rule of the super-rich. The New York Times hastened to reassure Bush. A front-page story in August was headlined “As a Senator, Lieberman is Proudly Pro-Business”, and went on to give the comforting details: that the Silicon Valley high tech industry loves Lieberman, that the military-industrial complex of Connecticut was grateful to him for making sure they got $7.5 billions in contracts for the Sea Wolf submarine.
The unity of both major parties around class issues (despite rhetoric and posturing by the Democrats to win the support of organized labor) becomes most clear when you see the total disaffection from politics of people at the bottom of the economic ladder. A New York Times reporter, in a rare excursion into “the other America”, spoke to people in Cross City, Florida about the election, and concluded: “People here look at Al Gore and George W. Bush and see two men born to the country club, men whose family histories jingle with silver spoons. They appear, to people here, just the same.”
Cindy Lamb, cashier at a Chevron filling station, wife of a construction worker, told him: “I don’t think they think about people like us,and if they do care, they’re not going to do anything for us. Maybe if they had ever lived in a two bedroom trailer, it would be different.” An African-American woman, a manager at McDonald’s, who made slightly more than the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, said, about Bush and Gore:I don’t even pay attention to those two, and all my friends say the same. My life won’t change.”
The election will be over and whether Gore or Bush is in the White House, the same class that has always dominated our political and economic systems will be in power. Whoever is President, we will face the same challenge the day after the voting: how to bring together the class of have-nots — a great majority of the country — into the kind of social movement that in the past has made the people in charge tremble at the prospect of “class warfare” and has gained some measure of justice.
Such a movement, responding to the great challenges of the new century, could bring democracy alive.
Published by ZCommunications • September 29, 2000