2.28.2010

walkom: the art of reverse class war: if i don't have something, neither should you

Impudent Strumpet recently asked the David Byrne-esque question, "How did we get here?", later noting that her grandmother, who is probably around my mother's age, could choose not to have a pension because her husband's employment and retirement was so secure. Now, only a generation later, I am probably looking at working as long as I am physically able, then living in drastically reduced and possibly very scary circumstances in my old age.

How, indeed, did we get here?

How the economic prospects for working people deteriorated so much in so little time is a complicated story of globalization, conglomeration, deregulation and monetization of industry on the one hand, with its concurrent deskilling and devaluing of labour on the other.

How we got here is unchecked capitalism: the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney/Chicago School revolution that has not been reversed or stopped or even slowed.

Thomas Walkom talks a little about how we got here. Thanks to Accidental Deliberations for posting.
Class resentment used to be the preserve of the left. That workers were too poor could be blamed on the fact that bosses were too wealthy. If governments needed money, the preferred solution – rhetorically at least – was to make the rich pay.

These old-style resentments encouraged both Marxist economics (based on the notion that profit is by definition theft) and the progressive income tax system.

Indeed, the entire post-war welfare state was designed to better the conditions of the poor, thereby ensuring that these class resentments didn't get out of hand.

Today, class resentments have been turned on their head. The focus of anger is not the silk-hatted capitalist but his unionized workers, with their job protection guarantees, their pension plans and their good wages.

Increasingly, in the world of media and popular culture, it is not the rich who are blamed for their excesses but the poor – the undeserving welfare recipient, the shiftless single mother, the employment insurance cheat. Resentment has become a potent tool of the right.

This is the context in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government is hinting at plans to roll back federal public service pensions.

Forty years ago, the unionization of public servants was generally seen as a good thing.

Unions were on the rise. They had made great gains for their members after World War II and, in terms of pensions, benefits and wages, were setting the standard for the entire workforce.

In that context, and given the growing importance of government workers like nurses, it seemed sensible to encourage public sector unions.

Even if public sector benefits might, at times, appear more generous than those of other workers, the general assumption was that this was temporary, that over time everyone would catch up.

. . . .

The new resentment is based on the presumption that if I don't have something, neither should you. Its aim is not to improve anyone's lot but to cut down to a common level of misery those uppity enough to think they deserve better.

It is pessimistic, antithetical to any kind of common action and angrily passive. It rarely focuses on the bigger questions because it assumes that, at high levels of state and economy, nothing can be done, that the best anyone can hope for is to protect his tiny bit of turf from a marauding neighbour.

It is a form of resentment that suits those in charge. For Stephen Harper's Conservatives, it is a most useful passion. [More here.]

4 comments:

Dr.Dawg said...

John Kenneth Galbraith:

"To be a conservative is to believe that the poor have too much money, and the rich don't have enough."

johngoldfine said...

The world has moved on, but no one does a better job talking about class ressentiment and the distortions it imposes on people's thinking than the late Canadian sociologist Edgar Z. Friedenberg.

L-girl said...

I don't even know the name. I will look him up. Thanks, John.

Greg said...

But be careful. Don't you try to raise taxes on the rich. That's CLASS WARFARE (ZOMG!).

Just a week or so ago I was listening to a coworker bemoaning the fact that teachers here in Ontario have a well-managed pension fund. For some reason, this was a point of anger. How dare they put aside 10% of their income for 33 years, carefully and communally manage it and provide for all their retirees!

Yeah, dude. Whatever.