Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 14, 2017

Do workers admire and seek to emulate the superrich?

Filed under: capitalist pig — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

On November 10, 2016, an article titled “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class” appeared in the Harvard Business Review. The author is Joan C. Williams, the Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, who has a new book coming out on “The White Working Class” that presumably is a full-length treatment of the arguments found in the article. They can be boiled down to the claim that “the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich.”

It rests mostly on her personal experience of having a father-in-law who was “a blue-collar white man who thought the union was a bunch of jokers who took your money and never gave you anything in return.” He rose from poverty to become an inspector in a factory that made machines that measure humidity levels in museums, read the Wall Street Journal and was a registered Republican. Apparently, he is the prototypical Trump voter in Williams’s eyes.

With respect to white workers resenting professionals, she cites Barbara Ehrenreich who referred to her blue-collar father as not being able “to say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack.” Furthermore, he believed that “Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Perhaps Ehrenreich’s father was not the most representative sample. He was a copper miner but went to the Montana State School of Mines and then to Carnegie Mellon, finally settling in to a position as senior executive at the Gillette Corporation. If he resented management, it was not to such a degree that he avoided becoming part of it.

Apparently fond of citing leftists to buttress her argument, Williams also cites a sociologist who is considered a follower of Pierre Bourdieu:

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk.

There’s only one problem with Williams’s citation of Lamont. The people workers “can’t knock for succeeding” are not the rich but the managers they supposedly resent–as an article on workers voting Republican in the Nation Magazine indicated:

In fact, while these workers generally did not feel resentment toward the middle-class managers and professionals above them–saying, for example, that “I can’t knock anyone for succeeding”–their view of them was far from admiring.

You get more or less the same thing in today’s NY Times from Andrew Ross Sorkin in an article titled “A Billionaire’s Party Is a Lens on Wealth in the Trump Era” written by Andrew Ross Sorkin. From the opening paragraphs, you’d think you’d be getting the sort of thing that Matt Taibbi or Chris Hedges writes:

So, Stephen A. Schwarzman had another birthday party.

The celebration for his 70th birthday at his Palm Beach, Fla., home over the weekend included live camels, trapeze artists and a performance by Gwen Stefani. Some reports speculated the party cost as much as $20 million, a price tag that insiders say is ridiculously inflated, but clearly the event fell in the category of over-the-top expensive.

Yet, the entire purpose of the article is to legitimize this gilded-age bacchanalia because working people want to emulate the Stephen A. Schwarzman’s of the world.

The populist, anti-Wall Street sentiment that was so loud after the financial crisis found its voice last year in the campaign of Bernie Sanders — and to some degree, ironically, in Mr. Trump’s. Whatever animus exists against fat cats has been muted among Mr. Trump’s red-state voters, at least temporarily, as long as he follows though [sic] on his promise to create jobs. It’s a point that many of us in the media — myself included — largely missed.

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s surprise election may speak volumes about how large parts of the country view big business today, as well as Mr. Trump’s efforts to lower taxes and deregulate parts of Wall Street. And Mr. Schwarzman is at the center of many of those efforts.

Back in 2012, NPR ran an article which clearly did not get the attention it deserved, especially given what it portended for the subsequent election cycle. The headline: “The Income Gap: Unfair, Or Are We Just Jealous?”

At the time, much of the media was regularly reporting on income inequality, the widening gulf between the rich and poor.

The NPR article was based on the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center that bear repeating: They showed “a significant shift in public perceptions of class conflict in American life,” but “they do not necessarily signal an increase in grievances toward the wealthy.”

According to the Pew report, “It is possible that individuals who see more conflict between the classes think that anger toward the rich is misdirected.” The data, the report said, did not indicate “growing support for government measures to reduce income inequality.”

Maybe that explains it. Or perhaps everyone who criticized Mr. Schwarzman a decade ago is now just too busy focusing on Mr. Trump.

To start with, Sorkin is a sleazy defender of the one-percent so this article is par for the course. Not long after Occupy Wall Street began, Sorkin took it upon himself to investigate the movement in order to provide a dossier for a Stephen Schwarzman type that would allow him to judge the risk to his ill-gained wealth:

I had gone down to Zuccotti Park to see the activist movement firsthand after getting a call from the chief executive of a major bank last week, before nearly 700 people were arrested over the weekend during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Is this Occupy Wall Street thing a big deal?” the C.E.O. asked me. I didn’t have an answer. “We’re trying to figure out how much we should be worried about all of this,” he continued, clearly concerned. “Is this going to turn into a personal safety problem?”

Like Williams, Sorkin cherry-picks the data to support his conclusion. In referring to the Pew Research report that dismissed support for “government measures to reduce income inequality”, he fails to mention that such measures are supported by 46 percent of Americans. Considering the utter failure of both the Democrats and Republicans to support such policies, the fact that nearly half the country is for some redistributive measures speaks volumes. He also failed to mention another Pew finding that hardly squares with the notion of working people only seeking to emulate Horatio Alger type to become like Schwarzman. Pew pollsters found that 82% of Americans favored policies that encourage economic growth should be high priorities. Since the word policy means government action, this represents a huge mandate for New Deal type action that both Trump and Clinton would have avoided like a vampire avoids a cross.



  1. The adoption of the “or are they just jealous” line is in keeping with NPR’s outlook. It’s so much easier and more comforting to attribute the ire of the working class about the increasing disparity to “jealousy” than to the facts of what the so-called “recovery” have meant: the post-crash financial gains in the upper 10 percentile at the expense of the bottom 90%. The decline in living standards for the vast majority while profits for major corporations (especially the big three automakers after Obama’s bailout) soar while wages are stagnant at best, and in a time when the fastest job growth area is the service industry is an incredibly volatile thing. So much so that major papers wonder aloud if there is danger in the widening disparity – not from any altruistic or moral point of view, but from the “should we invest in fancy bunkers?” outlook. (Answer: yes, apparently.)

    The accusation of being “jealous” is meant to give us workers pause to examine our hearts and realize that we’d be rich if God had meant it that way, but such moralizing will only hold back the tide of social unrest for so long.

    Comment by Miele — February 14, 2017 @ 9:04 pm

  2. Maybe 30 years ago I asked my University students (in a social psychology class I was teaching) if they wanted to be “rich” and there was a very strong consensus among them that they would like to be rich. So when I asked them what was the reason for wanting to be rich it was widely felt in this class that the main reason to become rich is that you wouldn’t have to work. Obviously this is partly in reaction to their experience in working in (usually) low-paying jobs to support themselves while studying, sometimes having a family to raise in addition to that. There is little doubt in my mind that most people “envy the rich” but we need to explore the reasons for this. There used to be a TV series called “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”, which lasted only one year. It would be interesting to know just why the show was canceled but I doubt it was because of low ratings. I also told my students the secret of how to be rich: choose your parents wisely.

    Comment by Steve Heeren — February 15, 2017 @ 12:57 am

  3. What is at work here, Lou, is the fear that the rich have of the sans culottes. I recently saw Farewell, My Queen a 2012 French film by Benoît Jacquot. It brilliantly plotted the growing fear among the Aristos of the lower orders and the increasing cheekiness of their servants.

    At this time the rich want to hear good bed time stories and “the working class do not hate you” must be a very soothing theme.

    But the truth is that despite what fairy stories the academy spin for the benefit of the rich, unless the 1% do the rational thing and allow desperately needed reforms, it will all end in blood sweat and tears.

    BTW I have a vivid recollection of your postings of the incipient Occupy movement. they were brilliant examples of reporting.


    Comment by Gary MacLennan — February 15, 2017 @ 9:45 am

  4. The slave, when freed, does not want freedom for others. He wants slaves of his own.

    Comment by Pat McClung — February 15, 2017 @ 10:50 am

  5. Whenever some neoliberal or crypto-neoliberal apologist for social inequality starts yapping about “envy,” I’m always prompted to say “So what?”

    Why shouldn’t a deprived and oppressed person envy those who are spared the increasingly harsh penalties of not being rich? What would that actually prove?

    Of course, the “envy” meme goes back to the likes of Edmund Burke, who saw self-evidently self-disqualifying envy behind the French Revolution, invoking a tradition going back into the distant past.

    But in Burke’s case, as with the envy-hating conservatives who preceded him, the premise was that society was divided by God (or “nature”) into superiors and inferiors–with the result that any envy by an inferior of her “betters” obviously revealed both an evil character (against God) and, more importantly, a necessarily futile one, operating contra naturam and inherently destined to fail.

    In an America still–though perhaps less than at any previous time–obsessed with the idea of “democracy,” this point of view remains, however marginally, unacceptable as such.

    If pressed, for the most part, those who appeal to the “envy” meme, instead of making some Burkean appeal to the idea of divinely instituted inequality, merely fly apart in a shower of infected spittle about maturity vs. immaturity, the hard work of the wealthy, children who’ve had too much ice cream at lunch (and have to be sent to bed without their dinners), and other equally infantile and inconsequential idiocies without any logical or factual foundation.

    The main (partial) exceptions to this, apart from “market” fetishists who forbid discussion of any topic but the circulation of money and commodities (the “market” has created the rich; blessed be the market), are followers of Ayn Rand, etc.–or those who have fallen, more generally (and often without knowing what they have done), into the mold first carved by Max Stirner and his like–two ideologies that–while intellectually somewhat effortful–are clearly nothing but crude masks for sociopathy. A form of social Darwinism at one time also had mindshare; but at present this pseudo-science appears also to have a limited subscription.

    Those liberals whose true love is the mythical “intelligent conservative” (Harvey Mansfield, anyone?) will continue to pant after this “interesting” drivel like the hart after the water brooks or Odysseus after the faithful Penelope. Those of us who, after a painful lifetime of toxic exposure, know better, do not waste our time with it as we descend terrfiied into the slaughterhouse of old age in Ronald Rump’s America.

    Are we to regard Rump and his mignons as our divinely appointed (or more highly evolved) betters? We thought political self-caricature had reached its limit with the rebarbative G.W. Bush and his crews of deplorables–but now look at us.

    Alas some in America do believe in the magical silencing power of the “envy” motif, though they still have to justify it somehow “democratically.”

    What a shame that it is still necessary to discuss this non-topic at all.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 15, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

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