by Alex Fischer
Class war is heating up in America. Endemic to capitalism, class war is a crude term for the general struggle led by the poorer classes against the war led by the bourgeoisie or capitalist class over the fruits of the national economy.
Basic human rights such as food, housing, healthcare, education, and transportation are increasingly unaffordable. The purchasing power of the average wage in America has declined since 1970, while personal debt and record inequality are both increasing. The 3 wealthiest individuals in the U.S. have amassed as much wealth as the bottom half of the population (roughly 163 million people). As home to 27 percent of the world’s billionaires (though only 4.5 percent of the global population), America’s political system has been shown to favor the wealthy and corporate power over the many. 72 percent of business owners disagree with the statement that “the government should attempt to reduce economic inequality.”
Bernie Sanders presidential run can be seen in the context of fighting inequality in America. Aiming to redefine the government’s role in mediating class conflict, his platform includes broadening the welfare state to provide universal healthcare, a livable minimum wage, free college education, “green” jobs, a wealth tax, and tax increases in corporate profits, policy proposals which have led to a surge in his popularity. The “Green New Deal” is the first federal jobs program hoping to reignite income growth for working Americans while also investing in socially responsible infrastructure that runs on renewable energy.
A New Holy Alliance
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that the spectre of communism is haunting Europe. They continued, “All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Marx and Engels were writing during a time when communism and its call for an equal and democratic society gained momentum and a “holy alliance” was formed to stomp out such efforts.
David Harvey documents how in the 1970s business “refine[d] its ability to act as a class,” a new holy alliance. He writes that “the dominant theme in the political strategy of business became a shared interest in the defeat of bills [favoring progressive taxation and labor law reform].” Harvey also notes that political action committees were utilized by corporations to “assure the financial domination of both political parties.” Corporate PACs burgeoned from 89 in 1974 to 1,467 by 1982. The result was a growing dependency on big money, which made even Democrats “highly vulnerable to direct influence from business interests.” According to a 2018 poll “money in politics” is still a major bipartisan issue, with 77 percent of Americans agreeing that “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend on campaigns.”
Citing Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Warren Buffet asserted in an interview that “There’s been class warfare going on for the last twenty years…and my class has won.” In late 2019 the richest man in the world, Amazon and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, hosted an event in which Trump administration officials and billionaires were present, a fact indicating “class solidarity” between members of America’s ruling elite.
The restoration of class power since the 1970s is generally referred to as the neoliberal turn. Neoliberalism is a series of austere economic policies marked by a concerted assault on the welfare state and labor, tax cuts for corporations and the richest Americans, and deregulation of the financial sector which led to the 2008 recession. Large banks in America invest to make a profit. After gambling on profitable investments by lending to potential homeowners the banks knew would not be able to pay back their loans, the bubble eventually burst.
Obama entered office amidst the worst global financial crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression. He invited executives of top banks and corporations to meet him and told them that he stands between them and the pitchforks and that he is on their side. By responding to the crisis with a $3 trillion bailout, Democrats codified the notion that the modern banking system is “too big to fail.” Three years later the short lived Occupy Wall Street movement popularized the slogan “We are the 99%” in opposition to the 1%.
Yet, it is unlikely that most Americans are aware of the depths of the growing inequality. The richest 20% of Americans own 89% of the wealth in the US while the poorest 60% hold only 3%. Even if they do grasp this disparity, Americans are unable to link their financial status with a coherent class analysis.Needless to say, the class war from above has been more refined than the struggle from below.
The Sanders “Political Revolution”
Is 2020 a different story? The ruling class has failed to delegitimize Sanders whose rise to prominence, against all odds, has been striking. Fair and Accuracy in Reporting has documented the systemic media bias against Sanders. Critics have charged the mainstream media outlets, such as CNN, of being Sanders’ most “vociferous opponent.”Yet, as of this writing, Sanders seems poised to present a challenge to the establishment, a billionaire President, and the concerted effort by the capitalist class to transfer wealth upwards.
The mainstream pundits have also raised the question of the electability of Sanders. Yet, 87.5% of polls from December 2019 through January 2020 suggest Bernie Sanders will defeat President Trump in an election. A National poll in late January 2020, just weeks before the first Democratic Primary in Iowa, showed that Sanders is leading nationally for the first time since announcing his candidacy.
Clearly, the wealthy donors have favored the corporate-friendly candidates. Their current favorite since the decline of Joe Biden is Pete Buttigieg who has received the most support from the billionaire donors out of any of the candidates running in the Democratic primary. Sanders, on the other hand, is bucking the trend of buying the presidency with corporate money and has relied instead on an average of $18 per donor and indeed leads all other candidates in money raised.
What if Sanders wins the Presidency, and the Democrats sweep the house and the senate? Will he be able to implement the core policies he has been advocating for long? The present balance of class power bodes ill for any prospect of Sanders successfully implementing his core policies. Class war after all is endemic to capitalism and Bernie Sanders is not calling for a movement to go beyond capitalism (he is a social democrat). The class war will not go away and if Sanders persists capital might go on strike paralyzing the economy. Perhaps, Sanders will have to initiate a shift in vision from a political to a social revolution in order to bring about a fairer society, one that can begin to address the many crises it faces, including the “existential” one of climate disruption.
Capitalism is not just a global economic system that we can overcome by means of electoral politics alone. Capital is deeply embedded in our society and government and we are dependent on capital for investment. Even a candidate like Sanders who doesn’t seek to move beyond capitalism must contend with how capitalists would respond to losing ground in the class war. If capitalists perceive their investment opportunities to be less profitable, they will do what they can to change their circumstances. This is why corporations leave a country and move to countries with more profitable investment opportunities. This is why corporations move their wealth and income to offshore accounts safe from taxation. Capital may withhold investments if it deems the investment environment not to its liking. This is a likely reaction by capital not just to a seriously socialist government but also to a government with a Sanders social democratic orientation.
Can Sanders contend with capital going on strike? The author Mike McCarthy argues that the key to success for socialists in power is “subjecting massive financial markets under public control.” American banks are deeply dependent on domestic markets for profits, which gives the U.S. government considerable leverage over these institutions. He contends that “Only a break with the for-profit model of investing and a sharp turn toward allocation of credit for public purposes can provide socialist governments the space to implement their program.”
In sum, the left ought to support Sanders but must not be limited by the scope of his vision. We have seen the welfare state rolled back. What is to say it will not happen again? If Sanders reaches the White House (a big if) he would certainly face the most serious challenges ever to govern effectively. If McCarty is correct, the supporters of Sanders should urge him to assert public control over the banks. Of course, the more likely outcome is that Sanders will face political paralysis. In that case, the left should be prepared to treat this circumstance as a national teaching moment about how capital works in the twenty-first century.
Alex Fischer holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Lehigh University and is a member of the steering committee of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities–Lehigh Valley and the Beyond Capitalism Working Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- 1 I say “crude” because this (“poorer” and “capitalist”) categorization is a simplification to understand a general historical trend. We have moved well beyond the bourgeois and proletariat classes. There are many in between. Crude and simplified like the language of the 99% vs. 1%. Both help to understand the gist of inequality.
- 2 Richard Wolff, “Capitalism’s Uneven Development,” Economic Update, Podcast Audio, February 6, 2020, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/economic-update-with-richard-d-wolff/id1053981528?i=1000464829930.
- 3 “Key Figures Behind America’s Consumer Debt,” Debt.org data, last modified January 2020, https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/. The report notes that consumer debt was approaching $14-trillion after the second quarter of 2019, according to the New York Federal Reserve, the 20th consecutive quarter for an increase. . The report notes that consumer debt was approaching $14-trillion after the second quarter of 2019, according to the New York Federal Reserve, the 20th consecutive quarter for an increase.
- 4 “Income inequality,” OECD data, last modified 2018, https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm
- 5 Noah Kirsch, “The 3 richest Americans Hold More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Of The Country, Study Finds,” Forbes, November 9, 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/noahkirsch/2017/11/09/the-3-richest-americans-hold-more-wealth-than-bottom-50-of-country-study-finds/#21ab2c213cf8.
- 6 Hillary Hoffower, “The top 15 countries with the most billionaires, ranked,” Business Insider, May 12, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/where-do-billionaires-live-top-countries-ranked-2019-5#1-the-united-states-is-the-dominant-billionaire-country-15.
- 7 Anthony DiMaggio, Rebellion in America: Citizen Uprisings, the News Media, and the Politics of Plutocracy (Milton Park, Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2020) 10.
- 8 Jacobin, “Democracy, Without the Majority Class,” Jacobin, no. 36, (Winter 2020): 20.
- 9 Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition (London: Verso, 2012), 1.
- 10 David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development (New York: Verso, 2006), 18.
- 11 Ibid.
- 12 Bradley Jones, “Most Americans want to limit campaign spending, say big donors have greater political influence,” Pew Research Center, May 8, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/08/most-americans-want-to-limit-campaign-spending-say-big-donors-have-greater-political-influence/. .
- 13 Greg Sargent, “‘There’s been class warfare for the last 20 years, and my class has won’,” The Washington Post, September 30, 2011, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/post/theres-been-class-warfare-for-the-last-20-years-and-my-class-has-won/2011/03/03/gIQApaFbAL_blog.html. .
- 14 Eoin Higgins, “‘The Rich Have Class Solidarity’: Bezos Party Features Billionaires Rubbing Shoulders With Trump Admin Officials, Journalists’,” CommonDreams, January 27, 2020, https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/01/27/rich-have-class-solidarity-bezos-party-features-billionaires-rubbing-shoulders-trump.
- 15 Reagan’s infamous firing of 11,345 striking air traffic control workers in 1981, the first time the Presidency was used to intervene in a private labor dispute in such a way, represented a direct form of neoliberalism’s labor-crushing policies.
- 16 Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy, (London: Routledge, 2014)
- 17 Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot, “It’s the Inequality Stupid: Eleven charts that explain what’s wrong with America,” Mother Jones, March/April 2011, https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph/. .
- 18 Christopher Ingram, “If you thought income inequality was bad get a load of wealth inequality,” Washington Post, May 21, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/05/21/the-top-10-of-americans-own-76-of-the-stuff-and-its-dragging-our-economy-down/. .
- 19 Anthony DiMaggio, Rebellion in America, 3.
- 20 Ryan Grim, Aida Chavez, Akela Lacy, “At the Iowa Debate, Bernie Sander’s Most Vociferous Opponent Was CNN,” The Intercept, January 15, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/01/15/bernie-sanders-cnn-iowa-debate/. .
- 21 “General Election: Trump vs. Sanders,” Real Clear Politics, last modified January 30, 2020, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_sanders-6250.html. .
- 22 Carrie Dann, “Sanders, Biden are neck-and-neck in new NBC/WSJ national poll,” NBC News, January 31, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/sanders-biden-are-neck-neck-new-nbc-wsj-national-poll-n1127051. .
- 23 Shane Goldmacher, “Sanders Raises $25 Million in January, a Huge Show of Financial Strength,” New York Times, February 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/us/politics/bernie-sanders-donations.html. .
- 24 Mike McCarthy, “Our First 100 Days Could Be a Nightmare,” Jacobin, no. 36, (Winter 2020): 76.