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Class analysis

In response to this Richard Kline comment at NC:

If neither the progressive community in the USA nor the radical community here were ever large enough to achieve even plurality political power, how did any socially advancing policy ever become enacted into law and institutional arrangement? The centrist bourgeois got behind it, or let it go by on a trade off, that’s how. The present stagnation of the centrist bourgeois in the US makes this impossible at present, and for the foreseeable future. This is the main problem for social change in the US in my view (as the latter has developed): the fulcrum has gone spongy. Even if the missing ‘radical force’ was active, there is no ‘multiplier’ for it.

Centrist bourgeois in American history have _never_ been predisposed to confront the state. They want to make money off the state, and often ARE the state at its margins. The Centrist bourgeois have seldom been inclined to confront the wealthy, being far more disposed to hang at the heel of the wealthy and hope for a good job when noticed. This orientations has typically worked for the bourgeois when the economy was, in various ways, expanding, as it has for most of American history. There was always a little more to go around, and being upstream of the poor and rural subsistence farmers, the bourgeois could typically get a plateful of expansion every time around. Bourgeois America does have a strong view of its own legal standing, and will push back against the wealthy if they perceive themselves to be abused. ‘Sharing the wealth’ was usually a pragmatic accommodation to economic and social grievances, however, rather than something done from any conviction. The industrial wealthy in the USA have a history of extreme abuses which are easy to document, and pragmatically setting them back a notch, pragmatically buying off militant dissidents with a few, basic concessions together served as the path of least resistance for the bourgeois. It is not remembered in historically illiterate America that in England and, yes, the USA there have been civil wars over how the wealth was to be shared and who got to run the state. Bourgeois America has been conditioned to shun confrontation in favor of modest, tactical concessions. So long as the pie kept expanding.

I don't know what "Centrist Bourgeois" means. I don't think it means "owners," because "wealthy" describes the Walmarts and Buffets of this world, no?

I think it means people with "bourgeois values," and that they are Centrist with respect to the Overton Window. You say they live off the state, so I think they take a percentage of the rental extraction streams owned by others.

I prefer to try to think about classes functionally, so I'm guessing you're classifying the same people I would classify this way (with the caveat that people can belong to more than one class; that is, they can have multiple income streams).

* Creative class: Programmers, designers, techies, PR people, academics ... Key part of Obama's base. ObamaCare is, among other things, welfare for them.

* Political class: Strategists, opinion shapers, "thought collectives, pollsters, trolls ...

* National security class: People designing and maintaining the self-licking ice cream cone of the national security state; anybody with a clearance. Military brass, spooks, hasbara types....

Snowden, for example, is in the Creative class (sysadmin) and the National Security class (clearance).

Colin Powell rose through the National security class and the political class to the ruling class... And thence to well-deserved but lucrative obscurity....

People can fall out of these classes into the working class at any time; or they can rise to the ruling class or the ownership class.

I don't hold any particular brief for these particular slices, but I do think we should have classification systems that are functional (describe political economy role played by class), adaptive (take account of how class functions change over time), and allow overlap (person can put together income streams as a member of more than one class -- as along as they're not working class!) Note that generational classification (Boomers, Gen X) is not functional or adaptive and does not allow overlap. The same goes for classes derived from identity politics. "Middle class" is a powerful distraction* because it's a static ideal** and isn't functional ("middle" of what?)

Anyhow, off the top of my head and based on lots of blogging. More serious analysis welcome.

NOTE * That I also hate because of its implicit "suck up, kick down" morality.

NOTE ** A good definition I heard is that the essence of being middle class is being able to "provide" for one's children, in the sense of educating them for a better life, and passing along an inheritance of some sort, usually a house. There's also the idea of being able to retire in something other than squalor.

NOTE This sketch is based on Braudel's idea of society as "a set of sets."

UPDATE "Downward mobility" means falling out of the political, creative, or national security classes into the working class. Nice litmus test for that: It doesn't matter who you are.

UPDATE I've left out small business owners delivering tangible services, like plumbers and electricans, and "skilled labor," mostly unionized. It's a big, complicated country....

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albrt's picture
Submitted by albrt on

I believe the classic understanding of "bourgeois" involves ownership of something from which income can be derived. Independent shopkeepers and artisans were the primary example in the 18th century. In the 20th Century US it should probably include people with notable education, social capital or a professional position that can be leveraged. This would cover your creative, political and national security classes.

Submitted by lambert on

... as owning the means of production, which (in my mind) does not include "education, social capital or a professional position" -- even though all those afford rents.

I'm not wedded to any of this as long as the method is correct or at least reasonable....

albrt's picture
Submitted by albrt on

If you only consider "means of production" you miss most of our economy. Owning the means of production is only one way of positioning yourself for extraction.

So I think we have to go with "means of extraction" to define the modern bourgeoisie.

Come to think of it, the same thing is true of the capitalists - they are also more focused on owning means of extraction than production.

But the distinction between extraction and production is probably still important, assuming there is a natural limit on how long extraction can grow faster than production.

Submitted by lambert on

We've got a neat little oligarchy here, but one that has avoided the bubbles -- no housing bubble, and no petroleum, thank Gawd.

So, we have "means of production" in terms of the pulp and paper industry, manufacturing layered on top of resource extraction from timber.

And we have "means of production" in terms of wind power -- basically siting machinery made elsewhere in the "right" locations.

And we have "means of production" in terms of landfills -- basically trucking garbage up here and dumping it into a hole in the ground.

And we have "means of production" in terms of the tourist "industry" -- all the infrastructure for that.

* * *
We also have a political class that extracts rents from all this by managing the permitting, legislative, and public relations aspects of each project.

* * *

Now, because of my background, I tend to think of industry and especially machine tools (tools that makes tools) as capital par excellence, and therefore of the owners of that capital as the bourgeois. But with the FIRE sector our economy is very different.

So I'm not sure my thinking is rigorous or current enough.

Submitted by lambert on

Works as a plank, but this death of a thousand cuts by generation has to stop. Benefits should be age-neutral.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

what we're getting ready to witness, with the passing and implementation of the "Chained CPI."

And that is one reason that this cut (which is smaller than some of the other proposed cuts in "The Moment Of Truth") is particularly pernicious.

IMHO, it is not feasible to implement policy without a "phase-in" period.

If the PtB succeed in making "across the board" cuts by implementing the Chained CPI, they will be also cutting those individuals who cannot reasonably be expected, or for that matter, able to mitigate their circumstances.

Do we as a society expect our 80-year-olds (and older) to go back to work when we make across-the-board cuts to Social Security? (Lambert, I'm not meaning to imply at all, that you are in favor of these cuts--okay? I'm fairly sure that you're not advocating for them.)

But this is what will eventually happen, if we adopt a "standard" that all changes--and let's be realistic--there will NOT likely be any "increases," only more cuts, apply to absolutely EVERYONE. (including our centenarians)

No, at the least--those already retired should be exempted.

And unless we find it acceptable to force lower income Americans to "work until they drop," they should not have major cuts forced upon them at the last moment before they retire. (This is not unfair, if this "standard" applies to ALL Americans, equally.)

The desire to avoid this disastrous scenario is "why" Dems (in the past) have been the ones who insisted (before the DLC/Third Way/No Labels crowd took over the Democratic Party under Clinton) that current, and even those seniors "near retirement," were usually exempted from major cuts.

[As an aside, my grandparents and parents did not have the "exact same" Social Security or Medicare benefits, as we (Boomers) are slated to have. As a matter of fact, I have a sibling very recently retired, who does not even have the exact same Medicare benefits that Mother had, and he qualified for Medicare less than a couple years after her passing. So, this is nothing new.]

After all, VERY few people, upon hearing that their Social Security or Medicare benefits are going to be slashed (the exception would be the very highest earning of the professional class--some medical doctors, attorneys, etc.) have the "capability of" mitigating the loss, and proceeding with their scheduled retirement plans.

Which is exactly what the neoliberal/DLC/Third Way Dems are planning on--all both the highest paid professionals, will be "working until they drop," if the Bowles-Simpson proposal is ever passed and implemented. [More on this later.]

At this point, I'm betting the farm that at least the "Chained CPI" will pass during the upcoming "Kabuki." (And probably a considerable number of fairly major cuts to Medicare and Medigap Insurance).

And if it does, give it a few years, and you'll notice an increase in senior poverty and/or homelessness.

It's true that 3% if only "pin money" for some seniors. But I've counseled thousands of seniors who literally lived on several hundred dollars a month. It is these folks who are at very great risk, if the Chained CPI is enacted.

And remember, a senior could receive a benefit check as low as a couple hundred dollars, and not receive a supplemental SSI check, if the "asset test" disqualifies them.

BTW, I just found out that in today's math, many full time (30-32 hour) retail and other low-skilled service sector jobs pay so little, that working them will not qualify an individual for enough income to qualify for Social Security. Apparently, there is such a thing as a "substantive earnings" test. Can you believe this?

So, let me clarify--I'm not advocating "gutting" Social Security or Medicare for "the young," either.

If anything, both Social Security and Medicare should be benefits expanded considerably for all. So let's advocate for that.

But realistically, bolstering benefits is not on the horizon.

And it appears that neoliberal/DLC Dems are not only "on board"--they are leading the way.

What I can't figure out is "why" the progressive community is virtually silent on this issue,

Can it be that they are "in denial" that this can happen under a Democratic President?

Dunno. Wish I had the answer to that one . . .