Monday, March 16, 2009

Co-opted phrase of the day: Class Warfare

For anyone with a background in Marxism, the phrase "class warfare" refers to oppressive or hostile actions on the part of capitalists (those who own the means of production) toward the proletariat (the workers). So traditionally, this refers to hostility from the rich to the poor. Recent examples include the demand from congressional Republicans that unionized labor in companies that will receive stimulus money agree to paycuts and decreased benefits while corporate executives continue to reward their own incompetence with large bonuses courtesy of the taxpayers. Similarly, blaming mortgage holders who took on a bigger payment than they could afford for bringing down the economy while ignoring the huge risks and unsustainable yet highly lucrative practices that those who were running the industry engaged in (credit default swaps, anyone?) and the pathetic inactivity of those who were supposed to be regulating the industry, is an instance of class warfare.

But recently a new group has been denouncing class warfare and claiming to be the victims of it. Who are they? The rich. Yes, rich people (mostly Republicans) are now claiming to be on the receiving end of class warfare. How can this be, you ask? Since the capitalists own the means of production, they have the leverage and resources available to them to wage war in a way the workers cannot. Add to that the fact that the position you hold within the hierarchy, and the way you're socially constructed because of it, determines the extent to which you are allowed to participate in public discourse, or taken seriously when you do, and it seems it would be impossible for the poor to wage class warfare on the rich. They simply haven't got the tools. Ah, but according to the rich Republicans and their lackeys, they do. They have Barack Obama, who is fixing to "raise taxes" on the rich. Of course, technically this isn't a tax hike, since he's just choosing not to sustain the tax breaks that Bush gave to his buddies to begin with. But allowing tax rates to return to pre-Bush levels is class warfare, according to this argument.

A few years ago in an interview with Ben Stein, Warren Buffett used the term "class warfare" in regard to taxation in America too, but he concluded that his class, the rich, were winning. As Stein describes it

Put simply, the rich pay a lot of taxes as a total percentage of taxes collected, but they don’t pay a lot of taxes as a percentage of what they can afford to pay, or as a percentage of what the government needs to close the deficit gap.
Mr. Buffett compiled a data sheet of the men and women who work in his office. He had each of them make a fraction; the numerator was how much they paid in federal income tax and in payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and the denominator was their taxable income. The people in his office were mostly secretaries and clerks, though not all.
It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn’t
use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires.
“How can this be fair?” he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees. “How can this be right?”

...“There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Now that these tax policies are being reversed, it's almost amusing to watch wealthy Republicans scramble to protect themselves and cast themselves as the victims. Appropriating the terminology and ideology of the oppressed groups in order to maintain your power is a classic move by powerful groups whose dominance is being challenged in any way, and the discourse surrounding taxation right now is a perfect example of this.


  1. happymisanthrope3/16/2009

    I suppose next they'll claim to be wage slaves, at which point we'll all wring tears of sympathy from our hankies. Jaysus, when will they get over themselves?

  2. Lizzay3/16/2009

    I love how Obama is poor or a member of the working class by this logic. Have they thought about the fact that the Obamas, and most Democrats in Congress, will owe more taxes under this policy?

  3. Michael3/17/2009

    Well, I do think that class warfare can be waged in either direction. But this obviously isn't a good example of it.