Books B-Side My Bed
By Summer Broyhill
The Crisis of the Middle Class Constitution
At a Q & A with Ganesh Sitaraman back in April, a slouching bro-dude raised a somnolent arm to ask why Sitaraman was advocating for income redistribution when income disparity was the backbone of our successful capitalist republic. It was a nonsensical question that could not have had less to do with the argument laid out in the book. This, I notice, is a trait common to so many privileged men both marvelous and worrisome: that having no knowledge on a topic, and therefore being likely to demonstrate their thorough ignorance with every word that leaves their mouth, they will insist upon putting forth their opinion anyway. Sitaraman, ever the teacher, didn’t falter. He explained that while there are those who make moral arguments against extreme income disparity and those who make economic arguments against extreme income disparity, he is instead making a political argument that our republic was not structured to withstand extreme income disparity.
Walking the reader through centuries of democratic thought from the ancient Greeks to the political philosophers of the Enlightenment, legal scholar and adviser to Senator Elizabeth Warren Ganesh Sitaraman builds the case that unlike every other commonwealth that came before it, America was founded not as a class-warfare constitution, where the opposing interests of the rich and poor are formally acknowledged and preserved in the form of opposing legislative bodies that check the power of one another (for example, the Tribunate and Senate in Rome, or the House of Commons and House of Lords in England), but as a middle-class constitution, where a large middle class in a society of relative equality as an inherent check on the balance of power and protection against rule by either mob or oligarchy. Without that large middle class, and in the absence of the explicit class-representation requirements laid out in a class-warfare constitution, the purportedly equal access we all have to representation will inevitably be supplanted by access based on wealth (which the founding fathers would have recognized as most closely correlated with property ownership, though modern wealth takes many different forms). Citing voices in political thought that most strongly influenced the founders, Sitaraman goes a long way toward proving that what we have now, in our high level of income inequality and low rate of class mobility, is exactly the set of economic conditions that the founders sought to prevent. In the words of Cato: “The first principle of all power is property; and every man will have his share of it in proportion as he enjoys property.” David Hume goes a step further, arguing that “the order of men who possess a large share of property” will inevitably “stretch their authority, and bring the balance of power to coincide with that of property.” Sound familiar?
I found one section of statistics particularly galling. Economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson analyzed data from 1774 and 2012 to quantify income inequality using the Gini coefficient, a number between 0 and 1 that demonstrates how close a society is to absolute equality (0) or absolute inequality (1). They found that the Gini coefficient for all American households, including those of slaves, in 1774 was .441 (and .409 for free households only). The coefficient for 2012 includes income figures offset by welfare and the earned income tax credit, both subsidies absent in 1774, and still the number is .463. As Sitaraman explains: “What that means is that the America of 2012 was actually more unequal than the America of 1774 --even including slavery.”
The book put me in mind of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning play Sweat, which examines the lives of steel workers in a small industrial town in Pennsylvania as they struggle to make a living in a changing economy. In interviews, Nottage warns of our collective tendency, when under economic strain, to scapegoat and cannibalize one another. In a recent interview with Slate, she says: “Once working people discover that collectively we have more power than we do as individual silos—then we become an incredibly powerful force….Everyone is focusing on the white middle class, but you forget that it’s not just white people up on that stage. It’s not about white people. It’s about the way in which our culture, which is a multicultural culture, becomes fractured because of the way in which corporate greed chooses to divide us.”
Michelle Alexander touched on our long history of pitting the lower classes against one another in her landmark book The New Jim Crow. In it she describes how wealthy elites of the colonial era relied on a mix of bond labor of both white and black workers as well as slavery. In 1675, Bacon’s Rebellion united black and white workers against the elites in an attempted capture of Native American lands. The rebellion was put down, and policies were put into place to reduce reliance on bond labor and increase the use of slaves, particularly non-English speaking slaves, to prevent any alliances between white and black workers. Additional rights and privileges were also afforded to white workers, and the racial caste system that emerged would continue to metastasize and permutate for centuries to come. As Alexander writes: “Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves….Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves.”
Today’s “planter class” more closely resembles an oligarchy of bankers, executives, and politicians, many of whom were born to privilege, whose survival depends on disempowering those at the bottom. Sitaraman lays out the different epochs of industry that led us to this point. Our nation began as an agricultural economy that provided opportunity for class mobility in the form of westward mobility. Our early industrial economy sought to give workers a livable wage so that they might in turn work hard and advance the interests of their employers. Consolidation of the wealth of large industries in the hands of prominent families hallmarked the Gilded Age, and just as the backlash against this consolidation of wealth and disempowerment of the working class was reaching a fever pitch, we entered World War II and began to focus our national energies on the spread of democracy worldwide rather than the preservation of democracy at home. We now have greater income disparity than in the founding era, yes, but our political discourse has also become less nuanced and more factionalized. And perhaps it is possible that the latter serves to perpetuate the former. So how do we bridge the endlessly reinforced divides between rich and poor, black and white, blue and red?
You should make a gift of Sitaraman’s book to everyone you know, Republican or Democrat, with even a passing interest in the Constitution or the ideals that influenced its conception. The book builds a methodical, non-partisan, and potentially unifying argument in support of equal opportunity and a healthy middle class, not because it is morally correct or economically useful, but because it is a political imperative intended by the founding fathers.
We have a common enemy and it is structural inequality. It is a more pervasive and multi-faceted, multi-generational problem than any one individual’s willingness or unwillingness to “check their privilege” or “play the race card”. These phrases get bandied about on the internet and do more to malign individual people and situations rather than address the root of the problem. It is so much more insidious than the blatant xenophobia or civil rights backlash or womanizing we have come to recognize as discrimination, nor the response that those on the right have come to refer to as “reverse discrimination”. We accord villainy to the individuals who seem to espouse these prejudices rather than the institutions that perpetuate them, and it creates fissures where we might find common purpose. I would define the structural inequality that plagues us as any system or condition that creates an atmosphere of socioeconomic predestination, whether by virtue of the race, gender, class, region, or language-speaking household into which someone is born. And those who would seek to keep these systems and conditions in tact only benefit from the rest of us squabbling amongst ourselves.
I want to be clear. I do not wish to say that the specific problem of institutional racism and the need for acknowledgement of the long-standing ramifications of our history of slavery and subjugation are in any way insignificant. Slavery, Jim Crowe, mass incarceration: these things are the most painful, shameful part of our American story past and present, and there will never come a day when they won’t need to be acknowledged. Just as a person in remission from cancer will never again go to a physical without acknowledging cancer as a part of their medical history, so will we as a nation always need to remain vigilant about our history of racial marginalization and objectification.
I suggest, however, that we might frame all of these complex issues in the larger context of class disparity, if only to open our eyes to all of our potential allies in the fight against injustice. Americans of every kind must learn to speak to those who do not share their race, class, cultural lexicon or political views from a stance of common purpose, from a rational capacity to persuade based on others’ values. It is the first step to understanding those we perceive as “other”, but more importantly, to us all uniting to embark on meaningful change.
Summer Broyhill is an actress, musician, dancer, scholar of human behavior, and devotee of the spirit of relentless inquiry. She lives with her husband in a book hoarder’s castle in Queens.
You can see more of her reading list on GoodReads.
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