COMMENTARY: No Winners in the Class War

By Randall Amster
08Apple-style-span">When traveling to other states to conduct workshops or give presentations, I often feel compelled to offer an explanation (if not an apology) for much of what has transpired of late in my home state of Arizona. One state that can relate to some of what we have seen here in the desert is Wisconsin, where I recently visited. The similarities are worth considering, and the lessons are instructive.

You are probably already aware that Wisconsin has been the site of mass demonstrations against austerity measures being imposed by state officials. Specifically, the elimination of workers' collective bargaining rights, cuts in funding for public education and teacher salaries, and other measures impacting peoples' healthcare and pensions has triggered a push-back on a scale that hasn't been seen in the U.S. in decades.

At the same time, popular uprisings have been running rampant across the Middle East, including most notably in Egypt where an autocratic ruler was deposed by public pressure. The coincidence of these events has not been lost on many commentators and scholars, and an incipient global narrative of "people power challenging authoritarianism" has been steadily taking hold. Arizona has seen some of this as well, with movements contesting anti-immigrant measures, cuts to education, and other social and economic retrenchments.

What makes an uprising “popular” in the sense of having “people power”? First, it will often include a broad coalition of movement actors seeking both economic justice and political democratization. Second, its aims will transcend single-issue reforms (although these may still be present within the larger movement), instead embodying a systemic critique and addressing the fundamental way of life that exists within the given society. Finally, in contrast with the Tea Party-type “populist” movements in the U.S., popular uprisings generally are grounded in human solidarity and universal emancipation.
  These contrasting values and potentials indicate an emerging cultural contest, both in the U.S. and around the world. On the one hand there is a perspective suggesting that the solution to economic problems is deep cuts to public infrastructure and spending programs, oftentimes coupled with a political ideology that blames poor and/or marginalized people for the downturn. On the other side of the coin are working- and middle-class sectors arguing for the right to a livelihood, education for their children, reasonable health benefits, and a viable voice in governance.

On a broader scale, including the national and international frames, the conflict is really one of plutocracy versus democracy. In recent years we've seen unprecedented bailouts for the corporate elite coupled with a narrowing of benefits and opportunities for everyone else. These same forces have effectively taken the reins of governmental and economic systems, granting for themselves legal rights and political powers well beyond those held by individuals and communities.

The theory being plied here, which directly impacts life in places like Wisconsin and Arizona, is an updated version of the "trickle-down" policies of a bygone day. Rather than taking public resources and using them to seed the grassroots and sustain the lives of working people, monies instead fill the coffers of corporations and wealthy individuals through myriad subsidies and other forms of clandestine corporate welfare. Like Wisconsin, Arizona is a stark case, coupling major corporate tax breaks with the evisceration of public programs in the name of a fictitious "recovery."

The result is a widening gap between rich and poor, decreased worker productivity, increased hostilities across race and class lines, and a militarized economy that consumes disproportionate resources. Ayn Rand acolytes and pro-market ideologues continue to advocate a disingenuous approach that ignores the vast upward redistribution of wealth and power in America and elsewhere. I was recently asked during a public lecture what I thought of free-market capitalism, and in response I paraphrased Gandhi’s take on Western Civilization: “It might be a good idea to give it a try.”
  The winds of change are blowing, east and west and north and south. The questions before us now are whether popular movements can be sustained in the face of the heavy-handed response being mounted by entrenched interests, and whether a destructive all-out conflict can be averted and a path to mutual engagement found. "There's class warfare, all right," Warren Buffett said in 2006, "but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we’re winning." Despite his refreshing candor, I believe Buffett was wrong. This war, like most others, is likely to be one where everyone winds up losing in the end.   * * * Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies and chairs the Master’s program in Humanities at Prescott College, and is the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. This commentary was distributed by PeaceVoice, a program of the Oregon Peace Institute