Bastille Free Photo from Wikipedia Commons My colleague Eric de Place has done a great job of laying out the history of the term “war on cars.” I won’t attempt a similarly comprehensive exegesis of the term “class war” or “class warfare.” But I will say that I don’t like the term, nor do I like the efforts in some quarters of the progressive community to suggest that we ought to vilify rich people, drawing out class differences in order to persuade the middle class to embrace big policy changes. I’d argue that the class war narrative won’t work because it is divisive and superficial, and I suspect it will backfire for progressives.

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  • The narrative of class warfare serves politicians better than it does a progressive agenda because it divides people. If there is an enemy out there—an “us against them” proposition—politicians can play on that to  motivate people to vote in whatever way will neutralize that enemy, regardless of the facts.

    Plus, the idea of declaring a class war on the rich on behalf of the poor is superficial. Suggesting that the rich are really out to get us dumbs down the Marxist term—Class Struggle—which is the origin of the term class war. The Marxist expression was an analysis of systemic problem with capitalism that leads to a maldistribution of resources resulting in poverty. Marxists had hoped to end class struggle by fundamentally transforming the system. Class war language is an attempt to assign blame, rather than fix the system.

    The late William Safire, my travel guide for bushwhacking through the undergrowth of the English language, said it well when he wrote that class warfare:

    applies political demography to outdated sociology. The divisive Marxist concept of class is social as well as economic, and Americans should never accept its confines. Class is not determined by income alone; richies can be low-class slobs and the genteel down-at-the-heels can be high-class povertarians.

    That’s my final beef with the class war meme: class war tries to attach the world’s problems to a group of people, which is very dangerous. First, blaming a group of people leads to all sorts of insane conspiracy theories— about the banking system for example—that are bizarre even when they are harmless, but that at their worst can become racist.The French Revolution attacked the aristocracy, the Russian Revolution went after groups that were “counter-revolutionary,” and the list of bad outcomes goes on.

    While it might be tempting to vilify the rich or the “banksters” who are crushing us with debt and schemes to securitize mortgages, I think that road ultimately leads to disaster. In fact, fears about public debt being fanned by Republicans are leading to real pain among the poor. When government is paralyzed by those who want to limit debt on the fear that bankers will get rich, we end up with a class war—“us against them.” But it doesn’t help us. It hurts. Instead we need to see our system as a vast interconnected economic web in which we are all dependent on one another. It’s a viewpoint that’s not as black-and-white, but I think it’s a story that can win hearts, minds, and voters, and lead to real solutions.

    Photo credit: “The Storming of the Bastille,” painting by Jean-Pierre Houël (1735-1813), from Wikipedia Commons.