Class Warfarin: Dosage
by Joseph Natoli
The idea of class struggle and class conflict is foreign to American culture. We are all brought up to think we are one big, happy family.
Every violent reform deserves censure, for it quite fails to remedy evil while men remain what they are, and also because wisdom needs no violence.
—Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
If you think you’re free, there’s no escape possible.
It’s crazy, but when I hear talk of “class warfare” in these Obama days we are in, I think of the rat poison Warfarin and the insidious way it kills.
Warfarin, according to our Delphic Oracle – Wikipedia – is the most widely prescribed anticoagulant drug in North America. Some thirty five years ago, I used it on my Oxley Holl’er West Virginia farm to poison a swarm of rats that had settled under the house for the winter. It’s got some persuasive talking points: one, the rats don’t eat it, croak and rot in place – under the house – but feed on it for days, wander away from the house seeking water, drink and die, and two, wise and closely observing rats can’t connect eating the poison and eventual death. They go on munching away while observing in the distance the death throes of their buddies. Maybe the expression “die like a rat” in some kind of loathsome, dark and mysterious way derives from this.
The connections we make are ostensibly rational but mostly personal and therefore subject to the oddness and strangeness that others perceive. To us personally they make sense not because their sense can be revealed in a Power Point presentation but because there is an underlying powerful grip they have on us. We are what such experiences have made of us and we in turn experience through the lens of what we have become.
There is something more than private recollection, however, that has suddenly evoked this “warfare”/ “warfarin” connection which like a bit of a song you can’t get out of your head follows me around. I’m struggling to see what class warfare means now. I’m struggling to break loose of all the anti-American, anti-democratic, anti-free enterprise links that our minds immediately click on to when the phrase “class warfare” is the Conservative coup de grace to any discussion of our present wealth gap which can only be matched by those roaring 1920’s which ended in the Great Depression. I begin to see some communicable sense in my transposing “warfare” to “Warfarin.”
And my sense is this: we remain a middle class society even at the moment when we are “brazilianizing,” which is Michael Lind’s term for our losing our middle class hegemony and becoming a sort of South American Have and Have Not society, although Guyana, Venezuela and Nicaragua are less class divided that the U.S. We are, in no way, getting set for the Master/Worker clash that Marx’s crystal ball revealed to him. We are not psychologically or culturally or politically so disposed. We are not disposed to making any personal connection with “class warfare” other than the one every conservative, both cultural and market, depend upon: “class warfare” is every shade of socialist and the rallying cry of all those who would topple our personal freedom and our private enterprise.
The Marxist Master/Worker relationship, one in which the surplus capital created by workers is reaped by the masters, has no play in a present post-industrial, postmodern society in which consumers and innovative entrepreneurs both pleasure and poison each other. Entrepreneurial innovation offers an ever increasing array of products and services which delight consumers who thrill in the exercising of their “free to choose” autonomy. Entrepreneurs are equally delighted by their own rewards which seem no more than an extension of a consumer’s own consuming, an extension perennially achievable by all. This does not smack of class warfare but neither is this a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. While one-tenth of 1 percent of the richest accounted for 11 percent of total income, workers earn less than an inflation adjusted median wage 30 years earlier. These are 2007 figures, the latest complete data available. Post-2008 Great Recession numbers are more dismal: “[T]here has been an `astounding’ 36.1% drop in the wealth (marketable assets) of the median household since the peak of the housing bubble in 2007. By contrast, the wealth of the top 1% of households dropped by far less: just 11.1%. So as of April 2010, it looks like the wealth distribution is even more unequal than it was in 2007.” (Edward Wolff statistics quoted in G. William Domhoff, “Wealth, Income, and Power”. In 2009, those below the poverty line received 3.4 percent of all income while the top-earning 20 percent received 49.4 percent.
Something is indeed more rotten here than in Denmark, which has the lowest wealth gap in the world according to GINI , a statistical index of wealth distribution and has first place on the “happiness scale,” which measures the overall relationship between life satisfaction and wealth, while the U.S. has the greatest wealth disparity among Western industrialized nations. The mystery is not that a Voodoo economics of trickle down which has, in true Monopoly game fashion, cornered most of the wealth assets in one place, but as to why such a stupefying con remains seductive to those it is beating up? It’s mystifying as to why those brought virtually to their knees repress any recognition of the fix they are in except a recognition that points a finger at themselves, at their failure to compete successfully in the “global arena,” their failure to be “innovative” and “proactive” and “entrepreneurial,” a failure of “will to win,” and, in the end, a failure to “assume personal responsibility” for their “free choices.”
It’s not mystifying in Class Warfarin where the seductions of technology and the seductions of Conservative narratives which offer a future of endless seductions rent, lease or own outright the American cultural imaginary. The last place the dying rat will observe as the poison killing him is the tantalizing Warfarin niblets he’s been eating for days.
But how then are the Haves and Have Mores, in George W. Bush’s words of greeting to his dinner guests, suffering? What poison are they ingesting? In “classic” class warfare thinking the “Henry Ford” response presents itself: Henry Ford made sure his employees were paid enough to buy Ford cars so wages had to keep up with the price of things. The rich then have a vested interest in keeping the wealth gap small. They would be “poisoning” themselves if they allowed workers’ buying power to collapse.
If you “globalize” this bit of reasoning, it falls apart. In a globalized economy where transnational corporations can outsource the labor supply and sell goods to foreign consumers there’s no need to make sure American workers have enough in their pockets to buy those goods. GM’s foreign sales, for instance, tripled U.S. sales thus far in 2010. We need to look elsewhere to see what leverage the many may have on the few.
Joseph Natoli is the former series editor of POSTMODERN CULTURE for the SUNY Press (1990-2009) where he tried to arrange an early edited collection of BAD SUBJECTS pieces.