Beneath the Billionaire Class: The 1% Does Not Rule Alone

teleSur English, July 15, 2015

My most recent book is titled They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy. It details the deadly social, economic, political, and environmental costs of the nation’s corporate and financial aristocracy and the numerous interrelated ways in which that economic super-elite rules American “democracy” – with horrific consequences at home and abroad.

Still, I can’t escape the sense that many U.S. left progressives let “lesser” elites – professionals, managers, administrators and other “coordinator class” Americans – off the hook of our critique of class inequality. Whether it’s the non-electoral Occupy Movement speaking for “the 99%” against “the 1%” in 2011 or presidential candidate Bernie Sanders railing against “the billionaire class” in Iowa and New Hampshire this year, we pay far too little attention to privileged elites beneath the ranks of the super-rich.

In the wake of Occupy’s emergence, the U.S. left writers Barbara Ehrenreich and  John Ehrenreich called the top U.S. income hundredth “the actual, Wall Street-based elite” and referred to the professionals and managers as merely “annoying pikers” in comparison to “the 1 percent.”

There were three basic problems with the Ehrenreichs’ formulation.  First, leaving aside the fact that the top hundredth income percentile includes no small number of managers and professionals, the real “Wall Street-based elite” is more accurately placed in the 0.1 and .01 percentiles.  As Sanders has been saying, the “top tenth of the top [U.S.] 1 percent” owns nearly as much wealth as the bottom U.S. 90 percent.  Six Wal-Mart heirs possess as more as the poorest 42 percent.

Second, the privilege and power of the coordinator class is no less “true,” “real,” substantive, or vital to contemporary hierarchy than that of the financial super-elite. In the U.S. as across the world capitalist system and even in non- and even anti-capitalist workplaces and bureaucracies, ordinary working people suffer not just from the private, profit-seeking capitalist ownership of the workplace. They also confront what ZNet founder Mike Albert calls the “corporate division of labor” – an alienating, de-humanizing, and hierarchical subdivision of tasks “in which a few workers have excellent conditions and empowering circumstances, many fall well below that, and most workers have essentially no power at all.”  The inequalities between these jobs are not merely about money and benefits.  They also reflect vast differences in the autonomy and pleasure of work, along with differences in information, status, training, knowledge, confidence, and voice on the job.  Over time, this pecking order hardens “into a broad and pervasive class division” whereby one class – roughly the top fifth of the workforce – “controls its own circumstances and the circumstances of others below,” while another (the rest, the working class super-majority) “obeys orders and gets what its members can eke out.” The “coordinator class…looks down on workers as instruments with which to get jobs done.  It engages workers paternally, seeing them as needing guidance and oversight and as lacking the finer human qualities that justify both autonomous input and the higher incomes needed to support more expensive tastes.”

The problem is not limited to capitalism. A shift in ownership from private to public does not undo the problem of hierarchical labor processes and workplaces. In centrally planned state-socialist economies like that which prevailed in the old Soviet Union, this coordinator class ruled without capitalists.  Members drawn from its elite ranks became the authoritarian ruling class of “really existing socialist” nations. And coordinators reign without capitalists (though within the broader framework of capitalism) in numerous public bureaucracies and large non-profit institutions in the U.S. and other nations today

Third, the power of the super-wealthy corporate and financial few depends on the system-sustaining roles played by the “annoying pikers” beneath the “actual elite.”  It is true that the coordinators “occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy” (Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich) than “the 1%.” But without the managers and professionals (those the late U.S. working class journalist Joe Bageant called “the catering classes”), the “1%”s system could not work (which is “why,” Bageant noted “they must be purchased at a higher rate than the proles”).  Among the many services they provide the super-rich, they are the elite that most ordinary working-, lower-, and lower middle-class Americans come into contact with in the workplace, school, and local community. They are a potent buffeting force, keeping the most fortunate and powerful members of the privileged classes – the Ehrenreichs’ “genuine elite” – off the popular radar screen except in extraordinary circumstances like when Occupy broke out.

Three years and three months ago I joined a crowd of radical and populist Occupy protesters who chanted “We are the 99 Percent” as they marched past the Iowa City Farmers’ Market on the way to a downtown rally.  Hundreds of liberal white middle- and upper-middle- class people (including many strong supporters of Barack Obama) were shopping for pricey local and organic foods at the Saturday market.  They glanced warily and wearily at our ragged procession. They offered no shouts of encouragement or applause. They made no raised fists or thumbs up signs.  None of them joined in, despite friendly invitations. There was no love for a populist movement in the streets from a very liberal campus town’s mostly university-based professionals, consistent with skeptical and cynical chatter I’d been hearing from those elites about Occupy local middle-class coffee shops and the natural foods coop. The Farmers’ Market crowd clearly did not feel one with us as part of “the 99%.”

This lack of solidarity was unsurprising. It made perfect sense.  Most of the Farmers’ Market shoppers probably came from the nation’s top 25%. Some of them were certainly from Iowa City’s top 10 percent. Tenured professors at a major research university (Iowa), doctors and administrators at the university’s prestigious research hospital, and principals and senior teachers at elementary and high schools may not be “masters of the universe” like Jamie Dimon (or even masters of the Iowa City real estate market like the prosperous local millionaire developer Mark Moen).  Still, they inhabit a very different world, a very different slice of U.S. society, than do the marginally and precariously situated people – the members of the “precariat” – I was marching with in the streets in the fall of 2011.

Many from the Farmers’ Market crowd are now part of the Bernie Sanders crowd.  They are visible at rallies for the populist Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.  They cheer when Sanders denounces “the billionaire class” and tells the loathsome Koch brothers and the Waltons (the Wal-Mart heirs) “Enough, you can’t have it all!” Marching with people in the streets and occupying public space in opposition to the nation’s savage class inequalities and richly bipartisan plutocracy (deeply entrenched in the Obama White House) did not strike them as a meaningful, reasoned, or proper form of politics.  Supporting a presidential candidate who is running for the nomination of one of the two reigning Wall Street-captive U.S. political parties and who is very careful to tailor his campaign speech to middle class sensibilities is another matter. (The “democratic socialist” Sanders never says “socialism” and never directly criticizes capitalism or US imperialism, preferring to attack the Republicans, the Koch brothers, the Citizens United decision, and those nasty billionaires). The Farmers’ Market people feel safe with that. I have little doubt that most of them will fall dutifully into line when Sanders tells them to give their support to his “good friend” the militantly corporatist military hawk Hillary Clinton.

Citizens and activists who know that “the future is in the streets” (to quote the 88-year-old environmental activist David Brower as he watched the great anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November of 1999) would do well to always remember that “the 1%” does not rule alone any more than it relies only on the Republican Party to advance its agenda.

Paul Street is an anti-capitalist author and coordinator class defector in Iowa City, IA

Postscript (July 16, 11 AM):  In some ways, the coordinators are the worst to deal with. You can often have a decent argument, debate, or conversation  with a real 1-percenter (or .1 or .01 percenter)  because he commonly doesn’t mind all that much if you are right…he’s still rich as Hell and can buy you 20 times over!  When you dare call a coordinator class member’s wisdom and authority into question, watch out because you are challenging their whole claim to privilege and position. The results can be quite unpleasant.

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By | 2015-08-08T10:27:59+00:00 August 8th, 2015|Articles|