Friday, December 28, 2007

Class War Concepts

I woke up this morning wondering not how I could help the writers at left against the studios but if I overdo the critique of elites in my forthcoming book, "Unmaking the Public University." I wondered about my comments about the Duke lacrosse saga on my new blog. Gaa. It's never good to wake up with a self-reproach, especially of the chickenshit kind. But then it did get me out of bed at a decent hour.

What's the issue? The book offers an historical account of a post-war threat to American conservatism that produced an organized backlash against "liberal" culture and core values associated with it. I argue that this is a core source of the public university's now-perpetual funding problems. The Long Squeeze comes not from the business cycle, or from prisons budgets alone, or from the sheer efficiency of public-private partnerships, but from a multi-faceted attempt to undermine an institution whose independence was underwriting a new outlook, a new culture, and not only among society's oppressed but, more frighteningly, in the mainstream middle class. Universities were doing what I call "civil-rights science" - offering a base of validated socio-cultural knowledge to the social movements that were changing society. Inspired by these movements, university communities were advocating cross-racial power sharing and the evaluation of economic practice by its human and social impacts. The university was humanist ("people before profits") and egalitarian (even as it remained in itself highly elitist). Ever since these trends became widely known forty years ago, the university - especially the huge, high-quality public research universities that educate the mass-middle class - have been targeted by the Right for containment.

Through all this I have struggled with how polarized my account should be. I don't think people come in two flavors or that the culture wars can be understood as a binary conflict. In addition, Americans have a learned phobia about polarization, and I want to accept people as they are and take it from there. I thus try to avoid the slap across the face with a cold fish. On the other hand, Americans can be the world's biggest babies about politics, and fly into rages over disagreements (call it the O'Reilly syndrome) that other political cultures handle as a normal part of democratic debate. Finally, the myth of the classless society has damaged our national ability to understand the American economy as it really is. I've blogged about this often here. The prominent columnist Paul Krugman has been flogging the issue, along with many others. Critiquing grossly elitist economic and social politics is an educational process, and there's no turning back now.

Some relevant tidbits:
  • Writers of the world unite: Adding to previous data on the writers' little piece of the pie, Kate Coe writes the following:
    The WGA is demanding that writers get 2.5 percent of all gross “new media” revenue flowing from content they write. Currently, writers’ residuals are based on a far smaller slice of gross sales. A recent study by Global Media Intelligence suggests that studios are paying out as much as 25 percent of a film’s profits in residuals. Last year, that amounted to $3 billion in after-release payouts. Yet from this river of cash, writers received only $121 million. By contrast, an actor or director can receive residuals ranging from $20 million to $70 million for a single picture.
  • Bush's Class Warfare: The urban planning expert Peter Dreier had a straightforward piece about this last week. How do you know when there's a class war? When leaders defend grotesque disproportion in returns no matter what. Dreier has good concrete examples.
Both cases illustrate the core fact that business leaders manage "knowledge workers" in the same way they do everyone else - as a cost to be reduced as much as possible. This is of course central to the logic of capitalism, which leads us back to the core polarity: the middle-class worker interest is starkly opposed to that not only of wealthy shareholders, but to that of the top executives who are now paid in the millions or tens of millions a year, i.e. proportionately more than the colonial-era ruling class.

There are no grounds to claim that the US has no distinct elite that opposes the vast majority. Growing economic disparity shows that elites have figured out they don't need to give the middle or bottom the same raises they get either to keep the economy running or to keep society quiet.

Does this have to be resolved as a simple power-struggle, one which the majority could in principle use their voting strength to win? At some point yes, there will have to be direct political confrontation.

In the meantime, there has to be much better accounting. Egalitarians need to do more to define the limits of acceptable inequality and to say more exactly where the line is crossed. We also need to redefine the sources of wealth. Corporate revenues, for example, are earned by the company as a whole and not by its CEO and inner circle. These revenues are created in no small part by society. The goal has to be to correct initial distribution of income with correct sourcing of the creating of value and not simply to demand a retroactive redistribution of money people allegedly "earned" on their own only to have it taxed away. Little will change until we can make conceptual headway here.

The good news is that, judging from polls about economic stratification, a popular majority wants quite a bit more equality than their leaders to.

As for my initial worries, I first thing found a nice email about my Duke entry from Reharmonizer, a composer who is more or less the best blogger on the lacrosse business. He pointed me to another very interesting analysis of the same, which ponders among other things the attraction to polarized stories.

No comments: