The Four-Gated City (1969), the fifth and last volume in Doris Lessing’s bildungsroman Children of Violence, bears rereading every now and then. With this week’s unnerving developments on Wall Street, I’m reminded of that book’s final chapter, an “appendix” that includes several letters from Francis Coldridge to his stepdaughter Amanda. The time is some point after the 1970s, and both Francis and Amanda are survivors of an unspecified ecological catastrophe that overtook London and much of the rest of Great Britain during the “Epoch of Destruction.” In his first letter, Francis sets the scene with information about the years preceding the catastrophe, a period that Amanda is too young to remember:
In 1969 and 1970 there was a worsening of the economic crisis, masked (as by then had become the norm) by large loans from international bodies whose insistence on “stability” led to the national government of the early seventies.
Then he fills Amanda in on the activities of an old family friend who eventually was arrested and later dropped completely out of sight:
He had made a bet . . . that he could start a riot . . . in any highly educated audience (such as a university) by the simple means of describing how the banking system worked, or a mortgage, or an insurance company, or even reading them portions out of that old socialist book The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
It would have to be a middle-class audience. His point was that the education of middle-class people was always a blank about the mechanics of their own country. . . . A working-class audience would say something like: Teach your grandmother to suck eggs. The educated audience would riot not because of their anger at suddenly exposed wrongs, but because of their anger at having been made fools of: this moment in such a person’s life was always explosive. Having made the bet he proved it.
I doubt that David Cay Johnston was hoping to incite middle-class riots with the publication in 2003 of Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else. But if he had been hoping for such an effect, he would have been disappointed. To judge by the blurbs on the paperback edition’s back cover (“will make your blood boil,” “readers should take their blood pressure pills”), any unrest occasioned by the book is expected to play out not in the collective space of the body politic but in the private space of the reader’s own body, the body of the reader who individually, and impotently, absorbs chapters with titles like “Taxes—They’re Not for Everyone” and “The Rich Get Fabulously Richer” and “How Social Security Taxes Subsidize the Rich” and “Profiting Off Taxes” and “Only the Rich Deserve a Comfortable Retirement.”
What accounts for the solitary reader’s impotence? The recently published English translation of Beatriz Sarlo’s La Imaginación Técnica includes a prefatory note from the translator that offers a clue. In this note, my colleague and friend Xavier Callahan discusses the handling of a translation problem that arose directly from U.S. culture’s
long preoccupation with an ideology of classlessness, of universal access to so-called upward social mobility, including that ideology’s need to minimize and thus reinforce what often turn out to be impassable social and economic barriers. (Not for nothing do our mass media routinely use the label “middle class” as a euphemism, a tool of erasure, in describing groups that could more honestly be referred to as the lower middle and working classes, the urban or working poor, the petite bourgeoisie and the proletariat—common or ordinary people, so called.)
Wherever there is the myth of upward social mobility, there is also the tendency to identify more with people who are higher on the socioeconomic ladder than with those who are lower down. (Barbara Ehrenreich, among many others, has discussed this phenomenon, notably in Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.) The assumption that upward mobility is universally available, in combination with the tendency toward upward identification, also encourages general reliance on individual rather than collective solutions to social problems, not to mention specific misconceptions and fantasies about opportunities to rise through the American class structure and especially to get rich, “quick.”
Thus the singularly talented, or virtuous, or hardworking, or otherwise deserving individual is exempted from the fate of the many and is held up as both model and reproof to those whose economic destiny has been transcended. And the whole operation takes place without the need for a single word about hereditary or plundered wealth, or about the right schools, the right genes, the right neighborhoods, the right connections, and the types of moral compromise that require anesthesia any way it can be bought. The formula has worked for a very long time, and it’s working still. Hasn’t The Secret outsold Perfectly Legal by a factor of nearly twenty thousand?
One reason why it works is that just enough people—by way of the arts or sports or politics or media or luck or, sometimes, sheer ability and hard work—do manage to claw their way to the upper rungs of the economic ladder and hang on long enough to “prove” that anyone else can do it, too. Their numbers are minuscule, of course, and their achievement, such as it is, does everything to confirm and virtually nothing to deny the realities of social stratification. But these are inconvenient truths best forgotten by those who have accepted the wisdom of not leaving themselves open to charges of fomenting “class warfare.”
Here’s the thing, though. There really is a class war going on. It feeds on the lies we’re told and on the lies we tell ourselves. One intended result of all the lying is near-total privatization—in the most literal sense, at the level of the vulnerable individual’s mind and body—of the systemic peril to which reckless financial speculators and shadow bankers have exposed almost all the rest of us, for the sake of their own greed and with the collusion of their Republican and Democratic clients in government.
And this is where the ideology of classlessness comes in. In recent decades we’ve become much smarter about our country’s social class, and caste, system. How could we not, given the economic ravages of the past thirty years? As usual, though, our public discourse, as shoveled at us by multimillionaire politicians and cossetted media stars, continues to push the notion that the norm is to be “middle class,” and that middle class is what all of us fundamentally are (except for the deserving rich, whom we aspire to be, and the reprobate poor, whom we do our best to avoid).
We may know better, but we’re still immersed in that discourse, and it sinks into the pores like slow daily poison. In that toxic brew of repressed class anxiety and denial of legitimate class interests, with its attendant paranoia, envy, resentment, and raw ambition, there’s no time for reflection on our true situation, and there’s no place for solidarity with fellow citizens we’ve been trained to view as competitors (if they’re “middle class” like us) or parasites (if they’re poor and/or unemployed).
And that’s the point.
When there’s no time for reflection and no place for solidarity, it’s impossible to perceive the contemporary face of class warfare. As conducted today in our country, and in our communities, class warfare is not the cartoon of armed revolutionary insurrection hallucinated by ideologues on the Right and revered by authoritarian romantics on the Left. It’s what we’ve been gradually coming to accept as normal life—a top-down, technocratic, policy-driven program of economic cleansing, a shell game passed off as the American Dream.
But this week, entirely by accident, the game spilled right out into Wall Street for all the world to see. Take a good look. Watch the moves. Remember what you see, because it won’t be long before the game resumes behind closed doors.
Cross-posted from Palomino’s Paddock