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It’s Time for a Class War

By Jonathan H. Esensten

Forget Iraq. The real axis of evil extends from the boardrooms of corporate America right to the Oval Office. Not since the Gilded Age has the wealth distribution in the U.S. been so polarized, and have business interests controlled the government so completely. Now, the extremely wealthy are slated to get an enormous tax cut as American workers lose their jobs, lose their welfare benefits and lose hope in a stagnant economy. The plutocrats stole the last presidential election, and now they’re trying to steal the government money that millions of working Americans rely upon.

But it’s time to show President George Bush and his ilk that they have gone too far. It’s time for regime change in Washington. In sum, it’s time for a class war, and the first battleground should be Harvard College.

Speaking earlier this month about his policy of rewarding the very rich with tax cuts, Bush—the scion of a wealthy Connecticut political dynasty—said, “I understand the politics of economic stimulus. Some would like to turn this into class warfare. That’s not how I think.” This comment can be translated roughly as follows: of course this is about class, but I’m trying to convince myself it’s not.

The problem is that most Americans, like Bush, prefer not to see class distinctions. The American masses have never successfully united to regulate the nation’s ruling plutocrats. During much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the moneyed elite exploited racial and ethnic divisions among workers to keep them fighting among themselves. The class divisions then were marked by two things: money and breeding. The social distance between people was as important as the difference in wealth.

Since then, the social homogenization of the United States has quelled class consciousness, and that’s where Harvard comes in. It is an accomplice in the great lie that class doesn’t exist in America. For example, the most exclusive Harvard final clubs routinely admit both extremely wealthy pretty boys and social climbers from the lower classes. By throwing a few scraps to the plebes, the Porcellian Club prevents resentment. Your father might be a construction worker, but you can still get into the Porc with the right mix of social bluster and deference to the old-money boys. This throwing-together of very different classes promotes a convergence of social mores toward the mediocre middle; it’s not cool to be too refined, but then again, you need to be able to work a cocktail party.

Moreover, making open class distinctions among Harvard students is no longer done. Fifty years ago it would have seemed strange to see bright poor kids from bad high schools in the rural South invited to Master’s teas, sipping chai on Persian rugs and eating sandwiches off silver platters. Back then, social class coincided more closely with economic class. In today’s Harvard, chai is the great social equalizer no matter how much your father earns.

The convergence of social class facilitated by places like Harvard obscures crucial differences of economic class, and it allows the plutocracy to rule on. The middle and lower classes have “joined the club.” But being members distracts them from the problem that they still don’t own the club. Without the economic status of the owners, they have little real power.

The great genius of the Progressive Student Labor Movement (PSLM), which staged a massive takeover of Massachusetts Hall during the spring of 2001 to protest the low wages received by Harvard workers, was that it acknowledged real class differences. The PSLM members were not ashamed to say that the janitors were of a different class from them. Moreover, PSLM knew the only way to press for workers’ power was to use the brute instruments of mass protest, civil disobedience and humiliation. Many students reacted with amused disdain to the sit-in. What are these rich kids doing protesting for janitors, they asked? Aren’t they hypocrites? Such comments might be expected, because Harvard has convinced these less well-off students that they too are part of the elite establishment.

The real hypocrite is the average economics student bound for a career in investment banking who criticized the sit-in as divisive and economically wrong-headed, yet whose entire existence is permeated by class anxiety. Such students can hardly claim to be oblivious to class concerns when their college lives are focused on preparing them for lucrative careers with salaries that show they have “made it.”

To beat back the plutocracy we first need an honest discussion of economic and social class, and such a discussion should start at Harvard. Is there a Bushite in your government class section? Does his daddy make more than half a million per year? Why is he getting political backup from the daughter of a factory worker in Kentucky? Doesn’t she know better?

Harvard students like her are in denial about the political and economic subjugation of the bulk of the population by the richest one percent because class distinctions are taboo at the College. You don’t believe me? Then like President Bush, you too are in denial.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04, an executive editor of The Crimson, is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House.

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