Throughout the history of human civilization, the various manifestations of social stratification include a small upper class and a large lower class — nobles and peasants, Brahmans and Untouchables, Patricians and Plebeians. Although the upper class is always a markedly small percentage of the overall population, it nevertheless controls a hugely disproportionate percentage of wealth and power. It has always been thus, and is so now.
To maintain its precarious position of privilege, the upper class must leverage its small numbers over the vastly larger numbers of the lower classes. Typically this has involved exerting military and police power to keep the masses in line, but also, and wisely preferable, it can also work by providing the masses with just enough of the general wealth to keep them placated. More revolutions have been incited by lack of bread than by noble ideals.
The ancient Roman aristocracy clearly understood this and pacified the masses with bread and circuses. The French aristocracy did not. “Let them eat cake” cost many French nobles their heads.
As it wrestles with its frightening national debt, the United States evokes the age-old politics of social stratification. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to decrease entitlements to the lower classes while reducing taxes for the upper classes repeats the history of elitist greed versus proletariat need.
Although Republicans justify their political positions by invoking capitalist ideologies and the frontier self-reliance of early America, the thrust of their politics is not only to maintain, but also to increase the paramountcy of the economic aristocracy.
But beware that the separation become too great. Over the past 30 years, the wealth gap among the classes in America has become a chasm, and as the Great Recession stubbornly lingers on, that chasm begins to appear as an inescapable abyss to those on the wrong side of it. Currently, the top 20 percent of American households hold more than 80 percent of the nation’s wealth and earn more than 50 percent of the nation’s annual income. Ninety percent of Americans earn less than $32,000 per year while 1 percent of Americans earn $1.1 million per year. Since 2001, CEOs’ pay has grown 27 percent while the folks who work for them have seen only about a 2.4 percent pay increase.
There will be poor always, and there will be rich always. We are who we are — competitive beasts with ravenous egos. Most of us want to be rich and famous, well, at least rich. And there is nothing necessarily immoral about that. Although there are plenty of economic predators out there, most in the top 20 percent got there honestly, with hard work, good ideas, perseverance and, yes, some luck.
That fact, however, may not counteract the increasing anxiety and resentment of the remaining 80 percent — especially the middle 40 percent whose expectations are high and whose prospects are increasingly diminished. While attempts to create completely egalitarian societies with purely equitable economic systems have been dismal failures, the economic aristocracy should not be so stupidly smug as to believe it can continue to placate the masses with Horatio Alger stories and sermons from Atlas Shrugged.
The American frontier is long gone. All the free land has been taken from the Indians, and all the gold and silver lodes have been claimed. Trickle down economics has mostly piped wealth up to the rich. Unregulated free markets quickly degenerate into cartels of corporate cupidity. Globalization has not benefited the lower 80 percent very much. It has depressed wages and moved jobs offshore.
The growing perception among Americans is that the game is rigged in favor of the established elite, and to a great extent that perception is accurate. The taxpayer bailouts of big banking; tax subsidies to corporations, especially the overfed oil industry; and a complex tax code contrived to afford loopholes that benefit the wealthiest all contribute to this perception of unfairness.
America is treading on treacherous ground right now. Its society and economic system must be structured to provide sufficient opportunity for upward mobility. That does not mean forced economic equity through wealth redistribution schemes; it means a clearly fair and honest playing field.
From the elite, America needs sage leadership that doesn’t worship rigid ideologies or arrogantly believes that its wealth and power are unassailable. As Marie Antoinette and the arrogant French aristocracy found out, the lower classes have strength in numbers. They still do — if not in the streets, then at the polls.