Class and Common Sense

Some English fellow calling himself “lenin” writes at his eponymous blog on many matters that lend their selves to Marxist proselytizing. Recently he attacked the idea that optimism about economic mobility was a common sense conclusion, favoring the idea that there was no economic mobility because class barriers were too strong. Being a Marxist-Leninist, “lenin” advocates empowering the government to protect individuals against these class barriers. The problem is summarized in this quote.

The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.

The Irish Potato Famine came about because of the same potato blight that ten years previously had killed off the potato crop in the USA, and that had spent the previous several years killing off the potato crops in Europe. But the reason it brought about a famine that killed off the Irish, despite all the corn and cattle that were raised in Ireland being exported to feed England, was government. The conquering English government had passed laws preventing Irish Catholics from owning or leasing land during the 16th and 17th centuries, and only restored some ability to lease land in the 18th century while leaving the title to Irish lands in English hands. Irish lived in such government created poverty that they could only survive on the potato, which was the only crop that could feed a family on one or two acres of farming land. If the potato failed, then the Irish had no way to feed themselves and died. All the wealth of the country was being exported to England by the order of the English government.

The point is that the English government oppressed the Irish and created the potato famine. Likewise, the Ukrainian famines of the 1920s and 1930s that killed off 20% of the populace were created by the Russian government of Lenin and Stalin. The permanent famine in North Korea is created by the North Korean government. Chinese and other communist famines of the 20th century, including the famine created by the communist Ethiopian government of the 1980s, were all the result of government oppression.

In ancient times, it was the actions of kings plundering their peoples that always led to famine and revolt. It has always been so. Governments oppress the people. That is their function. The only government that does not oppress is one that is prevented by the actions of the people from oppressing them, and that requires starving the government and taking away all the powers it has.

This is what “lenin” ignores. Government does not get rid of oppression or class barriers. Government creates them. What are class barriers but measures of how close people sit to governmental power? The ultimate high class person is the king, followed by his court, other nobles, and preferred tradespeople with royal monopolies to engage in this or that type of commerce. Free men are below that, and government owned servants and slaves below them.

So if the government’s actions create these classes, how should we ever expect the government to create a classless society? The answer is we cannot. As it is in the government’s structural interest to create class boundaries, the only way to prevent the creation of class boundaries is to starve government of power. Given that “lenin’s” solution to class barriers is impracticable, let us consider the question of economic mobility.

Is he right that it is impossible for individuals to raise themselves by their bootstraps from poverty to success? Does it require assistance from people who help voluntarily, or does it require government to clear the way? Clearly it is possible for people to lift themselves up from poverty by their own bootstraps. We all know of people who have done it. There is no question that it is possible. Is it easy? No. How can it be made easier? Get help from friends and family. That has worked for many immigrants to the US who arrived with nothing and own hotels, convenience stores, restaurants and other thriving businesses within a generation. Several families from India or Thailand or Vietnam or Korea would pool their money and invest in the best businessman, who would start a successful business and pay back his investors, and they would follow either individually or in new agreements.

At the end it boils down to optimism versus pessimism. Which are you: A glass half full or a glass half empty person? If you are an optimist, you’re a capitalist. If you believe you are doomed to oppression and need the help of government, which has never voluntarily freed a people from slavery but has created plenty of slaves, and which oppresses by its very nature, then you are a marxist, socialist, communist, fascist, royalist, or some other kind of believer in big government.

As for me, I believe in individuals and capitalism. It creates freedom and wealth. Big government, on the other hand, oppresses individuals and creates equal misery for all. Pick your side wisely.

Amplify’d from
Over the last dozen or so years, there has been a substantial rise in inegalitarian political attitudes, a drop in support for redistribution and, confluently, a more modest but real drop in the number of people who think of themselves as being ‘working class’.

It is axiomatic that public attitudes are complex, with clusters of seemingly contradictory attitudes expressed on the same subject. The most recent social attitudes survey (British Social Attitudes, 27th report) confirms this with its mixed bag of results giving socialists reasons to cheer and mourn. But this is banal, what we would expect. The question is in what overall direction does the balance of these composite attitudes tend; in what direction is the trend over time? The authors of the survey find that on such matters as welfare, poverty and wealth redistribution the public has shifted to the right and ascribe this to New Labour’s tenure in office. Most interesting for my purposes, though, are the findings on the ‘race to the top’. These findings disclose a set of attitudes which in the relevant ideological struggles would tend to favour the right. They find that most people think of themselves as upwardly mobile, and believe that ‘meritocratic’ factors such as “hard work” are the most decisive in determining one’s success (as compared with ‘ascriptive’ factors such as class, or race).

When you consider that this is not merely debatable but absurd, that hard work is very far from being a more important factor in success than class background (or race, gender, etc), it becomes apparent just how much ideological ground work has had to be done to construct this ‘common sense’ worldview, and how much the constituents of this ‘common sense’ had to compete with and displace every day experience.