Wealth disparity apologists: the rhetoric of need

Friday, February 17th, 2012 Politics

A recent essay in Toronto Life magazine with the provocative title (the incendiary tone of which is probably invisible to the author, Jonathan Kay) “Almost Rich: an examination of the true cost of city living and why rich is never rich enough” has drawn the bilious scorn of Gawker editor Hamilton Nolan (and the commenters who’ve doubled down on his rant); Kay rejoined with a high-toned (i.e. “making good sport” of his hurt feelings) restatement of his own crippling expenses and financial burdens (generously allowing for Nolan’s “admittedly witty” remarks). A majority of Kay’s commenters (along with a minority of Gawker’s commenters) angrily dismiss Nolan’s “envious” rantings; eventually the Occupy Wall Street movement is mentioned (violating the newest form of Godwin’s Law) and we’re off and running: the specifics melt away and the pre-packaged rhetorical weaponry starts its mini-arms-race. Just like old-school nuclear escalation, an isolated skirmish between a man complaining about the cost of his three-days-a-week order-in sushi (since he and his wife are “too tired” to cook after a workday) and the incensed readers who face a monthly choice between paying rent and paying the electric bill explodes into a polarized global conflict between “capitalism” and “socialism.”

We’re at a point where “class” ideology is obsolete. The real Cold War was “about” “freedom” (I’m old enough to remember airline ads that referred to the “free world”) despite Marxist detractors (actual Marxists in universities) insisting it was about industrial profits and labor. That rhetoric died hard; George W. Bush was allowed to describe our struggles over Saudi oil, Israeli military support and its global discontents in terms of those who “hate our freedoms” just ten years ago. But the conclusion of the post-industrial capitalist shell-game (the crushing of organized American labor and its replacement with cheaper Chinese children; the deregulation of industry and health care, the overwhelming tax breaks that created today’s stunning income gaps)—comparable to the pre-income-tax Gilded Age—and the subsequent “blame” for the resulting deficits on “spending” (meaning, the sliver of our economy that’s ideologically based) has created a profound rhetorical dissonance where obsolete ideas (“growth,” “freedom”) destroy discussion before it starts.

In the 1930s (as in the 1890s, the previous “robber baron” era, when the public’s protections from pillage were as besieged as they are today) the conversation, at least, made sense. Occupy Wall Street, despite the crucial relevance of its message, is burdened by its association with similar obsolete idioms of communication from the thirties and the sixties; the abstract war on “hippies” was as ideologically conclusive (unfortunately) as the concrete war against the Axis powers, with the victors drawing the road map for all future conflicts. The discussion is blurred, but I hope—as I watch decades-old embers of conflict burn through this contemporary permafrost, as happened in the Kay/Nolan crossfire linked above—that the oppositional framework of the growing, inevitable global class conflict proves less easily sabotaged than were the ideological armatures of the past decade’s “anti-terrorism” era. People understand bombs, but their perceptions can be misled; hopefully, confusing people about their own hunger will remain more difficult.