The Revolt of the Elites and the Moral Deficit


Protesters in Denver rally in solidarity with Wisconsin’s workers on Feb. 22, 2011, following Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on public employees’ collective bargaining rights. Credit: Creative Commons/allwhitelegos.

How can we understand this war against middle and working class Americans? Mere mention of the word class reveals the complexity of the problem. The very language of class, we are told, is archaic and pernicious. And yet, to deny the reality of class differences in America (not to speak of the world at large), is to put blinders on the dray horse. By acknowledging class as a social reality we can become aware of how much we have in common with the restless students in Tunis or the harried shopkeepers in Cairo.

Let us be perfectly clear: there is a world of difference between the physical conflicts that roil the Middle East and the fiscal ones that beset American politics. And yet there are similarities too. They both involve poverty; and they both involve class. In the one area of the world it is jobs and money that provoke mass resentment against dictatorial regimes. In the other, it is jobs and money that reveal the weaknesses of a system that is becoming increasingly unbalanced.

What is happening all over the Middle East today is but the eidetic image of what is happening in the United States. A huge blanket shaken in the fresh spring air produces undulating ripples, spreading freedom to one half of the world, and worrisome economic oppression to the other. In Egypt and Syria and Libya, large masses of people rebel against oppressive elites. An opposite process is occurring in America: the elite are rebelling against the masses.

Dedicated to protecting their own power and above all their own wealth, these American elites remain passively indifferent as the gap between the rich and everyone else steadily widens. Hysteria about taxes and paranoia about deficits take the place of a coherent political philosophy. The deficit will be placed on the backs of firefighters, police, and teachers — public sector workers who, we are told, are overpaid and over-pensioned. These workers are for the most part union members, and the assault on unions is clearly part of a well-organized strategy to weaken the organizing power of working people. Not immune to the assault on the poor and the middle class are the millions of working men and women, writers and artists, architects and small business owners struggling to meet life on their own terms. And most vulnerable of all are those who have no jobs, no prospects, no hope. One by one the doors of compassion are slammed shut.

What is astounding in this whole process is the number of people who are seduced into participating in their own social destruction. The Tea Party movement, after all, is fated to move toward just such a destiny. Induced to act in ways contrary not only to their basic interests, but also to their own noblest instincts, these men and women remain stubbornly oblivious to the fact that many of their “tea parties” are financed by the very powers that ought to be their foe.

There was a time when growth and expansion were the twin themes that motivated American thinking. This worldview was laced with imperialism, the threat of over-reaching. But even the threat had its vision. It was expansionist and domineering, but it had goals in its headlights, dreams of a glorious future. Now the dream has been reduced to a nightmare, a nightmare that is totally fiscal in its dimensions. “Deficit! Deficit!” Cry the agents of greed. The real deficit is a moral one, an inability to recognize the potential consequences of their own selfishness.

The Middle East has its tyrants; the United States suffers from a less visible but no less pernicious form of tyranny. This is the tyranny of huge international corporations that think little of transporting domestic factories and services to far-off foreign destinations. Joining them is the tyranny of a class; yes, a class of wealthy men and women who delude themselves into thinking that demanding increased largess for themselves will translate into increased blessing for the nation at large.

I read these words over once more. They sound ardent and theoretical. What is not theoretical is that there are 18 million homeless children in our country. They cannot read because the electricity in their homes has been cut off. They cannot sleep because they wake up in pain — they are hungry.

In the meantime, millions of dollars are given as bonuses to wealthy bankers and money managers. Celebrities flourish and star athletes build their huge mansions. And all the while the gap between rich and poor grows wider each day. The future is held hostage to the greed of the present. The stock market flourishes; the poor languish and become restive. And as we sit with inertia as our companion, the weeds created by this greed become ever more intractable; waters gradually become undrinkable, the air unbreathable. Who still understands that there are roads to repair, bridges to be built? And dreams too.

“Remember, you were slaves in the Land of Egypt.” So goes the warning in the Passover Haggadah. The reminder may be more timely than we are willing to admit.

Rabbi Robert Marx is the founder and former director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a Chicago organization dedicated to bringing the commitment of Judaism to the problems of the inner city. He was also a founding board member of Interfaith Worker Justice and the co-author of Facing the Ultimate Loss: Coping with the Death of a Child.