Are we in a class war?
No hordes of Americans are building guillotines and brandishing torches, ready to storm the Bastille. But the idea of class war is cropping up a lot lately.
>> The president is stoking one with his plans to raise taxes on upper-income Americans, some of his GOP rivals insist.
>> The Occupy Wall Street protesters — whose slogans pit 99 percent of Americans against the richest 1 percent — are similarly accused. Their online conversations are peppered with talk of class war. Demonstrators have faced off with riot police, sometimes violently, in Oakland, Calif.; Chicago; Atlanta; Des Moines; and other cities.
>> The guard-the-rich industry is booming. Several private security firms told the New York Times they expect to earn up to double their usual revenue this year building fences, bomb detectors and other high-tech security for wealthy clients in the city, who have been spooked by the head-on-a-pike imagery and threatening language of some protesters.
>> Nearly half of Americans, according to a September poll by the Pew Research Center, see their country as "divided between haves and have-nots." In 1988, just one-quarter said so.
As disturbing as this picture of American life may be, does it deserve the class-war label?
Some Omaha-area scholars who get paid to think about such things — political scientists, an economist, a sociologist, a philosophy professor with a specialty in Marxism — do see a lot of tension among their fellow citizens. But they divide over what the rancor means.
"No, I don't think we're in a class war at all," says Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
"We're always in one. We've never left one," counters Michael O'Hara, a UNO economist.
Maybe the place to start exploring the idea is the origins of the phrase, suggested Amy Wendling, who teaches philosophy at Creighton University (and who says the troubled times have turned her from obscure academic into a bit of a media star. "I'm a Marxist scholar. ... When I started out, that was like Aristotle. Now I'm weirdly hot.")
It was Karl Marx, the German philosopher-economist of the mid-1800s, who is most associated in the public mind with class war. Or, more traditionally, "class warfare" or "class struggle," Wendling said. Or, in his own language, "Klassenkampf."
Marx believed societies progress through a clash of classes, or people who group together because of their similar role in producing goods. He predicted capitalism, or "the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie," was doomed to be overthrown by common laborers and eventually replaced with a classless society.
That vision of history's endgame made him the intellectual godfather of communist movements around the world — and an intellectual villain to capitalist Americans.
After a half-century of nuclear-haunted Cold War with a communist foe, they remain as skittish about class as a teenage boy discussing sex with a roomful of grandmothers.
"Most Americans don't like to talk about class, but they're aware of it. . It's kind of embarrassing to talk about it," said Charles Harper, a Creighton sociology professor. "But there are classes. They are there and they are real."
Europeans, in contrast, are more accustomed to class talk, partly because they are steeped in a history of aristocracy, he said.
Regardless of their comfort zone, Americans are having more such conversations lately, prodded by shifts in income, which is generally considered the most reliable ID badge of class identity in the U.S.
Income inequality is increasing. Economists, though they don't agree on the best way to measure it, agree that the gap between rich and less-than-rich is widening — more than most people realize.
This week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the top 1 percent of households saw their after-tax incomes grow by 275 percent over the past three decades. The other households saw increases of between 18 percent and 65 percent.
"Income inequality has been increasing in the U.S. since the 1970s," said Harper, yet public perception of that lags reality.
Most Americans, he said, still have a mid-20th-century mental picture of their society: diamond-shaped. That is, bulging across the center with middle-income people and narrowing to a few rich and a few poor at top and bottom.
In reality, he said, the shape is a teardrop: most of the population concentrated in a bottom- and middle-income bulge, a few rich at the skinny top.
"When I grew up," said Harper, 72, "we thought of ourselves as an exceptional nation, and we were an exceptional nation" — a society that saw itself as more egalitarian than the rest of the world and nearly poverty-less, where most people had ascended into a broad middle class, thanks partly to the post-World War II G.I. Bill.
America keeps different company nowadays.
Economists often gauge nations' income distribution using a formula called the Gini index. It's a 0-to-100 rating scale where the impossible-to-achieve zero would be perfectly even distribution — or everyone with equal income — and 100 would be a single person with all the income and everyone else with nothing.
At one end of the scale, in the 50s and 60s, are most of the countries of Africa and Latin America, with masses of poor and a few wealthy, according to data the U.N. compiles.
At the other end, in the 20s and low 30s, are most European countries.
The United States? It sits at 41, alongside Turkmenistan, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Mali. Nearby are Russia, at 40, and India, 37.
Harper said this tends to shock the students in his classes when they encounter the subject. They usually imagine America's income distribution to be like that of other industrialized democracies, he said.
But class war?
"I don't think this is that organized a phenomenon," Harper said of the turmoil Americans are seeing.
"War" is a sort of rallying cry — hyperbole used "when we want to combat something," like a war on poverty or a war on drugs, he said.
Several of the Omaha-area scholars suggested that, so long as America's poorest aren't starving, the tensions over income distribution would be unlikely to produce class war.
"Clearly there is growing inequality, (but) Americans are pretty tolerant of that as long as their own situations are OK," said Graham Ramsden, a Creighton political science professor. "It's probably more like ideological disagreements being disguised as 'class war.' ... It's a useful political slogan."
"Politicians," added UNO's Adkins, "use class-warfare rhetoric all the time."
America might be closer to class war than it was in the 1980s and '90s, Adkins said, but not as near as during the labor unrest of the 1920s and '30s.
If class war is coming, he said, "the fruit is not ripe yet."
Contact the writer: