It looks like the New York Times thinks we’ve strayed too far from paying proper respects to the central tenets of Marxism.
The whole ball game, as Karl Marx painted it, was nothing more than a class brawl between the rich and the poor. Or as Frederick Engels and Marx wrote in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, first published in 1848 in London, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
In the Marxian view of economics, a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats, and entrepreneurs and investors aren’t viewed as job-creators. The relationship between Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his multimillionaire programmers is judged to be as intrinsically exploitive as the relationship between a master and his slave, as inherently repressive as the connection between peasants and the nobility.
As the theory goes, knock off Bill Gates and things will be better for everyone, or at least more equal. Killing the key guys, of course, isn’t exactly the best way to motivate successive generations to be front-runners. And so, understandably, things tend to nose-dive under collectivism.
Marx was wrong, in short, in seeing production as something automatic, like eggs out of a hen, a process unrelated to incentives. His focus, mistakenly, was on distribution, not on output. What he saw, in every age, was two classes pitted against each other in a struggle to the death over the spoils: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
It’s that “hidden” part of the class struggle that seems to be bothering The New York Times. Things appear a little too classless these days, with secretaries on cruises in the Caribbean and the average guy grabbing a $3 mocha on the way to work. “The contours of class have blurred; some say they have disappeared,” write Times reporters David Leonhardt and Janny Scott in the kickoff article of a new Times series on “Class in America.”
But don’t be fooled. Things are still bad between the exploited proletariat and the overbearing bourgeoisie, and Leonhardt and Scott provide a quick inventory of various injustices and class crimes. Success in school remains “tightly linked” to class. The rich are “isolating themselves more and more.” Class differences in lifespan “appear to be widening.” And, of late, mobility up and down the economic ladder may have “possibly even declined.”
On the upside, the Times reporters show evidence that entry into the ranks of the elite has opened up: “Only 37 members of last year’s Forbes 400, a list of the richest Americans, inherited their wealth, down from almost 200 in the mid-1980s.”
Still, that’s not good enough for Leonhardt and Scott because getting ahead by way of hard work and merit rather than through inheritance is still too based on class: “Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education, and connections cultivate in their children the habits that meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned.”
Well, there it is, right in a front-page article and it’s not the Beijing Evening News! Work hard, do the right thing, cultivate the right habits, perform with merit and it’s still no good. Any “success” is still bogus, only “seen as earned”–not really earned–because every parent in America doesn’t deal exactly the same hand to every child.
Leonhardt and Scott explain: “The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.”
“Quiet” maneuvering to “scoop up a house,” to help your kid? The Times makes it sound like a sinister scheme, like a plot to inflict class oppression. Funny, but the whole thing has a tone to it that’s not unlike how the Red Guards talked about the most successful peasants in China, before they strung ’em up.