May 01, 2005

Exclusionary Identities and Wealth

I've been thinking for some time that a more PR-conscious libertarian-esque group should find a way to emphasize the inherent unfairness of treating people differently on the basis of income. I'm still trying to determine the degree to which one can draw a valid comparison between racism and wealth-bashing (obviously there are various distinctions that need to be mentioned) and it seems to me that there's surprisingly little distinction between them.

Now, that doesn't mean that rich people aren't ultimately still better off in the end, since it hasn't gotten to the point in this country where people would rather have less money if given a no-consequences choice. But certainly it involves the same basic construction of identities.

After all, even though true economic classes in this country are more or less fantasy and there's a greater degree of social mobility than the vast majority of human societies, there are many people who draw a line around the "rich" or "super rich" and assume that it's an un-crossable barrier. If just anybody could be rich then it's nothing more than an economic classification, perhaps with some populist rhetorical tinge. But if being "super rich" is its own separate grouping that people rarely or never cross, then it enters into a different realm entirely.

The problem with inflexible or permanent social designations is that it's easy to assume the distinctions are valid for other areas of life. For example, then, assuming that religion, geographic origin or skin color is a determining factor in hard work, in violence or in sloth. Maybe there's some clustering that allows these stereotypes to crop up, but ultimately a distinction is only really valid in making the one distinction it's supposed to make.

I can't assume that Mexicans are going to have a certain aversion to work because they come from a specific country; I cannot correctly argue that Catholics are drunkards; I would be incorrect to believe that all Germans enjoy pickled meats. There might be a correlation or the appearance of a correlation between these things, but ultimately I can't make anything more than a vague generalization. Until I've talked to EVERY SINGLE PERSON in a given social designation, I can't say that I know what they all want, think, do or believe.

People are just too different, too unique, to individualistic. This is the essence of classical liberalism; people have divergent perspectives, knowledge, beliefs and so forth. I cannot clump people together into a social designation and then make other assumptions about the group and expect them to hold true. I can definitely make observations, generalizations and sociological hypotheses; these are fine and even useful, as long as they don't cross into prescriptive or aggressive territory.

Now that's both abstract and seemingly irrelevant. After all, who's going to feel bad for rich people - they're rich! Well, that kind of attitude fuels the anti-wealth bias. In assuming that it's okay to bash rich people because they're rich, we're elevating a social designation - our perspective of another's assets - above the uniqueness of the individual in question. Bill Gates grew up in a lower middle class family, then he went on to have tens of billions of dollars; did he become a bad person because he acquired wealth? I think you'd have to know quite a bit about him to make that kind of characterization. Surely you could not condemn rich people en masse simply because of their bank accounts.

Obviously, when people bash the rich, they're not going to feel like it's the same as bashing minorities or women. The reason is that rich people, unlike racial/social minorities and women, are not perceived as weak or deserving of protection. Since rich people are assumed to have near-conspiratorial control of the government and society (at least in the eyes of some) there's not really any harm seen in bashing them.

I think we need to be conscious of the history, though. I think we ought to rely on the principle of the thing - that individuals matter, not social designations - but I find that many people are persuaded against racism and sexism by historical abuses, and not by the violation of principle or the insult to the individual. People are almost always more shocked to read about lynching or spousal rape than to hear an intellectual discourse on the nature of social interactions. So let's review, briefly, just how anti-wealth biases have resulted in pain, misery and intolerable cruelty.

"Kulaks" - I object to the very term itself, which was targeted against the most prosperous (or perhaps "least gut-wrenchingly poor") farmers in Russia. The term means fist, as in tight-fisted, so it's essentially a slur against them that calls them rich. The "kulaks" were not aristocrats, and often they were not all that prosperous. Nobody knew exactly who was a kulak and who was another agricultural class (there were several below kulak), but everybody knew that those damn kulaks were greedy and disruptive... whoever they were.

The government eventually set up guidelines for who was a kulak - a dangerous precedent, for students of crimes against humanity. The first step to obliterating a social group is identifying it (which doesn't mean identification itself is sinister, but you get the point). Unfortunately the classifications were rather vague, and discouraged all the signs of success and growth: hiring farm hands, buying capital equipment, renting out lands, and selling the surplus on the market. In the end, all the various classifications led to one thing: those doing a little too well were kulaks, and hence enemies of the people.

The class enemies were eventually forced, with most of the rest of the population, into collective agriculture. The fierce opposition and protests led to violence, destruction of crops and livestock, and state crackdowns. Those who refused to have their homes and land integrated under state control were either killed outright, deported to Siberia, or reassigned to heavily-monitored, travel-restricted communities (labor settlements).

Tens of thousands of people were accused of being kulaks and simply killed. The local officials had quotas of kulaks to identify and deal with. Eventually employing your sons or having a metal roof could make a farmer a "kulak." State officials had to make quota.

When the Soviet archives opened up, records were found showing that 1.8 million were exiled to labor colonies and camps, but that only 1.31 million made it - the rest either dying or escaping in the journey. Hundreds of thousands died in the following years at the labor colonies and camps. The resulting famines, combined with the executions and labor camp deaths may be around 7 million.

"Capitalist roaders" - The Maoist Cultural Revolution involved all sorts of ancillary issues of Soviet tensions, intra-CCP politics and general problems associated with the massive economic disaster and famine (20 million dead) that came from the Great Leap Forward. To summarize, Mao asserted that many Chinese Communist party officials were caving to bourgeois pressures and bringing the country on the road to capitalism - hence, "capitalist roaders."

Of course, most of them were critics of the Great Leap Forward and sought somewhat more market-oriented solutions to avoid a repeat of the economic and humanitarian disaster that it caused. In pursuing these options, they marked themselves for death. Mao called on the Red Guards to fight and kill the capitalist roaders, who were guilty of only being mostly communist. This is mildly akin to when Stalin had the supposed "Titoists" put in show trials for treason.

The Red Guard, perhaps something analogous to the Nazi Brown-shirts (the SA), killed intellectuals, teachers, alleged bourgeois sympathizers, Buddhist monks, priests, nuns and in general anyone suspected of being a capitalist or even mildly anti-Communist. The police were rendered totally ineffective, unable to stop or even attempt to control the mass killings, torture and death. Historical artifacts, documents, scrolls, manuscripts, buildings and works of art were completely and intentionally destroyed. At least a half million were killed, though likely it's several times that number.

Others - There are many other times when rich people, or a group perceived as being wealthy, was targeted for discrimination, special laws, attacks repatriation or execution. The most persistent and obvious example is the Jews, who throughout Western history have been connected to wealth and money-lending, often in an unfavorable light. It's impossible to fully understand anti-Semitism without placing it within a context of an anti-wealth bias. Other groups have been despised for their wealth and paid the ultimate price for giving that impression, such as intellectuals killed in Cambodia for the crime of having high school education or wearing glasses (though there were also many killed or starved for ethnic and religious differences by the Khmer Rouge).

Obviously every whining Democrat with a gripe about taxes and corporations isn't just a Mao, Stalin or Pol Pot in waiting, but certainly they need to understand that a lot of the wealth-bashing in history comes from a very disturbing place and can end up with tragic results. If you can't see rich people as valuable, unique individuals for the sake of being reasonable and fair, at least refrain from wealth-bashing in deference to many millions of 20th-century victims of that particular way of thinking.

I don't think it's as bad or worse to bash the rich than to hurl racist epithets. I do think it's ultimately illiberal, horribly divisive, and demeans a group of productive, loyal, hard-working, tax-paying Americans. The least we can expect from the left is a hearty thank you to the top quintile of earners for funding their wacky social programs.


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