Many of my colleagues have been intrigued with the publication of my new book, The Eclipse of Equality. They wonder how it fits within this adolescent field of conflict resolution; after all it is a book about the United States, it focuses on the media, and it is isolated within the discursive space of Beltway influentials. This is a far cry form our intuitive focus on exotic locales, battlefields in the bush, and suffering of those held in the margins of the Washington consensus on liberal peace building around the world. But as you know, what makes this field so exciting is that conflict happens everywhere: among couples, in corporations, and also in the cloakrooms of the Nation’s Capitol. Now that we have seen the street eruptions of Occupy Wall Street and the silliness of the government shutdown, it has been easier for me to sell my standpoint to our community, but even now it is hard for us to see our own location in the escalating domestic conflict. Why are things so crazy in this richest country in the world? My answer is simple: class politics.
Let me be clear, I don’t mean by this the kinds of philosophical radicalism that inspired European socialism in the 19th century. Even the most enraged critics of our new world order like the “celebrity philosopher,” Slavoj Žižek, are less than sanguine about a return to the bad old days of Stalinism or even the Second International. What lies ahead for us is some kind of artful theoretical consideration of how to square the circle of liberal democracy and unfair economic advantage. Luckily we are not the first generation in history to confront this problem. Consider the following quotation from the greatest speech of the most successful American class warrior, William Jennings Bryan, who was active in the last big wave of globalization in the 1890s.
“We say to you that you have made the definition of a business man too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the cross-roads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in the spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much business men as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world. We come to speak of this broader class of business men.”
Bryan was daft on economic theory, but as a mythographer of the American class imaginary he was unmatched. He understood that after John Locke, there was no going back to Marxist communalism and state centralization. Modern society would be organized in terms of businesses providing goods and services in a liberal economy, but we moderns would have to recognize that as we all become businesses in an interconnected global economy (think only of the invention of the concepts of human and social capital), we, “the Many,” would have to become attentive to the tendency for competitive advantages in capitalism to accrue and concentrate in the hands of “the Few.” If you remember that movie from the mid-80s, Highlander, you get the major problem of capitalist accumulation: “there can be only one.” As economies develop, there is a tendency for those who have been successful to hold on to their competitive advantages and to perpetuate them at the expense of others who contribute in meaningful ways to the overall value of the goods and services produced. This is a no-brainer idea, but we seem not to be able to admit what all implicitly know: the capitalist game has a tendency to rig itself unless carefully cultivated by custodians of the public good. Ironically, even the winners lose this game in the end because they undermine the stability of the economic system as a whole. These are obvious problems and we will invent new progressive narratives to manage them eventually as we did over a century ago, but one wonders how much damage will have been done in the interim.
You see, you don’t need to side with Rosa Luxemburg to speak cogently about class conflict; all you need is the capacity to start seeing abusive power in ordinary business dealings. I describe it as being like that catchy slogan, “start seeing bicycles.” We need to start seeing abusive economic power as such, not as some stand-in for a bad conscience as even intersectional theories of racism and sexism often do. By this I don’t mean we lose our focus on identity politics, but that we recognize that cultural power and class power are logically separable, even when they are rarely separate. Our problem is not that we care too little but rather that we have lost our class imaginary over the course of the American Century, and in the era of globalization, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold. Why this emaciation of the class imaginary has happened is the story of my book and I encourage you to seek my answer there, but let me use the remainder of this space to channel my inner Luxemburg and advocate for a local revolution in conflict resolution terminology that embraces the idea of class conflict over its more anodyne representations.
The most anodyne is that proposed by our most celebrated conflict theorist, Johan Galtung. Consider these powerful lines from his seminal 1969 article coining the term “structural violence.”
“In order not to overwork the word violence we shall sometimes refer to the condition of structural violence as social injustice. The term ‘exploitation’ will not be used, for several reasons. First, it belongs to a political vocabulary, and has so many political and emotional overtones that the use of this term will hardly facilitate communication.”
When I asked Johan a few years back about this admission and his obvious debt to Marx, he confirmed my suspicions. His debt was deep, but he covered it up in cunning language that has fooled only us. To be a conflict resolver in the late 1960s, with the concrete threat of totalitarian alternatives to capitalism on offer in something like half of the world, it was too dangerous to speak about the role that “exploitation” played in generating conflict. This was because everyone knew back then that exploitation was a Marxist keyword. It implied class politics and no one wanted to touch that hot potato in the era of the Cold War. This was true of John Burton as well. Our field was born as desperate attempt to triangulate the era of global class struggle and our vehicle has been to substitute an ascriptive imaginary for a class mythology. It was far easier for us back then to speak about the power of the “topdogs” who always had the flavor of some ethnic hegemon than to speak about the power of the capitalist. Our villains now are genocidaires rather than plutophiles and our stories of the root causes of conflict have become impoverished as a result. Burton wrote,
“They [the ethnic underdogs] are deprived because the structure deprives them of chances to organize and bring their power to bear against the topdogs, as voting power, bargaining power, striking power, violent power – partly because they are atomized and disintegrated, partly because they are overawed by all the authority the topdogs present.”
Galtung knew what he was doing, but we have forgotten. He knew that culture and capitalism had conspired to produce a world riven by complex inequalities that would require careful critique of class structure in addition to what Fanon called cultural imposition, but we have forgotten. A typical conflict resolution student today is baffled when confronted with the proposition that people would terrorize one another only for profit, even when no hatred was present over who counted as a true prophet. We see religious and ethnic tensions as root causes of conflict, but we fail to see how these are often playthings of those in power where the real game in global economic integration: in short, class structuration.
Oddly enough, in a world in which we are all closet Fukuyamans, as Žižek has suggested, when no one seriously considers any grand economic projects that embrace even most modest socialist elements, we in the field of conflict resolution still consider class to be the most dangerous word in our lexicon. In a thoroughly capitalist word, we are inclined to cite Marx on his head, “the history of all existing society is the history of ascriptive struggles.” Our mythology of modern conflict is one of struggles between primordial identity groups vying for sovereignty over territory in the spirit of an ancient hatred, most productively augmented by their common enemy in the West. What we fail to recognize is that, in the end, the Western project had more to do with commodification and making the world safe for business than it did with cultural hegemony, per se, even when it was promoted in the spirit of the “white man’s burden.” The coming Asian Century will prove this to us and the most helpful tool we will be able to employ as we decode these coming conflicts is the concept of class. Time to get busy.…