Bricks Without Straw:  The Myth of a Classless America

John M. Kelley

Posted Oct 15, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Bricks Without Straw:  The Myth of a Classless America

By John M. Kelley

Behind the myth of classlessness in America is one of the most powerful class systems ever designed.  Changing economic circumstances related to globalization are revealing more clearly the always present but hidden class system in this country.  One of the reasons that the myth of a classless society has been able to be maintained is that while the stratification is horizontal across different industries, the power, control, information and money flows vertically in the corporately controlled world.  Each class getting only enough of each of these resources to complete its needed service to the elite.  To see this stratification you have to look at the horizontal stratification stripped of its vertical isolations. 

It is not based on education or talent but money, status and authority over others.  Hence while one can work in a union auto factory and make more then a policemen you are still working class.  The policeman has more status based on legalized authority to use physical force and the law to his advantage over others.  This power is applicable to people in the same or lesser class but not usually applicable to those in higher classes then he is in.  Bureaucrats may not make more money but they have the power to lose the paper workӔ or extort other favors to make the system work, but again only to those in the same or a lower class.  If you are born into a higher class, your value is based on taking your role in that class to maintain the system and you are not subject to the same rules as those in the classes below you. 

While an individual may attain individual recognition based on skill you will be rewarded only on your value to the system.  A C student millionaire who manufactures pet rocks has a lot more clout and value to the system then the PhD professor making a lot less who trains teachers or social workers that may have a real impact on the quality of life in the world.  The reality is that the political system is manipulated to be nothing more then an extension of policy supporting the economic elite. 

Classes in American Society

The Over Class: Top 10% of U.S. population or 14.4 million people who own 71% of all wealth,  Income $120,000-$87+ million/year ($10,000-7.25million/week),  Personal Wealth $500,000 to 48 billion

The Over Class is a name given by author Michael Lind to the upper five percent who own 60% of all of the assets and enjoy control over the country.  They are hyper rich and control finance, energy, media, the military industrial complex, agribusiness, construction, transportation, medical/pharmaceutical, communications, information technology, transportation, retail and of course government.  The term Over Class here is extended to the upper 10% to include the three subclasses.

The Master Class or top 5% live primarily off from dividends, inheritance, trusts and capital gains. While a few like Bill Gates (who went to Harvard from a privileged family), Warren Buffet and a handful of information technology people made their own money, most are inheritors of vast fortunes.  They sit on each others Boards of Directors and reinforce each others view that they are somehow superior to the rest of the world due to their financial status.  They pay the lowest tax rates of anyone because they earn little if any wage income subject to income tax or social security.  They attend Ivy League schools whether capable or not, seldom encounter the work world in a meaningful way and have little understanding for how working people live.  For the most part they live below the radar, avoiding publicity and press exposure.  Each day they meet in thousands of board rooms to decide American policy both here and abroad.

A more visible part of the Over Class but with less prestige, money and power are two Sub Classes.  The Political Class made up of national and state executive politicians, think tank managers, high-ranking military and intelligence personnel, and of course high-level lobbyists.  Although many master class members dabble in politics usually as Senators, Governors or Presidents, the political class are largely the front menӔ obedient functionaries, hit men (destroying reputations and careers) and bag men to the over class,.  They pass and insure the enforcement of laws that protect and serve the Over Class.  Some can move into the Master Class but only if they show sufficient loyalty to the goal of perpetuating Master Class dominance.  Up and coming politicians are selected for membership by giving them campaign contributions, government appointments and industry lobbying positions, based on their support for Master Class policies.

Equal or richer then the Political Class financially, but powerless unless they marry into it or are elected to an office ala Schwarzenegger is the Circus Class made up of movie stars, entertainers and athletes.  Over paid, over hyped, over exposed and mostly over impressed with themselves, they provide the bread and circuses to keep the guardian and working classes distracted.  They provide role models that young people who instinctively know they have little or no chance of climbing out of their hopeless future to otherwise aspire to.  The idolization of this class in the media serves a distinct purpose of the Over Class.  These role modelsӔ span the psychological border of fantasy and hope.  When this class does display any social conscience they are vilified as stupid, shallow and unpatriotic.

A constant stream of petty news about their private lives, victories and defeats and other goings on become the virtual substitute for working class action against those who repress them.  The impact of the circus class is a particularly cynical management of public opinion.  They reward people for politically irrelevant talents. 

Reality showsӔ are a perfect example of the type of promise that any person can get rich, if they are just willing to degrade themselves enough.  The epitome was a young black girl featured on a national morning newsӔ show.  She had won a record contract on a reality showӔ competition.  Unable to read or write she gushed to the host it just shows if you believe and have faith anyone can make itӔ.  It was a grotesquely distorted Frankenstein version of the American Dream that made teachers across the country shudder. 

This trend has taken a very ugly turn in the last few years with the designation of gansta rapӔ as an artӔ movement. The media industry has taken the results of a policy that declared war on the poor and made it something for young people to aspire to and for them to exploit.  Legitimatised by big business, it encourages criminal action as opposed to civil rebellion, feeding stereotypes, criminalizing youth and making acceptable within a whole maturing culture, alienation and early violent death.  Anybody who works in a school in a poor neighborhood can tell you of the hopeless youth who wont put effort into their education but will ғrap for hours or tell you how they will make it in professional sports.  The few who do make a lot of money allow the fantasy of ԓanyone can make it to survive.  Eminem, youԒre not a rebel, you have been duped into being part of the problem.

The Guardian Class (AKA Middle Class), 50% of the American People, 70 million workers who own 28% of the wealth Income from $30-120,000 ($2,500-$10,000/month), Personal Wealth $30-500,000

The Guardian Class was labeled by Howard Zinn and is further broken down here into two subgroups tied together by economic necessity.  The true guardians are the professionals who maintain the structure and authority over working people. I call this sub class the Warden Class.  10% of the population, about 14 million people own half of all wealth in the Guardian Class, about 13% of the total wealth in the country.  Their income runs from $80-120,000 per year.

This group include judges, lawyers, accountants, doctors, dentists, insurance managers, local bank executives, local politicians, college & university professors, stock brokers, upper level law enforcement officials, corporate middle management and local independent business interests in a community.  They keep the machine in place, well oiled and make the decisions that keep the system working in favor of the rich.  They all hope to be richer some day or have their kid become rich.  Traditionally they have been labeled the Upper Middle Class and have the largest upward mobility because they share most of the educational and resource advantages of the classes above them.

The larger group of Guardians makes up the Guard Class that also is allowed a reasonable income (between $30-80,000/year) for supporting the goals of the Over Class by enforcing the instructions of the Management Class. Constituting 40% or 56 million workers they share 15% of the countrys wealth.  They tend to be political independents and move between parties based on financial security.  This is the group that is often pick pocketed by the Republicans and Democratic centrist policies while they are shaking their hand and smiling.  This group can easily fall from grace when they fail to tow the line or become open in their protests against minority rule.  Most of the propaganda, popular distractive media (bread & circuses) and manipulation is done to prejudice this class one way or another.  It is actually a cluster of sub groups.:

The Warrior Class Җ Police officers, firemen, non-commissioned soldiers, prison guards and others who enforce the law and are called on to provide martial support for the Over Class and protect the Guardians.

Bureaucratic Class Low level bureaucrats meant to persuade and herd people away from open rebellion against the system. These include teachers, social workers, bureaucrats, government workers and other dogooders whose efforts are channeled into thinking they are contributing something other than what they are doing, maintaining the system.

Chamber of Commerce Class ֖ My friend Joe calls these the Pickle Vendors, that class of merchants that own small businesses that envision themselves as the defender of the conservative movement and bulwark of civilization. Though rabidly nationalist, most have not ever served in the military. The tend to be very conservative, support the Republicans (even though the Republicans seldom support them), big on law and order and property rights.

Techno Class The medical personnel, information technology specialists and other people necessary to keep the logistics supporting the system in place and generating money.

The Disposable Class, 40% or 60 million Americans who own .3% of the country֒s wealth Income from 0-$30,000/year (0-$2,500/month) Personal Wealth 0-$15,000

Generally vilified in the media as pitiful, stupid and victims of their own failings. Think the Jerry Springer Show, Al Bundy, Cops and at best Roseanne. This group is divided into two sub groups, the Serf Class (aka working poor) earn from $13-30,000/ year. They are 20% of the population or about 29 million people and control all of the wealth of the lower class .3%.  This group is further exploited by being forced to pay usury rates (payday loans go up to 750% apr), charged higher deposits on housing, and other charges because any financial emergency damages forever any credit standing they may possess.  They have marginal if any dental or medical insurance, childcare or educational opportunity.  Once here, there is little chance for escape for them or their children.

These are the people who slave away at service jobs, manufacturing, construction, retail and other jobs that scrape by from one check to another until the inevitable financial crisis happens pushing them into the prison class. Their employment is subject to seasonal displacement, high hours/low pay, competition from illegal aliens, off shoring, harsh and debilitating work conditions with few if any benefits.  They generally make less than $30,000/ year/ family which is probably the real poverty rate for a family of four to meet basic needs.

Last and unfortunately for them treated as least is the Prison Class.  They are 20% of the population or about 29 million people as well. Their income is from $0-13,000/year (0-$1,085/month) and they own nothing.

With the official poverty rate at $19,000 a year for a family of four, these are the throw a ways of capitalism.  They are physically, emotionally or mentally disabled, the unemployed, the homeless, those on welfare, probation or parole, and those swept up in the criminal justice system.  Many work part time, some work full time. Many, denied access to the legal economy, become part of the illegal economy, drug trafficking, prostitution, theft, arson and other crimes of desperation or hire. They are used to scare the middle and working class in many ways.  As a scapegoat for the failures of capitalism, as a fear factor to incite prejudice and hate, as a reminder of a possible worse fate for the serf class.

The Over Class would like us all to believe that this is the natural order of things. It is not.  It is policy to keep them in their position of wealth and power.  While there is not a conspiracy where people start out to impoverish part of the population, capitalism is a system that allows them to pretend that they are not responsible for the consequences of their decisions, most often in the form of the corporation. It remains to be seen whether the United States will be remembered in history as a light of equality, freedom and moral leadership or the creator of economic dictatorships that threatened the survival of the whole world.  For myself, I agree with Jefferson.

“I hope we shall… crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”—Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1816. FE 10:69

John M. Kelley is a teacher, philosopher, writer, artist, political activist, singer of ballads, rebellious Irishman and agent for change who worries daily about the world he is leaving for his grandchildren.  His blog is at