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The Class War Has Begun


Occupy Wall Street demonstrators asleep in Zuccotti Park.  

Coverage increased and politicians ran for cover. Mayor Bloomberg, who had initially (and preposterously) portrayed the occupiers as a threat to the financial industry’s lower-income service workers, gingerly observed that some unspecified “people” are “very frustrated.” Though the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, waffled when asked if he had any sympathy for Occupy Wall Street, Barack Obama publicly acknowledged the demonstrators’ “broad-based frustration about how our financial system works.”* (If Bloomberg and Obama are both using “frustration,” you can be certain it is a focus-group-tested trope chosen not to frighten the presumed sensibilities of independents.) Mitt Romney, who had first called the protests “dangerous,” executed another of his patented flip-flops to assert that he, too, identifies with America’s 99 percent, not the top one percent where he’s always dwelled. “Boy, I understand how these people feel,” he said. (Boy, do “these people” not believe him.) Even Eric Cantor, who’d described the protesters as “mobs,” started talking about—what else?—“frustration.”

These efforts to domesticate and contain the protests are unlikely to succeed. It is not frustration that’s roiling America but anger, the anger of a full-fledged class war. Try as polite company keeps trying to ignore it, that war has been building in this country and abroad for much of this decade and has been waged in earnest in America since the fall of 2008. But the crisp agenda demanded of Occupy Wall Street will not be forthcoming. The inchoateness of our particular class war is central to its meaning. America is not Tahrir Square or the riot-scarred precincts of North London, where everyone knows at birth who is in which class and why. We pride ourselves on being a “classless” democracy. We abhor ideology. When Americans left and right, young and old, express anger at an overclass, they don’t necessarily agree about who’s on which side of that class divide. The often confusing fluidity of class definitions, especially in an America as polarized as ours is now, may make our home­grown class war more volatile, not less.

The tea-party right finds the hippie-scented movement in lower Manhattan repellent, but it and Occupy Wall Street are two sides of the same coin. “Take Back America,” the initial tea-party battle cry, would work for those in Zuccotti Park as well. The disagreement is about which America needs to be taken back, and from whom.

Provoked by Obama’s ascent, the right was ahead of the class-war curve, with Sarah Palin sounding the charge when she stuck up for “the real America” against the elites during the 2008 campaign. The real America, as she defined it, was in small towns—“those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food.” In other words: It is the middle class (or at least its white precincts) that fell behind while the rich got richer. The Über-class she and her angry followers would take to the guillotine, however, is not defined by its super-wealth. It is first and foremost exemplified by potentates in the federal government, especially the Ivy League cohort of Obama—closely followed by the usual right-wing populist bogeymen, the pointy-headed experts in fancy universities and the mainstream-­media royalty with their “gotcha” questions.

Palin may now have abdicated her position on the barricades, not least because she succumbed to the financial blandishments of the unreal America, but the zeal of her constituency has not faded a bit. The right’s angry class warriors constitute the vast majority of the GOP—that roughly three-­quarters of the party that seems determined to resist Romney no matter what. A Harvard-educated former Massachusetts governor, especially one who embraced the social engineering of health-care reform, inspires class anger from his own party to the same degree that his private-sector record as a leveraged-buyout tycoon provokes class anger from Democrats.

But while Romney is a class enemy liberals and conservatives can unite against, perhaps nothing has revealed how much the class warriors of the right and left of our time have in common than the national outpouring after Steve Jobs’s death. Indeed, the near-universal over-the-top emotional response—more commensurate with a saintly religious or civic leader, not a sometimes bullying captain of industry—brought Americans of all stripes together as few events have in recent memory.

Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top one-percenter like Jobs, whose expensive products were engineered for near-­instant obsolescence and produced by Chinese laborers in factories with substandard health-and-safety records. For heaven’s sake, the guy didn’t even join Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in their Giving Pledge. “There is perhaps no greater image of irony,” wrote the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, “than that of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-materialist extremists of the Occupy Wall Street movement paying tribute to Steve Jobs.”

*This article has been corrected to clarify Timothy Geithner's reaction to being asked about Occupy Wall Street.


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