By John Fleming
The Taboo, Media-Censored Scandal of the Idle Rich, Who Are Not Supposed to Exist in an Allegedly Classless Society
Dem Zuschauer ist keine Arbeit zu viel.-German proverb
When American sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) published The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), of which one historian noted that the author "discussed the habits and thoughts of the rich as if they made up a primitive tribe he had discovered," he emphasized "conspicuous consumption," the vulgar display of wealth especially characteristic of the parvenu nouveaux riches and the American Gilded Age. Veblen's classic is not easy reading, but he like Marx and Engels viewed the leisure class as purely parasitic.
The Theory appeared at a time when Americans were much more clear-headed about social class than they are today. Aided by the taboo on the discussion of class, and by the ceaseless propaganda broadcast by the corporate-censored media, which forbids plain English like "upper class," "idle rich," "class privilege," "profiteering," "class conflict," "working class," "proletariat," "elite," "the poor," and "exploitation" in favor of euphemisms like "underprivileged," "upper-end," "upper-strata," "upper-crust," "high-end," "exclusive," "lower socioeconomic strata" and so forth, and by the notorious unintellectual character of the American people-a nation of television viewers rather than readers-the public thus has become bewildered about such simple facts as that they live in a class society, that there is an American leisure class, that class warfare is an everyday, ubiquitous phenomenon, and that in a society where everyone is supposed to be rich (an ideology that gave rise to the incessant American smile-spontaneous, forced, duplicitous or otherwise), but most people are poor, the impecunious masses in the working class suffer from an extraordinary stigma of utter lack of success. As Publius Syrus wrote, desunt inopiae multa, avaritiae omnia.
The American idle rich inherit a lightly-taxed, multi-million dollar trust fund fortune, never work a day in their life, and live off the labor of others in sudore vultus alieni. They do absolutely nothing to earn their keep, their daily bread, their room and board, and their precious stock and bond and real estate and capital goods mammon. Needless to say, unlike Americans of the middle and lower classes-whose labor they exploit-the idle rich do not mow the lawn, vacuum the carpet, do the dishes, cook, mop or sweep the floor, wash windows, take out the trash, make home repairs to plumbing or electrical works or appliances, paint the walls, rake leaves, trim shrubs, bushes or trees, do laundry, sew, knit, bake, tend to and take care of children, wash or repair automobiles, shop for groceries, nurse sick relatives, shovel snow, clear their house gutters of leaves, dust, unclog toilets, scrub bathroom floors and tile. The Spaniards have an unkind proverb, para trabajar hacen falta los burros-as if man, made for the contemplation of heaven and all noble objects, should be nothing but Frederick W. Taylor's beast of burden. So far from having a work ethic, the idle rich live by an elite ethic that contemns ordinary labor and those in lower classes who are forced to perform it, and this same class privilege ethic forbids them to do any common work.
In short, the leisure class lives in luxury, consuming much but contributing zero to humanity. But not actually idle, the idle rich play polo, golf, tennis, attend a busy round of cotillions, balls and debutante and society parties, jet around the world, swim and hang out at expensive country clubs that make it a point to drive off and exclude from membership in their fashionable retreats commoners and riffraff, own multiple vacation homes, a private jet and a yacht, and employ a staff of servants-maids, chefs, cooks, gardeners, nannies, nurses, wet nurses, mechanics, tutors, housekeepers, chauffeurs, butlers, social secretaries and what have you-to do their work for them. Class privilege also includes exemption from risking life and limb in war. Usually male elites, if they serve in war at all, are commissioned as officers, with attendant privileges in the midst of wartime scarcity and rationing, and are stationed well-behind the front lines out of danger. Consider the outrageous laws passed during the American Civil War, which allowed the rich man, by paying $300 to the government, to escape military service, part of the first draft law in the North in 1863, thus leaving poor men to risk everything in the astonishing carnage of the War Between the States (1861-65).
The Confederacy, the rebellious Southern states, for their part had earlier passed a similarly outrageous law allowing the rich to pay a man to fight in his stead in the murderous war. Then there are the many cowardly draft dodgers throughout American history, such as, just to name one of tens of thousands from Mr. Wilson's war, Joseph P. Kennedy, arch Wall Street swindler in the 20s and father of a U.S. president, who was guilty of dodging the World War l draft. Many Hollywood actors, such as Ronald Reagan, found a pretext to dodge the draft after Pearl Harbor-although some like Clark Gable had a sense of patriotic duty and enlisted in the military-and the Korean War also had its cowardly draft evaders.
But the hypocrisy to end all hypocrisies was committed by such Vietnam War draft dodgers-the 4F fakers-like "radio bully" Rush Limbaugh and right-wing smarmy mouthpiece George Will, who, on the other hand, were hawks entirely in favor of the war yet not when it came to putting their own flesh in the path of the bullets and ordinance of the "enemy." But above all the power elite in the leisure class find it easy to dodge the draft with the aid of friends, colleagues and acquaintances on the local American draft board, the cronies who man which being in whole-hearted tacit agreement, but never dare admit, that it is a rich man's war and a poor man's fight.
The class privilege of the American lazy welfare-for-the-wealthy welfare cheats in the leisure class also encompasses de facto immunity from prosecution by the authorities for their numerous crimes: murder, rape, drunken driving, whore-mongering, bribery, white-collar crime, political corruption, tax evasion, insider trading, war crimes, wiretapping, and, recently, secretly having the FBI, CIA, NSA, Air Force or National Reconnaissance Organization subject innocent people to Keyhole satellite surveillance. The last-named crime is thoroughly buried under a mountain of pretexts in the federal bureaucracy known as "classified information" and "top secret" in the name of the criminal "national security" of American imperialism. The FBI has been rightly labeled by an American scholar as the "national political police," and the C(ocaine) I(mporting) A(gency) is the world's foremost governmental terrorist organization.
Yet despite the lazy, shiftless luxury of the idle rich, the American right-wing politicians and rhetorical ideologues-while never mentioning the leisure class-engage in constant, mindless virulent denunciation of "welfare" relief for the poor and the allegedly faltering American work ethic. In reality, however, Americans are among the hardest working people in the world, as many foreign visitors have commented. The simple fact is that due to economic stagnation and nine percent unemployment-factors far beyond the control of the poor, impoverished and unemployed, and actually under the control of a few powerful people like the U.S. president, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the money lords of Wall Street, and Congress-there are no available jobs, and these penurious ragtag so-called "welfare cheats," whom numerous social scientific studies have shown would rather work a regular job than live on the welfare dole (food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children), lead lives of miserable hardship without any money for the slightest little luxuries of life. Yet these facts have not prevented the annual Republican attempt to "crack down" on the welfare budget that helps support the poor. In F. Scott Fitzgerald terms, they are the "Damned" and the leisure class are the "Elect."
Approximately half (50 percent) of the American superrich inherited their simoleon, while the other half are so-called "self-made men," whatever that means. There is such a thing as being plain overpaid. As an American economist put it, "famous family fortunes have survived generation after generation," the effective rate of taxation on multi-million dollar inheritances in America being less than one percent. Meanwhile, the exploited and put-upon hard-working minimum wage worker pays a federal income tax of about 18 percent. The disparity is an utter outrage: The system crushes the poor, and rich men rule the system. As the billionaire Warren Buffet recently so truthfully commented, "the U.S. government coddles the superrich"-well put by a man who knew whereof he spoke.
Buffett, familiar with financial chicanery, tax laws and the Machiavellian determination of his superrich friends to preserve their wealth, wrote that some greedy men "own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they'd been long-term investors." The IRS code is so full of deliberate loopholes in its feeble attempt to tax inheritance-such as generation-skipping trusts, a doubling of allowable exemptions and deductions which only the rich can take advantage of simply by putting financial assets in the name of the wife, the establishment of bogus "philanthropies" that ultimately kick back to the "philanthropist" his "generous" multi-million dollar "gift," the tax-free status of various federal and other governmental bonds, and numerous other gimmicks that put the lie to the nonexistent "soak the rich taxes"-so that only the poor and other fools who do not consult estate lawyers pay any inheritance tax.
Behind the American leisure class of course, in reality, is totalitarian capitalism, a system of total control, run by a corporate ruling class. It is the American corporations that pocket the politicians, who form the most corrupt government the world has ever seen. It is the American corporations that censor the corporate-owned media and issue their nonstop genial propaganda through television, cable television, radio and the print media ad nauseum ad libitum ad infinitum. It is the corporations that, in typical capitalist monopoly fashion, administer prices (thus eliminating the price competition that is such a staple of orthodox mythical "free market" economics), divide markets among presumed competitors, and stack government regulatory agencies and commissions with their own cronies-hence the well-known phenomenon that these regulatory agencies and commissions are actually slavish captives of the very industry that they are supposed to regulate.
Thus, the Federal Communications Commission is stacked with unscrupulous corrupt cronies from the broadcasting and telephone megacorporations (AT&T, Sprint, ITT, General Electric); the state insurance regulatory boards, which ruthlessly permit the American consumer to be gouged by inflated insurance fees and premiums, are packed with lackeys from the insurance corporations; and Congressional committees and subcommittees that oversee, say the trucking industry or the meatpacking industry, are staffed by members of Congress with a direct conflict of interest, a direct political interest in their home state or district in the trucking and meatpacking industries and are granted such committee positions due to their "expertise," which to any objective outside observer is actually gross bias that should disqualify the professional politician from the position, just as it would a judge or magistrate in a court case. It is the American corporations-often multinational monstrosities with tens or hundreds of thousands of employees and annual revenues in the billions of dollars-that sponsor numerous cultural events, ceremonies and celebrations in the U.S., such as 4th of July fireworks, and he who pays the piper calls the tune. According to the Roman proverb, pecunia obeduent omnia.
In short, the trust-fund brats are the principal beneficiaries of totalitarian, corporate monopoly capitalism. According to the Roman proverb, quidquid multis peccatur inultum est. In the class warfare of any country, the clear winners are in the upper class and the losers are the common masses of workers. They inherit so much money that they need never work, and include such famous families as Bush, Rockefeller, Kennedy, Danforth, Pemberton, Astor, Vanderbilt, Mellon, Morgan, Ford, Hearst, Pulitzer, Gore, Johnson, Dole, Hutton, Walton, Perot, Simon, Paley, Sarnoff and others-lively providing undeniable evidence that the U.S., rather than a democracy, is in reality a hereditary aristocracy. And therefore the German proverb of class injustice is so true, given the arbitrary distribution of the wealth: Als Adam grub und Eva span, wo war denn da der Edelman?
Their villas, Renaissance palaces and estates are hardly limited to Beverly Hills, the Hamptons on Long Island and Palm Beach, Florida. Instead, every major American city has its own Beverly Hills where the rich and powerful and their trust fund worthies in the leisure class make their main Corinthian home: The Beverly Hills of St. Louis is Ladue, of San Diego, La Jolla; Miami, Key Biscayne; Los Angeles, Pacific Palisades; Phoenix, Paradise Valley; Washington D.C., Chevy Chase; and other wealthy elite American small cities, towns and communities, each with a parasitic leisure class, include Jupiter Island, Florida; Aspen, Colorado; Los Altos Hills, California; Matinecock, New York; Alpine, New Jersey; Greenwich, Connecticut; New Canaan, Connecticut; Palos Verdes Estates, California; Kenilworth, Illinois; Oyster Bay Cove, New York; Hunting Valley, Ohio; Vail, Colorado; Medina, Washington; Bannockburn, Illinois; Highland Park, Texas; Winnetka, Illinois; Bloomfield Hills, Michigan; and others. However, there is atleast some concentration and geographical overrepresentation of elite America, especially in three states: New York, perhaps for historical reasons; Florida, perhaps due to its subtropical agreeable climate and for being the premier retirement state; and California (despite the human and ecological catastrophe known as L.A.), one obvious reason being that it is the most populous state in the union.
The bewilderment of Americans with regard to class is hardly an accident-hence such books as Paul Fussell, Class: A Painfully Accurate Guide Through the American Status System (1983), and Benjamin DeMott, The Imperial Middle: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class (1990). The absurd blurbs on the back cover of Fussell's book declare "Class. It's not your occupation [sic], it's not your address [sic].... It's not how much money you have or how much money you make [sic; I employ the term sic here to indicate obvious factual errors that not a single sociologist in the world would agree with.] It's a combination of subtle things that identify you to the world. And now it's a clever, amusing, infuriating, and absolutely on-target book about that thorniest of subjects." (Clearly the overzealous anonymous editor who scribbled this braggart hype, anything to increase sales, was onto to something big with the phrase "that thorniest of subjects [in the U.S.].")
The confusion over class, a product of capitalist ideology, in its peculiar, unique American form, is a formidable bulwark of the political status quo, allegedly represented by "both" sides of the truth, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, who, although nowhere enacted into law or specifically enunciated, tacitly have reached an understanding to monopolize political power and rigidly exclude and annihilate the formation of rival third political parties, which if radical might actually bring to public attention all sides of the truth. (See Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few-first published in 1974, the ninth edition appeared in 2010-for an astute analysis of the many means in which the U.S. is undemocratic.) Both parties being remarkably similar in basic outlook-their belief that government exists to aid and ensure business profits, their fanatical anti-communism, the value they place on wealth as the sole criterion of success, their unthinking crass materialism, their determined opposition to "extremists" of any persuasion and their accompanying delusion that they represent moderation and tolerance, their remarkable complacency with respect to America's massive social problems, and their imperialistic meddling in the name of "American interests abroad" in democratically-elected socialist governments and any oil-rich nation that threatens to nationalize their oil industry-the Republicans and Democrats insist that Marxism is folly and that "communism is dead," and that the American people share their "consensus."
But they are all ignorant of the writings of Marx and Engels, and cannot explain Mehrwert (surplus value), economic determinism, false class consciousness, worker alienation, and are seriously undereducated as a whole to begin with. In short, though utterly ignorant of the subject, they nevertheless do not either give it a single moment of thought or hesitate to pronounce it wrong. As for the last-named, consider that President Nixon and President Reagan, whom Gorbachev had no trouble in identifying as an intellectual cipher, graduated from two cesspools of higher learning, Whittier College in California, and Eureka College in Illinois, respectively. From a certain very narrow perspective, it is true that the American working class is not class conscious in the manner that Marx classically anticipated, and like so many other proletariats around the world their main problem is a lack of the organization and class unity needed to overthrow the ruling class and establish a cooperative society in which the necessities of life are produced for the benefit of humanity, not the profit of the ruling class.
On the other hand, American workers are doubly class conscious in their own societal norms, beliefs and values, in their own singular culture, the ideology of which is that any man, even those lowly-born, can attain riches, and which worships the almighty dollar to an unprecedented extent. But fortunate are they who conjure with Socrates, who remarked "he who has the smallest wants approaches the gods most nearly." The money-hungry American televangelist preaches the gospel of wealth to his Laodicean flock, hallucinating that "God" talks to him, with not a soul to enlighten him of his lucrative blasphemy, as the TV screen repeatedly flashes the address where to send your check to for salvation, thereby reassuring home viewers of their born-again atheism just before flipping the channel.
The lower class-whose members resent the term and prefer "working class"-is acutely aware of its own failure (whatever the rest of the world may think of the American inability to discipline their own children, the collapse of formal education and the consequent spread of imbecility, and moral chaos and social disintegration). In American English the word class has acquired the secondary meanings of intelligence, success, wit, comprehension, insight, a "winning attitude" or "winning image," and according to a popular dictionary, "great style or quality," and likewise for the word's popular adjectival form, classy ("a classy sports car").
The world's foremost money culture, an ideology of wealth that has erased the elite's very sense of class privilege and engulfed even the working class, obvious leadership of a business and commercial culture and control of social change in society by the primacy of the economic institution-I thus ask the reader, what is this if not the very embodiment of Marx and Engels' writings? American television news incessantly dutifully reports the minutest bullish ups and bearish downs of the New York Stock Exchange as if the personal happiness of every last American man, woman and child were perilously dependent thereon; in reality, however, only a tiny minority of rich Americans own a significant amount of stock. (See William Appleman Williams, The Great Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of Karl Marx and on the Wisdom of Admitting the Heretic into the Dialogue About America's Future (1964) for a classic antidote to the superficial American rejection of Marx.)
The American idle rich and their mythical nonexistence is one among several troubling paradoxes of American society. Most Americans agree with the phrase "everyone has to work," but not everyone works, especially those living in luxury. The arch welfare cheats, with whom all petty welfare cheats have intelligence, are the leisure class. The word politician has an ugly loathsome connotation in the U.S., giving rise to the phrase he lies like a politician, yet the people have yet to overthrow politicians' superficially affable tyranny that abets permissive child rearing, the universal reign of ignorance, a disappearing middle class, imperialism, an entire elitist class of freeloaders and cultural collapse. But there was a time, long centuries ago in the olden days of yore, when America was considered "humanity's last, great hope."
Another troubling American paradox is the existence of widespread deviance amidst notorious pressure to conform, a product of not only social disintegration and the moribund American dream, but also of that very conformity pressure itself, that very expectation of upward social mobility by each successive generation, and that very lack of opportunity of the means for many to attain it. Yet from that paradox may emerge a different dream, a transformation of the empty promise of bogus social equality into genuine equality, the realization that wealth is socially created and that everyone was born with the unalienable right that all men are created equal. (As the Roman saying has it, manus manum fricat et manus manum lavat.) As the people survey the ruins of American capitalism, simultaneously appalled and inspired, they may perceive that society's massive problems are the failure not of the supposedly isolated person of glorified individualism but of the culture as a whole, the product of all vast history and hitherto existing society, and therefore the only solution must needs come from collective action, from the humanity and goodness of a determined majority in a classless society derived from the spirit of a mythical and unjust allegedly-classless society. Ah Marx, ah humanity!
John Fleming is the author of the book Word Power: A Dictionary
of Fascinating and Learned Words and Phrases for Vocabulary Enrichment, which can be purchased as a used copy in good condition for as little as $8, including shipping, or for $18 for a new copy from the Internet discounters listed at amazon.com.