“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
— Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, The Communist Manifesto
Has it come?
Karl Marx would have been surprised to see that the revolutions he envisioned began in the East, in countries dominated by emperors and czars. When he and Friedrich Engles wrote “The Communist Manifesto” in early 1848, it was believed that the revolutions would begin not in eastern countries like China and Russia, but in Western Europe and the United States. Communism, he reasoned, was not so much a movement but an organic thing; something that grows quite naturally from capitalism.
Inevitably, he wrote, the gap between the rich and poor would grow too wide to breach. When this happens, the poor – left without food, clothing, shelter and other necessities – would turn to the only advantage they had remaining: their muscles, and their numbers. In a great turn, society would dispense with inequality and adopt a structure in which everyone was equal.
In the United States, this inevitable turn has been held back by the middle class – a uniquely American tradition in the vein of Thomas Jefferson’s beloved yeoman farmer. People who own their home have an investment – a substantial one – in the way things are. They may not ever be rich, but they find solace at least in the fact that they are not poor, either. Life is not extravagant, but it is not toilsome and terrifying, either. Life is lived in the middle.
But the middle class has come to wane mightily. People who once had an investment in their community have been disenfranchised. They have lost their jobs and their homes.
Desperation has begun to sink in as it grows ever clearer that corporate bailouts and tax breaks will not spur job creation, and a block of wealthy state and federal legislators remain hell-bent on blocking all legislation at relief for the nation’s growing population of poor. They are taking our Medicaid and Medicare, they are taking our welfare, they are taking our housing benefits. They have the audacity to assert that the jobs and homes are gone not because their friends played fast and foolish with other people’s money and not because so many were conned into buying more home than they could afford by bankers who offered twisted mortgages for short-term profit; rather, it is the fault of the unemployed and homeless.
The middle class has been the only thing between capitalism and revolution, and now, the sign in the yard of the middle class reads “FORECLOSED.”
Now, the streets are filling with people. Wall Street, Austin, Boston, Los Angeles, Atlanta – the urban centers of the blight and loss that has defined the past decade. They are speaking words not spoken in public squares in a generation. They are holding signs and standing with upraised fists. In New York, they are going toe-to-toe with the New York Police Department, standing their ground in the face of pepper spray and billy clubs. It seems only a matter of time before the crowd reverses the violence.
Sweeping change does not come easily to this country. The battle for civil rights took decades. Gays and lesbians are only now beginning to find acceptance in facets of society. But the terror now is the growing number of poor.
News in recent weeks have carried reports of the soaring costs of peanuts, which are used to make peanut butter, which is a staple food in many poor pantries. Peanut butter sustained me during the hard years of my life. It is rich in protein, it is nutritious, inexpensive, and it is filling.
The cost of peanut butter is not soaring because of some blight that befell the peanut crop; it is because farmers took advantage of climbing cotton prices and planted cotton instead of peanuts. The farmers chose profit over feeding America, and consequently, thousands of families will go hungry and suffer further malnutrition because they cannot afford to buy from the store, and because food pantries can no longer afford to stock, peanut butter.
And that is but one example. Take petroleum as another, or the cost of clothing, auto parts, electricity, debit card fees, natural gas, and the list goes on. There are hundreds of ways that American families are being squeezed in the name of turning corporate profits. The money is going not to creating jobs, but into the pockets of the ever-slim number of people who can afford to own stock.
And now, the streets are filling with protest.
To a student of history, this is nothing new. It’s happened before. Just, not here.
It’s happened in Russia, China, and northern Vietnam. It’s happened in Cuba and Korea. It’s happened in places where the poor were many and the rich were few and there was nothing between the two.
And now, the middle class is drowning, the lines for unemployment and public relief grow ever longer, and a vocal minority in places of power continue to cut and cut and cut the very programs that have made life livable at all, heaping suffering on the poor (and worse, doing so in the name of Jesus Christ – for shame!).
So the streets are filling, and the protests are spreading. Not as violent as those in London, not as detrimental as those that wracked Europe. But they come on the heels of protests that brought down governments in other parts of the world, and in western Europe, the anger is still kindled.
We are running out of time. We have seen the Arab Spring.
We are entering the American Fall.