“I Don’t See Class”

I hear expressions like “I don’t see race” or “I’m color-blind” a lot from people who want to ignore the issues of structural power imbalance or privilege in race issues. The same people are fond of equating racism to simple bigotry; by this standard, white bigotry against blacks and black bigotry against whites are equally “racist.” “Racism” is just a matter of individual attitude, not structural power or history, and the only thing needed to fix it is to get people’s heads in a better space. Based on Barton Hinkle’s comparison of corporate and individual welfare (“How Walmart Made Liberals Turn Right,” Reason, March 2), it’s safe to say he “doesn’t see class.”

Hinkle views the corrupting effect of welfare on corporations and poor people as morally equivalent. For years, conservatives have been arguing that welfare “corrodes virtue” for the poor people who receive it, robs them of initiative and makes them lazy and dependent.

Liberals, Hinkle says, have traditionally dismissed this argument. But Walmart’s recent increase in the minimum wage it pays its workers (ahem, “associates”) has caused them to reexamine their position. Liberals see Walmart as “leaning on public assistance” — welfare and food stamps — “to avoid pay hikes it would otherwise have to make.” So basically, Hinkle argues, liberals are conceding that welfare has a corrosive effect on the virtue of corporations.

Government assistance has lulled an able-bodied company into dependency and complacency, draining it of the will and the incentive to do the right thing for its workers.

See, welfare — like racism and sexism — is welfare, regardless of who receives it. Welfare for giant corporations is morally equivalent to welfare for poor people. Structural issues of class and economic privilege have absolutely nothing to do with it. We’re all just individuals here. “I don’t see class.”

Well, no. A giant corporation is not morally equivalent to a family on food stamps. The distribution of wealth and income in this society, and the control over economic decision-making, isn’t just the way things happened to end up. Capitalism — in the sense of the historic economic system that has prevailed in the West for the past several centuries — was established on robbery and enclosure of land, the colonization and enslavement of most of the planet, and totalitarian social controls on the free movement and free association of the working class. The distribution of land and mineral wealth around the world still largely reflects this legacy of robbery. And the state was intimately involved in creating the structure of the corporate economy from the mid-19th century on, and actively encouraging the concentration of economic power under the control of a few giant corporations.

The ongoing role of the state is to enforce all the monopolies that siphon off wealth from the poor and transfer it as rents to the rich.

And the poor, likewise, aren’t just those who managed to wind up that way through the luck of the draw. They’re the ones who pay all those rents on state-enforced monopoly. And there’s a huge element of historic robbery involved. For example, urban blacks are disproportionately the beneficiaries of all that conservative solicitude about their virtue and the corroding effect of welfare on it. That slavery has a structural legacy is obvious. But the origins of the urban “underclass” are far more recent, according to Piven and Cloward’s “Regulating the Poor”; after WWII northern cities were overwhelmed with an influx of millions of southern blacks who had been tractored off the land they sharecropped. In other words, robbery.

Welfare for the poor is equivalent to giving crutches to someone whose legs you’ve broken. Welfare for the rich is more like giving the leg-breaker a hammer. Treating them as morally equivalent is morally bankrupt.

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