Rick Santorum and Karl Marx: Examining Corporate Liberalism and Reaganomics Through the Lens of Social Stratification

Photo courtesy of IowaPolitics.com.

Modern Democrats and Republicans have held dramatically different views about the nature of class in America. These perspectives can be better understood as two different responses to the class tensions that Karl Marx believed are inevitable in capitalist societies. According to Robert Buzzanco, in The Transformation of American Life, the current dominant Democrat ideology of “corporate liberalism” aims to achieve “class harmony,” as oppose to class conflict, by instituting social welfare and regulatory frameworks that address the grievances of the middle and lower classes. Republicans have tried to dismantle many of those programs and regulations, routinely agitating racial tensions that are invariably embedded in class stratification. This strategy seems to be intended, in part, to divert attention from common class concerns and interests, without necessarily denying the existence of class. Instead, the GOP rejects the importance of socio-political stratification, viewing it as an unimportant but necessary part of a capitalist society. The current Republican primary campaigns have repeatedly raised class issues, offering an opportunity to examine how the two main competing political ideologies in American politics—defined here as corporate liberalism and Reaganomics—respond to class-consciousness and address class interests.

“Karl Marx may have been wrong about communism but he was right about much of capitalism.” -John Gray, 9/3/2011

In a September 2011 editorial in the BBC, John Gray proposes the one “side effect of the financial crisis, [is] more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right.” Gray is referring to Marx’s explanation of the behavior of capitalism, not Marx’s theory of historical inevitability. Gray addresses Marx’s understanding of the relationship between workers (Proletariat) and the owners of the means of production (Capitalists). As Lawrence Simon explains in the Introduction to Karl Marx Selected Writings, Marx’s critical insight in to the theory of class was that, typically, Capitalists don’t contribute labor to the production process, and the Proletariat has no independent access to the means of production.  For Marx, this is a highly exploitative relationship by which Capitalists extract profit from labor. This relationship largely explains why Marx believed class conflict is inevitable.

A march demanding Nixon's resignation weaves near the White House in 1974. Creative Commons/Reading/Simpson (via washington_area_spark).

The exploitative dimension of capitalism, domestically and abroad, was a growing theme of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, second-wave feminist, and particularly the anti-poverty protests in the late 1960s. More importantly, these and other disaggregated movements, unified by their opposition to the Vietnam war, empowered emerging social movements, built national grassroots infrastructure, and developed a comprehensive socio-political critique that viewed the war as a symptom of a structural malady. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society can be understood as rebuttal to those calls for structural reform, suggesting that class tensions could be defused with social welfare programs.

Corporate liberalism, according to Buzanco, focuses on achieving this class harmony by easing the negative consequences of capitalism. According to this view, civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid, and other social welfare programs served to relieve rising social tensions and maintain the basic class structure. Social instability seemed to be responsible for growing demands for structural reform, perhaps most famously represented by Martin Luther King Jr. Like Marx, MLK argued that poverty and economic class exploitation invariably threaten the foundations of a society. The Johnson administration did not view MLK’s shift in focus, from racial oppression to economic exploitation, favorably. Undoubtedly, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama adhere to the same basic liberal, pro-business ideology of the Great Society.

Reaganomics is often used synonymously with “trickle-down” economics, but is used here to refer to Reagan’s governing ideology more broadly, much like corporate liberalism was for Johnson. The former prioritizes financial incentives to the rich and the latter focuses on financial assistance to the needy. Reaganomics seeks to encourage greater Capitalism and profit, without any particular consideration for the consequences of that economic system. Republicans seem to assent that classes exist, often claiming to be spokesmen for middle class interests, but disagree that a stratified society and economy is a problem; different classes serve different purposes, they argue. If capitalism actually rewards just merit—that socio-economic status is always earned and deserved—then the poor must be to blame for their own poverty. This understanding of personal responsibility serves to unquestionably justify the existing socio-political order while rejecting the very notion of structural critiques.

There are no classes in America” –Rick Santorum, 01/07/2011

Santorum’s seemed to suggest in a New Hampshire debate that America has achieved classlessness, a central component of Marx’s utopian society. It is unlikely that Santorum is rejecting the GOP appeal middle class interests (see, for example, Joe the plumber); Santorum is only offering a less compromising strategy for achieving the GOP effort to invalidate class grievances. In Reaganomics, like Marxism, socio-political forces restrain humans’ productivity—to fully realize societies’ potential, the human spirit must be liberated. Yet Reaganism would argue that unregulated capitalism offers the perfect vehicle to achieve that shared goal.  As such, a lassiez-faire, or perfectly free, economy represents the GOP’s version of a classless utopia.

Where Johnson offered increased civil rights to appease frustrated Americans, Republicans have sought to divert attention from class by framing the discussion in oblique racial, cultural, and religious terms—what Cornel West might call “gimmicks of mass distraction.” West suggests that both parties are guilty of this to some extent when it comes to issues of poverty. Apparently, Republicans have extended this strategy to middle class economic grievances as well.

I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money” –Rick Santorum, 01/12/2011

Santorum has set himself apart from his Republican rivals with his aggressive Social Security “reforms,” the only one proposing reductions in payments to current beneficiaries. The GOP generally seems uninterested in the disproportionate impact of these reductions, especially on black and Hispanic communities. The high poverty rates in these communities are largely the result of a history of oppression and discrimination in America. Yet the majority of welfare recipients are still non-Hispanic Caucasians. Santorum’s Freudian slip, replacing ‘poor’ with ‘black,’ besides being simply inaccurate, displays in stark terms what many accused Reagan of doing subtly; namely, agitating racial divisions and distracting white Americans from their shared class interests with black, Hispanic and other minority communities.

Santorum’s “I’m pretty sure I didn’t say black” defense, despite the availability of the clip, seems to be nothing more then a non-apology. Similarly, Gingrich refused to apologize for saying that “the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps,” and has routinely called Obama the “food stamp president.” Santorum’s “slip” and Gingrich’s comments, implying that welfare programs redistribute wealth between ethnic communities rather then between economic classes, defies the evidence of growing class inequality among all social groups. This situation is being exasperated by the current recession. In the campaign climate marked by popular outrage and populist rhetoric, it seems likely that GOP attempts to frame poverty and welfare in purely racial terms will be an increasingly difficult position to defend.

“The class warfare argument of Barack Obama is not something that should be part of the Republican lexicon” ­–Rick Santorum 01/07/2011

Ideologically, Santorum’s strict denial of class seems to diverge from the standard Republican view on this issue, but rhetorically both positions serve to divert popular attention from class based issues.  Republican attempts to avoid these issues—in the case of Santorum by denying the class premise or, as Gingrich has done, using a diversionary racial framework—has been equaled by Democratic rhetorical appeal to class grievances. Arguably, Johnson matched his populist rhetoric with legislative action, but since the 1960s, especially amidst the current debt-reduction fervor, only the rhetoric has survived. Class warfare, particularly appealing to middle class concerns, has served as the primary rhetorical tool of Democratic politicians, as Santorum’s argues. But the same is true of Republicans as well, albeit to a lesser degree.

The crux of a recent spate of criticisms of Romney is that he cannot identify with typical Americans specifically due to his wealth. Romney’s $10,000 bet at an Iowa debate on December 12 and his, admittedly taken out of context, “I like being able to fire people” comment reinforced that negative caricature. Santorum suggested that these comments reflect the fact that most American’s will have a difficult time relating to Romney’s privileged life, and Perry said the $10,000 bet showed that Romney was “out of touch” with the American people. These critiques of Romney are rooted in socio-economic identities, and appeal to class-based enmity, highlighting the important role of class identity to all Americans.

The ideological and rhetorical use of class in American politics largely reflects the competition between corporate liberalism and Reaganomics. Santorum’s unusually firm position reinforces broader Republican goals; Republicans denied the importance of class, Santorum denies its very existence. While Santorum and Gingrich do not mention class outright in their criticism of Romney’s wealthy background, their critiques are steeped in class anxieties and feelings of economic exploitation (see: “When Mitt Romney Came to Town”). Santorum may believe that “class” is not be part of the Republican lexicon, but the sentiments are clearly prevalent, and a growing concentration of wealth and income inequality, exacerbated by the recession, has heightened class awareness. By denying the validity of this sense of shared socio-economic experiences—either directly or by emphasizing racial issues—Republicans complicate their own efforts to leverage the bad economy to their political advantage in November.

Cited Sources:

Buzzanco, Robert. Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

H. Simon, Lawrence, Ed. Karl Marx Selected Writings. “Introduction.” U.S.A.: Hacket Publishing Company, Inc., 1994.

Chisda Magid graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Indiana University/Bloomington in 2008. He was an intern at J Street in Washington, D.C., in 2010. He presently lives in New York City.
 
tags: class warfare, Gingrich, Marx, Race, Romney, Santorum, US politics   
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2 Responses to Rick Santorum and Karl Marx: Examining Corporate Liberalism and Reaganomics Through the Lens of Social Stratification

  1. Michelle Pellay-Walker March 5, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Exacerbated, not exasperated!! Both times!!

    • internadmin March 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks for catching that mistake. It’s been corrected. -Tikkun magazine

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