Don’t you love the Romney video? I’m not going to deny it, right now I am with Team Dem. It’s true, we usually say “the bosses have two parties”; but it’s not usual for them to run for office personally, themselves. And when they do, wow, what a window onto how they really think.
It’s hard to even imagine the mindset where the person sitting in the back of the town car is the “maker” and the person upfront driving is just lazing around; where the guys maintaining the hedges and manning the security gates at the mansion are idle parasites, while the person living in it, just by virtue of that fact, is working; where the person who owns the dressage horse is the producer and the people who groom it and feed it and muck it are the layabouts. As some on the right have pointed out, it’s weird, also, that “producing” is now equated with paying federal taxes. Isn’t working in the private sector supposed to be productive? Isn’t a successful business contributing something to society besides checks to the IRS?
It is weird. But as we’re all realizing, the 47 percent/53 percent rhetoric has a long history on the Right. (It would be interesting to explore this via the rounding-up of 46.4 percent to 47, the same way medievalists trace the dissemination of a text by the propagation of copyists’ errors.) Naturally, brother Konczal is on the case, with a great post tracing out four lineages of the 47 percent. His preferred starting point, like others’, is the Wall Street Journal‘s notorious 2002 editorial on the “lucky duckies” who pay no income tax.
That’s a key reference point, for sure. But I think this attitude goes back a bit further. The masters of mankind, it seems to me, have always cultivated a funny kind of solipsism, imagining that the people who fed and clothed and worked and fought for them, were somehow living off of them instead.
Here, as transcribed in Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, is Gregory King’s 1688 “scheme” of the population of England. It’s fascinating to see the careful gradations of status (early-moderns were nothing if not attentive to “degree”); we’ll be pleased to see, for instance, that “persons in liberal arts and sciences,” come above shopkeepers, though below farmers. But look below that to the “general account” at the bottom. We have 2.675 million people “increasing the wealth of the kingdom,” and 2.825 million “decreasing the wealth of the kingdom.” The latter group includes not only the vagrants, gypsies and thieves, but common seamen, soldiers, laborers, and “cottagers,” i.e. landless farmworkers. So in three centuries, the increasers are up from 49 percent to 53 percent, and the lucky duckies are down from 51 percent to 47. That’s progress, I guess.
One can’t help wondering how the wealth of the kingdom would hold up if the eminent traders by sea couldn’t find common seamen, if the farmers had to do without laborers, if there were officers but no common soldiers.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Always more where they come from, I suppose Gregory King might say.
Here, also from Laslett, is a similar division from 100 years earlier, by Sir Thomas Smith:
1. ‘The first part of the Gentlemen of England called Nobilitas Major.’ This is the nobility, or aristocracy proper.
2. ‘The second sort of Gentlemen called Nobilitas Minor.’ This is the gentry and Smith further divides it into Knights, Esquires and gentlemen.
3. ‘Citizens, Burgesses and Yeomen.’
4. ‘The fourth sort of men which do not rule.’
Of this last group, Smith explains:
The fourth sort or class amongst us is of those which the old Romans called capite sensu proletarii or operarii, day labourers, poor husbandmen, yea merchants or retailers which have no free land, copyholders, and all artificers, as tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, brick- makers, brick-layers, etc. These have no voice nor authority in our commonwealth and no account is made of them, but only to be ruled and not to rule others.
In other words, Elizabethan Mitt Romney, your job is not to worry about those people.
Smith’s contemporary Shakespeare evidently had distinctions like these in mind when he wrote Coriolanus. (A remarkably radical play; I think it was the only Shakespeare Brecht approved of.) The title chracter’s overriding passion is his contempt for the common people, those “geese that bear the shapes of men,” who “sit by th’ fire and presume to know what’s done i’ the Capitol.” He hates them specifically because they are, as it were, dependent, and think of themselves as victims.
They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs, —
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only: — with these shreds
They vented their complainings…
He has no patience for this idea that people are entitled to enough to to eat:
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance.
One more instance. Did everybody read Daniyal Mueenuddin‘s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders?
It’s a magnificent, but also profoundly conservative, work of fiction. In Mueenuddin’s world the social hierarchy is so natural, so unquestioned, that any crossing of its boundaries can only be understood as a personal, moral failing, which of course always comes at a great personal cost. There’s one phrase in particular that occurs repeatedly in the book: “They eat your salt,” “you ate his salt,” etc. The thing about this evidently routine expression is that the eater is always someone of lower status, and the person whose salt is being eaten is always a landlord or aristocrat. “Oh what could be the matter in your service? I’ve eaten your salt all my life,” says the electrician who has, in fact, spent all his life keeping the pumps going on the estates of the man he’s petitioning. Somehow, in this world, the person who sits in a mansion in Lahore or Karachi is entitled as a matter of course to all the salt and all the good things of life, and the person who physically produces the salt should be grateful to get any of it.
Mueenuddin describes this world vividly and convincingly, in part because he is a writer of great talent, but also clearly in part because he shares its essential values. Just in case we haven’t got the point, the collection’s final story, “A Spoiled Man,” is about how an old laborer’s life is ruined when his master’s naive American wife gets the idea he deserves a paycheck and proper place to sleep, giving him the disastrous idea that he has rights. You couldn’t write fiction like that in this country, I don’t think. Hundreds of years of popular struggle have reshaped the culture in ways that no one with the sensitivity to write good fiction could ignore. A Romney is a different story.
UDPATE: Krugman today is superb on this. (Speaking of being on Team Dem.)