I’d like to very briefly expand on one of the recurrent themes here at Notes: complaints about the posh backgrounds and attitudes of socialists, or, as Brandon often puts it, their tendency to “only care about the rich.”
There’s no shortage of paradoxical examples of wealthy socialist politicians and activists, socialism being most vigorous in the wealthiest parts of a given country, etc. These paradoxes became a lot less baffling to me once I started considering what the wealthy stand to lose in the event of disaffection among the poor. They stand to lose more than the middle classes, and certainly much more than the poor. Conversely, the wealthy stand to gain more than the middling or the poor from a stable, prosperous society. A great example of this is the lengthy vacation allotments for employees in much of Europe, which poorer beneficiaries often spend at modest vacation spots within a few hours’ drive of home but wealthier beneficiaries often spend at much more luxurious establishments in Asia or the Americas.
This calculus gets much more compelling when one considers government measures to nurture a broad middle class as an insurance policy against social unrest. That’s really too kind a term for the rioting, assault and retaliatory murder to which a badly mistreated working class can be provoked, to say nothing of the much nastier behavior of goons under the auspices of the demagogic governments that take root in destabilized societies. The Nazis controlled most of Western Europe within living memory, so the threat of war and genocide as a response to bad economic conditions is less of an abstraction to the average European than it is to the average American, sheltered as the United States has been from domestic warfare for over a century.
War, no matter its magnitude or duration, is not something to be romanticized or celebrated as something worthy in its own right. It is a necessary evil, one that is absolutely hellish for all but the most sadistic. For the purpose of not getting people traumatized, maimed and killed, rioting, vigilantism and the like should be regarded as tantamount to warfare; they’re certainly precursors, and they’re certainly dangerous and destructive. These truths are all too easily lost on people who have not lived through civil unrest or war, and on those who choose to live in atavistic fantasy worlds. These segments of the population have a huge overlap, and both are very widespread in the United States.
Offhand, I’d say that privation in some form or other has been the most common trigger for unrest throughout human history. Astute leaders recognize this, as Otto von Bismarck and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did when they implemented social insurance programs that were unprecedented in their countries. Other leaders, however, assume that they’ll always be able to beat the proles into submission. In a good decade, such leaders keep their heads; in a bad decade, ask Marie Antoinette.
The United States has more than its share of the latter sort of leader, which has a long history of questioning the patriotism of the former sort among its compatriots. The bareknuckle robber barons assume that if they hire enough Pinkertons, none of their number will end up with his head in a basket on the town square, but history has disproved this assumption on a number of occasions. Sure, it’s the history of other countries, but Europeans were aghast to see the United States, that beacon of peace and freedom, descend into internecine bloodletting in 1861. These things are unimaginable until they happen, or until one comes across some imagination, and maybe some humility. We aren’t that special as a people. In the right conditions, those we’ve mistreated can really do us harm.
Or, as Abraham Lincoln said, “I’d like to have God on my side, but I need Kentucky.”