Hot! The art of reverse class resentment

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Sat Feb 27 2010

By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist

Class resentment used to be the preserve of the left. That workers were too poor could be blamed on the fact that bosses were too wealthy. If governments needed money, the preferred solution – rhetorically at least – was to make the rich pay.

These old-style resentments encouraged both Marxist economics (based on the notion that profit is by definition theft) and the progressive income tax system.

Indeed, the entire post-war welfare state was designed to better the conditions of the poor, thereby ensuring that these class resentments didn’t get out of hand.

Today, class resentments have been turned on their head. The focus of anger is not the silk-hatted capitalist but his unionized workers, with their job protection guarantees, their pension plans and their good wages.

Increasingly, in the world of media and popular culture, it is not the rich who are blamed for their excesses but the poor – the undeserving welfare recipient, the shiftless single mother, the employment insurance cheat. Resentment has become a potent tool of the right.

This is the context in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is hinting at plans to roll back federal public service pensions.

Forty years ago, the unionization of public servants was generally seen as a good thing.

Unions were on the rise. They had made great gains for their members after World War II and, in terms of pensions, benefits and wages, were setting the standard for the entire workforce.

In that context, and given the growing importance of government workers like nurses, it seemed sensible to encourage public sector unions.

Even if public sector benefits might, at times, appear more generous than those of other workers, the general assumption was that this was temporary, that over time everyone would catch up.

True, cash-strapped governments might occasionally take aim at their own workforces – as Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals did in the mid-’80s, when they limited federal public service wage increases.

But even then, the underlying assumption was that such moves would be temporary, that public sector employees were no less valuable than anyone else and that, when the dust cleared, matters would resort to normal with all workers, both public and private, moving inexorably forward.

Somewhere in the 1980s and ’90s, this changed.

The underlying reasons had to do with the shift from an economy based on employees engaged in manufacturing, who were easy to unionize, to one based on workers engaged in services – many of them part-time – who were not.

In this new world, many in the middle classes found, to their shock, that they were not moving forward but falling back.

On the ideological front, these same decades saw the return of a laissez-faire form of thinking that had been out of date since the ’20s.

Sometimes called neo-liberalism, sometimes neo-conservatism, it provided intellectual justification for those opposed to the kind of social democratic policies under construction in countries like Canada.

The new ideologues took aim at the pillars of the post-war consensus, from the welfare state to the idea of taxing corporations to the very principle of progressive income tax itself.

Progressive income tax is based on a theory of fairness – that the rich should pay not just more than the poor but proportionally more.

The new ideologues countered with a theory of effectiveness, arguing (albeit without any empirical evidence) that flat taxes, where rich and poor pay the same rate, would encourage more investment.

They argued that corporate taxes were redundant since corporations are owned by people. Then they argued that the people who own corporations shouldn’t be taxed either, since this would provide a disincentive to invest.

Under the old consensus, it was deemed fair to levy higher taxes on those who make more money. The new ideologues argue that taxing income at all is unfair to those who produce, that consumption is the real social sin and that those who consume the most relative to their wages (that is the poor) should be punished through higher GST levies.

In modern Canada, the first concerted use of reverse class resentment by a political party can probably be dated to the Ontario election campaign of 1995, when Conservatives under Mike Harris attacked welfare recipients – particularly single mothers – as lazy, undeserving parasites.

But this recession has shown the full power of the new resentment. In both the U.S. and Canada, public criticism of last year’s auto bailouts was levelled not at the companies’ owners and managers but at their unionized workers.

During the bailout talks, critics and the public lambasted rank and file autoworkers for making more than $34 an hour, yet the fact that General Motors chief executive officer Ed Whitacre is slated to receive $9 million a year has received minimal attention.

None of this has gone unnoticed in Ottawa.

Hobbled by both its minority government status and continuing high levels of unemployment, Harper’s finance minister, Jim Flaherty, is unlikely to announce anything fiscally significant in his March 4 budget.

But he may well make use of the power of resentment.

Treasury Board president Stockwell Day has hinted that public sector workers should be prepared to make sacrifices after the budget.

Already, newspaper stories are beginning to appear pointing out the relative richness of public sector pensions.

Meanwhile, the public sector unions themselves are beating the drums against the expected government onslaught.

For the Harper Conservatives, all of this is useful. First, it removes the focus from the country’s real pension problems: Most Canadians don’t have workplace pensions; those who do have found their plans savaged by this recession.

British Columbia and Alberta have suggested ways of dealing with this, as have the federal New Democrats and Liberals. The Harper government has done nothing

Second and more important, an attack on public sector pensions refocuses class resentment along lines more amenable to the Conservative government.

The left’s resentments were predicated on the notion that if some are privileged, all should be. For all of its problems (and resentment is a difficult force to control), it was at least optimistic. At its best, it encouraged people, through their governments, to improve the lot of those who were hurting.

The new resentment is based on the presumption that if I don’t have something, neither should you. Its aim is not to improve anyone’s lot but to cut down to a common level of misery those uppity enough to think they deserve better.

It is pessimistic, antithetical to any kind of common action and angrily passive. It rarely focuses on the bigger questions because it assumes that, at high levels of state and economy, nothing can be done, that the best anyone can hope for is to protect his tiny bit of turf from a marauding neighbour.

It is a form of resentment that suits those in charge. For Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, it is a most useful passion.

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