By Jack Barnes
Pathfinder Press, 2016
Jack Barnes’ new book, Are they rich because they’re smart – Class, privilege, and learning under capitalism, gives a refreshing way of looking at politics. From the time we were young, our parents and teachers drummed a central idea into our heads. Stay in school. Work hard to get good grades. This is the basic formula for success in life.
Before I look at Barnes’ book, I want to cite some observations from Ferdinand Lundberg’s 1968 book, The Rich and the Super Rich – Who really owns America? How do they keep their wealth and power? In this book Lundberg reported on dozen’s of the individuals who own the lion’s share of wealth in this country. Jack Barnes reports that today the people who own this vast amount of wealth numbers in the hundreds, not thousands.
Lundberg argued that only a tiny percentage of these people gained their wealth because of real scientific innovation. Many gained their wealth through one form of speculation or another. In other words, one of the main ways to gain enormous wealth comes from old-fashioned luck. Another necessary aspect to the path to wealth has to do with a willingness to profit off of the workers who provide the goods and services we all need and want.
However, Lundberg argues that this was not the way most of the super rich gained their fortunes. He argued that the most important way to gain obscene amounts of wealth has to do with sitting in a lawyer’s office and listening to the reading of a will. Little has changed in this regard from Lundberg’s 1968 book.
The Bell Curve
Jack Barnes begins his book Are they rich because they’re smart? by looking at a book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein titled The Bell Curve. Murray and Herrnstein argued that there is only a small percentage of the population that has very high scores on IQ tests. They use this information to imply that funding for education doesn’t need to be a priority because the majority of the population, in their opinion, just isn’t very smart.
Many Black people have labeled The Bell Curve racist because it attempts to justify the discriminatory funding of schools that Black children attend. However, Barnes points out that Murray and Herrnstein aren’t just talking about Black people. The Bell Curve argues that most people, Black as well as Caucasian, just aren’t very smart.
When we look at the conclusions of Lundberg’s The Rich and the Super Rich, it becomes clear that in most cases studying hard and having a high IQ has very little to do with becoming obscenely wealthy.
The so-called meritocracy
Then, Barnes wrote about a section of the middle class that considers itself to be a meritocracy. These people would include: university professors, attorneys, politicians, managers, media editors, as well as those who work in the so-called think tanks. These people might number in the millions in this country.
This self-designated meritocracy believes that the work they do actually benefits all of society. Although many in this class receive obscene salaries, there are others who work in the so-called non-profit or non-government organizations. Many of those who work at these jobs argue that they don’t take the higher paid corporate jobs because they want to be of service to humanity.
Barnes and Steve Clark, who wrote the introduction, argue that there is no classless we. The two primary classes in the capitalist world are the working class and the capitalist class. These classes have interests that are antagonistic. This explains why corporate funded non-profit organizations never contribute to unions when the workers go on strike. These strikes are aimed at advancing the interests of workers at the expense of the owners of corporations.
Barnes argues that this so-called meritocracy overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for President. Many in this class also felt that President William Clinton was the first Black President. The basis for this argument had nothing to do with advancing the interests of Black people in this country.
Clinton signed a so-called crime bill that vastly increased the number of Black people who live in prison. The basis for this absurd argument is that Clinton had to do with the fact that his administration gave numerous jobs to Black people. So, the so-called meritocracy has no problem with some Black people becoming a part of their class.
One of President Obama’s closest advisors is Valerie Jarrett. Both Obama and Jarrett lived in other countries in their youth and have similar attitudes towards politics. Barnes wrote about how this so-called meritocracy identifies with individuals of their class in other countries. Clearly they have a stronger attachment to those individuals than to the working class of this country.
In the old days, government officials bathed themselves in patriotism and missed no opportunity profess their loyalty to this country. This change in attitude reflects a change in the capitalist system. However, this attitude in no way means that politicians are becoming smarter.
The United States used to be the industrial center of the world. This development sparked workers to demand a better standard of living and unions grew accordingly. Then, Black people demanded their rights in the civil rights movement and in rebellions in hundreds of the cities throughout this country.
Because of the nature of the capitalist system, corporate officers are routinely driven to cut costs. So, when working people in this country improved their standard of living, corporations invested huge amounts of money into moving their factories, to nations where workers are paid about two dollars per day. When the government outlawed the legal discrimination against Black people, known as Jim Crow segregation, corporations advanced a course of legal discrimination against immigrant workers.
We can see how this change has effected industrial workers who continue to produce the commodities we all need and want. We might think about the farm workers who pick fruits and vegetables in the hot sun. Or the garment workers who make our clothes under horrendous conditions for miserable pay. Or the autoworkers who work as fast as they can under deteriorating conditions.
Members of the so-called meritocracy argue that these workers should be thankful to corporations for offering them jobs. What they fail to grasp is that corporations would have virtually no assets without the labor of workers from all over the world.
So, what does it mean when this so-called meritocracy argues that it’s members are smart? The answer to this question has to do with the fact that this class is efficient at advancing a course that is repressive to workers and farmers all over the world.
Jack Barnes has a chart in his book that measured the increase in worker productivity. The chart compared this to the buying power of the minimum wage, minus inflation, from 1970 to today. This chart showed that if workers received wage increases that were commensurate with our increase in productivity, the minimum wage would be $18.42 per hour. The reality is that while productivity has greatly increased, when we account for inflation, the minimum wage has effectively decreased during these same years.
However, President Obama argues that: “Anybody who says that we are not absolutely better off today than when we were just seven years ago, they’re just not leveling with you.” What universe is Obama talking about when he makes this statement?
President Obama argues that unemployment has gone down during his presidency. Barnes gives the facts showing how this statement is a bold-faced lie. Obama defines unemployment by the number of people who are collecting unemployment compensation. Barnes shows how the percentage of unemployed workers who are not receiving benefits has increased from 15% in 2009 to 28% today. This explains why the “labor force participation rate” has dropped from 67% in 2000 to 63% today. This statistic measures the percentage of workers who are working.
One statistic Barnes didn’t mention is the number of jobs that have been eliminated since the 1970’s. This number is difficult to find, but it may be in the range of hundreds of millions of eliminated jobs. Up until 2008 corporations have replaced these jobs with other jobs. However, most replacement jobs have effectively lower wages and fewer benefits. When we look at this picture it is clear that the standard of living for all workers has been deteriorating for decades.
Another of the arguments of this so-called meritocracy has to do with their misguided idea that they are trying to improve education. We can see the fallacy of this argument in Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize – Who’s in charge of America’s schools?
Russakoff was a so-called journalist for the Washington Post for many years and has the basic perspective of the so-called meritocracy. However, in spite of this limitation, her book gives facts showing how education will not be improved in the capitalist system.
The Prize & the State of Black America
The Prize was a so-called award of $100 million to improve the Newark, New Jersey schools system. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was the one who gave the money. Russakoff gave the facts as to how this massive contribution did nothing to improve education in Newark.
However, this contribution did have an effect. The Newark teachers union fought for many gains for teachers over the years. Of the $100 million, $30 million went to the teachers to sign what is known as a sweetheart contract. The teachers received a lump sum payment reflecting the raises they had been denied over two years. Then, the teachers discovered to their dismay that this contract also required them to work an additional two hours every day at a wage of little more than ten dollars per hour. Russakoff quoted Zuckerberg in arguing that his contribution was also about weakening the teachers union.
The Urban League issues an annual report on, The State of Black America. Newark is a largely Black city and the title of the Urban League’s 2016 report demonstrates that things are not getting better for Black people in this country. The title of that report is: Locked Out of Education, Jobs, and Justice.
Jack Barnes cited statistics that underscore the Urban League’s argument. Household family income for Blacks is, on average, 60% of the income of Caucasian families. When we look at the accumulated wealth of Black vs. Caucasian families, Black family accumulated wealth in a mere 6% of that amount for Caucasians.
This state of affairs explains why millions of workers want a change from the status quo. We see this sentiment expressed in the large turnouts to listen to the Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Today, Donald Trump appears to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Trump openly argues that he wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of this country and to deport the twelve million immigrants without papers who live here. He wants to place all Muslims living in this country under surveillance in clear violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution. He feels that these policies will, “Make America great again.”
People who are opposed to the institutionalized discrimination in this country see these comments by Trump to be repugnant and reprehensible. However, the facts are that President Obama has already made Donald Trump’s arguments into his routine policies.
· Muslims as well as many working people are already under surveillance. President Obama has ordered the military to murder thousands of Muslims in his wars against the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, and in his support of the Israeli government’s routine genocide against Palestinians.
· President Obama has already built a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has deported more immigrants than any other President in history. These deportations have totaled over 1,000 every day. Many of these deportations were of parents who have children born in this country. When these parents are deported the children are sent to foster homes where there is no attempt to reunite them with their parents.
The one criticism I would make of Jack Barnes book is his criticism of W.E.B. DuBois. Although DuBois admired people who were communists in his day, he never developed a communist perspective. However, he clearly was one of the most important leaders of working people in his day.
DuBois argued that there was a “talented tenth” of the Black community that would provide leadership. Barnes argued that this view is similar to the view of the so-called meritocracy. When we look at this statement be DuBois, I believe we should also look at the context in which it was made.
DuBois was arguing against the politics of Booker T. Washington. Washington ran the Andrew Carnegie funded Tuskegee Institute. He argued that Black people needed to learn skills in the manual trades because those were the jobs open to Black people at that time. DuBois countered that Black people deserved all the rights everyone had in this country. This would include and education in whatever field they might choose.
I can recall two statements by DuBois that I believe Barnes would agree with. He argued that: Education is not about teaching men to become carpenters, but to teach carpenters to become men.
He also argued that: The idea that Black people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without dealing with the question of discrimination, is the cruelest hoax.
I will conclude with a quotation from Jack Barnes. Learning as a lifetime experience—what better reason to make a socialist revolution? . . . Explaining that is part of preparing the working class for the battle to throw off the self-image the rulers teach us, and to recognize we’re capable of taking power and reorganizing society.