Socialist Worker

Barack Obama and class

Paolo Bassi argues that while Barack Obama was accused of "elitism" for some of his comments last month, his real sin was bringing up class

Issue No. 2101

Once in a while a mainstream US politician forgets the script and deviates from the self‑imposed censorship of the establishment’s club rules.

This happened about three weeks ago in San Francisco, when presidential contender Barack Obama casually mentioned that some of the US working class, embittered by their harsh economic reality, sought solace in religion, guns and the comforting distrust of those who look different.

Obama immediately faced a barrage of self-righteous indignation from his rivals and the corporate media, all of whom undoubtedly knew exactly what he meant.

Hillary Clinton and John McCain, both worth tens of millions of dollars in private wealth, amazingly accused Obama of elitism.

As disingenuous as Clinton and McCain were, Obama had broken the rules by venturing into the forbidden territory of class and social control.

But Clinton and McCain need not have worried – Obama is a team player and knows what is expected of him. The image of US workers as classless, god‑fearing patriots must be maintained.

This is what the US “two parties, one ideology” system demands and what our rulers have successfully managed to do since the country was created. Discussion of class inequality and how it is made palatable has always been regarded as an unpatriotic act.

Public figures who have tried to raise class inequality as a serious issue in the US are quickly marginalised, labelled as “extremist” and generally rendered unsuitable for public office.

Consider the example of Martin Luther King, the black civil rights leader murdered in 1968.

Towards the end of his life, he began to see that racism and the class system were inextricably linked, and that they were perpetuated by a capitalist order that needed Americans to stay divided, suspicious and self-controlling.

It was at that point that King went from being a troublesome priest to being a dangerous subversive and a serious threat to the US ruling order. He was assassinated shortly afterwards.

Unlike class, race issues can be discussed in the US in a relatively open manner. Politicians can still exploit racist arguments, but they have to use a sophisticated coded language.


Race is no longer a taboo subject, at least when it is detached from class. The US establishment is officially anti-racist and politicians are happy to promote this notion.

Class remains an entirely different matter. Traditionally US business and political elites have been able to maintain greater economic inequality compared to other industrialised societies because there was enough upward mobility to keep working Americans satiated and hopeful.

But in the last 25 years this upward mobility has come to a grinding halt, as real wages have deteriorated along with living standards.

Working people may have more gadgets and TV channels to watch than their parents, but the things that provide meaningful quality of life – health, housing and higher education – are increasingly out of reach.

The average American today simply cannot do what his or her parents were easily able to do – and with less formal education. What we now have in the US is an increasingly barbaric class system, with inequality at levels unseen since the 1920s.

This has meant that increasing numbers of Americans have become the working poor. They work so they can live, and not much more.

As hope disappears, many turn to religion and blind patriotism, even xenophobia, to find meaning or a delusional sense of continuity.

What Obama did, however tamely, was to attack the methods by which working people are kept distracted in the US. In doing so, he challenged the idea that the US is classless.

And the reaction Obama generated shows how central this myth of classlessness is to the dominant ideology.

It is quite impossible for a tiny sliver of elite US society to own most of the wealth and resources without the mass of people being indoctrinated to believe that everyone has the chance to join the rich.

The corporate media, Clinton and McCain all attacked Obama, not just because they smelt blood in a political sense, but also because they dare not let class become an election issue or ever surface. Too many necessary delusions rest on the myth of US classlessness.

Paolo Bassi is an attorney and freelance writer based in Sacramento, California

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 13 May 2008, 19:09 BST
Issue No. 2101
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.