A New Rhetoric of Income Inequality
Every significant political movement creates, or inherits, a compelling image of the people it vows to liberate and serve. The contemporary American right, for instance, idealizes the self-reliant, nuclear family in its modest home, with Bible verses on the wall and a flagpole in the yard. But what image comes to mind when progressives think about the Americans who would benefit from a more egalitarian society? None of the images or phrases currently in vogue are all that inspiring. “Middle class” merely describes a bland, imprecise economic status. “The 99 percent,” the slogan of Occupy Wall Street, is certainly majoritarian and inclusive; but it begs the question of what, besides wealth, distinguishes that vast throng from the tiny, super-rich minority. Bill Clinton’s praise, two decades ago, of those who “work hard and play by the rules” certainly had the ring of virtue; but it never stuck politically.
Liberals and radicals did not always have such trouble describing the group for whom they were fighting. Throughout much of U.S. history, activists and politicians on the left spoke glowingly about “the producers”—those Americans who used their bodies and their minds to grow, manufacture, or transport goods that everyone needed or who, through medicine, education, or some other professional field, provided important services.
The “producer ethic” had its origins in the eighteenth century. The Jeffersonian farmer William Manning saw the new nation divided “between those that Labour for a living and those that git a Living without Bodily Labour.” A century later, Ignatius Donnelly, in his bravura address to the first convention of the People’s Party, argued that “wealth belongs to him who creates it.” Then, for support, he quoted St. Paul: “If any will not work neither shall he eat.” In 1909, the magazine of the American Federation of Labor ran a long, anonymously authored poem in praise of “the average man” who “is the man of the mill/The man of the valley, or man of the hill/The man at the throttle, the man at the plow— … There is not a purpose, a project, or plan/But rests on the strength of the average man.”
Though producerist rhetoric could sometimes assume an angry tone, it was not an Americanized version of the class consciousness Karl Marx believed to be the inevitable result of the industrial revolution. While many producers were wage-earners, producerism as a concept cast a broad moral net over society instead of dissecting it with a scalpel. A producer could be a craftsman, a teacher, a small merchant, a farmer with hired hands, a homemaker. To qualify for the honor, one simply had to do something useful for society and not prosper from the labor or weaknesses of others. During the Gilded Age, the Knights of Labor, America’s first national labor federation, barred from membership just five occupational groups, who were considered to be social parasites: financiers, speculators, liquor dealers, gamblers, and lawyers. (They made an exception for attorneys like Clarence Darrow who represented unionists.)