The Republican National Convention borrowed from the playbooks of Karl Marx and Ayn Rand in manufacturing a conflict last week.
"We built that," was the theme of the convention. It was a reaction to President Barack Obama's comment, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."
Almost every GOP speaker repeated the, "We built that," theme. It was a glorification of the business owner that presented a stark contrast to Obama's claim that capitalists deserve no credit.
Over and over at the convention, a spliced version of Obama's comments played in the background. Speakers rejected the claim just as often, with words like those of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul: "When the president says, ‘You didn't build that,' he is flat out wrong. Businessmen and women did build that."
Marx saw this conflict as inevitable. Marx viewed the class the GOP was promoting, the bourgeoisie, as the oppressor of the far more numerous proletariat.
Rand preached the flip side of the Marxist coin. She too saw the classes as being in conflict.
As made clear in this statement by a hero of her novel, "Atlas Shrugged," she had a very different view of the identity of the oppressor:
"Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or the looters who take your product by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce."
GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is a devotee of Rand.
"I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are, and what my beliefs are," he said at a speech to the Rand revivalist Atlas Society in 2005. "It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff."
So on one side of the conflict highlighted at the GOP convention we have the owners of the means of production, and on the other we have the moochers and looters, or proletariat. Using Occupy Wall Street terminology, it is basically the conflict between the 1 percent and the 99 percent.
If Obama so firmly embraced the side of the proletariat, as the edited quote replayed at the convention and in Mitt Romney ads suggests, it may be no surprise that the Romney campaign sided with the oppressed bourgeoisie.
The quote Romney uses in his assertion that Obama is slamming business owners, however, is a fabrication. The full quote is below, with the portions that were deleted from the GOP video and audio loops in italics:
"Let me tell you something. There are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that."
As a reporter, I have interviewed dozens of successful businessmen. Not one would disagree with Obama's unedited statement. They credited their success to factors outside their direct control: hard-working employees, customers and, frequently, the government-created infrastructure or incentives that allowed them to operate.
They were, I know, being humble. I owned a business, and it was hard work. It involved risk, stress and an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the employees whose livelihood depended on my continued investment.
I miss the financial rewards that came with my bourgeois status, but little else. In a democracy, capitalist humility makes a lot of sense. As Rand suggested in "Atlas Shrugged," the proletariat has the power to shape the government in a democracy. It can — through its votes — raise capital-gains and inheritance taxes to confiscatory levels. It can refrain from maintaining institutions that protect property rights and educate the work force. It can eliminate the corporate shell, making owners responsible for corporate liabilities.
For sound economic reasons, our society reserves its greatest financial rewards for capitalists. A class-conscious democracy could destroy that reward system and undermine our economy.
The Romney campaign has not just reacted to class conflict, it has created it. With the deceptive editing of Obama's statement, and the decision to use the spliced version as a theme for the Republican National Convention, it has fueled the very conflict that Marx and Rand anticipated.
While Marx recognized the class tensions the GOP exploited in Tampa, history has shown him utterly wrong in his conclusions. Marx was right that the capitalist cannot succeed without the more numerous proletariat, but he was wrong in his belief that the proletariat can succeed without the skill and capital of the bourgeoisie.
On the eve of Labor Day in 1936 — a time when Joseph Stalin controlled the Soviet Union and the financial distress of Americans was even greater than it is today — President Franklin Delano Roosevelt feared the consequences of a belligerent capitalist class.
In what could have been a rebuke of the Tampa conventioneers, Roosevelt said, "It is those short-sighted ones, not labor, who threaten this country with that class dissension which in other countries has led to dictatorship and the establishment of fear and hatred as the dominant emotions in human life."
In America, he said, "We refuse to regard those who work with hand or brain as different from or inferior to those who live from their property. We insist that labor is entitled to as much respect as property ... Our needs are one in building an orderly economic democracy in which all can profit."
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