Class Divisions (OP)

18th December 2007

Sometimes articles which are just so damned good they demand reproducing on any blog going, get posted on one of the lists. This, like most of the best, was posted to WWTTA.

>>CEOs vs. Slaves
By Barbara Ehrenreich, AlterNet. Posted May 31, 2007.

Recent findings shed new light on the increasingly unequal terrain of American society. The new “top” involves pay in the hundreds of  millions, a private jet and a few acres of Nantucket. The new bottom is slavery.


Recent findings shed new light on the increasingly unequal terrain of American society. Starting at the top executive level: You may have thought, as I did, that the guys in the C-suites operated as a team — or, depending on your point of view, a pack or gang — each  getting his fair share of the take. But no, the rising tide in executive pay does not lift all yachts equally. The latest pay gap to worry about is the one between the CEO and his — or very rarely her — third in command.

According to a just-reported study by Carola Frydman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Raven E. Saks at the Federal Reserve, 30-40 years ago, the CEO’s of major companies earned 80 percent more, on average, than the third-highest-paid executives. By the early part of the 21st century, however, the gap CEO and the third in command had ballooned up to 260 percent.

Now take a look at what’s happening at the very bottom of the economic spectrum, where you might have pictured low-wage workers trudging between food banks or mendicants dwelling in cardboard boxes. It turns out, though, that the bottom is a lot lower than that.

On May 16, a millionaire couple in a woodsy Long Island suburb was charged with keeping two Indonesian domestics as slaves for five years, during which the women were paid $100 a month, fed very little, forced to sleep on mats on the floor, and subjected to beatings, cigarette burns and other torments.

This is hardly an isolated case (see my book, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, co-edited with Arlie Hochschild.) If the new “top” involves pay in the tens or hundreds of millions, a private jet and a few acres of Nantucket, the new bottom is slavery.

Some of America’s slaves are captive domestics, like the Indonesian  women in Long Island. Others are factory workers, and at least 10,000 are sex slaves lured from their home country to American brothels by promises of respectable jobs. CEOs and slaves: these are the extreme ends of American class polarization.

But a parallel kind of splitting is going in many of the professions. Top-ranked college professors, for example, enjoy salaries of several hundred thousand a year, often augmented by consulting fees and earnings from their patents or biotech companies. At the other end of the professoriate, you have adjunct teachers toiling away for about $5000 a semester or less, with no benefits or chance of tenure. There was a story a few years ago about an adjunct who commuted to his classes from a homeless shelter in Manhattan, and adjuncts who moonlight as waitresses or cleaning ladies are legion.

Similarly, the legal profession, which is topped by law firm partners billing hundred of dollars an hour, now has a new proletariat of temp lawyers working for $19-25 an hour in sweatshop conditions. On sites like, temp lawyers report working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in crowded basements with inadequate sanitary facilities. According to an article in American Lawyer, a legal temp at a major New York firm reports being
“corralled in a windowless basement room littered with dead cockroaches,” where six out of seven exits were blocked.

Contemplating the violent and increasing polarization of American society, one cannot help but think of “dark energy,” the mysterious force that is propelling the galaxies apart from each other one at a speed far greater than can be accounted for by the energy of the original big bang. Cosmic bodies seem to be repelling each other, much as a CEO must look down at his CFO, COO, etc. and think, “They’re getting too close. I’ve got to make more, more, more!”
The difference is that the galaxies don’t need each other, and are free to go their separate ways nonchalantly. But the CEO presumably depends on his fellow executives, just as the star professor relies on adjuncts to do his or her teaching and the law firm partner is enriched by the sweated labor of legal temps. For all we know, some of those CEOs go home to sip their single malts in mahogany walled dens that have been cleaned by domestic slaves.

Why is it so hard for the people at the top to graciously acknowledge their dependency on the labor of others? We need some sort of gravitational force to counter the explosive distancing brought about by greed — before our economy imitates the universe and blows itself to smithereens.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.”<<

Of course exactly the same process is occurring in the UK and has continued apace under Blair and Brown. What is not mentioned in the article is that it is the systematic destruction of the unions in the 1980’s and 1990’s, partly by Government action partly by their own inertia and cowardice, which created the preconditions for this new class divide. Where we must take hope is that just as capitalism endlessly creates new divisions, new inequalities, new class divides so it endlessly creates its’ own gravediggers. Sadly the form which the new struggle will take is hidden, but that it will come I am certain.


1. Catherine Lamb left…

Wednesday, 19 December 2007 10:30 am

Nick, I only recently discovered your blog. Prior to this I had been reading the blog of an old friend and when that ended, I looked for a replacement blog to read and muse over when I take a tea break. I find that the ideas you present are the same topics which are circulating in my head – especially the gap between top and bottom in society. Your article cites American conditions, but I think this is pretty global. Even in Sweden where the gap is much smaller, it is growing every year and even here the unions are losing any power to mitigate the erosion. It is competition gone mad–why does a person need hundreds of millions of dollars. And the aristocracy protect one another. When the CEO of some US company got fired for losing millions for the company he got 161 million dollars in severance pay.

I think people seem to view history as progress ie that things are better now than before. But compare society today with conditions in 1600 and 1700. It is money not blue blood which determines who has the power, but the inequalities persist. What discourages me is that we will never see another French Revolution. In the time of the French Revolution you could unify the under class because if you were not born into the privileged class you were out of luck. They needed a revolution to change the class system. Now, however with this money-tocracy, members of the underclass believe that with the right luck and perseverance they too will be earning 100 million and so they have no wish to overturn the system. I wish I could end this comment on a positive note, but I cannot think of one just now. Regards, Cathy
2. Ellen Moody left…

Friday, 21 December 2007 6:27 am ::

Have you read _Nickle and Dimed_, Nick? Then you’d get a picture of the vast real world of work for women in the US. It’s one my older daughter works in.

3. nick hay left…

Friday, 21 December 2007 3:45 pm

Thanks Cathy and Ellen. I didn’t know that this held true in Sweden too Cathy – it is always held up as a model of social democracy working. As to the optimism – well I always try to be optimistic, even though I admit it is exceedingly hard to remain so at present.

And I haven’t read Nickel and Dimed (by Barbara Ehrenreich) Ellen, though I know you have mentioned it before on-list and I will add it to the TBR list. The trouble is with list reading and mysteries this never seems to diminish – just grow. Still as I have remarked before it gives me a quirky satisfaction – so many great books to be read.

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