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Where Are These Pitchforks That Billionaires Are So Scared Of?

The ultra-rich and radical anarchists can agree on one thing: If inequality keeps getting worse, there could be trouble. Is the fear of class warfare founded?

Where Are These Pitchforks That Billionaires Are So Scared Of?
[Illustration: Shyama Golden for Fast Company]

When Wall Street executives received hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses after receiving billions in government bailout money during the financial crisis, the popular reaction was outrage. Yet some on Wall Street were actually outraged by the outrage: The uproar over bonuses “was intended to stir public anger, to get everybody out there with their pitchforks and their hangman nooses,” said former AIG CEO Robert Benmosche.

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In the wake of the crisis and recession, despite the fact that nearly all the gains of the recovery have gone straight into the bank accounts of the wealthy, America’s billionaires keep doing things like comparing themselves to persecuted Jews in Nazi Germany and talking about the ever-popular pitchforks. Many aggressively denounce policies designed to redistribute wealth as “class warfare.”

It’s been noted extensively that if there is any class warfare happening, it’s the wealthy waging it against the lower classes. Yet the idea of a popular worker uprising that results in loss of property or violence against America’s rich is a bogeyman to which we keep returning. Even those in favor of addressing growing inequality use “avoiding class warfare” as the argument that putting in a fix is urgent. In a recent New York Times article, William Cohan, a former Wall Street banker, lays out the stakes of continued inequality: “That’s the real danger…This little thing called the French Revolution.”

It’s been nearly 100 years since the last true uprising of American workers. In 1921, 10,000 striking miners took up arms against their bosses in protest of working conditions in West Virginia’s coal fields. After nearly 100 deaths in what’s known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, the strike was eventually put down by the U.S. army. The reforms that followed, and the New Deal a decade later, were, as historian Peter Turchin writes in Aeon Magazine, a truce designed to keep America’s society and economy functioning at any cost:

“The U.S. elites entered into an unwritten compact with the working classes. This implicit contract included the promise that the fruits of economic growth would be distributed more equitably among both workers and owners. In return, the fundamentals of the political-economic system would not be challenged (no revolution).”

Despite the elites straying farther and farther from their end of that compact, are we any closer to that revolution? Protest, when it happens, is largely nonviolent–and encouraged to be so, often by both the protesters and history. Change, in the United States at least, has generally occurred incrementally–and within the system. Tens of thousands of people might have marched in New York, but most of the people in the city–and in the country–were content to stay home.

Yet some see this as a real possibility. Not now, but soon: Nick Hanauer is a venture capitalist–he was one of the first investors in Amazon; he’s doing quite well–who has been very vocal about the need to end income inequality, and who has personally pushed for raising the minimum wage in his hometown of Seattle (as well as the recent wage increase for New York fast food workers). He told Co.Exist that fear of revolution shouldn’t be anyone’s driving factor in trying to fix the problem (“If the only reason you care about rising inequality is because you’re afraid of a violent uprising, then you’re a fucking sociopath.”) but that such a concern is real, if not immediate.

If current economic trends continue for the next 30 years, he says, things will go from problematic to dangerous: “If you take 50% of the country, and you only allow them to share 5% or 6% of national income, they’ll be fucking pissed. Will they be pissed enough to come kill you and me? I don’t know. But my bet is that life will suck, if we get to that place.”

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With his work on the minimum wage, Hanauer is essentially operating under the same principles that Turchin outlines: Stability is good for everyone. “The better other people do, the better I’ll do. It’s a feedback loop. … I think there’s opportunity to come together on economic policies that make that happen and lead to an economy where everyone participates more robustly and thereby creates an even bigger opportunity,” he says.

That’s why he’s working on policies to help working people: “If no one can buy anything anymore, then it’s, ‘Now I need to have security people, and that sucks.’ I don’t want to live in a society where I have to have security people. I want to live in a society where everyone is happy.”

And people are getting extra security. Emily Brouchard, a managing partner at Wealth Legacy Group, a company that offers wealth coaching to the affluent, says that environment, especially right after the financial crash, wasn’t great for her clients’ feelings of safety. People upped security systems and others tried to live what she calls a “stealth wealth” lifestyle. “These individuals enjoy the finer things in life on the QT,” she says, “And publicly choose to drive modest cars, and wear clothes anyone could buy at their local mall.”

Those fears seem mostly unfounded now–give or take a lone revolutionary interested in making a point–but for members of the country’s anarchist movement, the hope is that protests over income inequality and its related issues get even more frightening to the people in power. The political system is broken and inaccessible to regular people, says Eric Laursen, who works with Agency, an anarchist PR project. Traditional protest has failed, he says, because the police are so prepared for what’s coming that it’s impossible to be truly disruptive. The only way to create change, he argues, is to mess with what the people in charge care about most: property.

The goal of the style of protests he envisions, therefore, is to act “in defiance of this idea that’s become really ingrained among people who you can call capitalists, or business people, which is that private property is sacred. There is nothing as sacred as private property, it’s the foundation of everything in their world.”

Most people around the country probably experienced the Occupy Wall Street protests as a series of marches that, at worst, stopped some traffic, but the anarchists were lurking on the fringe, sometimes taking the marches in a darker direction, like they did during the “battle” part of the “Battle in Seattle.” That was fomented by anarchists from Eugene, Oregon, who felt that simply marching against the WTO wasn’t going to work. Often denounced by more peaceful protesters, the anarchists sometimes use what are called “black bloc tactics,” named for the all black clothing and masks that they often wear. These tactics include fighting with the police, building barricades, and otherwise far more disruptive activities than your standard march. It also sometimes involves destroying property: In Seattle in 1999, they smashed the windows of a Gap, a Starbucks, and an Old Navy. In Oakland, during Occupy Wall Street, they skirmished with the police (and were denounced as being counterproductive to the protest’s peaceful mission). For his part, Hanauer says he had some of Seattle’s OWS protesters visit his office: “They were scary people. … They were insane. Absolutely rabidly ideological. And fired up about violence.” If there is going to be an uprising, these are the people who want to start it.

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“In my view, to be an activist is not to make compromises before you’ve even made your point,” says Laursen. “It’s to be intransigent, and it is to essentially stand on a principle of human rights and to not back down.”

“That’s why the black bloc tactics especially get people so upset, because they’re literally in some cases defiling private property or smashing windows,” he says. “The point of that is making this larger point: that human rights and the rights of working people are more important than all that and shouldn’t be treated as secondary.” You might recall the deep national concern over a burned CVS during Baltimore’s Freddie Gray protests as a perfect example of what he’s talking about.

The anarchists say the only way to make change in a society where you have no voice is to defy the law, as labor organizers did in the ’20s and ’30s, and civil rights protesters did in the ’60s: “There needs to be, by working people and people of color, a reevaluation of the so-called criminal justice system and the laws that keep them from expressing themselves,” Laursen says. “And the reason that scares capitalists is because that is where you start to see the possibility of a revolutionary situation. And that’s exactly the point. Because until they see a potentially revolutionary situation developing, they’re not going to budge.”

But the average American has made it abundantly clear they aren’t currently interested in that kind of revolutionary situation. Neither are the leaders of most of our major protests, coming to the conclusion that the best way to gain public support is to not threaten violence. Peaceful protests tend to have an easier time moving people from the fringe of an issue to joining a mass movement, and most people are turned off by violence (plus, violence against protesters by the police can be some of the most powerful optics a protest can get). Laursen bemoans that protest movements are told to “work within the system,” but even for those who see that system as broken, it’s a system they want to see fixed, not dismantled.

Both the billionaire and the anarchist agree that OWS and the Black Lives Matter protests have been fueled by a continued disenfranchisement of huge swaths of America. One wants to fix the problem before it leads to violence, and one wants to help catalyze the protests to the point that the upend the current system. But the question remains, if the enormous economic collapse of the financial crisis or centuries of racial oppression aren’t creating a revolutionary situation, will anything?

Laursen says we might be surprised about what turns out to be the final spark: “Your question is ‘How big does it have to be?” and my answer is ‘It doesn’t have to be that big at all.’ It’s a question of what we do with it.”

About the author

Morgan is a senior editor at Fast Company. He edits the Ideas section, formerly FastCoExist.com.

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