The Immorality of Class Warfare

"Boule de Suif" is a famous short story by French writer Guy de Maupassant about a group of passengers in a horse-drawn coach trapped behind Prussian lines during the Franco-Prussian War. The passengers include two nuns, an upper-class factory owner and his wife, a petty bourgeoisie couple who own a small shop, a politician, a wealthy aristocratic couple, and of course the prostitute named Elizabeth Rousset. The name "Boule de Suif" translates to "Bowl of Fat," a reference to the prostitute from a time when fat women were considered very attractive.

Before their detention, the passengers enjoy each other's company, and the prostitute even shares a basket of food with her co-travelers. They realize that the Prussian officer is holding them until the attractive prostitute beds her captor. At first they support her refusal to submit, but over the period of captivity they rationalize why she should submit so they can all go free.  Ms. Rousset submits to their will and her captor, and the captives are set free.

After her humiliating sacrifice, the passengers shun her with icy silence and even refuse to share food with her even though she had graciously shared her food beforehand. Rousset becomes increasingly outraged at her treatment at the hands of this cross-section of nineteenth-century French society.

This moral ambiguity of needing help from one scorned by the recipient appears in other literature. One of my favorites is Hombre, the 1967 western directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman as John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. A similar social cross-section on the stagecoach holds Russell in contempt, and one woman, upon learning that he is an Indian, insists that he ride up top with the driver rather than share the company of the other passengers.

Russell ultimately uses his survival skills acquired from his Indian upbringing to save the "civilized" riders from the clutches of a criminal gang. The social core represented by the cross-section on the coach is again saved by the very element they hold in contempt.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand makes the same point in her far less subtle story about the oppression of the industrialist producers and creators by the socialist looters, who both detest and demand the former's social contribution. 

Listening to the declarations of class warfare by congressmen who demonize wealth and the wealthy, I am reminded of these stories of the moral hypocrisy displayed by those who demand without respect. They require more and more, yet they blame these subjects for any setbacks caused by said subjects' imperfections or unwillingness to bend to the will of those who scorn them.

The reality is that our society depends on growth that only our business and entrepreneurial sector can provide. Our government is addicted to economic growth to fund its expanding social programs. While the wealth-demonizers picture the wealthy as stereotypical fat cats -- in top hats and tails in chauffeur-driven limousines, with cuff links in the shape of the dollar sign, lighting their big cigars with hundred-dollar bills, with their fur-draped women dripping in huge diamonds standing by their yachts -- the reality is that most of the people they would characterize as wealthy in real dollar terms are not very different from you and me. They drive the same vehicles, shop at the same stores, and attend the same churches.

As our tax code has become increasingly progressive and thus ever more dependent on the wealthy to support the government, we have become more sensitive to the economic decline from the corrections of normal business cycles. But the financial contraction we are currently experiencing is both more rare and more difficult to correct, so it is even more sensitive to the contraction. This partially explains why stimulative policies that appeared to work during cyclical corrections are failing now.

The ruling class has become more dependent on the wealthy and yet holds them in the same contempt in which the stagecoach riders held the French prostitute and the Apache passenger. There is something morally repugnant about expecting rescue and salvation from the same people you demonize.

Henry Oliner blogs at