Bob Miller – The Rich And The Poor Man

Song publisher Bob Miller sang this song of his around 1928. It casts a stark divide between socioeconomic classes. The rich are better off, have an easier life and it will continue to be this way. Another way of stating this view is that, structurally, the world is fixed or rigged, to benefit some, even at the expense of others. This explanation can go so far as to mean that there is little or nothing the oppressed class can do to improve their lot.

Not much can be found on Bob Miller, but he is touching on Marxism. He was writing before the Great Depression, and the emergence of public social programs and services as part of the welfare state. These government activities aimed to help those less fortunate.

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Billy Bragg – To Have And Have Not

The melody seems to come from Rudy Can’t Fail by the Clash, or maybe their version of I Fought The Law. Like the Clash, Bragg is British, and his folk and protest music is punk-tinged.

This song communicates that the privileged aren’t better people than those less well off. It tries to correct a stereotype that those out of work aren’t in all cases lazy, but that they just have less opportunities than the upper class. ┬áIt came at a time of hardship for the working class in the 1980s, when even if industrious, may have found themselves struggling to get by, unemployed.

In politics “haves” and “have nots” are popular ways to describe economic classes of people in a fixed social structure. Here, the “haves” accumulate more and more wealth, at the expense of the “have nots.” In Marxist terms, these would be the bourgeosie and proletariats. Today, we have seen the division described as the 1 percent and 99 percent, from the Occupy Movement.

The title is also from the 1937 Ernest Hemingway novel, which became a film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Bob Seger – U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)

The trouble with songs satirizing the wealthy is the listing of their material possessions might still sound appealing and worth striving to acquire, even to those that won’t get to. But Bob Seger was referring, in 1974, to luxury vehicles and yachts and fine spirits, perhaps as a critique of capitalism and its inequality among classes in society.

Class analysis divides citizens into different layers. Its most known explanations come from Karl Marx (1818-1883), who wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The upper class (bourgeoisie) own the means of production and exploit the lower class (proletariats).

German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) maintained that people that have stuff we need, have power over us. He also identified Seger’s upper middle class as well-educated, high-earning professionals. A synonym may be “white collar” workers, which are not the super-rich 1%ers in the Occupy movement sense.

The Clash – Clampdown

The mighty Clash bashed capitalism hard back in 1980. Workers eventually get placated by an economic system that exploits them, Losing their determination, they spend a life “working for the clampdown,” supporting the very system that demeans them and keeps them from achieving the success they deserve.

This is clearly a Marxist interpretation of Great Britain, back in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s days. This was a leader that at the time was also reducing funding for social programs to assist the unemployed. What to do, Joe Strummer?

Curiously, the first verse, describing the kingdom being ransacked and the jewels returned, may suggest a worker’s revolution. Wouldn’t this be better at the end of the song?

Woody Guthrie – I Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore

Woody Guthrie, from 1940, describes what it’s like to be a poor worker trying to make their way in life, while meanwhile others get rich and richer. This classic song about income inequality has powerful lyrics that are resentful of capitalist icons such as bankers, and reverential toward workers, such as farmers and miners. Guthrie suggests poor people, with no home in this world, wait patiently for respite in the next, presumably heaven. While the song certainly has socialist overtones of animosity toward capitalists, it thus does not go as far as recommending a worker’s revolution that would push it into Marxist and communist territory. Still, perhaps you will find the song is too passive for essentially accepting the lot in life for those that have less.

Dead Kennedys – Soup Is Good Food

There are plenty of lyrics in this 1985 song, for the punk genre. It’s about dead end jobs in which employees are exploited, and made redundant by technology, and then not adequately assisted when seeking unemployment relief through government programs. Disposable grunts can’t even kill themselves as bridge-jumping hurts the tourism industry! That workers are seen as disposable brings a whiff of Marxism.

The U.S. economy was in recession (slowing economic activity) in the early 1980s. Unemployment hit more than 10% in 1982. Not referenced by the song, too, is high inflation at the time; rising costs of goods would make it even harder for someone “on the dole” to get by.

Tracy Chapman – Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution

Tracy Chapman may or may not be a Marxist, but the song lyrics from this 1988 tune certainly are.

She sings about people wasting their lives waiting for government assistance and better jobs. To Marx, the capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – owned the companies and factories. These means of production were used to exploit workers for their labour. At the same time, unemployment lines for government help such as welfare can’t be too generous because those workers – the proletariats – are needed to earn profit for their bosses. Generous social programs would get in the way.

Thus, the people in the song are whispering about change. Major change. They are talking about a revolution. Karl Marx believed that workers would organize against the capitalists. That some capitalists would even join the good fight. And that ultimately, the workers and their supporters would revolt and overthrow the ruling class. When Tracy Chapman sings, “I said you better run, run, run,” she is referring to the bourgeoisie that are being taken out. Finally, the tables are turning, she sings.

Really, Marxists still wait for this natural “end of history” to organically occur, this substitution of the capitalist system with communism. Under communism, people wouldn’t exploit each other. People would contribute what they could to others, and get back what they needed. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” wrote Marx (and his buddy, Friedrich Engels). In various countries, impatient rulers instead stage managed such revolutions, such as in Russia, though even modern Marxists today have got to admit, with out bringing the Marxist utopia. Delivering equality in every way for every one is a wonderful goal, but consequences of rushing revolution instead have been millions murdered and starved to death.

How should we measure political theories then: by the intentions or outcomes? By theory or in practice?