By Meg Hansen
As Democrats increasingly push left (in part due to an ascendant Progressive Party), and an enervated GOP elects leaders that either share or acquiesce to the prevailing doctrine, free-market arguments have become incoherent with the internal logic of Vermont’s governance. Thus turning to the writings of Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman for a critique of the state’s political economy (interactions between the economic, political, cultural, and technological aspects of social reality) would be futile.
Marxian economic perspectives, tempered with postcolonial considerations to correct for the former’s Eurocentric blind spots, inform the essay. The state’s ruling class should be held accountable on the basis of the principles to which it subscribes.
A 2018 report by the Public Assets Institute about the “State of Working Vermont” demonstrates gross economic inequalities related to the state’s problematic geopolitics. Chittenden County, which accounts for 29 percent of Vermont income, experienced greater employment growth than the rest of the state. New jobs were concentrated in service industries, largely centered in the Burlington metropolitan zone. The areas surrounding Chittenden County all experienced employment growth, while the rest of the state has fewer jobs today than in 2007.
Note that around 15 percent of the adult population in Vermont (504,856) belongs to the upper income tier, 57 percent and 27 percent to the mid- and lower-income tiers respectively. The income of Vermonters in the top 1 percent was 16 times higher than that of the remaining 99 percent, whereas the state’s median household income fell in 2017 to a level below that of 2007.
The report states, “When a small group receives a disproportionate share of the income, it leaves less for everyone else.” Those in charge would have us believe that there is nothing the State of Vermont can do to fix the appalling inequity between the Chittenden County locus and the rest of the state. Yet new development disproportionately helped those already winning the economics game.
The homology between Vermont’s primary centers of economic and political power is revealing. Consider how Act 250 actively discourages development outside Chittenden County — a region represented not only by 36 legislators in the House but also six state senators. In contrast, the Essex-Orleans district elects two senators to represent both counties.
That nearly 25 percent of the state Legislature comes from one county alone evidences the willfully unequal distribution of power in favor of the bourgeois elites. The consolidation of these inequitable politico-economic dynamics has steadily subjugated Vermont’s proletariat.
The state apparatus serves as a vehicle by which the bourgeois elites impose sociocultural, ideological, and economic dominance (hegemony) over the working classes. As the largest employer in Vermont, it accrues strength in numbers. The Vermont government employment rate is 26 percent higher than the national average (50,720 full-time and part-time people in March 2016) with 75 percent more government administrators than the national average (36.8 full-time equivalent employees per 10,000 Vermonters).
In addition, the Green Mountain State has the highest number of full-time equivalent employees in the public school system relative to the state’s population. Consequently, the Vermont National Education Association exercises significant influence in the political sphere, functioning like an arm of the state apparatus.
Having baptized itself as the “Brave Little Vermont” that pioneers a socially radical regimen, the hegemon expects that its purchase of progressive indulgences will nullify its tyranny over proletarians. How else can one explain the state apparatus’ unabashed, systematic bankrupting of mom-and-pop businesses?
By continually hiking the mandatory minimum wage; imposing punitive taxes on income, property, goods and services; and escalating the cost of living (carbon/fuel tax, individual health insurance mandate), the state apparatus has been compelling the large-scale downward socioeconomic mobility of Vermonters.
These policies allow the bourgeois elites to wield enormous power over the state’s defeated peoples. This is why legislators refuse to consider credible studies proving that mandatory minimum wage hikes deny opportunity to those in greatest need. In Seattle, the average low-wage worker lost $125 a month following the minimum wage increase to $15/hour, and yet the state of Vermont will follow suit.
If one were to look at the Affordable Care Act (ACA) without an ideological lens, then s/he would have to admit that the law has made health insurance unaffordable for many lower income citizens. A Vermont Joint Fiscal Office report shows that 78.4 percent of Vermonters that paid individual mandate penalties in 2015 — because they could not afford health insurance — made an annual income between $10,000 and $50,000. Increasing costs played a role in reducing coverage as 5,000 fewer Vermonters bought health insurance in 2017 than in 2016.
The 2019 monthly premiums of the unsubsidized benchmark plan for a 40-year old non-smoker in Vermont will rise by 28 percent (the third highest in the nation). However, in the VTDigger article, “Vermont joins fight to preserve Obamacare,” state officials bewail the “disastrous” ruling against the ACA by a federal judge in Texas, while continuing to ignore the plight of Vermonters who would welcome the opportunity to afford health insurance through much-needed ACA reform.
The bourgeois elites, in control of Montpelier, support policies that carve out an ever-increasing, permanent underclass of exploited and alienated dependents from the body politic. This phenomenon is known as the subalternization of the working classes. The term “subaltern” is not an obscure synonym for the disenfranchised or oppressed. Subalternity refers to heterogeneous and fragmented groups within the proletariat that live on the edge of destitution in forced alienation.
In the 1980s, British and Indian historians developed the concept of the subaltern class from the writings of Antonio Gramsci (Italian Marxist philosopher). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak famously concluded that the subaltern could not speak because the state’s hegemonic power structures deny him/her access to self-representation.
This is why the subalternization of Vermont’s working classes matters. Without the agency to speak for one’s self, the individual becomes disconnected from the collectivity of citizenship and loses subjecthood and thus power as a citizen. The result is exile into mute state of subalternity. This silence allows the bourgeois elite, as the colonizer, to erase the socio-politico-economic struggles of Vermont’s colonized, and thereby perpetuate systemic exploitation under the veil of progress.
To be clear, I am not posing as the face of Vermont’s subaltern class. My lived experiences in Windsor, and my acquaintance with the winners and losers of the socioeconomic policies implemented by the state apparatus, enable me to offer informed commentary. The salient difference between being from and being at the site of observation should be patent to the reader.
In 2016, Vermont was the only state in the nation where poverty rose. Over 70,000 Vermonters live in penury today, and around 50,000 households make only between $15,000 and $35,000 (lower end of the middle class) per annum. Nearly 23,000 more Vermonters needed food assistance in 2017 that in 2007.
The state apparatus recognizes the inequitable distribution of economic opportunity and wealth across Vermont but absolves itself of all responsibility by characterizing rural decline as a national trend. Columnist David Moats takes it a step further, equating the predicament of rural Vermonters to that of farmers in the French countryside.
It is hardly surprising that the bourgeoisie should worship at the altar of some invisible, automatic hand. But Vermont elites continually espouse socioeconomic justice and equity while “turn[ing] the power of government against the proletariat.” With “vilest hypocrisy,” to borrow Friedrich Engels’ words, the elites vanquish Vermont’s working men and women, and then create elaborate welfare traps in the name of self-virtue and compassion or charity:
Charity which treads the downtrodden still deeper in the dust, which demands that the degraded, the pariah cast out by society, shall first surrender the last that remains to him, his very claim to manhood, shall first beg for mercy before your mercy deigns to press, in the shape of an alms, the brand of degradation upon his brow (“The Attitude of the Bourgeoisie Towards the Proletariat, 1845).
Meg Hansen is executive director of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, a nonprofit committed to free-market reforms in American health care.