If you had a conversation about the growing gap between rich and poor almost anywhere in today’s world, you would very likely refer to “the top one percent,” a phrase that evokes the skyrocketing wealth of the superrich. A similar conversation in West Germany in the 1970s or 1980s would have revolved around the latest movements in wage earners’ aggregate share of the national income, evoking images of a society divided into employers and employees. In 1980s Britain, you might have talked about income growth among the bottom tenth of the population, as the government tried to steer the discussion away from income relativities and overall inequality.
A specter is haunting the current political discourse, the specter of cultural cleavage. More and more observers see the emergence of a socio-cultural gap between a hegemonic, globalist, educated class and an underrepresented, locally anchored underclass. The titles of two studies speak volumes: Cleavage Politics and the Populist Right (2010) by sociologist Simon Bornschier, and "The Class Basis of the Cleavage between the New Left and the Radical Right" (2012) by political scientist Daniel Oesch. Meanwhile, French philosopher Guillaume Paoli observes a cultural confrontation between two societal blocs.1 And in his recent work on the "society of singularities,” German sociologist Andreas Reckwitz postulates a new "cultural class divide"—a polarizing dichotomy between a "new middle class" equipped with high levels of cultural and economic capital and a "new underclass" lacking all of this.2
On this May Day, it is interesting to read a Progressive Era speech by Florence Kelley from December 1905 entitled “The Federal Government and the Working Children.” 1 Kelley was arguing for a federal solution to the dearth of accurate and timely data about child labor in the United States. The industrial and agricultural interests that objected to a federal role, she pointed out, were quick to band together when it came to demanding protection for their own commercial interests.
Never again can it be a matter of merely local concern what hours the children are working. They will be the Republic when we are dead, and we cannot leave it to the local legislators, here and there, to decide unobserved what sort of citizens shall be produced in this or that State, whether they shall be strong in body, mind and character, or whether they shall grow up enfeebled by overwork in early childhood.
Of course, compiling and disseminating the data would have political consequences.