No Justice, No Pizzicato!

By Lynn Koh
Apr 3, 2013

Music for the 1 percent?

A look at the recent wave of strikes and lockouts hitting symphony orchestras across the U.S., prompted by a friend’s comment that the striking workers made music mainly for the 1 percent.  Written by a long-time lover of classical music, with some complicated feelings about it all.

I was 7 years old and throwing a tantrum. Stomping, screaming, and then proceeding to roll around on our hardwood floor. The goal was to avoid my daily violin practice, and inevitably my mother -- who for 3 years had been driving me back and forth each week to my lessons -- gave up. Afterwards, with a mixture of guilt and relish, I opened up my mini-calendar to that date and penciled in a star so as to indicate, for my teacher, “practice completed”. 

Thank goodness I never succeeded in quitting entirely. The violin is nearly unique in having an emotional range that rivals the human voice; maybe only the saxophone compares. This kind of thing turned out to be important to an Asian American teenager whose response to suburban racism was to try not to feel. What I could not say, my violin would.[1] I practiced: two hours each day -- etudes, symphonic repertoire, solo pieces, scales.

In the back of my mind, I wondered why most of the kids I saw in the world of classical music were Asian American or white. When I graduated college as a dedicated revolutionary, I thought about the violin differently. Aesthetic taste, I had learned from Pierre Bourdieu, played a social role: it distinguished the upper, petty-bourgeois, and working classes. The instrument itself embodied the bourgeois aspirations of the middle and professional class, and a route to racial acceptability traveled by the upwardly mobile children of immigrants. I put it aside for the next eight years to study political economy and organize workers, and went out to purchase my first Hip-Hop album.[2]

And yet, right where you least expect it, there it is -- the gremlin of class struggle. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra just ended a three-week strike. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has been locked out for 6 months along with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra. On a section of their webpage called

The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra just ended a three-week strike. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has been locked out for 6 months along with the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra

“Misrepresentation vs. Fact”, the MSO management assures us they are not proposing a 50 percent wage reduction; the actual cuts proposed are a mere 20 – 40 percent. The Atlanta Symphony musicians accepted a 30 percent pay cut after being locked out. Orchestras in Indianapolis, Detroit, Louisville, and the legendary Chicago Symphony Orchestra, have all experienced strikes or lockouts in the past two years.[3]

The 85 percent

These days every schoolchild knows that the richest 1 percent has grabbed more and more of the country's income and wealth over the past 30 years. Neoliberalism extends beyond the 1 percent into the top 15 percent of income earners; their share of household income has grown -- not astronomically like that of the one percenters, but steadily -- since the 1950s. Dumenil and Levy call this the upper salaried class, comprised of individuals who earned above $75,000 in 2004.[4] The restructuring of the economy around low-wage (and therefore low-priced) services and high-wage, “high-skill” professions in accounting, engineering, finance, and law served this group well. They earned enough to put some money into the stock market during the Clinton and Bush I years, and -- when sufficiently insulated from the hoi polloi -- were oblivious to the declining prospects for the 85 percent[5]

There's a scene from a documentary -- I can't remember which -- where a worker stands outside of his manufacturing plant, which is about to close. She asks the camera, "Who do these rich guys think are gonna buy all their stuff when we're laid off?" But income stagnation for the vast majority of U.S. workers, combined with gains for the upper salaried class, meant that the top 20 percent of income earners eventually accounted for fully one half of the total income in the U.S.[6] Growth in consumer spending (and declining savings rates) under neoliberalism was due primarily to this strata. Laid-off, minimum wage, or underemployed workers were reintegrated into consumer markets via credit cards or other forms of debt, but I would speculate that their incomes were seen as more and more marginal to economic dynamism. The people that mattered were the ones with money.[7]

The people with money included symphony orchestra musicians, where base salaries were close to or exceeded six figures in major cities

 The people with money included symphony orchestra musicians, where base salaries were close to or exceeded six figures in major cities.  This was the result of decades of organizing that unionized nearly 100 percent of the workforce. Fifty years ago these musicians would have lacked health care benefits, job security, and a living wage. Treated no better than janitors, in the words (however elitist) of one music school dean.

Of course, some people with money matter more than others. If symphony musicians are part of the upper-salaried class, the boards of directors that oversee them are mainly the 1 percent. An overwhelming number of seats are executives from the industries that have boomed under neoliberalism -- accounting, insurance, law, and finance industries.

1 percent VS the 85 or 99 percent?

So is this a battle between different parts of society's upper crust -- the 1 percent vs. the 15 percent? Is it just another example of the boss teaching working artists that however highly-regarded and immensely talented, in the end they are members of the proletariat? While the symphony orchestra sector has its particularities, it is also emblematic of how U.S. capitalism has functioned since the Great Recession. 

A recent New York Times article [8] describes how corporate profits are sky-high as a share of GDP, while the share going to personal income is at its lowest point since 1966. The author notes another important trend: productivity gains allow corporations to increase revenue without hiring more workers. "Productivity gains" translates roughly into "increasing exploitation of workers" as I am not aware of any miraculous technological innovations that have revolutionized the workplace, but do know workers who are forced to do the job of two people on a regular basis. The boom in corporate profits is largely converted into cash-on-hand rather than reinvested; and where corporations do generate job growth it takes place, according to the Times, mainly outside the U.S.

The huge amount of cash sitting in corporate accounts rather than flowing into productive investment and ruling class nonchalance about this situation, suggests that the capitalist class is not very much concerned with the stagnation of the capitalist accumulation process in the U.S. That accumulation process historically has destroyed the environment and generated racial and gendered forms of oppression, but also provided jobs and a piece of the pie. Now it really is about the 99 percent: this particular mode of creating spectacular profits appears to doom larger and larger sections of the U.S. -- beyond the 85 percent -- to marginality. One of the financial sector's strategists says the 700,000 jobs lost due to the sequester will have a minimal effect on corporate profits. Maybe (with no hint of self-parody) a 1 percent impact. She adds, “the markets want austerity.”

The Gods Demand a Sacrifice

The markets want austerity. It's a textbook case of mystification -- transmuting class interest into objective logic, imputing social objectives to the desires of an all-powerful thing. This is the ideological reflex of a society cannibalizing itself: symphony musicians kicked to the curb, school closings hitting Black and brown communities in Philadelphia (23 schools) and Chicago (54 schools), the overthrow of democratic governance in Detroit, attacks on civil servants in nearly every state.

Taken together, I can't escape the feeling that these phenomena are the sickly pulse of a dissolute society, the signposts of imperial decay. In a couple of weeks, I’ll try to explain why.


[1]Here is Edward Said's take: Unlike the words of a great poem, which have all sorts of specific meanings and possibilities beyond those made use of by the poet, the notes in a piece of music in the end either refer back to themselves or to other music, and are uncorrupted by references or connotations that stand outside the actual sound. (from "Cosmic Ambition" London Review of Books Vol. 23 No. 14)

[2]A good friend of mine, who became an activist in the Chicano community, studied classical music at Berkeley but also turned his back on it upon graduation, for similar reasons. My first hip hop album was Party Music by The Coup.  I finally started playing the violin again last year.

[3]A very eloquent analysis of the wave of strikes and lockouts is here.

[4]Dumenil, Gerard, and Levy, Dominique. "Neoliberal Income Trends." New Left Review II 30. More precisely, they identify this with the 75-98 percentile of income earners: $75,000 to $200,000 per year.

[5]During a discussion about Marx, one of my university classmates exclaimed "Can't we just admit things are pretty good for most of us?"

[6]This is from the CBO report "Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2008 and 2009." Sorry I couldn't break it down to the top 15 percent.

[7] To be clear, I fully support the musicians’ unions and their demands to maintain their contract standards; I am also not suggesting that these union members actually supported neoliberalism.

[8] Schwartz, Nelson D. "Recovery in U.S. Is Lifting Profits But Not Jobs" New York Times. 4 Mar 2013.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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