Understanding Bullshit: The Middle Class
The reason I say this is a simple one. Holding onto the status of being middle class requires that there be a lower class. There would be no middle, without the poor. That 1 in 5 kids in the United States lives below the poverty line is both immoral and a requirement of our current system. A system, which holds as its very center, the heartbeat and myth of the American Dream, the cherished “middle class.”
Since the middle class contains traits of both workers and capitalists, it has a tendency to see itself as the “Everyman” representing all of society---as opposed to the “special interests” of workers (the actual majority of the country) and big capitalists. Without the individual power of capitalists or the collective power of workers, the political instinct of the middle class is to call on both sides to stop fighting (i.e. left vs right). And because it can’t produce an alternative to capitalism that would really give everyone an equal voice, its calls for unity end up being window dressing for the status quo, which makes it an excellent breeding ground for politicians. Since most elections feature two candidates competing over who can more sincerely pose as an ordinary middle class guy (as if that is more important than which capitalists are funding their campaign and writing their platform positions).
Politicians across the Western world love to speak fondly of the “middle class” as if it is one large constituency with common interests and aspirations. But, as Karl Marx observed, the middle class has always been divided by sources of wealth and worldview. Today, it is split into two distinct, and often opposing, middle classes. First there is the yeomanry or the traditional middle class, which consists of small business owners, minor landowners, craftspeople, and artisans, or what we would define historically as the bourgeoisie, or the old French Third Estate, deeply embedded in the private economy. The other middle class, now in ascendency, is the clerisy, a group that makes its living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy.
The middle class occupies that murky region where elements of capitalism’s two defining classes intermix. “The independent peasant or handicraftsman is cut up into two persons,” writes Karl Marx in Capital. “As owner of the means of production he is a capitalist; as
laborer he is his own wage-laborer.”
Middle-class people, also enjoy far more individual autonomy than the working class (which is why many working class people dream of escaping their class and becoming managers or opening up their own businesses). But members of the middle class are also pushed around by capitalists just like the working class only without the collective power to resist. (The paradox of working class power applies to the
middle class in reverse).
This is part of the reason, I think, so many middle-class people laugh at campaigns to raise the minimum wage:
"You want 15 bucks an hour to flip burgers? How about you just hold off on the new TV until you get a real job?"
The middle class generally fluctuates between being able to afford a nice vacation one year and having to settle for a few trips to the movies the next. Meanwhile the poor get to fluctuate between paying bills and being out on the street.
Because when middle class people get laid off and go on welfare, they blame the economy, or their former employer, or the government. They never blame themselves. And they shouldn't! (Much like a whale's erection, economies are big, confusing things that can't be controlled by the average person. It's not like they left photocopies of their asshole on the boss' desk). They paid into the welfare system with their taxes when times were good, and now they're using the system for exactly what it's intended: helping you out when you're unlucky. It's bridging the gap until you, a hard-working person who just caught a tough break, gets another job.
Except when poor people use the system, it's none of those things. Suddenly they're not getting help; they're just dumb, lazy leeches. One of the worst instincts of the middle class is to blame the system when the system fails them, then lecture poor people when the system fails poor people. I've heard the condescending explanations about how the world really works (which usually come out after a few beers when no actual poor people are around because the speaker would never be brave enough to say it to their faces) more times than I can count. (I believe John Steinbeck said it best when he observed: “If you're in trouble or hurt or need–go to poor people. They're the only ones that'll help–the only ones.”)
No one dreams about being poor (unless you're into an incredibly specific kind of role-playing).
Being poor is a problem (practically, not morally), and a problem is either the fault of the person or the fault of circumstances beyond their control. The latter means those in the middle class might have to do something about it -- (or, God forbid, reflect upon their own lifestyles) which is just the worst. It's much, much easier to assume that they’re fine, that ultra-rich politicians and celebrities and investment bankers are the ones being condescending and awful to the poor, but also that poor people could probably stand to work a little harder. (So, uh ... sorry about all of that. I'll donate some food at Christmas, though!)
Economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow Richard Reeves, notes that while the US has always had a class system, the middle class – is not only widening the gap between itself and everyone else, but also hoarding opportunities in a way that makes it difficult for any outsiders to climb up to it. (The 1% is getting richer even more quickly, of course, but there aren’t enough of them to hoard opportunities on such a massive scale.)
Rampant inequality is not the fault of a class of people doing exactly what anyone would do in their position exactly, but rather a political and economic system that incentivizes and enables them to do so. It follows that the solution is not individual and moralistic, but collective and political. Yet the middle class stands in the way of any collective solution, idiotically consumed with lowering taxes for itself. They won’t hesitate to use their political muscle to keep their taxes low. All the while also using it to make life more expensive for the rest of us.
We often hear about the political muscle of the ultra-rich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer (the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline) have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Though the middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Middle class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more middle class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Middle class people even tend to dominate meetings, especially at public events. There is a sense of entitlement that the whole world needs to hear their opinion and that they have all the answers. (They should try listening). The middle class also tends to dominate movements and perpetuate a privileged position of nonviolence. (I’ve been at protest camps that have felt like a love-in with the police and power structures that be). And finally, what I’ve observed over and over again is this inherent need for middle class people to censor, control and mediate emotions. There’s a deep fear of conflict, loosing status and control. I’ve been told to be less angry, less emotional and more serious. (Stop telling me how to feel). When you’ve had a lifetime of teachers, social workers and probation officers telling you how you should act, you don’t need the same mediating middle class behavior in your collectives.
Early on, as gentrification first takes root in a community, new middle class arrivals root for development (particularly when it means things like a new Whole Foods and other amenities that make their neighborhoods seem less “sketchy”). Once they have their fancy grocery stores and their Pilates studios and (whatever else it is that floats their boat) however, they sharply shift toward absolutely hating new development, as new development means having to share their new amenities with more newcomers. These new restrictions on supply mean that homeowners who arrived at the right time, before the drawbridge was raised, see their homes get more and more valuable. Landlords can charge higher and higher rents. The neighborhood gets less and less “sketchy,” which is to say less diverse and less inclusive. (Very liberal).
Nevertheless, “The one unforgivable sin,” to quote the late Christopher Hitchens, “is to be boring.” Which echoes Observer columnist Sue Arnold’s observation: “To be middle class is to be boring.” I agree with both statements. Yet, I would also go even further by adding: to the poor, the middle class is also dangerous.