Culture Watch 2: The Evanescent Middle Class

November 28, 2015

By Jo Tavener

The next two entries deal with the twin notions of ‘middle’ and “working classes,” their cultural construction and ensuing effect on our (in)ability to imagine a labor party or build a broad resilient progressive mass movement.

Media hyperreality inserts itself in the cultural representation of class. For the middle class we have George Bailey, forgoing his dreams of travel to take charge of the local savings and loan bank to save his community from the evil capitalist. The zeitgeist of the 1930s and 40s expressed itself through such representations of small town life with its doctors and lawyers, small town bankers, local newspaper publisher, part of the progressive push that underwrote FDR and his New Deal. For the working class man, we have All In The Family, pitting the college grad son-in-law against his no-nothing, racist, sexist, blue collar father-in-law, a precursor of the very real wedge issues that underwrote the 1980s Republican strategy to elect Reagan and his neo-liberal agenda.

Have you heard the expression, “politicians campaign in poetry but they govern in prose?” In effect, they speak in symbol and metaphor of a deeply embedded national rhetoric on the campaign trail. When they reach office they bow to Realpolitik, in other words the powers that be.  Speaking poetically, Hillary Clinton proclaimed on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, that the “middle class was the greatest invention of the United States” that it was her “mission to put the middle class back in the center of American politics.”*

So what’s the working class? Chopped liver? Who was it that built the nation, working twelve-hour days for little pay? Who was it that organized dissent for the eight-hour day and other aspects of what today we describe as a middle class lifestyle? Obviously, the working class. So, what does it mean to call ourselves a middle class society? Let’s turn back to Hillary who noted that while her grandfather had been a worker, her father became a small business Republican. She didn’t complete the story but there it was hanging in the ether. She would complete the trajectory. The daughter of a self-made man would raise herself to the office of the presidency, a present-day Horatio Alger myth–America, the land of opportunity at the moment when opportunity has all but disappeared.

The self-made man has a long history in American parlance. It’s the man who starts with nothing (i.e. a blue collar worker) and raises himself by his own boot straps to begin a company. He is self-created, self-directing. No uber boss here. Implied is the claim that it was the entrepreneurial middle class that made America great. Not surprisingly, there is little thought given to workers, as noted by the Washington Post’s article “The Missing Working Class.” Instead, the article notes, the distinction made is between middle class and those with low paying jobs, referred to as the working poor. The dwindling industrial blue collar workers are included in the middle class, making the category so diverse as to make it meaningless. A proper class designation would take into account downwardly mobile middle class workers and the swelling rank of working poor.

There is, however, hope with the growth of the New Economy Movement. Unions like SWA (Steelworkers of America) are attempting to reshape the conversation about America’s future to one that includes  worker-owned cooperatives and their institutional interaction. Public banking has become part of the mix, potentially providing both a means of capital investment and a critique the current banking system.

The New Economy Movement could be a powerful working class weapon but only if it gains enough traction to become part of the national conversation.   Unfortunately, the progressive base of the Democratic Party has little experience with worker cooperatives, nor have unions pressed policy recommendations upon Democratic presidential candidates for the growth of new economic organizations like coops that could create jobs and disrupt corporate class hegemony.

Bernie Sanders calls for the formation of a mass movement; he is assuming a reinvigorated middle class.*  However, as middle class workers have lost their jobs to global competition as well, the only “middle class” that deserves such a designation are the media/entertainment, professional and managerial upper middle class who service capital in one way or another. So who is he talking about?  It’s the lower 80% of Americans who are losing ground; it’s the “missing” working class.

This obfuscation of the working class is vastly detrimental to the growth of a revolutionary class consciousness that includes not only traditional blue collar workers but the rest of us so-called middle class workers who form part of the collective social labor force that fuels the profits spent on corporate neo-liberal campaigns arrayed against us.

We don’t need the rebuild the middle class as we knew it.  We need to build an emboldened working class with a global class consciousness, willing to share the earth with all its inhabitants.   That’s the new story we need to tell.

*My discussion of various candidates for President is neither an endorsement or rejection of their candidacy.

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