What Middle Class?

In recent memory at least, Americans have been uncomfortable with the idea of class.  That somehow has caused a retreat to the middle.  In the context of the myth of universal opportunity for mobility through achievement, it’s almost like Garrison Keeler’s Lake Woebegone, where “all the children are above average.”  The “lower class” is not seen as an economic stratum as much as an admonition of individual personal failure or an attribution of questionable personal character applied to a “lower class of people.” In the individualistic consumer society, one just does not talk about “class structure.”

The very idea of class is a taboo subject in the American political discourse – which is so stilted anyway – with the exception that the wealthy immediately invoke “class warfare” if publicly called upon to accept a rate of taxation as high as that of their clerical staff.  Any other time, the denial of class in America is great cover for upper-class privilege.  That seems to make the rest of us “middle class,” by fiat – except for the “undeserving poor” – despite the vast economic disparities manifestly apparent to any casual observer.

The problem now is that the American class structure is changing radically and it is hard to ignore.  It is clear that on any objective measure the middle class is disappearing as the rich get obscenely rich and the poor are joined by so many formerly middle class.  What is most interesting and most disturbing about all this is that the pattern of change in the class structure is so similar to that which preceded the Great Depression.  That too escapes entry into the political discourse as the same old arguments against economic reform mimic those which opposed FDR’s New Deal.

Politicians routinely invoke “the middle class” when they are trying to show how empathetic they are to the plight of the American people – at least the American people who are not “low class.”  But as livable employment escapes more and more Americans, the politicians’ actions continue to reflect only the short-term interests of the corporations whose lobbyists dole out those “contributions” that somehow are not defined as bribery.

What about the Upper Class?  What about the Lower Class?  What about, well, the American people?  Well, that concept is increasingly as moot as it is continually invoked as an icon of political purity by those who exploit it – that cartel of corporate and governmental power elites Mike Lofgren calls the “deep state,” which is so entrenched that its decisions stand regardless of who gets elected. [1]   Remember the revolving door?

The term, middle class, has become increasingly meaningless as large numbers of people who were not long ago earning middle range salaries have fallen on hard times because of the malfeasance of upper class financial and corporate decision makers.  But there is much more to it.  The entire trajectory of the endless-growth economy has been predicated on reducing the need for labor by capital investment in technology to expand growth.  In its final stage, as menial jobs are outsourced – except for direct service work such as fast food and manual cleaning jobs – the technical and intellectual jobs with middle level salaries are fast being automated or outsourced too.  Combined with the exploding kleptocracy at the very top levels of the financial and political sectors, enabled by the Deep State of which they are members, the impact of this trend is to decimate what one might have described as the economic middle class.

So, the ranks of the lower class have been swelled by former middle-class folks and most lower-class folks, working or unemployed, are already at the bottom with no prospects of upward mobility.  The irony, it seems, resides in the fact that the very elites who do everything they can to eliminate labor costs just love to call themselves the “job creators.”

So, again, what’s with all this talk about taking care of the middle class?  What I suspect most politicians are doing when they appeal to that term is that they are referring to those “regular Americans” who fit their stereotype of culturally and behaviorally acceptable or legitimate “Americans,” that is, the most likely voters.  It’s pure demagoguery.  This, of course, flies in the fact of the growing populism among a wide swath of Americans who are gradually realizing that the “middle class,” just like the “American Dream,” is an illusion glossing over a system that is rigged against them, but increasingly cannot be sustained.

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[1]  Lofgren, a former congressional staffer, was interviewed by Bill Moyers on his PBS show, and posted an essay describing the ruling political-economic cartel, “Anatomy of the Deep State.” Read it at: http://billmoyers.com/2014/02/21/anatomy-of-the-deep-state/.  His book, The Party’s over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted, is about how congress really operates.

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