Class Notes — May Day, 2009

Note: this was supposed to have been up yesterday, but then so was I.

In a country which has already outsourced a substantial part of its manufacturing, and prides itself on the marvels of the service economy which replaced it, you have to wonder if there’s still any point in making a distinction between what we used to call the working class and the middle class. Maybe we should all just follow Ralph Nader’s lead and call ourselves consumers, or now that our home equities have blown up in our faces, maybe wage-slaves would, at least temporarily, be more appropriate.

Our politicians are aware of this not-so-new reality, but so far they haven’t had much success in coming to terms with it. Even in the midst of our present economic and cultural upheavals, realignments and redefinitions, neither the left nor the right — whoever and whatever they might actually represent in this homogenized age — can seem to give up referring to their great fondness for the middle class. You have to ask, what are they talking about? Who are they talking about? (Neither has talked much in recent years — fondly or otherwise — about the working class, presumably because working class, to those who can’t remember the precise historical origin of the phrase, sounds too uncomfortably like the taboo rhetoric of Communism.)

It’s always irritated me, this unspoken presumption that everyone is middle class, and its seeming indispensability to our political discourse. Our politicians insert it into every stump speech, whether it fits or not, as though they can’t stop themselves from pandering to everyone’s supposed aspirations as an American, nor bring themselves to omit reference to any piety which their savvy advisors tell them will advance their prospects of getting themselves elected.

If we’re all middle class, then what, exactly, are we to make of Larry Summers, or the Walton gang family? Are we really supposed to believe that they’re just good middle-class folks with a lot of money? I mean, it’s one thing to be a little confused about the way the world works, but if you’re tempted to believe this kind of nonsense, you’ll be lucky to get away with a mild case of befuddlement. Cognitive dissonance is a more likely outcome, maybe even a kind of full-blown functional schizophrenia. Seriously.

Whatever politicians say, the true intention of all this talk about the fortunes of the middle-class, the incessant blather about the American Dream, can only be to encourage political passivity on the part of the electorate. It sounds benevolent enough — that prosperity is the birthright of all Americans, that consumers are entitled to protection, and that taxes are for someone else to pay — but it masks a very different reality, one which despite their best efforts, is still not all that hard to find, especially when, as happens more and more often these days, it finds you first.

Like the well-fed bourgeoisie of the seventeenth century Netherlands, we’ve been content with a life focused on commerce and on keeping our wives pregnant. Just as they were happy to leave the contentions outside Holland’s free cities to the crazed aristocrats, princes of the church and condottieri who, no matter their greed or gluttony, inevitably prized glory above a nice bit of sausage, jug of cream, or bolt of silk from the Indies, so we’ve been happy to let all those folks in Washington who look and sound just like we do to take care of things for us. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s turned out that they are the crazed aristocrats, princes of the church and condottieri of our time.

As the circuses get louder and more strident, and the bread — jet skis, luxury cars and condos in Aspen — gets scarcer, we’d do well to think about this a little. Otherwise, the middle class might well go down in American history as the moral equivalent of a flock of sheep.