Sunday, October 5, 2008

What the hell does “middle class” mean?...

Perhaps the most nauseating aspect of last Thursday’s debate between Vice-Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin was Palin’s repeated assertion that unlike Biden, she was “one of us,” just an average “middle class” American living on “main street.” I think I found Palin’s “folksy” everyman rhetoric especially disturbing after the most conservative elements of the Republican party spent the whole week spinning pseudo-populist sophistry in regards to their opposition to the Paulson/Bush Wall Street bailout plan. Only in America can the elite, the ruling class, in the midst of a crisis of their own making, turn around and present themselves as working class heroes combating greed and corruption on Wall Street and in Washington. The wolf is so well practiced at slipping on the sheep’s clothing in a hurry, it seems no one questions that bushy tail protruding from the back. Of course after 8 years of listening to an oil man from Texas tell us that he is “one of us” I guess it is a lot easier for the American public to swallow anything.

The reason that the economic elite find it so easy to pull the wool over the eyes of so many of our fellow citizens is deeply rooted in our national history. We all know that the original sins of U.S. history are slavery and racism. Race is the great fault line – the uniter and divider in our culture. But racial politics are closely tied to another feature of the American psyche. Something called American Exceptionalism. No, this isn’t related to some a-historical conviction that we embrace “freedom” more tightly than anyone else on the planet. Nor is it an excuse for “Manifest Destiny” and America’s imperial ambitions. No, the term arose from various social scientists’ explanations of why a socialist or social democratic movement never took hold in the United States. The U.S. stands alone among Western industrialized nations (with the possible exception of Canada) in regards to having a political system in which the working class never organized a political party to represent their specific interests. The reasons give for this are numerous. One of the first to tackle this topic, albeit somewhat indirectly, was Frederick Jackson Turner whose “frontier thesis” argued that the “American character” is a product of the endless possibilities offered by the boundless American frontier and westward expansion. The idea here is that the ability to “go west young man” allowed for a level of social mobility not possible in Europe for much of our history. Later historians would argue that with the closing of the frontier in the 20th century, the high level of home ownership in the United States served a similar purpose. This might be true and certainly plays some role in the unique American social psychology; but what is certainly far more important is that from our earliest origins, way back before the American Revolution, race was used by the nation’s elite to disguise class divisions. The old divide and conquer game, American style. You may be poor and disempowered but at least you’re “white” and therefore “one of us.” The construction of “whiteness” in American culture is the most ingenious method utilized by the ruling class to disguise the reality of class divisions in our society.

As a result, everyone in the United States (and since the civil rights movement this distinction has been reluctantly and slowly extended across racial lines) is officially middle class. The CEO of a trans-national corporation, the owner of a corner grocery store and the resident of a Chicago housing project are all likely to self-identify as middle class. No one wants to associate themselves with the privileged or the poor, despite their actual material reality. According to research conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago over the past few decades, the vast majority of Americans see themselves as middle class, whether they earn 20,000 a year or 100,000, whether they are self-employed or work for someone else. It is perhaps the least descriptive social category ever devised.

Given this reality, it is quite easy for Palin to describe herself as middle class and no one calls her on it. But what is the reality? Ironically enough, Palin’s tax returns were released yesterday. They show the Palins earned about $166,000 in 2007 and that their net worth amounts to somewhere between 1 and 2 million dollars. Let’s see how this compares to the “average American”. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Median Family Income in 2007 was $50,233. So Palin’s family earned three times the national average. The average income was even lower in Palin’s hometown of Wasilla Alaska according to the 2000 census figures, about $43,000. In a true working class neighborhood, such as Pilsen, the average is even lower. Pilsen’s average household income from the 2000 census was just over $30,000. That means Palin’s family has an annual income five times higher than the average family in Pilsen. How about net worth? Net worth is a person’s or family’s total combined assets, minus any debt they owe. For many families, their home is their primary asset. Many social scientists have described net worth as the greatest indicator of a person’s social and class status, as well as the greatest predictor of general life outcomes because it has a high correlation to educational opportunities, the quality of life where one lives, and a whole host of other social phenomenon. It is a major indicator of the ability of a family to deal with both personal and societal economic problems, such as a catastrophic illness or the world wide financial crisis now upon us. According to the Federal Reserve’s 2004 figures (the most current I could find) the net worth of the average American family is just under $100,000. So the Palin’s also exceed the average net worth by at minimum 10 times, and perhaps as much as 20 times. What is ironic is that Palin seemed to imply that she was “Middle Class”, while her opponent Joe Biden was not. Joe Biden, to his credit, referred to himself as more comfortable than most Americans. Yet Joe Biden’s net worth, estimated to be around $500,000 is much closer to the average Americans than Sarah Palin’s. Of course if you bring the presidential candidates into the picture, the situation becomes even starker. Compare McCain’s estimated net worth of over 40 million, to Obama’s net worth of just over 1 million. And most of Obama’s wealth was earned in the past few years from his autobiography. He has lived most of his life squarely within “middle class” America.

What do these comparisons mean? Not too much, other than the fact that Palin’s claims to be, in her words, an average “Joe six pack” are blatant fabrications. All of the candidates have net worth and annual earnings that place them above 95% of their “fellow Americans”. However, McCain stands alone among the candidates as being in the top 1% of Americans who most social scientists refer to as the “ruling class” – those who own and control the majority of wealth in our nation and consequently have much greater influence over our political and economic life than the average citizen. No, the Palin types are not really a part of that class, but when they claim to be one of us, which they clearly are not, they are doing the bidding of that top 1%, by obfuscating the truth about the American class structure.

Of course the right wing calls discussion of these facts, “class war”. In the debate, Palin referred to Obama’s plan to “re-distribute” the nation’s wealth, which is merely a code word for the same thing. The transformation of the terms class war and re-distribution of wealth into pejorative concepts is another aspect of the middle class myth in American society and politics. The goal is to disarm the working class, by making even the thought of challenging the ruling class’ power and massive accumulation of wealth unthinkable. Let’s get something straight here. There is one group in our society that has embraced fully and without misgivings the tactics of class warfare. Every time a corporation shifts a high paying union job in the U.S. to a starvation wage job in Asia, that is class warfare. Every time a corporation undermines environmental and workplace regulations through a “free trade agreement”, that is class warfare. Every time a corporation takes away the rights of workers to organize by abusing our country’s very weak labor laws, that is class warfare. Every time Wal-Mart spends millions of dollars to force a city to allow a Wal-Mart to be built in a town over the objections of a town’s residents, that is class warfare. Every time a billion dollar business threatens a municipality that they are going to close a manufacturing facility if the municipality does not offer them millions in tax breaks, that is class warfare. Every time corporate America’s lackeys in Congress fight a rise in the minimum wage, that is class warfare. The ruling class has absolutely no intention of calling a cease fire, so why should the working class continue to accept retreat and defeat.

So let’s bring this back to my initial focus in this article. This amorphous, slippery, non-descriptive concept – the middle class – is a myth. It serves no purpose beyond disguising the reality of our nation’s class divide. If you do not own the means of production, if you need to work for someone else in order to ensure your basic survival, you are a member of the Working Class. If you cannot survive for more than a few months or perhaps a year on your savings alone, you are Working Class. If to eat and cloth yourself, you need to sell your manual or mental labor to someone else, you are a part of the Working Class. Or in the case of a retired person, if your survival depends on your social security check and the pension you earned through many years of hard work, than you are also Working Class. Sure you can divide the working class into various different segments, like blue collar, white collar and pink collar – indeed these descriptions have much more to say about an individual’s life conditions than saying they are all middle class. You can divide the working class into skilled and unskilled, a distinction that has held major significance for income and life opportunities since the early days of the industrial revolution. Sarah Palin and family could survive a good long time on the assets of their businesses, investments and accumulated wealth, even with the loss of Sarah’s paycheck as Alaska’s governor, though they may have to adopt a lifestyle closer to that of our own and they could slip into the working class over a period of time. John McCain’s family could live in luxury and no one would have to work another day in their entire lives. In either case, they are not one of us. They do not share the same daily fears of what will become of their family if they lose their job tomorrow. On the other hand, the relatively well paid steelworker or auto plant employee shares these fears with the checkout clerk at Target. Indeed, one of the cleverest aspects of the use of the term “middle class” is that it divides better paid workers from their unemployed or poorly paid brothers and sisters. The interest of an unemployed black youth in inner city Chicago is much more closely aligned with that of a relatively well paid, more-likely-than-not white, striking IAM member at Boeing in the Pacific Northwest; but the middle class myth teaches that striker that he should identify with Palin and family and not the unemployed teen in Chicago. Indeed even the rhetoric often employed by the labor movement is that the IAM member is striving to be Sarah Palin, to avoid becoming that member of the “underclass” in Chicago. The “poor” – another rarely defined, amorphous social category, latent with a host of unspoken value judgments – are always the frightening “other” in the grand American middle class myth.

So let’s drop this whole middle class B.S. I hope I never again hear a labor leader, a union activist, a community organizer, refer to us as “middle class”. Please no more speeches in which we decry the loss of the “middle class in America.” We are workers and we should be damn proud of it. We are the working class and for too long we have allowed the class war to be a one-way battle. It is time to fight back. And the first step in that fight is to acknowledge who we really are and who they really are.

3 comments:

  1. Great article! I'm so sick of that "Ma's apple pie" image that Palin is trying to project.

    Also, this whole financial fiasco has put me in mind to the song from one of my favorite shows:

    Good Times! 
Any time you meet a payment. 

    Good Times! 
Any time you need a friend. 

    Good Times! 
Any time you're out from under. 


    Not getting hassled, not getting hustled. 


    Keepin' your head above water, 

    Making a wave when you can, 


    Temporary lay offs. Good Times! 

    Easy credit rip offs. 
Good Times! 


    Scratchin' and surviving, 
Good Times! 

    Hangin in a chow line, 
Good Times! 

    Ain't we lucky we got 'em… 
Good Times.

    [closing credits:]

    Mmmmmmmmm
    Just looking out of the window,
    Watcin’ the asphalt grow,
    Thinking how it all looks hand-me-down
    Good Times, Good Times,

    Keepin' your head above water, 

    Making a wave when you can, 


    Temporary lay offs. Good Times! 

    Easy credit rip offs. 
Good Times! 


    Ain't we lucky we got 'em… 
Good Times!

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  2. The theme song for Good Times!!! GREAT SONG FROM A GREAT SHOW!!! I love those mid to late 70's social realist sit-coms. The only American sit-coms (other than Roseanne and The Office) worth watching. I have a theory that T.V. was at its best in the mid-70's as it was forced to adapt to the changes in popular culture born of the social movement of the 60's. Good Times, All in the Family, even Sanford & Son dealt with working class characters, people of color and real issues in a way we just haven't seen since. I always contrast Good Times with The Cosby Show. To me they total typify their respective time periods. The Good Times is about a poor working class family in the projects dealing with real issues facing the community. The problems are frequently collective problems of the community and often require a social response. The Cosby Show is about an upper "middle class" family and their problems tend to be insular, more focused on the family internally. I think it also reflects Bill Cosby's own mentality with reflects a serious class divide in the African-American community.

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  3. But the reason the Cosby show was so revolutionary (well, maybe not revolutionary... ok, groundbreaking) was exactly because it placed the black family protagonists solidly within the established middle class. The parents were a doctor and a lawyer. And while they maintained their black identity, there was a definite leaning toward integrating into the homogeneous white middle class, in terms of their standards and mores. This wasn't the Jeffersons' fish-out-of-water story of one family who had "made it." This was a social movement of black upwardly mobile professionals who had created a power structure of their own. Their struggles were no longer political or economic, they were personal and familial problems that presumably anyone could relate to.

    That more-or-less established the trend for African-American t.v. since. There have been some working-class African-American shows, but even Cosby's own attempt at a show where he was possibly a more relatable professional, a teacher I think, didn't go over that well.

    But I don't think any of this is surprising, or undesirable. As much as I love Good Times, can you imagine a show like that today? It would probably come under immediate criticism for stereotyping and stigmatizing black families as poor.

    An interesting side note: when her character was being developed, Esther Rolle had to fight to have a husband, as she was originally cast to be a single mother. Talk about your media sterotyping.

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