Friday, June 8, 2012

The Politics of the Middle Class

As a child growing up in LA, I knew that different neighborhoods had different houses. My grandmother lived in a small wooden house in downtown LA, and I lived in a small stucco house in the suburbs. Other neighborhoods had different houses. At the time, I thought that it was geography that dictated the difference, but as I traveled more, I realized that it was time. There were small wooden houses in nearly every city, as well as stucco houses, and old Victorian houses. It depended on when they were built, not where.

Today we are seeing an uprising of Americans concerned about the loss of their standard of living. The politicians and many people refer to it as the loss of the "middle class".

What was the middle class? It was workers who were paid well enough to be able to buy a house and a car, have plenty to eat, take vacations and buy their kids toys and then send them to college.

The pretense now is that the middle class are a special breed of people, hard-working and college educated, honest and thrifty. But that's not at all true.

It was a time, not a people. A time when organized workers got good wages and benefits, and the ruling class was willing to share more of the proceeds of the labor that they got from the workers. People today work just as hard, usually for longer hours, and many college educated people make low wages. The people haven't changed, the times have.

When blue collar workers were attacked, and their living standards dropped, college educated people continued, for a while, to be well paid. And public sector workers still had their unions and benefits.

Now a college education has turned into a financial racket, with colleges acting as businesses, selling degrees to desperate students, and acting as middlemen to turn the kids over to the FIRE sector at the very beginning of their adult lives.

And now we are seeing the attack on the final sector, the public workers and their unions. The win of Scott Walker in Wisconsin is the triumph of money over justice, but the real tragedy was over a year ago, when angry workers were rebelling against his attacks.

Hundreds of thousands of workers, including teachers, firefighters, police and farmers descended onto Madison, protesting loudly. How to deflect this anger? The Democrats and the union leaders channelled it into endless petition gathering and conventional electioneering.

The pretense of the corporate parties is that the American middle class can be defended, and that they are the ones to do it. Romney openly said that he only cared about the middle class, not the poor. But if you define the middle class as an income level, and not a personal virtue, than you must realize that fewer and fewer Americans fit into that income level.

And it is immoral to want to recreate a standard of living that used an unsustainable amount of resources and exploited the poor, at home and abroad.

Our goal should be to create a comfortable standard of living that provides the basics for all, without destroying our ecosystem as a result. We will have to create joy from human community and solidarity, rather than the consumption of endless disposable trinkets.
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