LAKE MACBRIDE— Today’s usage of the phrase “middle class” is meaningless. It is a marker for a world dreamed up while writing talking points for political campaigns. A middle class so created, never existed. It was as if we took the broken theories promulgated during the rise of mass society, and switched things around so that economic means was the determinant of whether one was or was not in the middle class. With the one percent of wealthiest people at the top, and roughly 15 percent of people who live in poverty at the bottom, the 84 percent in between are now dubbed middle class.
In our cultural background is the idea that we were all created equal, and have innate talents, some more so than others, that could and should be developed so that by application of native skills we can rise and fall in society. The so-called American dream is centered around this notion.
To some extent, the story is re-enacted as occasionally a mail room clerk rises to become chief executive officer of a large corporation. Such instances of rise in a workplace are limited in number, increasingly so, as businesses consolidate, on a global scale, under fewer corporate CEOs. In this world, the society of business is better served by increasing the number of people available to become mail room clerks, at the lowest possible wages, than by creating opportunities to get out of the mail room. Such stories are important to keeping people in their place in the economic pecking order, and I suspect that is why they are so popular.
If “middle class” is a meaningless phrase, “working class” is not. The long story of immigration to North America includes countless people who traded work for passage across the Atlantic and a chance for freedom and prosperity. I am thinking of my own ancestors and their cohort, who arrived in the 17th century in what would become the state of Virginia. They came, not as landed gentry, but as working people, delaying start up of their own farms to work for someone else who needed labor, and to secure it would pay travel costs to secure indentured servitude. This story is also part of the American dream— that through individual efforts and sacrifice, a person could become a landowner, and thereby rise in society. There were likely more indentured servants that rose to become landowners than mail room clerks that became CEOs, but their story is told less often.
Indentured servitude doesn’t exist in the same way in the 21st century, but it serves as an example of how people will make deals with the capital class to get ahead. Such deals include working for a labor broker to earn less than a living wage, in some cases, less than minimum wage, so that business can have sufficient low-cost labor to meet its needs. Without a sufficient working class, the capital class would be out of business. Working class rights, not middle class rights, should be the focus of our political leaders. It’s not, at least that I can see.
If one sits in lunchrooms and listens to working class concerns, the conversations are not about the minimum wage, unions, or much at all to do with the relationship between labor and capital. The discussions are about personal relationships, health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder of veterans, and addiction to tobacco, crack and sugary drinks.
While being a member of the working class doesn’t provide a pension, or health insurance, or security of almost any form, it is how a large segment of Americans live. We ought to be hearing more about it from the corporate media, from politicians, and from each other. If we believe in the possibility of social progress, our focus should rightly be on the working class, as it is here that the American dream was born. Neglected, it is where the dream will die.