We, Of The Middle Class
Copyright © by Len Holman, 10/7/10
If you’ve been living in a cave, here is some news: mid-term elections are here, and with them comes the whine, the lament, the complaint, that the middle class is being screwed by the government and we need to throw the old bums out—the ones who don’t understand the damage done to “regular” Americans—and elect people who bleed for the middle class, and will restore that class’ rightful place in the American pantheon.
What is the middle class? Who ARE these people? Most definitions concern money (don’t most definitions in this society concern money?). So we have various professor s and experts sundry stripes, telling us that the middle class is that class in the 40-60 thousand dollar range. Another group insists that it’s that class which owns their own home and still other are more generous, saying it’s anyone who isn’t Bill Gates or the bag lady on the city street talking to her invisible friend—but those who use this definition are usually running for office or trying to sell you a house with hidden rodent damage. A less popular, more accurate definition is that the middle class doesn’t exist. It is a construct, a fiction which works for purposes of examination of certain phenomena of data and statistics. It is a model, just like a map, and we all know the expression: the map is not the territory.
The middle class is part of that construct created by those who would exploit our fears and prejudices, those who would appeal to our desires, and those who want to sell us everything from cars to a year’s supply of Oreos. It is a fiction built to suit controlling elites and the economists who make their living from the false divisions and the consequent measuring and commenting based on them, sold to us as The Truth. And we bought it.
Of course, there are people in this mighty nation who do have lots of money and some who have very little and some who don’t even have enough for their meager needs. And there are those who own a house or else those who don’t want the hassle of weeding the garden and trying to find a plumber in the middle of the night, and who rent an apartment with cable and trash paid. There are those who sleep on steam grates and would kill for a good cardboard box—and sometimes do. But “middle class” is merely a way for those with power and money to manipulate the rest of us. We, of the middle class, fight amongst ourselves for the resources that are left over after the Big Dogs have taken all the good stuff. So who are we, this so-called middle class?
First, we are foolish. We are deceived by the idea that there IS a middle class and that we should be a part of it, that we should fight for the iPads and designer shoes and that never-ending sexual excitement. We should look outward for the things which will make our lives better, and those outward things are supplied by that top percentile which controls the financial, political, and social machinery of the country. By virtue of the scarcity of money and other resources, and by the nature of the advertising machine which entices us to have stuff we don’t need, this fiction of looking outward for happiness and the fighting for what we think we need is perpetuated. It works, has worked, and will keep on working. We buy the wrinkle cream, the coloring fort beards, the pills and potions for sexual fulfillment, and the fancy machines to give us a “Bowflex” body.
Next, we are deluded. We have come to believe that those famous “core values” of America which certain politicians speak of, actually exist, and that American exceptionalism is a middle-class phenomenon, born of consumerist fantasies of fast cars, faster women, and erections which last for hours. We are also self-deluded that that puddle of water way down on the desert highway—which disappears when we get there, time after time—will actually BE THERE this time, despite repeated attempts to wet our car tires in it. This is an excellent example of the definition of insanity: re-doubling our same efforts, expecting to get a different result.
Finally, we must jettison the idea that we should strive for a middle-class status which doesn’t really exist. If we can just get into our heads that we are being jerked around, we can get on with the program of creating a society in which class is way down the list of things to aspire to. I have a few modest examples.
Rawls’ idea of a “veil of ignorance is a good place to start. Imagine a society in which—whatever your economic or social position—you would want to be dropped into. The trick is that you don’t know which society is being presented to you and you don’t know what your status will be when you get into it. So it makes sense that, under these conditions, you’d want to choose the most just, most resource-equal society—just in case you got dumped into what we now call the “lower class” or the “poverty class” or something similarly demeaning. In a society where worth and goodness and serenity and virtue are measured by slips of green paper, these kinds of classifications are not fictions, they are realities and endemic to Western society. The just society of Rawls is, however, part and parcel of Eastern thought.
Taoism, Hinduism, Jainism, even Confucianism, all have the idea that the key to happiness, serenity, justice and beauty lie within an individual, which is patently ridiculous to us, with all our artificial divisions of humanity, because Lao-tzu and Mahavira obviously never held an iPad in their non-worldly hands. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans—some of them, anyway—believed the “inner fight” was worth the struggle to lead a virtuous and tranquil life, which is a concept we have largely abandoned as being hopelessly naïve and a great barrier to “getting ahead.” In this foreign world of improving oneself from the inside, of eschewing material goods for spiritual good, we have given up a valuable birthright for consumer-goods porridge.
But we seem to like the whole “middle-class” assignment, and we smile smugly in the sure knowledge that WE are in that class, but that poor bastard down the street is hopelessly mired in a lower subdivision of the species. Too bad, but life isn’t fair. We seem to be OK with the various divisions of Americans and we feel good helping those “below” us and very resentful of the ones “above” us. But society teaches our young well, and parents and schools perpetuate it all, and then the kid grows up and goes out into the world and—lo and behold!—the world is EXACTLY the way he or she learned it was. Religion used to carry this message of brotherhood and justice and struggling with oneself, even in the West, but these days, religion plays the same game as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart and politicians. And we, of the middle class, let them all do it. When we will ever learn and when will we make it stop?
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