Monday, August 2, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the American Middle Class

In the glory days of the American left-- I am thinking of the late 60s and early 70s--  when radical leftist thought took over the minds of the best and the brightest American intellectuals, the worst thing you could be was: bourgeois.

You could only pronounce the word with complete and utter contempt. Let's examine how this came to be.

Radical thought, especially the Marxist variety hawked by Herbert Marcuse and the like, declared that history advanced through the dialectic of class struggle.

In order to have some really good class warfare you needed social classes that were congenitally predisposed to hate each other. As in: the oppressors and the oppressed; the rich and the poor; the elites and the masses; the capitalists and the working class.

The theory told us that when a small group controls nearly all of a society's wealth, then the have-nots would naturally follow strict Hegelian and Marxist ideas and revolt against their masters and overthrow the government. This would usher in a brave new Worker's Paradise.

That was the theory. It had never really worked that way in practice.

In reality, violent revolution simply begat more violence and chaos. Everyone knew this. And yet, hope burns bright for the young, and burn it did then.

Savvy radicals at the time were in despair over the fact that their theories had never really found a toehold in America. Italy and France had radical leftist parties. They had flat-out communists garnering a respectable share of the votes cast in democratic elections. Their parliaments had communist members.

In America we had Republicans and Democrats. To the radical left they were indistinguishable, though liberal Democrats were considered to be worse than Republicans for siphoning off political energy by telling the oppressed masses that the system could work for them.

The more the radicals thought about their predicament, the more they came to understand that their enemy was the great American middle class. How could you have a dialectical class struggle if everyone belonged to one large, amorphous middle class.

In America there were no extremes to engage in class warfare. There was just a golden mean, the middle class.

The American middle class was a Marxist nightmare. We didn't have a bunch of hereditary aristocrats lording it over a mass of disenfranchised and impoverished serfs. We didn't have a coterie of capitalist plutocrats exploiting the hard work of the masses.

At the onset of the American Republic we had banned hereditary aristocracy and had made social mobility a reality. More and more people could move freely up the social ladder.

Optimism ruled, and, with a few notable exceptions, it had been the order of the day... at least until Vietnam.

The Vietnam War undermined American optimism and confidence. How could we say that we had a better system if we could not even beat the Viet Cong?

From the beginning, however, Americans were not stuck in a caste system. They could gain status and wealth no matter where they were born. It may not have always worked that way in reality, but that was the American social ethos.

According to a fascinating story in today's Financial Times, the American middle class is now in serious decline. And it has been since the early 1970s. The ethos that built and grew the country has been losing ground. People who had enjoyed comfortable middle class lives can no longer make ends meet. Children who could finish high school or college and go out to make their way in the world were now moving back in with Mom and Dad. Even the families who can get by today feel that they are just one medical emergency away from financial ruin. Link here.

Perhaps it is mere coincidence, but the decline and fall of the American middle class seems to have begun in the early 1970s, that is, at the time that the counterculture began to assault its values, its customs, and its way of life.

By that time significant segments of the educated and ruling elites had repudiated the conformity, the uniformity, the decorum, and the propriety that had characterized the stolid burghers who made up the middle class.

The lives of the middle class were denounced as inauthentic frauds, lacking the vitality and gusto and raw energy that made life worth living. The counterculture convinced people that the middle class was repressive and repressed, oppressive and oppressed by their sins. They might have been rich and successful, but they had gained their riches on the backs of the world's poor.

The counterculture invented the term guilt-trip and it proceeded to lay a monumental one on America.

Whether they are responsible for the current decline of the middle class, counterculture warriors will, if they are honest, accept some of the responsibility for the current state of our social disorder.

Whatever the reasons the early 1970s ushered in an era where middle class wages stagnated. Perhaps middle class standards of living did not stagnate, but, as we now know, much of that improved standard of living was purchased with borrowed money. We had better credit than we deserved and we used that credit to maintain a middle class lifestyle that is now available to fewer and fewer citizens.

Will the decline and fall of the American middle class provoke the kind of class struggle that animated the adolescent dreams of today's superannuated radicals? Of course, not. It did not do so in the past, so why would their dialectical view of history be any more apposite today?

In fact, as Nobel laureate Michael Spence points out, the greatest risk to America now is becoming more like Latin America.

If Spence is right, then Obama is not our very own version of Vladimir Lenin. That would be an unfair slur. In truth, Obama more closely resembles Argentina's Juan Peron.

The question remaining before us today is whether or not the Tea Party will succeed in taking the country away from the ruling oligarchs and restore the great American middle class.

As of now, the jury is still out.

Nonetheless, even if the Tea Party succeeds, America and its middle class will still have a great reckoning to face. It's going to take more than the Tea Party to dig us out of our current fiscal hole.


rsj said...

I have heard it said that the classic Vietnam briefing quote "we had to destroy the village to save it" was a bogus twist used by Arnett to get a career boost...funny isnt it?

So many really bought such a stupidity because to them it wasnt a stupidity but a way of living. They are destroying all that is good in this world and society, inorder to save it and make it better. of course they believed it, they do it,why not others?

Whirling Dervesh said...

"From the beginning, however, Americans were not stuck in a caste system. They could gain status and wealth no matter where they were born."

Including Black people?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Point taken... regrettably it took far too long for the principle to be applied to everyone.