Democrats and the vanishing American middle class
It seems that the Democrats have had the modicum of mother wit to make the middle class the framework and theme of their 2012 campaign. We know that the Democrats can’t really walk the walk, but it is nice to hear somebody at least talk the talk for a change. For the sad truth is that the American middle class is on its way to join the buggy whip and whalebone corsets as a charming relic of America’s past.
Historically, such a middle class is totally exceptional; the norm over ages, and in much of the world still today, is a small group of very rich people, who own everything and a great mass of people, uneducated and unhealthy, whose life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, and whose role is to serve the rich and powerful as soldiers, policemen, domestics, nannies and sex workers.
The European middle class was created as a bulwark of social stability, basically to prevent the masses from taking the “winter palace” and stringing up the super rich. The American middle class as we know it really came into being when Henry Ford decided to pay his workers enough to buy the cars they made. It made Ford rich and led to turning America into a land of mass prosperity.
The American middle class is perhaps the United States’ greatest social achievement, an enormous mass of prosperous, educated and healthy citizens which has been the envy of all the world for nearly a hundred years, and the not so secret weapon that destroyed the Soviet Union and reoriented China.
Simplifying to the extreme you could say that the modern, American middle class was created by Henry Ford and literally saved from extinction, (the first time) by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The whole story is in that reductio ad absurdum.
What most Americans, except for the one-percent perhaps, don’t seem to understand is that the American middle class is in reality a totally artificial construction, which if not carefully nurtured will dry up and die like an un-watered house plant. The super-rich are quite comfortable with its disappearance, as they think that they no longer depend on its prosperity for their own prosperity or even for their own physical safety.
I would argue that if the middle class is devastated then all the problems it was created to solve, all the dangers that it was meant to allay would reappear, just like uncut grass grows on the lawn of a foreclosed house.
What is this middle class really?
The middle class that most Americans believe they belong to is a transitory place on a voyage from some place harder and more difficult than the present to someplace softer and less difficult. It is place of anxiety, what it is not, or what it could be, is often more important than what it actually is: any loss of momentum may have disastrous and dreaded results. Without an adequate social net most middle class Americans are only a serious illness or a layoff away from traveling downward. Examples of that voyage surround them everywhere they look… if they dare to look.
Those who are cheerfully going about the work of dismantling the welfare state seem blissfully unaware that the welfare state was created by men as, or even more, conservative then themselves, (Bismark, for example) in order to avoid revolutionary social movements which would destabilize and jeopardize the entire economic system and society itself. This was a strategy that was so eminently successful that it has practically destroyed revolutionary praxis.
In my opinion dismantling the welfare state at this time is similar to a person who has successfully survived an operation for lung cancer and endured the ensuing chemotherapy and then, finding himself now in remission, decides that it is ok for him to go back to smoking, the very thing that caused his cancer in the first place: idiotic.
It occurs to me that this tunnel vision, expressed in the obsession of placating the financial markets, which ignores popular anger, is the result of the rise and predominance of the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy and the diminishing influence of manufacturing and agriculture.
The financial sector works with platonic mathematical models: money in the abstract moves with the speed of light. Fortunes that buy admiration, sex and luxury are made by simply tapping the key of a computer in a cubicle or on a trading floor. All very clean and a bit autistic.
Reality, unfortunately, in as much as it touches living organisms, is never that clean and neat.
Thus farmers and manufacturers understand how the world of living creatures works better than financiers do.
They understand better, because both farmers and manufacturers exploit living creatures for profit and, leaving ethical question aside, to do this they need to have what farmers call “stock sense”: an understanding of the animal off of which they make their living.
Take pigs for example.
A pig lives on death row from the day he is born.
Few animals are as reviled as the pig, the very word “pig” is an insult… and yet, perhaps no other animal on earth is eaten with such relish as the pig. Thus there is a lot of money to be made raising pigs
Very few of those who live off of pigs like them personally, however pig raisers make sure that their pigs get plenty to eat, clean water to drink and clean air to breathe and they make sure that their charge’s excrement is removed at timely intervals… They also provide them with free veterinary care. The farmers don’t do this for love of the pig or from the goodness of their hearts, but simply because if pigs aren’t treated like this, they won’t get fat soon enough or their flesh pass health inspection after they are slaughtered.
Pigs are not alone.
The short time that chickens pass among the living is also accompanied by a careful attention to their health and diet, as commodity chickens are terribly vulnerable to contagious diseases: plagues that can wipe out a farmer’s investment in only a few days or sometimes hours.
Dairy cows have a bit better time of it than most food producers, live longer lives and often get special treatment, as it has been shown that not only clean food and air and lack of stress improves the quantity and quality of the milk they produce, even playing classical music for the cows helps increase milk production. To get the most and the best milk from a cow a farmer will even play Mozart for her.
So, if not properly cared for hens don’t lay, pigs don’t get fat and cows don’t give milk.
In short, farmers know that to make decent a profit from their animals they must treat them carefully and that signs such as wet noses, shiny fur, neat feathers, bright eyes and a good appetite and the quantity and quality of their droppings, all must be watched closely if a good business is to be made from them.
In manufacture everything we have said about pigs, chickens and cows goes in spades for people too.
Manufacturers know as much about the human beings they exploit as farmers know about pigs, chickens and cows and for much the same reasons: their livelihood depends on getting as much work, both in quantity and quality that they can with the smallest cash outlay possible.
As an example of how the techniques of animal husbandry can be advantageously applied to humans, soccer became the British working class passion par exellence, because 19th century factory owners encouraged their workers to play football in order to keep them healthy and productive in the miserable conditions of the industrial revolution.
Exploiting human animals is a dicey business however.
We are talking about a very bad monkey here, one who can sabotage a factory, go slow, work to rule, go on strike: an animal that to be most profitable requires much training and re-training and much “motivation”.
Like farming, manufacture is a messy, hands-on affair, filled with the sort of dangerous, dirty, intangible things that sentient beings produce that are difficult to quantify in numbers. This makes farming and manufacture unattractive for most Masters of Business Administration.
People don’t feel right spending all those years at Harvard or Stanford, just to have to get a recalcitrant assembly line up and running or to stand up to their knees in manure in the middle of a freezing night holding a lantern for a vet himself up to his elbows performing a breech delivery on a struggling milch cow.
To leave the farm, to leave the factory floor and then move to a quiet office to follow numbers that flit across a screen, and while doing it make millions of dollars more than ever would be possible in either the factory or on the farm is a no-brainer.
Managing filthy pigs or cantankerous people with grease on their hands is not an attractive career choice for a good student today. Pigs are a drag. So are people.
Truly though, I can’t imagine Walt Whitman celebrating these new masters of the universe.
A curious thing: if nobody ate pigs or eggs or chickens or drank milk, there would be no cows, pigs or chickens: nobody keeps them for pets. That’s the way things work.
Here is an example: right up until the 1970s Spain used to be filled with donkeys, an emblematic animal, Sancho Panza rode one, they had a million uses… now there are hardly any donkeys left… The modern world doesn’t need donkeys and donkeys can’t do anything about it.
In many developed countries it appears that what goes for donkeys goes for human beings too. Their messy needs and wants get in the way of the beautiful numbers. Let us then move all the messy things far away and leave ourselves to contemplate our exquisite numbers as they shimmer and dance on the screen and fill our bank accounts.
Of course we are talking about human beings, not pigs, chickens and donkeys, so putting numbers aside, we begin to talk about the brotherhood of man in the fatherhood of God and other ancient, creaky concepts that Darwinist, number-crunchers would consider sentimental twaddle.
And so in love are the crunchers with their platonic models and their markets, that they blithely assume that those whose lives they disrupt and futures they jeopardize will simply oblige them by just shriveling up and blowing away.
Students have been traditionally involved in all serious movements for change.
The Occupy and Indignados movements show that that could still be true today.
Up till now the children of the credit bubble have had little to rebel against, all the things that the 1968 generation fought for, especially sexual freedom, this generation have had in abundance. While they enjoyed their freedom or became bored with it they became proficient with computers, cell phone messaging and social nets, all valuable skills for potential agitators. Now the battle is not just about personal freedom and against being drafted to get killed or maimed in imperialist wars, as it was back then, today it is about health, education and welfare: the basics.
Now as politicians like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are attacking their future education, future jobs and even their future pensions, today’s youth have something more challenging than “Grand Theft Auto” to test their skills against. And perhaps they will be able to do something that the students of 1968 couldn’t do in those times of prosperity and full employment, make common cause with working people and the older generations. If all those segments of society came together for once, things might change.
Because, unlike donkeys, human beings, before they disappear, can do much nastier things than just bray and kick.