[updated 12-7-11] “Middle class” is the word of the week: Keynesians want workers to be consumers, for demand-stimulus is the only arrow in their quiver as preventive politicians and schemers. Just listen to POTUS. But who is in the “middle class” and why does nomenclature matter? Is class a “ladder” that one climbs, to be defined by income/consumption patterns; or is class position a particular relationship to the mode of production in historically specific societies, each of which must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis (Obama used the ladder metaphor in his 12/6/11 faux TR speech on the “New Nationalism”)?
Several Facebook comments lately have made this a pressing issue, for the term “middle-class” is a construction by progressive sociologists who were mystifying the more rigorous materialist definition of “class,” in particular “the working class.” These sociologists were probably deploying the older term referring to persons of “the middling sort” who had left England and the European countries to seek greener pastures in the New World. In other words, these were younger sons of aristocrats, artisans, small traders and merchants, and displaced peasants (small landholders). But what has come to be seen as the “Marxist” definition of the proletariat is another category altogether, and must not be confused with “the middling sort” –a group with options to seek a better deal in finding employment or starting a business, especially in a period with an expanding economy and a “virgin land.”
A proletarian is a person with no land or tools to fall back upon in times of economic contraction or transformation. Thus subsistence farming cannot be the fallback position in the face of industrialization and the onset of machine or automated production. As the materialists explained, such a person has nothing to sell on the open market but her or his labor power. Before the days of protective legislation, you could work or starve, so the labor market became a site of social unrest and potential disturbance as cheaper labor (of women and children) or chattel slavery offered higher returns to the new industrial entrepreneurs. From the days of antebellum working-class abolitionism to the first important stirrings of labor unionism after the Civil War, workers fought for the right to organize themselves to protect their jobs and improve their life chances. Presented with a specter of revolution both in Europe and America, American proto-progressives were frightened by Marx’s predictions and impressed by Bismarck’s social insurance, as they were by the reforms in Britain brought about by mid-19th century Christian Socialists (see http://clarespark.com/2011/11/25/3293/) . Over the next one hundred fifty years or so, the conservative reformers pre-empted the revolutionary temptation from below through a sumptuous banquet of “reforms” or “adjustments”: the legalization of “good” labor unions who would limit their demands to higher wages and better working conditions such as the eight-hour day; worker’s compensation; the 19th century offer of cheap land in the American West; later state-administered welfare programs; birth-control measures; Americanization programs; “free” public education; immigration restriction; the encouragement of home ownership; high taxation to pay for statist redistribution measures; female suffrage, social security, and now state-initiated quotas in many institutions based on race or gender, and so on.
Moreover, progressives switched the Jeffersonian notion of a “negative state” (defending slavery and state’s rights) to that of a “Jeffersonian” or “Enlightenment” “positive state,” with all the statist collectivism in the purported interest of “social justice” that transformation entailed– as “individualism” became a personality disorder, not liberty to choose a life path and to work toward the goal of upward mobility and the creation of plenty and new, life-enhancing and labor-saving technologies that would in turn serve the creative development of individuals and communities. Or, as some New Deal progressives put it, “Hamiltonian principles” (an energetic government guided by American exceptionalism) would produce Jeffersonian results, i.e., “the people” against the “economic royalists”. Has this synthesis worked?
But above all, some progressives aimed to shape the imaginations of the labor force, using different tactics as the occasion demanded. One of their more questionable accomplishments was the introduction of the word “middle class” to describe, not themselves as “middle management” (i.e., as administrators, corruptible journalists, bureaucrats, mental health professionals, mediators, and curriculum developers instilling “moderation,” and “liberal internationalism”). Rather they fastened that “middle class” label on labor (including female labor in the home), the better to form an electorate that would think of itself as “the people” and not as members of a specific class or other group that conceivably looked to its own interests above those in competing groups. In a related move, faced by the opposition of business interests focused on meritocracy, competition in every facet of the economy, and free markets, some [WASP] progressives deftly separated “industrial capital” from “finance capital, ” thus pitting “Main Street” against “Wall Street” a.k.a. “the money power,” understanding that “Wall Street” was the natural habitat of [Jewish] rampaging greed, theft, and social irresponsibility. See http://clarespark.com/2009/09/19/populism-progressivism-and-corporatist-liberalism-in-the-nation-1919/. [Added 9-25: On 9-24, Matt Miller, the "moderate" moderator of "Left, Right, and Center," a popular program originating in Los Angeles NPR station KCRW, made the exact same distinction as The Nation of 1919: Miller lamented the separation of Wall Street from Main Street when he proclaimed that the "finance engineers" were in charge [of the national economic railroad] instead of adhering to their (?) role as “real engineers.”
Indeed, when President Barack Obama addresses factory workers and calls them “the middle class” has he unconsciously adopted the old Leftist belief that “the working class” has become “bourgeoisified”; i.e., jewified with lust for the golden calf? Or is he catering to their [illicit] desires for the consumer goods associated with middle class status, while simultaneously deflecting their resentments and fears toward the designated enemy in Woe Street and away from Leviathan?
Today is the ninth anniversary of the successful Islamist attack on the World Trade Center towers, and upon the Pentagon. Is it any wonder that a disturbingly large number of opinion makers, not just limited to leftist radicals, believe or imply that the hubristic materialistic, aggressive “Wall Street”-dominated U.S. brought this frightful assault upon itself? For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2011/10/10/populist-catharsis-on-wall-street/, that focuses on the faux leftism of Occupy Wall Street.