Monday, 11 April 2011


The definition of 'middle class' varies a bit from US to Europe, but it generally assumes an income level much above an average worker, some education above high school, a certain lifestyle that ranges from home ownership in the suburbs to going to the theater a few times a year, and a world view and value system that reflects that homogeneous culture projected in the mainstream media. Of course, in the US and now much of the world, income transcends all other factors that account for who belongs in the middle class. Actually, the US Census Bureau has its own definition as do politicians when they address voters, as do economists and journalists. However, they disagree. 

Looking at empirical studies that others have compiled, I have written on numerous occasions that the American middle class has been shrinking for the last 30 years and that the 2008-2011 recession has worsened the trend toward downward mobility. The exact opposite is true for millionaires who are experiencing significant income rise amid a recessionary economy. According to the New York Times, the average CEO received 12% higher pay  in 2010 than in the previous year. Meanwhile, official unemployment in 2010 was between 9.4 and 9.7%; the AFL figures have unemployment at 15.7%. 

Salaries of public employees were frozen as were social security benefits. As for the private sector, the figures vary significantly in their range by business and job category, state and city, but salaries did not rise anywhere near the 12% that CEOs received in 2010, and in many cases declined when taking inflation into account. What is significant is that politicians and 'guns-for-hire economists and analysts' working for think tanks, academic institutions, etc. dispute the US Census Bureau's 'narrow' definition of 'middle class' income. They broaden the range to include everyone earning from $100,000 annually to as low as $19,000 - the latter figure placing a family of four with such an income below the poverty line. In short, 'spin doctors' (professional indoctrinators) - politicians and private sector 'analysts' are trying to convince Americans to feel great about themselves that they are still maintaining the privilege of middle class status, although they are earning below poverty line income. It is almost like a teacher telling students that although they failed the class, God still loves them and that is all that is important.

Is this the stuff of fiction or reality?  With some imagination, one could rework this early 21st century American theme of "middle class consciousness-working class life" by reexamining the 19th century French novel Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac. Even more ironic than some similarities between the delightful 19th century novel and the absurdity of today's politicians and 'guns-for-hire economists and analysts' is the implication that 'class', which entails hierarchical society, is implied although the same politicians and analysts would try to argue that democracy means equality... well, at least of opportunity. But equality of what, opportunity for what, when in the real world there is nothing but social and economic inequality where a person making $19,000 a year is asked to believe that s/he is in the privileged middle class? 

As long as the individual believes that he/she is middle class, does it make any difference that they are enduring the lifestyle of a worker? Oh, the shame of it all! Isn't much better to believe in the middle class illusion than to enjoy the actual middle class living? Actually, for politicians and for those paid to propagate that the middle class dream is still attainable, middle class consciousness is the only thing that is significant because that is what translates into political support for the bourgeois political system and institutions built on the myth of equality. Given that is the goal, why not tell all Americans (or Spaniards, etc.) that they are in the middle class? Now that would be unthinkable for it would imply a classless bourgeois society where those enjoying privileges would be the millionaires. And that takes us back to Old Goriot's early 19th century France when class was more important than money - God forbid!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It appears similarities do exist between 19th century France and ideas of class consciousness today. One of the more ironic similarities is the rise of body lice and bedbugs.

Associate Professor Steve Barker, of the University of Queensland School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, says historically figures suggest one to three per cent of primary school aged children in Queensland would have head lice at least once a year — now it's around 15 to 30 per cent.

During the early 19th century, lice and bedbugs crossed all social boundaries and history shows that even the royals itched; a greater satire none dared be.

Did royals in 19th century France care they were enduring a lifestyle not so different than the peasant as they scratched?

I think not. Money cannot buy class. It can, however, buy a good delouse treatment today.