Thursday, 6 October 2011

MIDDLE CLASS AMERICA and the Liberal-Democratic Model

I have often noted that bourgeois society and the 'liberal democratic' regime under which it operates may be undergoing change owing to the global economic recession in an epoch when there is no ideological/political/military rival like a Communist bloc that the bourgeois regime can use to retain public loyalty. That the evolution of social discontinuity is taking place in 'lesser capitalist' countries like Ireland is not as significant as the fact that it is taking place in the US that has projected itself as the model to follow. But what if the model does not live up to the image, and the gap between image and reality continues to grow? Will the rest of the world lose confidence in the US as the 'liberal democratic' leader and start searching for other models?

The Obama administration remains concerned that the American Dream is fading because the middle class is weakening. This was the assessment right before the 2010 congressional elections when it was obvious the Democrats would suffer major losses, and the jobless economic growth . Arguing that the “middle class dream” (synonymous with the American Dream) is fading fast, the Obama administration has a task force operating on the assumption that “everyone wants to and can be in the middle class.” How wonderful indeed, if it could only be supported by empirical evidence that shows a gradual decline of the middle class in the last four decades.

Clearly not the same definition as in 18th century France or England, a definition that underwent change since then in Europe that operates in America’s shadow since the 1940s, US government (media and mainstream institutions as well) defines middle class on the basis of: a) owning a home, b) car, c) college for the kids, d) retirement fund, e) health care, and f) family vacations. If you have these six things, you too are in the shrinking “middle class” as US government (and mainstream institutions) defines it.

Therefore you are happily conformed and the social order will continue to exist for a very long time. But what if you lack one or more of the six criteria? High-paying jobs in the secondary sector of production (manufacturing) have been going to Asia and Latin America.  With it a drop in salaries and benefits for Americans, followed by white-collar jobs in sectors from computer science to medical engineering, with higher indirect taxes and higher costs of living, is the middle class facing compression? The situation is not very different for many other advanced capitalist countries that have experienced downward social mobility under globalization that has been sold as the only way that capitalism can best serve society.

Although in the last three-four decades Americans and their European counterparts became two-income families, some taking second jobs, the cost of living rose sharply in the last two decades, while wages, salaries, benefits, and social security income could not keep pace. “For most of the 20-year period following 1990, the Commerce Department reports that real median income grew at a rate of about 20%, while the cost of a college education grew between 43% and 60%, the cost of housing rose 56% and health care costs jumped by 155%.” Vice President Joe Biden’s web site describing the task force notes that “A strong middle class equals a strong America.”

But was it not government policies regardless of political parties whether in the US or any of the advanced capitalist countries that led to the shrinking middle class since 1970? Is the solution to a strong middle class a fiscal and social policy that weakens it even more?  Is the social pyramid is becoming increasingly narrower at the top and wider at the bottom? Who knows what Biden will do to get Obama reelected against the background of a Tea Party Republicans who have no problem in further weakening the middle class by slashing benefits of public workers at the federal and state levels, and by going after social programs, including entitlements medicare and medicaid.

It seems any solution that proposes social and economic justice would be unacceptable for Tea Party Republicans who believe that they represent 'mainstream America' - the equivalent of what Nixon used to call the 'silent majority'. What is a more acceptable solution for Tea Party Republicans, Democrats, and mainstream businesses? Here is the consensus: a) find another job to supplement your income; b) work harder to prove your marketplace competitiveness; c) plan and invest better for your future; d) return to school for more education or re-training; and e) surrender to fate, and wait for “lady luck” to ring your doorbell!

If indeed the assumptions of the US government (and the entire mainstream institutional structure) that “securing a middle class” is the key the American Dream, how do we explain US public opinion polls indicating that the “happiness” level (granted the obvious difficult of quantifying it), has been under 50% and steadily declining since 1970? And how do we explain that in a global public opinion poll, the top four “happiest” countries in the world are Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, while the US ranks 14th, despite the largest GDP on the planet? If middle class Americans are not as happy as their counterparts in other nations, is it symptomatic of cultural factors alone and unrelated to a sense of pessimism about society and its institutions?

Even if we accept the American ubiquitous PR campaign, backed by political and financial elites, media and academia, is designed to project the image that upward mobility as the achievable American Dream, scholarly studies by individual academics and think tanks for the last three decades indicate that there has been downward mobility in America, spreading to the rest of the world with some exceptions. Global outsourcing under neo-liberal policies has resulted in a shrinking middle class likely to shrink more in this decade in the US and EU.

I have argued in the past that the middle class in most of the world during the last four decades has been created on paper because of the credit economy. As the middle class was built on a mound of debt under an unsustainable global credit economic structure designed to keep wealth concentrated, the public sector was also thriving on debt. But the bills have not come to be paid by the middle class and workers. Middle class people know where they stand in relationship to the image they project; they know that the 'dream' is fading for them and for their children; that the political and financial institutions do not represent them, no matter what they claim; that the social pyramid is becoming narrower because the 'liberal democratic' regime conducts policies that result in downward mobilization.

Should the six-point criteria developed by individuals who want to perpetuate consumerism be the basis of the American Dream, or should there be an re-examination of peoples’ values in the wake of this prolonged global recession–and I mean all people, not just the middle class that constitutes the popular base of bourgeois political parties? Are these the values America wants to continue exporting to the rest of the world so it can strengthen finance capitalism at the expense socioeconomic chasm and social polarization from which arise extreme right wing elements?

Is the essence of humanity predicated on the six points mentioned above? In the US government report, there was no mention of creativity, no mention of empathy in thought and deed for one’s fellow man, no mention of protection of nature, no mention of philosophical/spiritual self-reflection, no mention of greater social equality or collectivist action that alleviates suffering of the vast majority, no mention for lessening societal and institutional violence.

America is becoming more polarized as Tea Party politics indicates. If there is no future for a growing middle class, no chance for the realization of the American Dream, is 'liberal democracy' in danger and sociopolitical polarization inevitable no matter if the Democrats win or lose the White House in 2012? Is the Tea Party America's future if the middle class continues to become smaller and weaker? If this turns out to be America's future, what kind of model will it be for the rest of the world?

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