In this essay, when I say “Americans,” I mean citizens of the United States, with apologies to the good citizens of other countries on the North American and South American Continents who visit this site.
The real question is this: What is the American middle class and in what sense did it ever exist? And how does this tie in with idea of the “upper class”?
We Americans love to think we have no “upper class,” that we are a actually a classless society, that the USA is a democracy beholden to the will of the governed, the great “middle class.” The politicians tell us they serve the interests of this middle class, the ordinary chap in the street and in the workplace.
The popular American concept of ourselves is that when the Europeans landed in what eventually became the United States, they formed an egalitarian society. Eventually, a majority coalition of small landholders, the small tradesmen, the mechanics and artisans, the yeomen farm-holders, frontiersmen, and small burghers–in other words, the great and broad “middle class” overthrew the tyrannical rule of the tax-happy British monarchy and instituted a republican form of government. This was a government, perhaps divinely inspired, that represented the will of the great majority of its inhabitants.
Like all narratives that great powers and empires tell themselves about their beginnings, this tasty broth contains both a dash of truth and dash of myth.
Left out of this recounting are the horrible conditions of forced labor that indentured servants and slaves suffered, the way British authorities expelled convicts, the homeless, orphans, economically ruined small farmers and poverty-stricken paupers from England to the New World. Nor is there much mention of the genocide and ethnic cleansing against the indigenous inhabitants, the religious bigotry and persecution various “Christian” communities inflicted on other Christians, the suppression and oppression of nonconformists and freethinkers, the draconian criminal codes against the merest of infractions, or the appalling condition that women and children suffered.
Notwithstanding all that, there is also a revolutionary and even humanistic thread in the American tradition.
This thread sprung from the loom of struggle against European feudalism, was inspired by the Scottish and continental Enlightenment. The 18th century Enlightenment questioned the the divine authority of kings and taught that the legitimacy of government came from the consent of the governed.
This new and revolutionary concept fostered a new sense of community identity and common interest and made possible the rise of the great democratic revolutions that later swept the world in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Indeed, dame history wove the cloth of American political culture with both these progressive threads, as well as the regressive threads of cruelty, crassness, callousness, and an exaggerated sense of rugged individualism. The American historical tradition is a contradiction, at the same time both noble and base, revolutionary and yet also reactionary.
It’s certainly true that every few years we Americans get to vote for some politician or other. We also often get to vote on various local measures, put on the ballot by petition.
Today, in the United States, it is true that the popular will, in a certain limited sense, influences public policy.
But in a greater and more fundamental sense, American democracy is and always has been an illusion.
It’s big money that backs our politicians and ensures that they achieve electoral victory. In turn the purse bearers expect decisive influence when decisions are made in exchange for their largess. The recent health care debate, as well as the debates on bailing out banks and industrialists, provide us with acutely obvious examples of how big money, the corporate rulers, the plutarchy actually call the shots.
For example, despite widespread opposition to using tax funds, mostly collected from working people, to bail out the banks, auto, and other large corporate entities, the politicians ignored the will of the voters and instead did the bidding of their actual constituents, the corporations. They poured money into the pockets of the big corporations, who only a few years previously decried government spending, “entitlements,” and welfare.
Over the years, American labor unions and social activists had forced certain reforms for working people. These reforms include such things as the 8-hour day, the abolition of child labor, health and safety standards, etc. Meanwhile, the employer class and corporations have constantly nibbled away at such reforms while activists have played a defensive game.
Sometime during the last several decades, the employers and corporations escalated their attack on our standard of living by trying to offshore as many jobs as possible to places that do not have these worker and environmental protections. The politicians have even given them tax breaks to do so, although this is not the main reason for off-shoring.
They list some of the characteristics of more easily off-shored jobs:
- Highly repetitive jobs, such as accounting, assembly
- Jobs that consist of predictable, well-defined tasks, such as customer service
- Work that can be broken down into small manageable projects, such as software development
- Work that can be turned into a routine like telemarketing
- Work where proximity to the end customer is not important, such as phone based tech support of consumer products.
And, oddly enough, the jobs they list as being safer from being off-shored are top management positions, writing books (maybe foreigners aren’t as literate as we Americans are), and jobs requiring a high degree of innovation such as creating new products and technological breakthroughs (sheesh, as if Indians and Chinese can’t create new products or make technological breakthroughs!).
In other words, the bulk of jobs the so-called American middle class does are in danger. How many people can create new products and technological breakthroughs? The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the United States Department of Labor gives an official unemployment rate for the last months of 2009 as around 10%. But that figure only includes those who are registered for unemployment benefits and are registered as actively seeking work. The real rate is at least 16% and growing.
And the results of this off-shoring, along with other hijinks and shenanigans of the plutarchy, are a fall in the standard of living for the average American, or if you will, the “American middle class.”
The USDA’s (United States Department of Agriculture) Economic Research Project reports “food insecurity” in 2008 affected 15% of the American population, meaning that hunger is not unknown here by a long shot. Food insecurity seems to be growing, with no end in sight. Here is what the USDA report says:
Eighty-five percent of American households were food secure throughout the entire year in 2008, meaning that they had access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members. The remaining households (14.6 percent) were food insecure at least some time during the year, including 5.7 percent with very low food security—meaning that the food intake of one or more household members was reduced and their eating patterns were disrupted at times during the year because the household lacked money and other resources for food.
Thus, it’s fair to say one can speak of “the golden rule of American capitalist democracy,” which is “he who has the gold makes the rules.” Those who control the wealth of a society control power. Wealth puts parameters around how extensive democracy can be, and ultimately, plutarchy and democracy tend to be contradictory.
The members of the plutarchy are not all one big happy family. They have their squabbles, their factions, their liberals-versus-conservatives wrangles. That’s why there are two major parties. The Democratic and Republican parties provide instruments through which the plutocrats carry out their political battles. But what they all have in common is that they support keeping the power of the state in the hands of the plutarchy and protecting the capitalist system. Under extreme circumstances, they may be willing to sacrifice some corporation or even an entire industry. But what unites them is their unwillingness to see the capitalist system, the system of private ownership of the economy and the market to be undermined, let alone abolished, even as that system plunges the world into economic and environmental disaster.
Political candidates try very hard to minimize these unhandsome facts, that they are the servants of one or another segment of the plutarchy. They want to appear to be both of “the people” and for “the people,” and during election season, they raise money from small donations. Nevertheless, the money that matters, the money that buys real influence, the money that sets policy is the money that comes from the wealthy and powerful interests. So in a real sense, fundraising from small donations is as much a form of political theater as anything else.
Who exactly are these plutocrats that set the golden rules in America? These are the very same people who own the income-producing machinery of the economy: the mines, agribusiness, the chemical and petrochemical industries, the financial and insurance industries, the natural resources, the manufacturers of war material, etc, etc.
Professor G. William Domhoff has spent the greater part of his career, the last 40-plus years, studying this question. He wrote the influential and seminal book “Who Rules America” which deals with the results of this research. Over the years, he has updated this book 6 times, and the last edition came out a few years ago.
As Professor Domhoff describes it, this upper social layer is actually rather small. Here’s what Professor Domhoff says on the book’s website:
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.7%. Table 1 and Figure 1 present further details drawn from the careful work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2009).
Moreover, the historical tendency has been for this wealth and power to become more and more concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. A June 5, 2005 New York Times article entitled Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind by David Cay Johnston says the following:
One way to understand the growing gap is to compare earnings increases over time by the vast majority of taxpayers – say, everyone in the lower 90 percent – with those at the top, say, in the uppermost 0.01 percent (now about 14,000 households, each with $5.5 million or more in income last year).
From 1950 to 1970, for example, for every additional dollar earned by the bottom 90 percent, those in the top 0.01 percent earned an additional $162, according to the Times analysis. From 1990 to 2002, for every extra dollar earned by those in the bottom 90 percent, each taxpayer at the top brought in an extra $18,000.
Johnston wrote that in 2005, and this trend has only accelerated since then.
The United States, even after the latest rush to globalization, is an economic powerhouse. Wikipedia summarizes International Monetary Fund data in these words:
According to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. GDP of $14.4 trillion constitutes 23% of the gross world product at market exchange rates and almost 21% of the gross world product at purchasing power parity (PPP). The largest national GDP in the world, it was about 5% less than the combined GDP of the European Union at PPP in 2008. The country ranks seventeenth in the world in nominal GDP per capita and sixth in GDP per capita at PPP.
And the command and control of these vast resources lies in the hands of a very tiny percentage of the American population.
MONEY AND WEALTH
Now let’s look at money and wealth. They’re not the same thing, really. Wealth consists of the goods and services that make human life possible and even bearable, and it is the product of cooperative human labor on a world-wide basis.
Money is an IOU. The dollar bill in your pocket entitles you, the bearer, to redeem one dollar’s worth of wealth. Money is valuable because it is a medium of exchange, enabling one to acquire wealth.
You can’t eat money, wear money, use money as a roof and walls to keep you safe, warm, and out of the rain. But you can use money to gain those goods and services, that is to say, actual wealth.
And note that although a major portion of the human race labors to produce and distribute that wealth, it’s actually only a very small minority who get to exercise decisive control over it who gets it and how much.
Since the late 2007-2008 crisis and near-collapse of the American and world financial system began, people around the world have been wondering where the money went. Nobody seems to have a direct answer, although there are some wealthy individuals who smile and celebrate discreetly. But the important thing to understand is this:
It was not wealth that disappeared. It was the money!
We now are in a position to understand just what this semi-mythical beast called the “American Middle Class” actually is and what is becoming of it.
It hearkens back to an idealized vision of an egalitarian America.
It is common for the dissatisfied citizens of empires to pine away for the “good old days,” days when life was simpler and happier, young people respected their elders, and most everyone got along and lived well.
It is also common for demagogic politicians to say that newcomers or folks with newfangled ideas are what brought an end to the good old days.
An example of this was the American Party in 1850s who blamed those subversive German and Irish Catholic immigrants who had a secret conspiracy to make America a vassalage of the pope.
Currently, the “good old days” that Americans so often nostalgically remember, (especially those who did not actually live through them), is the 1950s, the era following the Second World War until the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
After the Second World War, the United States emerged a superpower. Its industry had not suffered the merciless destruction of massive bombing campaigns as had Europe and Asia. Before the Second World War, the British had an empire, France had colonies, Italy and Germany had some colonies, and America had “territories” and “spheres of influence.” Before that horrible catastrophe which we call WW-II that managed to kill 40 million souls in just 6 years, these empires competed for control of the world’s marketplaces, work forces, and resources, sometimes peacefully, other times by means of war.
After the mass slaughter of Second World War, France, Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom lost their empires and suffered a great economic disadvantage. But America came to be the “leader” of the “free world,” which meant that it became the dominant power in the international marketplace, except in those places where capitalist marketplace forces had been abolished, first the Soviet Union, then Eastern Europe, and finally China, Korea, and Indochina.
The returning American soldiers found a new prosperity in an America that enjoyed a huge economic advantage in the world. America experienced an unprecedented economic boom.
Every year, the standard of living improved for a large segment of the American employee class, the European-American segment. If you were a European-American male (or could pass for one), you could pretty much assume that you could work for one or maybe two companies your whole life. You would earn what we could call a “family living wage,” which meant that you would be able to buy a house, support a nonworking wife and children, and have a secure pension when you retired. You worked what was called a “9-to-5 hour day.” That meant you had two 15-minute breaks and at least half-hour lunch, often an hour lunch, as part of your 8 hours. There was none of that clocking out to eat. Union density was around 1/3 of the workforce.
If there was a strike, it lasted only a few days and the company soon acceded to the union demands. Every year, your standard of living went up. This was known as the “American way of life,” and the “American dream” meant a continually rising standard of living for you and future generations.
You knew that as good as you had it, your children would have it better. There was not a lot of dissent. Anyone who dissented was considered to be a “troublemaker.” Conformity was the order of the day. Rocking the boat was not favored. Anytime dissent threatened, politicians would appeal to nativist prejudices of the population.
That was the case until the great civil rights struggle that ended Jim Crow and the Vietnam war era, a topic I cover elsewhere.
Historically, many Americans have a tendency to look down on the poor. It’s just a big part of our national culture. Americans tend to believe that God rewards the virtuous with material goods and favors America. The American story is that anyone can make it, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, if only they try.
So if you’re poor and disadvantaged, it’s probably your fault, and you’re probably some kind of a loser. Perhaps we Americans fear that we could suddenly be thrust into poverty, and that fear makes us look down on those of us who are poor. Most of us work pretty hard for what we have. And demagogues appeal to our fear of having what we’ve earned suddenly snatched from our mouths and given to the undeserving.
Because we Americans don’t like to think of ourselves as losers, even those of us with limited means or a low annual income call ourselves “middle class.” There are people earning an annual $25,000 who will describe themselves as being “middle class,” as will people who have an annual income of $250,000 or $500,000. And the political candidates play on our insecurities and appeal to those fears every election year.
In times of insecurity such as the present, politicians seek scapegoats. Politicians play on the prejudices and fears of a frightened public. They point the finger at outsiders, at foreigners, immigrants, alien and corrupting influences. At the same time, the corporations jockey among themselves for financial advantage and curry the favor of one or the other political party. The upper class becomes factionalized. Their struggles play out in the form of partisan bickering between the Republicans and Democrats, with lots of blame laying and political “gotchas.” They accuse each other of that greatest of American sins, “elitism.”
Other than being accused of being a “socialist,” being accused of being an “elitist” is just about the worst dirty word one can fling at an American politician. Elitists are out of touch and meddle with our lives, you see. They engage in “social engineering,” which supposedly ruined the good old days, the golden era of the great American middle class.
This is what is behind a lot of so-called anti-government feeling, the feeling that out-of-touch, elitist bureaucrats want to run our lives and tell us what’s good for us, take away our money, our privileges, and give it to those who just expect a handout.
Of course, this description of how many Americans feel about the “middle class” is a generalization not all of us buy, and it does not apply uniformly across the board. But it does explain a certain cultural tendency. It also gives us a bit of the flavor of what Americans mean by “middle class.”
We ordinary Americans know we sure aren’t rich, and we definitely are not poor. No one wants to be considered poor because to be poor is to be a loser and to deserve poverty. We just pine away for that mythical idyllic past when everyone got along, had a job, and did well. We yearn for that gentle and kindly world described by that notable American raconteur Garrison Keillor as the place “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
But in truth, the United States deeply divided by class.
The plutarchy have a monopoly on political power through their political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. For them, the differences between the parties matter because the capitalist system faces a deep crisis. Each faction seeks advantage over the other factions, and this political battle plays out within the framework of the two capitalist parties.
But as far as those of us who are the wage earners, pensioners, small independent business people, that is to say the vast majority of Americans, we have our own interests. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really speak to our interests.
Our interests do not lie in sacrificing our children in more wars for oil, lowering our standard of living to create larger profits for the superrich, living with more pollution so the plutarchy does not have to take responsibility for cleaning their own mess.
To reverse this course of events and save our class, we need to contend with the plutarchy on a political level. It does no good to complain about them, decry their abuses and crimes, and then turn around and vote for their political parties and candidates. That just enables them in the same way co-dependent alcoholics enable drinkers to keep on drinking.
We need at least one political party that fights for us, a party based on the unions, the environmental movement, the antiwar movement. We need a party that advocates for our interests, even when they conflict with the interests of the plutarchy. We need to understand that this is a class question, that class conflict is the preeminent political fact today. We need to face that fact.
It’s counterproductive to rely on the parties of the plutarchy class. We need a party that champions the needs of our class, that competes for power in the field of politics, of electoral politics. Until then, we’re hamstrung and being played for chumps.
That’s the only way we can level the playing field. That’s how I see it at the beginning of 2010, a year of yawning uncertainty.
References & Credits
- Article on colonial artisans and mechanics at Suite 101 web site:
- Google Dictionary definition of Yeoman (farm-holder)
Click here for link
- Google Dictionary definition of burgher
Click here for link
- Answers.com definition of Plutarchy
Click here for link
- IT Business Edge article titled Uncovering the Offshore ‘Tax Breaks’ by Ann All, dated March 4, 2009.
- The About Us page of the Career Planner.com website.
- Career Planner’s article titled The Offshoring of America’s Top Jobs
- The United States Bureau Of Labor Statistics Table of Unemployment Rates from January, 1999 until November of 2009
- United States Department of Agriculture report on food security and insecurity for year 2008
- Amazon’s page on Professor Domhoff’s latest edition of his book "Who Rules America," along with 6 reader reviews.
- Professor Domhoff’s website dedicated to late-breaking information on Who Rules America. This links to an article titled Wealth, Income, and Power, from which I quoted.
- Link to a June 5, 2005 New York Times article by David Kay Johnston called Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind
- This link jumps to a section of the Wikipedia article on the United States that covers the International Monetary Fund data on the economic might of the United States. When you click on it, it may take a second or so for your browser to go from the top of the article to the section I quoted.
- The September 28, 2009 New Yorker Magazine discusses both a new book on the infamous Dreyfus affair, as well as the affair itself, an incident that exposed anti-Semitism in turn-of-the-century France.
- The Sceptic.com website dissects the anti-Semitic tract and forgery put together by the Russian Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, called The Protocols Of The Learned Elders Of Zion. Various anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi and fascist groups on the internet are still trying to convince people of a secret world-wide Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christianity and rule the world with this screed.
- Google Dictionary defines nativist and nativism.
- Link to an article I wrote that deals in part with America during the Vietnam war era.