Ain’t No Middle Class!
During the campaign season, neither Obama nor Romney, mentioned the words “poverty” or “working class”. Both candidates babbled incessantly about the supposed “middle class” and how they would be creating jobs, presumably “middle class jobs”. Neither the middle class, nor these jobs, actually exist. They are myths, pure and simple.
Such extraordinary efforts to maintain the Myth of the Middle Class shows how important this illusion is to maintaining political power in the hands of a real class, the capitalist class. Call them consumers, homemakers, customers or clients, Middle Americans, the Silent Majority, whites or blacks, even “unemployed” – anything but working class. God forbid what would happen if the vast majority of Americans truly understood themselves as a class of workers with common economic and political interests!
The term “class” has many meanings, but it exists objectively and scientifically as “economic class”. In this sense, an economic class is a group of people who have the same relationship to the major tools and technology of society. Essentially, you either own them as your property, placing you in the capitalist class, or you work for those who do own them, placing you in the working class.
These ideas really shouldn’t be too shocking anymore. The Occupy movement of 2012 pretty much brought the ideas of the 99% and the 1% to the popular eye. But the 1% that year began at an income of $380,000. This is less than nothing to the billionaires and financiers who make hundreds of million a year.
Within the 1% this class of the uber rich own, through their command of corporations and banks, all of human technology. Thus they determine what is produced and how it is distributed. For over a decade the UN has pointed out that the world produces sufficient food for every human being. The problem is that food is made available based on your ability to pay.
The gamut of jobs and careers that we are allowed to have all remunerate people for spending their time doing work for someone else. By putting in your labor time, you make more value for the owner than you are paid. Seizing that difference is the basic definition of “exploitation”. This is the source of profit. Not only is the labor time ripped off from us as exploitation, most of the taxes are further shifted onto labor, away from those who exploit.
Then we are told that “Austerity” means “we are all supposed to do our part”, supposed to “pay our fair share”, “make cuts equally across the board”. However, the slightest examination shows that while the capitalists receive some tiny increases in income tax rates, they are given greater cuts in the myriad of legal ways available to them to avoid taxes. The public – really the only legal standing the working class has - is being turned into an ATM for billionaires, bankers and financiers.
The Middle Class Myth conjures up the picture of intrepid individuals – “entrepreneurs” perhaps – who build a world by the dint of their own hard work. This opens the door to another foundational myth that American society permits any and everyone to lift themselves by their own bootstraps – the so-called “American Dream” – “you can make it if you try”.
This myth is so important because it justifies its opposite, the bedrock of prejudice in this country: “It’s your fault if you are poor”. Obviously, since supposedly anyone can get ahead, you as an individual, and “those people” as a group, choose to be poor. This corollary is essential for another myth that is used as a weapon of mass control. This is the notion that poverty is only “Black”, and not “White. This lie flies in the face of the reality that the largest number (not the highest percentage) of poor people, not to mention single-moms, welfare recipients, the homeless and the unemployed, are Anglo-American.
Historically all this class propaganda has split the white worker from the black worker, which is the formula for capitalist political control and political power in the US. So the concept of “the Middle Class” needs to be thoroughly deconstructed, destroyed and obliterated in order for the working class to unite and act, as does the capitalist class as “a class-for-itself”. This means a class aggressively on the make, that is conscious of its commonality and needs, one with a political agenda, an organizing center and one that operates pro-actively, strategically and offensively in its own interests, rather than timidly, defensively and incrementally. This subjective block needs to be cleared away.
Historical Aspects of the Question
Fortunately, perhaps, this destruction is rapidly happening in reality, if not in the minds of working people, since the US is the most rapidly polarizing country in the industrial world in terms of individual income. The existence of a class of billionaires at one pole, rapidly seizing an ever-increasing share of national income, is the reflection of foreclosures, lifelong indebted servitude and homelessness at the other pole. In the process of polarization, the middle always gets destroyed. Further, we see the reality that is hidden behind another popular mis-statement: the rich get rich because (not “and”) the poor get poorer.
The Myth of the Middle Class did have some viability as long as the economy was expanding and providing ever-more jobs to an expanding working class population. From its inception, the United States had no feudal class structure. In 17th Century Europe, still bound by feudal thinking, each person was bound to his “station” as determined by his class. There was no hope of exceeding your station and moving into a higher class.
In America, however, blessed with an expanding frontier, and fueled with genuine democratic aspirations as a result of the revolution, individuals in that era actually did have a chance to move on up. People saw America as the place where feudalism was over and the myth of “the land of opportunity” was born.
Very few people in reality actually did break out of the constraints of the working class to generate some capital, and buy land or an enterprise that could somehow succeed against the aggressive power of large land-owners and established capitalists. But highly organized propaganda established the ideological view that “classes don’t exist in America”, even though the fundamental and basic organization of society is based on the objective existence of classes.
Historically, there has been another, tiny class between the working class and the capitalist class – people who both owned a means of production and worked it at the same time. This class includes people who own family farms or small enterprises. Under the economic pressure of giant capitalist farms and corporations like WallMart, this class all but vanished in America in the last century. This fact seems to have no effect, for example, on the constant references to farms in California’s Central Valley, as “family farms”, even though these are some of the largest corporate farms in the world.
By the 1890s, America’s “middle class” included a small number of doctors, lawyers, academics and other “professionals”, as well as a large number of, but often desperately impoverished, section of family farms. Decades of industrial expansion drove most of the population off the farm and into manufacturing by 1950. The same expansion concentrated ever more capital in the hands of corporations in the Industrial Era, before the advent of personal computers. Especially after World War II, these corporations needed workers as teachers, scientists, managers, administrators and paper-pushers. To further divide the working class, these types of workers were called “professionals” and paid a “salary” – a non-hourly wage.
Does the fact that a worker receives a salary mean that they are no longer in the working class? If someone derives income by selling their ability to work to a corporation or some other enterprise, they are still objectively in the working class. A few “professionals” (again polarization occurs between the elite few and the mass of relatively poor professionals) like athletes, musicians doctors, lawyers and movie stars can amass enough money to invest, hopefully to generate an income. This establishes another false myth for popular control – that corporations are owned and run by army of small investors, not billionaires.
However, pretty names do not negate the reality that the vast number of “professionals” are simply workers by another name. When their ability to work ceases, their income ceases for all intents and purposes.
The gigantic expansion of the US economy after World War II required huge armies of workers, which depended on relative class peace. Corporate profits at the time surged far beyond the dreams of the capitalists. A tiny portion of these profits were relinquished in order to provide a small section of the working class, particularly skilled trades and some sections of construction workers, with an increasing income.
This translated into what is often considered “middle class” today: “owning” a home, having a pension, health care provided through the job, and the chance for college for the kids. The capitalists also used this opportunity to shift taxes off property and onto labor. They further created a terribly restricted vision of public education as being all about jobs. These dreams are vanishing today as electronic production is replacing and eliminating the unskilled and semi-skilled sectors of the workforce, as well as many skilled positions.
No matter how much politicians promise to “create jobs” (by putting more tax money into corporate hands), no matter how many times the capitalist class call themselves the “job creators”, the reality is that electronics is devastating the working class.
By 2012, the economy of the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, reached pre-Melt Down levels in terms of revenues and profits… and did so with 200,000 fewer workers. (“S.F. Bay Area economy thriving despite challenges”. SF Chronicle. March 17, 2012.)
These jobs have been replaced by computers, robots and software. They are not coming back. Electronics further polarizes the job market, creating a tiny few highly-skilled jobs at one pole while eliminating the need for any skills at all at the other.
Consequently, millions of workers who depended on the jobs of the Industrial Era for a “middle class lifestyle” are finding their lives disintegrating through foreclosures, debt slavery, government termination of pensions and corporate termination of health care.
So if you have no job, are you still part of the working class? Whether you actually are able to work or not, if you have no other way to make money except by working, you are still in the working class. The rapidly growing sector of people who will never work (since corporations refuse to provide the jobs) is the fastest growing “new class” in history.
What kind of jobs will there be in the future? According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released on February 1, 2012, entitled Employment Projections 2010-2020:
è “Two-thirds of the 30 occupations projected to have the largest number of new jobs typically require less than a postsecondary education, no related work experience, and short- or moderate-term on-the-job training….”
è “The four detailed occupations expected to add the most employment are registered nurses (712,000), retail salespersons (707,000), home health aides (706,000), and personal care aides (607,000)….”
è “In occupations in which a master’s degree is typically needed for entry, employment is expected to grow by 21.7 percent, faster than the growth rate for any other education category.”
The polarization of the job market is obvious here. Jobs requiring a Masters are growing fastest, but this is and will continue to be the section with a tiny number of jobs relative to job seekers. Not too many jobs for Americans here.
What about nurses, retail sales, home health and personal care aides? Are these jobs paying enough to sustain a family on? Welcome to the Brave New World of “permatemps”.
The extensive quotes below, from “Temp Worker Nation: If You Do Get Hired. It Might Not Be For Long” are included to deomnstrate how the workforce is being re-organized into contingent, part-time, just-in-time, jobs:
è “Their ranks include writers and warehouse workers, janitors and business consultants, truck drivers and graphic designers—and their number is rising. Richard Greenwald, a sociologist of work and professor at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, estimates that their share of the U.S. workforce has increased by close to half in the last 10 years. In July, Staffing Industry Analysts reported that the average share of contingent workers at companies it surveyed had gone up by one-third since 2009, to 16 percent. Last year, a different survey found that contingent workers averaged 22 percent of the workers at 200 large companies.
“These workers are often called the “precariat,” a combination of “precarious” and “proletariat,” because the traditional social safety nets for workers don’t cover them. They have no job security as they hustle from one gig to the next, and they often don’t know where their next job is coming from or when it will come. They very rarely get paid sick days or vacation. They don’t get paid extra for working overtime. They are usually not eligible for unemployment benefits. They generally have to pay both the worker’s and the employer’s share of Social Security taxes. They have to pay for their own health insurance, and Obamacare won’t change that.”
è “The number has risen significantly in the last 15 years, Greenwald says, and the pace has increased since the recession began, with many new jobs “permatemps.” This trend affects workers at all income levels, but the fastest-growing sector is college graduates in “creative” fields. In the last few years, book publishers and advertising agencies have outsourced their graphic designers, hiring them back as freelancers with no benefits. Many publishers now hire editors on a per-manuscript basis.”
è “This is not just a recession-induced thing, he says. It reflects a long-term change in the economy. Since the 1980s, management’s philosophy has evolved to “look at work as projects.” Instead of keeping workers on staff to perform all tasks needed, they outsource them or hire consultants.”
è “This gives companies tremendous flexibility without any risk,” Greenwald says. “Flexibility” means they don’t have to keep people on the payroll during slack periods, pay them when they’re sick, pay for their health insurance, or obey workplace regulations. This, he says, has “shifted all the risks that large institutions used to have onto the backs of individuals.
“It’s a great business model, but as a social model, it doesn’t work,” he (Greenwald) explains. Essentially, it means that the world of work is becoming more like the music business, in which a handful of superstars get rich and a minority of professionals have steady work with benefits, but most workers have to scuffle for intermittent, low-paying gigs, and hard work and talent are worthless without marketing skills, clout and charisma. “The bar to get in is low, but the ability to make a living is harder and harder,” he says.”
è “At the Nissan auto factory in Canton, Mississippi, more than 20 percent of the 4,400 workers are temps, according to the Labor Notes monthly newsletter. The company says it plans to hire 1,000 new workers this year, but all will be temporary. The temps start at $12 an hour, below what permanent workers earn, and workers say no temp has ever been permanently hired at the plant. Even at Ford’s Detroit-area plants, the classic bastion of union industrial labor, local activist Dianne Feeley, a retired United Auto Workers member, says a significant percentage of workers are temps or contract workers.”
The picture is pretty clear. Electronics doesn’t just eliminate jobs entirely. It replaces human labor so readily that corporations don’t need, and won’t pay, millions of workers for a 40 hour week, what was consider essential to the maintenance of life and family in the Industrial Era. There’s no middle class in this picture.
It is also clear that society is not going to go back. This requires abandoning the naïve illusions and myths of capitalism and beginning to base the fight on the needs of the entire working class, essentially the entirety of the 99%.
Real “Jobs of the Future”
A “job” is an expression of the political power of a class. Without public debate, US society ceded the power to corporations to determine what a “job” is. They won’t pay for it if it does not increase their private profit. Yet if you walk out the door and ask the first ten people you meet what jobs are necessary for their community, they will produce a list a mile long.
Most of these jobs require nurturing and building real people, not corporate people. The needs are everywhere: satellite clinics as part of a system of real health care for all, really exciting childcare, real elder care, educating the whole person so they can be lifelong learners, paying people to make contributions of all kinds to their communities, scientific research to halt Global Warming rather than “war for our lifetimes”, healing the environment, re-organizing food production to develop local sources, developing magnificent culture of all kinds, etc, etc. All these jobs will produce precious little corporate profit, but will yield up massive social profit that will benefit all people equally.
At the heart, the successful resolution of each of these issues turns on the question of class. After World War II, for example, the federal government was prepared to guarantee health care in the US as was being done in Europe. Southern politicians simply refused to allow this right to be extended to African-Americans. Thus a political right for the public was reduced to a market privilege for those who could pay. For a society that is divided into two classes, this is ever the choice: either rights guaranteed to all or a privatized world where the public no longer exists as a legal entity. There is no longer a middle ground. This time around, as the old slogan says, it’s all of us or none of us.
A real society for all is at hand if we wrench the control of society from the hands of corporations. The only thing that prevents working people from being on the same accord is a set of ideological myths that were never valid in any real way for the majority of Americans. Seeing clearly, uniting as people based on our common interests as human beings, we have a world to win. As we are seeing, this is no longer an abstraction - it’s becoming urgent.