The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
— William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us”, 1807
To Hell with the Middle Class!
Oh, wait. They’re already there. At least that’s what David Roediger argues in his new book The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History. There is no there there worth saving. Fuck it.
What is it even? One minute it’s this, another minute it’s that. Did you ever notice, all couched up on the sofa, watching Titanic that there’s all kinds of talk of the upper classes in the upper berths and the lower classes in the lower earths, blueblood English atop and Derry brogues below, but there’s no sign or mention of the middle class. It’s like there isn’t one on the ship. Unless it was supposed to be hungry artist Leo and slumming romancer Kate coming and coming together, all compromised midship.
Or, maybe the middle class is, like, Dylan sitting at home watching the movie, inspired to write a song about it, that doesn’t mention the 1% or the 99% or any percent of class at all. Fuck, he doesn’t even mention the iceberg. Or maybe the middle class is the viewer, the disappearing act between, a kind of choral commentator on the real action, a buffer between the Haves and Nots, sinking in the Corinthian leather sofa bought on credit at a 22% interest rate, while some generic ship-of-state sinks into the nameless sea.
Roediger has a go at the whole lot. He unpacks history to interrogate the baggage carried. He brings in pollsters and shysters and the Bushes and Clintons and Obamas to make sense of how the term ‘middle class’ is used to con people into voting. He consults surveys, the Fortune in men’s eyes as they view their post-war future lifestyles. He talks about old-timey working class types, the butler and milkmaid and the milkman who ran off with your mother (haben sie liebfraumilch?). He gives us Marx snarks, amorphous masses and shape-shifting shibboleths, anodynes and literary anecdotes, Trump’s deplorables and other basket cases, and hints at the revolution ahead when we let the middle class go fall, fell, fallen. Fuck it, let’s face reality together.
Roediger is a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. He has a long history of critical thinking and compelling articulation about race and class politics in America. His previous studies include Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All and The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. What makes Black and White is not so black and white. The Sinking Middle Class is an Introduction on the language of politics and an Afterword on the White Working Class sandwiched around chapters on the political Uses, Pretenses, Problems and Miseries of the Middle Class. As Roediger writes, “Each is meant to be short enough to read in three or four coffee breaks.”
Roediger’s first consideration in The Sinking Middle Class is to consider the language itself. Where did the term come from? What are some of the assumptions that come with its dissemination? Who’s in charge of its meaning and placement within the social narrative of class history. Roediger writes,
The term itself found little use until the last ninety years and not commonly until the Cold War…The strata we might retrospectively call the middle class of the nineteenth century (farmers, free professionals, and shopkeepers) differed utterly from those of twentieth (clerks, salespeople, employed professionals, and managers).
As we become more and more entwined in electricity and speed of light communications it can be difficult to ‘remember’ the slower, black and white ways of the pre-Internet.
We can intuitively recall a stratiated class structure–poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, and rich, with degrees of leaching into the contiguous class. One knew he belonged to the lower middle class (if he thought about it at all consciously) when he couldn’t afford to send his talented kid to Groton School, but wasn’t struggling too much to put a roof over the family and lay out three squares on the table for the family. But, says Roediger,
Over the last thirty years self-serving, vague, and often empty political rhetoric regarding saving the “middle class” has provided the language for rightward political motion finding its way even into unions. Put forward first by the Democrats, it has debased how we understand social divisions in the United States and sidelined meaningful discussions of justice in both class and racial terms.
Somewhere along the line upper middle class on down got grouped as one body–for political purposes, but it’s a fatuous grouping.
You might see it as a way of forcing bloc-voting; a lazy way of approaching the social. economic and moral issues of the day–by trivializing nuance and difference (even as the same old class exclusions applied). And we use the news to deliver these messages, led to believe the ads are objective and balanced bits of information. Roediger lays into this McLuhan effect. Writes Roediger,
The U.S. writer Waldo Frank [writes] in The Re-Discovery of America that “THE NEWS IS A TOY”—that is, a seemingly wonderful novelty and one immediately requiring replacement by a new wonder…the “news item” is overwhelmingly the sound bite of alleged political news, and that “anodyne” must now be in boldface….
I’m reminded of a scene from Boston Legal where the toyfulness of news, and the media in general, is unpacked in the courtroom.
So news, as anodyne, becomes part of the political packaging, part of the show, to be taken, ultimately, as no more serious than the campaign promises. A surreal onslaught, every four years, on the delicate balance between our ears called consciousness, an ecosystem every bit as precious as rainforest. There are laugh tracks, practiced ponderments, tearful moments of William Hurt layer peelings of imagined empathy. But we persist in believing the news, even when they refuse to tell us what we need to know. Roediger writes,
Many of us desire those electoral news items, desperately wanting to be seen as the first to know them, and count that as being engaged in politics … even radicals follow the example of TV pundits in relying on the most quickly available voting data to construct simplistic definitions of class that have little to do with social relations.
Even radicals, and Roediger’s not being snarky or ironical. Shit happens.
Michael Dukakis getting bushwhacked by Bernard Shaw, the latter asking him what he’d do if his wife, Kitty, was raped by Willie “Furlough” Horton becomes laugh track roast material fit for Comedy Central. One recalls this moment of “live” TV (future generations only get this moment and none of the debate, where Dukakis excelled), and Roediger briefly references the moment, a moment racially charged, a Black man asking what a white man of power would do to a Black man If–an impossible question to answer, and we clapped with gleeful little schadenfreude hands as one of the few promising poli’s careers went down the ‘terlit’ (as Archie Bunker would say) and his wife returned to heavy drinking. Maybe that was the silver lining to the moment: Kitty was spared four years of journos clinking her ice cubes (real or imagined).
This cheapening and potentially toxic blend of shallow politics and Madison Avenue massaging was, says Roediger, turned into an art form by consultant and pollster Stanley Greenberg working the Clinton campaign in 1992. Greenberg helped turn Macomb County into a Middle Class Melting Pot America by the careful gathering of data points and manipulation of their results. Writes Roediger:
Greenberg theorized a middle class roughly interchangeable with an alleged white working class—their votes available for the mining in countless electoral campaigns. In the process, he made a suburban, almost entirely white Michigan county seem to be the key to all “progressive” possibility.
As Macomb goes, so goes the nation, was the meme and theme. Another ad, with toothpaste.
Roediger writes that Greenberg referred to his own “working class” background, starting out a white Jewish family living in an all-Black D.C. neighborhood and then migrating to “middle class” Silver Spring, as some kind of street cred he gave himself for “understanding” these categories more fluently than others. But, notes Roediger,
Sympathizing with Macomb County’s suburban workers was nominally available as a result of his own suburban upbringing, but his capacity for understanding them owed more to academic study and political experience than acknowledged personal affinity.
One could argue that such ‘owing to’ is also a valid critique of Marxist scholars among the hoi polloi: They don’t always live the misery, like Studs Terkel, say; often, the best they can do, over crullers and coffee, is sympathize with the Plight.
Roediger notes that in his book, Politics and Poverty, Greenber offers up to the “migrating lower class” what Roediger calls three “Goldilock” scenarios of movement, choices with limited and pre-assigned values. He clarifies by saying:
They could have remained “indifferent and uninvolved” where politics was concerned; they could have “become power brokers . . . tinkering and bargaining for their share;” or, they could have refused to “tinker” and instead entered a radical “confrontation with history.”
Most people chose middle course, writes Roediger, between what really amounted to “a pair of Manichean choices.”
Woven into the fabric of this “Macomb-over” was the cheery “progressive” rhetoric of Stanley Greenberg’s 1995 book, Middle Class Dreams, a collection of stories of people’s everyday lives. A book about how every half, half lived, who wasn’t rich, and so was placed somewhere in the continuum of Middle Class struggles. These struggles and tales of weal woe were captured in the film, The War Room (1993). “Greenberg’s stories of Macomb County mix personal triumph and national salvation promiscuously.” writes Roediger. But read critically, he goes on, “They illuminate how issues of race, class, and power came to be effaced even by those most claiming credit for discussing them electorally in the neoliberal United States.” Massaged and manipulated. Still, for all his savvy, Greenberg is at a loss to later explain how Trump happened.
Roediger explains how this magical kabuki show helped Republicans later attract “Reagan Democrats” and he points to Pete Hamill’s late-60s article, “The Revolt Of The White Lower Middle Class,” in New York that “portentously” spoke to the rising unaddressed tension “the working class, trade union, white, beleaguered, ignored, presumptively male figure who turned from New Deal loyalties to vote for Ronald Reagan in the 1980 and 1984 elections.” These said-samers would later graduate to basket case ‘deplorables.’ A more recent article on this topic is offered up by Joan Williams in a Harvard Business Review article, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class,” that Roediger unpacks.
This mishmash of ‘folk’ became the subject of a new “technique” called, familiarly now, focus groups, “gathering … people associated demographically and often interviewing them collectively for an extended period, an expensive practice that had previously been used more by Republicans (indeed, the Focus group technique became the Hero of the 1996 Russian election when American consultants–and the Clinton administration–were rushed in to rescue Yeltsin’s campaign: at least, that’s what we were told.). But says Roediger, this snapshot of Macomb County, as described by Clinton and Greenberg, was actually “an exaggeration, a caricature of America.” We’ve been caricatures ever since. He adds, “Nothing in the setup of the research and little in MCD reflected the integrated workplaces and unions in which many in Macomb also existed.” And questions of race were not addressed at all. What racism? The Clinton appeal to assuaging white anxiety backfired, and Hillary, argues Roediger, “paid in 2016 for the race-saturated pro-incarceration rhetoric—Black youth as ‘superpredators’—she and her husband had traded on in appealing to Macomb County’s middle-class dreams in the 1990s.”
Barack Obama also got caught up (willingly) in the lampoon of political demographics. He “deftly liquidated the issue of how a country with such astronomical rates of poverty could be almost all middle class. He defined the middle class as “not only folks who are currently [in] the middle class, but also people who aspire to be in the middle class.” Aspire to be. Hope and Change. Bit this begins to get us into Nora Zeale Hurston country. She once explained how ‘folks’ came to be possessed by the sympathetic power of voodoo: If you want to understand voodoo: believe. It really is like the ol’ tush-grabbing Bush once said of Reaganomics–voodoo, and the Press is there to church us. It’s a plutocracy, where the 1% witch doctor gets to stick it to the 99% Middle Class for fun and exercise of power.
Sanders and Clinton weren’t much better than Obama and Romney, Roediger says, in determining what constitutes Middle Class, “ballparking “below $250,000” annual family income as the benchmark of middle-class membership, though limiting its use to details of tax policy.” Ironically, it seems, then, that by the time You-Know-Who became president, quite a few million people were just plain tired of the political-demographic bullshit. He writes:
Trump presented himself as a modern political leader uniquely unmoved by pretending affinity with the middle class. He bragged repeatedly of his 1 percent status.Overemphasizing his self-made success and deemphasizing his debts, he courted being seen as filthy rich.
He didn’t pretend to be ‘one of us’ and it greatly helped his cause.
Later, Roediger contrasts such focus groups with surveys taken by Fortune magazine before, during and after WWII. Of special interest to him is Fortune’s 1942 survey that asks a series of class-bound questions, including identification and expectations. He takes issue with “Fortune’s assertion that a startling four-fifths of a nation barely off the skids claimed to be middle class has meant its survey is still cited even today” and “It exulted that the nation remained impervious to the formation of ;any self-conscious proletariat such as a Marxist would wish for.’” Roediger notes, however, Fortune’s playfulness in suggesting that “one American in four favored socialism, with another 35 percent reporting having ‘an open mind’ on the issue.” It’s an interesting snapshot of our culture, and well worth a perusal. Here.
But for all his linguistic grappling with the definition, trends and usefulness of the term ‘Middle Class,’ and American Exceptionalism (to which it’s linked), Roediger saves his best for demolishing its presumed allure. It’s a miserable place to be. He lets Marx throw a haymaker, warming up with the reminder that
The precise term “American exceptionalism” came much later and amidst rich irony. One recent account has it originating from Stalin, who in 1929 was searching for a name for a heresy within the world Communist movement he dominated.
But, actually, says Roediger, Marx tells us that the “middle classes” will propogate and that they exist to consume “the surplus bounty produced in the factories by workers,” leading to a Keeping Up with the Joneses, financed by credit debt, leading to a life of “falling and fear of falling,” such as that described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Fear of Falling. Today’s debt slaves. The New Middle Class.
Misery is the picture Roediger paints. He brings in literary figures to illustrate, such as Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the law clerk who “prefers not to” do anymore work, who fades in toiling, losing himself, wasting away. (Not mentioned by Roediger, but apropos, is Melville’s own misery as he toiled as a clerk to support his writing and saw his time and energy and talent waste away. This is something Tillie Olsen picks up on in “Ways of Being Silent,” her fine essay in Harper’s October 1965 issue, almost suggesting Moby Dick was an obsession with writing itself.). Roediger emphasizes that “If we see the middle class as a plight as well as a perch, we can understand something of why many workers see themselves simultaneously as middle class, working class, and living impossible lives.”
He sees misery in the cube, “the tomb where a majority of office workers spend much of their lives,” as detailed in Nikil Saval’s Cubed. Willy Loman and The Death of A Salesman are brought in to express the tragedy of a culture consumed with buying and selling, in a transactional existence, an “embourgeoisement” nobody can fathom. “Loman’s fall and death—a suicide after a series of failed attempts—come not at once but over a lifetime of misery,” Roediger tells us. He writes, “Much of the misery of the middle class fits well within narratives of sudden descent in material terms,” and one recalls how the just before the Towers fell into freefall their middles sagged, and suddenly even images of 9/11 takes on the almost taunting, half-baked truths of memes.
The Sinking Middle Class offers few specific solutions (typical of the Left these days), but it is a good read that points to the vacuity of our central premises regarding what it means to be American and, presumably, Middle Class–at least until the next Credit Report comes rolling with the news of our demise, or, much to our delighted surprise, an opportunity to have our credit limit raised. The book was written before the COVID-19 pandemic began, and it would be interesting to know what Roediger’s response would be to its near certain revolutionary impact on American Exceptionalism.
Corona may be a blessing in disguise, bringing about an end to commerce as usual, a freefall of a class designation not worth saving, and a revolution nobody can do anything about in an America beset with so many vectors of turmoil that starting over may be the only viable answer.
With any luck, a solar flare will knock out our grids, so that we can get back to the business of being human, face-to-face.
John Hawkins is an American freelance journalist currently residing in Australia. His poetry, commentary, and reviews have appeared in publications here, in Europe, and in the USA. He is a regular contributor to Counterpunch magazine.