There has been a lot of talk lately about the disappearing middle class. And, indeed, the middle class as we know it is under serious attack. The postwar dream of suburban comfort is slowly fading. Attack is a loaded word though. I don’t think anyone has an active desire to eradicate this particular group for some reason, but it seems like, as we continue to face serious economic conditions, the burden is squarely placed on their backs. While the manufacture and labor economy that built the original middle class has long since disappeared, we are also still reeling from 2008’s economic disaster that was set off by the criminal practices of large financial institutions. Our economy lacks substance and the dollar is failing. The parts of our economy that are actually thriving, the corporate earnings and financial sector, are simply institutions centered on usury. They make money out of money and goods and services, innovation and technology, and even supply and demand are dwindling ideologies of a bygone era. The American Dream as we know it is coming to an end.
As corporate and financial institutions continue their Viking-style conquest of the free market, the suburban middle class is left to clean up the mess and pick up the tab. The burden is on the taxpayers. True, so don’t ever forget the rich and powerful pay no taxes. And as the poverty demographic expands, the suburban middle class is again responsible for stemming the tide through the expansion of much needed social service programs. From this perspective, the wealthy stay wealthy more from shirking responsibility than from creating benefits for society (which is what capitalism is supposed to be about, by the way). The corporate model is actually something like this: “Hire a workforce that will act as the gears of management. Their salaries will be decent enough to afford them a comfortable life, but we also know that through tax breaks, bailouts, and your standard consumerism, so much of that salary is coming back our way. We will also hire those we need for the labor details of our model: mostly third-world workers but also the janitors, the housemaids, the fast-food server. For them, we have a pittance of a salary, one that they technically can’t even live on, but no worries: that salary will be subsidized by the taxes taken out of our managerial middle class workforce.” This mammoth injustice is really the issue of our time, but it remains buried under the fog of party politics and hot button social-issue stalemates, and when a glimpse is caught, one can’t help but stagger.
But here is where the other middle class is lost. I suppose I’m inventing the phrase, but I mean the class between abject poverty and what we know as the suburban middle class. This is the class of a forgotten America; an America that is seldom acknowledged these days. It lies just over the horizon of time, right before the advent of mass media. It almost even seems like it was television itself that in drawing its box around what we consider reality, deliberately left out any trace of this other America. What I’m really talking about is freedom and independence. These were supposed to be the highest American ideals, not pathological consumption and greed. I’m talking about a life lived amongst the world: the passionate and active independence of Americans like Walt Whitman or Hemmingway, whose spirits were later invoked by the Beat Generation. What if you didn’t want to be middle class? What if you didn’t want to work all the time? What if you didn’t want to buy a car, a nice radio, a washer/dryer, a smartphone, a tablet PC, etc.? What if you valued time more than products? What if you wanted relationships instead of entertainment? What if you wanted community rather than locked-down safety?
There doesn’t seem to be a choice any longer. Wages stay low while prices climb. Whether purposeful or not, 40 hours of our week seems like a minimal requirement for survival, whether you make 150k or 30k a year. Why do we give so much of our lives away? We can do good work; we can create great things; we can be dedicated and selfless and altruistic and work hard. These are not bad qualities in the least. But, those values have become ensnared and co-opted by a power structure that extracts wealth, both literal and the wealth of the human spirit, from our society and gives very little back. That’s the real trickle of trickle-down economics: the miniscule stream of returns that we fight over. We are led to believe in its artificial scarcity. We are led to believe that those who keep the gates know the only path. The promise of freedom in America, upon which the country was founded, demands a drastically different life than the one we live.