of course i'm middle class, aren't you?

so this weekend, i was talking with a group of very intelligent friends of mine about progressivism, politics and america's class structure (among other topics). and an extremely intelligent, thoughtful, progressive and caring friend of mine said (and i paraphrase), "the middle class serves as a weight to prevent excessive volatility [which he understood as essentially bad] in the electoral cycle/politics. the current erosion of the middle class--the increased inequality/stratification of class structure in america--is possibly/probably leading to dictatorships of both the right and the left."

now because i'm picky and obsessed with discourse (and post-structuralism and all that), i immediately spoke up, basically saying that the middle class is both a myth and a rhetorical tool (or are these often the same thing? i'm not in a position to say), a grouping which lacks almost any unifying feature (and certainly anything that can be defined by the vast majority of those to whom it is applied) and an identity which both (nearly) everyone (in america) and no one applies to her/himself. you know, really succinct and well-phrased and -reasoned and all, just like that. anyways, i wasn't really satisfied with what i said at the time (i'd had a few drinks in me by then), so i would feel better if i wrote some of it out here, just to get it in written form, with proper grammar and un-slurred words and all that fun stuff.

so the first part is "what is the middle class?" in america, we're taught from a very early age all about self-reliance, how anything is possible if we try and how our (financial and social) failures are our own damn faults. we're taught about the acres of diamonds (sorry for the pop-ups, but i'm always surprised the number of people that have never heard of that, since i remember it very clearly from high school american history), pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps, social mobility and whatnot. the corollary of which being that if we're all able to completely change our standing in our own lives, by our own agency, we're neither impoverished (and thus stuck in a poverty so deep that we cannot escape) nor exceedingly wealthy (and thus so well off that we will never need to worry about our wealth, no matter how poorly we might spend it). we're all middle class. of course. now, mind you, i have no real statistical tests to back up my claims, but i've got some fancy excel-generated graphics from the folks over at wikipedia, which im for the sake of convenience going to assume to be accurate. anyways, what it basically shows, if you look at the graph right under "income distribution", is that rather than following any sort of "normal curve", the distribution is heavily skewed to the left (poverty), tapering off dramatically at the right (extreme wealth--also, keep in mind that the top two columns are actually in increments of $50k, rather than $10k, so there's not really a "bump" at the right). elsewhere on the page (actually, immediately above) it defines the "middle 33%" of income (i think this is the median rather than the mean, but its not really clearly stated) as between $30k and $62.5k. so that's theoretically the "middle class" there, i suppose, possibly including something on either end, or excluding, depending on how big a middle class you want there. looking at the graph, there's very little there to suggest that the middle class exists as a separate "population", or can even be at all statistically defined. well, duh, its a sociological term, right? the main point is, that there is no break, nor even a "bump" on the graph to suggest that there exists, in the distribution of incomes in the US, a distinctive tri-part division of "classes". it would have been nice to have found a normal curve, thus dividing it into the bump and two tails, but that's not happening. what we do see is, after an initial steep increase in incidence (denoting relatively few people in extreme poverty), a nice, gradual slope down from a large section of the population which is relatively poorer to a small segment that is relatively richer.

ok, so i even did a little background research (on wikipedia, again, sorry), and read a bit further down the table to the part about "social class". distilling it a bit, it basically assumes a strong correlation between occupation, education, income and some place on the "social hierarchy". which is probably fair enough, but it's good to note those assumptions, since i'm gonna pick on them a few paragraphs further on. anyways, the thing i wanted to note is the division between classes (four here)--upper, middle, working and lower (poor). anyways, the upper class are households with an income of "$500k or more", the middle class are those "with incomes considerably above-average [sic]", the working class are those with "little economic security" and the poor are those in poverty, basically (the national poverty line for a family of four (and of course we're assuming 2.5 kids here) in 2006 was $20k). so there's that.

ok, but what is the middle class meant to be? i would assume that most people would assume that "class" is some sort of identity, and that's a convenient (for my analysis, of course) assumption, i think. identities are things that link people--people sharing identities live in similar places, work in similar jobs, participate in similar activities, share a common worldview and socialize with each other (to the exclusion, of course, of those outside that identity). in many ways, the middle class is a perfect example of identity--the middle class can often be found in suburban and light-urban areas, they work in safe service-industry jobs, they often join athletic leagues, book clubs, neighborhood associations and, above all, work to raise the next generation (or at least say they do) and usually their friends are people they live near, people they work with and people they know through their activities. in america, i think it would be pretty easy to jump to the assumption that this middle class is overwhelmingly white, straight and english-speaking. so what is special about a class, relative to other identities (white, american, male, southern, gay, etc.)? the essential thing is that class is explicitly hierarchical. while it would be pretty easy to say that men are "ranked" above women in this society, and straights above gays, and whites above blacks, and so on and so forth, class is more than anything a way of telling you, explicitly and in no uncertain terms, where you stand in society. even more explicity, it is a way of ranking, from 1 to 280,000,000, how important each person is to society. someone of the extreme upper class is "more important" (to whom? to what? to society, and to all of us, it would seem) than someone living in a medium-sized home in a suburb, and then that person is more important again than someone living in a slum, or living on the street.

so, while all identities are hierarchical, this one which is both internally and externally ascribed (i believe i am of a certain class, and others, depending on their experiences, will believe i am of a certain class, and often these will align, though many times they will not) is the one for which it is most necessary to keep in mind the relative and exclusionary nature of identities--i am gay because i am not straight, i am woman because i am not man, i am white because i am not black, i am rich because i am not poor. i am middle class because i am not...either really wealthy or really poor? ok, so maybe the "middle class" then constitutes more a sort of "norm" than any sort of essntial "identity". maybe, perhaps in the way that all "norms" almost constitute some "unmarked identity", it's actually both (see the essay below about women and the Other, i guess, since i can't put footnotes in here easily). so its maybe a norm that acts like an identity, in some cases. which then i suppose accounts for the fact that it's in no way statistically the majority or even statistically visible. ok, fine. point conceded. but i think the more important thing is that it is thought of as something between both, in that it is certainly the "norm" in american society, but it is still something that is positively ascribed, many, many people actively assume themselves to be part of it while other facets of their lives--income, occupation, neighborhood, etc.--will tend to point them away from being "middle class".

so what does this say politically? i would assume that most other identities and norms tend to group people who vote similarly. the problem is that, in the american electorate, i would assume that income is a fairly poor indicator of political leanings. most blacks are more socially conservative than i, though they would disagree with whites with similar incomes on the topic of government expenditures and foreign policy, i would assume. those of the middle class are split geographically and racially, along the lines of religion, language and general upbringing. many have commented previously on how the "republicans have tricked the poor [whites] into voting against their economic interests". if economic interests are indeed the most important determinants of voting behavior, then the rich should invariably vote for conservatives espousing zero redistribution and the poor invariably for liberals espousing robin hood policies. and then the middle class should be left somewhere in the middle either opting for no redistribution, or maximum redistribution, or something in the middle, i guess, depending on their place in the middle class, their route to arrive there, their aspirations, their mood, and of course the prevailing winds, to name but a few. but that's not really the case, voting (and politics) is determined by ideology, not pure economic calculations. and, at least in my view, ideology is fundamentally not about someone's experience with the world, but the way in which that person has been taught to view the world. which is passed down between old and young, and young and young, and old and old, and young and old, through religion, through education, through casual chats at the supermarket.

so then what would a large middle class really have to do with promoting "moderation" in government? and what effect does the increase in inequality have on a middle class that is more an ideal than an actual fact? if we all believe we're middle class anyways, does it really matter if we are or not if we're actually voting with our heads and not our wallets? i'm gonna go ahead and say "not much, not much, and no".

so the middle class is a construction then, fine. i feel like i've proven it to myself, though the above essay seems a bit incoherent to actually convince many others, i guess. just because it's a construction, not an essential, "real" object, doesn't mean that it's not real. it's real because our culture gives it significance and weight and because that weight carries power. it's a discursive strategy, that allows for self-evident piece of "moderation". society is then defined, because of course the middle class must be the norm, as something which tends towards its center, needing balance between both the right and the left. if society were actually a binary division, rather than a two-tailed normal curve, the middle would need not exist, and thus neither would compromise, similarly, if society is skewed one way or another, it would detract from those who either advocate or fight against redistribution (depending on the skew of society). the "middle class" is thus a placation strategy. and because society then "tends towards its center", it inherently sustains its status quo. for me, in many ways, the "middle class" is complacency on a number of issues, usually revolving around/stemming from poverty and inequality, which really don't demand complacency or compromise, but action. radical revolution if you will, or if you won't, perhaps a large-scale redistribution of wealth. but the fact remains that the "middle class" remains a rhetorical strategy of postponement and maintenance of the status quo.

god, i sound like such a marxist, reading back on this. catch us next time for another exciting episode of "workers of the world, unite!"