In the current U.S. presidential campaign, the “middle-class” is a key theme and reference point.
Barack Obama and the Democrats claim that they are seeking to “protect” the middle-class, while accusing Mitt Romney and the Republicans of attempting to “hurt” the middle-class by cutting taxes for the wealthy, among other measures.
One speaker at the Democratic National Convention, Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, explicitly stated: “Their [GOP] theory has been tested. It failed. Our economy failed. The middle class paid the price. Your family paid the price. Mitt Romney just doesn’t get it.”
I'm not entirely certain who or what the “middle-class” is anymore. I assume it means those people who earn enough money to pay the monthly mortgage payment on their house, with enough left-over to pay for food, gas and clothes, and perhaps an annual vacation.
However, many people I would normally have considered “working class” (i.e., auto workers and construction laborers, etc.) call themselves “middle-class” in America. Part of it is perception and class mis-identification (or perhaps self-delusion).
Since the onset of the devastating recession of 2007-2008, millions of Americans likely fell out of “middle-class” status, whether they admit it or not.
In any case, my father, though born in rural poverty, became a highly-educated and successful civil engineer... so I think I was raised middle-class and remain so in my adulthood.
But, I have a confession to make... I hate the middle-class and everything it seems to stand for (even though I am a reluctant member of that “tribe”).
From my perspective, the middle-class is all about consumerism, materialism and “grasping” -- i.e., looking down on the poor and-working class, resenting and envying the wealthy, and doing whatever it takes to keep from slipping down that ladder.
Thus, the middle-class is stuck in a kind of limbo.
Economists and others claim that a modern nation needs a “stable” middle-class to ensure a peaceful and secure state. This may be true -– as long as millions of middle-class people are well-fed and addicted to TV they will be satiated and not revolt against the power structure.
Although they (secretly) hate the rich, they are willing to do the dirty work to keep the poor (whom they hate even more) from rising in society.
Even worse, the middle-class does not “create” anything of value – they simply “consume.” Yes, they (we) pay taxes and keep public services going, which is fine. But art and culture – that is, the kinds of things that will last forever – are typically created by those who are clearly not part of the fat, bourgeoisie middle-class.
This is true in the United States, Western Europe and in India – anywhere with a substantial middle-class.
One of the bitterest facts of life is that great culture – books, music, poetry, art, etc.. – usually come from either the comfortable rich or the marginalized poor (and often in societies in which human rights and equality are in short supply).
Consider the United States, in which the vaunted middle-class has existed since the end of the Second World War, and grew largely through the huge expansion of affordable homes in the suburbs and the interstate highway system.
What 'great culture' have Americans created since that time?
Yes, the U.S. has built atomic bombs (largely from the expertise of physicists from Europe) and eventually sent men to the moon. Post-war Americans have made tremendous technological advancements that have revolutionized the world.
But in terms of culture – and I don't consider television or rock-and-roll as “culture”, although I enjoy such diversions – the United States has floundered over the past two or three generations.
Culture in America is dead, largely because the middle-class does not care about such things.
The middle-class is only interested in feeding itself, buying TVs and washing machines (and now iPhones and iPads), and enjoying a comfortable retirement.
But, Americans once did create fantastic cultural achievements -- Mark Twain, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James and a multitude of others blessed us with works of art that will never vanish from the consciousness of thoughtful, intelligent people.
But guess what... virtually all these great creative talents grew up in a society which was cruel, tough and unfair (and which really had no “middle-class” nor “safety nets” to speak of).
Take the immortal “Satchmo” – he was born at the very bottom of society, a desperately poor black kid from the ferociously segregated and violent Deep South of the early 1900s. What prospects did he have in life? What kind of future could have envisioned for himself?
However, despite the monumental odds against him (extreme poverty, entrenched racism, etc.), he became one of the dominant entertainers of the 20th century, beloved everywhere across the globe.
Armstrong was as far from “middle-class” as one could possibly get. Through sheer hard work, persistence (in tandem with a transcendent natural talent and charm) he climbed out of the hole he was born into and scaled the heights of fame and superstardom. Perhaps he was motivated by the deprivation and horrors of his childhood to escape that existence.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, consider Henry James, one of the finest novelists that the U.S. has ever produced (although he lived and worked mostly in Britain and Europe).
Born to a very wealthy blue-blood family in New York, James could avail himself of frequent travel and the best tutors money could buy – he lacked for nothing. Light years beyond “middle class” (which barely even existed during his youth), he produced masterpieces including ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ ‘The Wings of the Dove,’ and ‘Daisy Miller.’
I will concede that in post-WW2 America, a number of superb artists emerged: Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Frank Sinatra, and a number of others.
But precious few of these artists originated in middle-class suburbia. The one exception I can think of is jazz great Miles Davis -- but as a black drug addict, he, too, was remote from the mainstream.
Also, consider Hollywood – America’s wildly successful and globally influential film industry. Perhaps the most (commercially) heralded director has been Steven Spielberg, who has created one massively successful blockbuster after another for what seems like an eternity.
By any stretch of the imagination, Spielberg cannot be considered a “great” filmmaker, at least not on the same level as Alfred Hitchcock, Vittorio De Sica, Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, among others.
With a few exceptions, Spielberg’s films – which are basically special effects extravanganzas lacking in any real cinematic value – appeal to the middle classes, who have made him richer than Croesus. His movies are the equivalent of the junk food served at McDonalds and Burger King (both fabulously profitable companies).
Spielberg, incidentally, comes from a decidedly bland, middle-class, generic suburban background.
The middle-class produces selfish, materialistic consumers – they contribute almost nothing to the cultural or intellectual enrichment of this society. Absolutely nothing.
Let the mindless consumption continue.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.