The Human Condition:

Absent the Middle Class – August 30, 2020

Girl with magic box

I was born just after the Second World War, which means I grew up and became politically aware—or at least what I think of as “aware”—in the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. This was a time when the United States was the “last man standing” among the nations that participated in the war, and we came out better than any on either side. We had our infrastructure intact and had built up a huge capacity in raw materials like steel and aluminum as well as manufacturing due to the war effort. We were on top of the world.

That was also the time when the middle class in America was doing its best. Soldiers returning from the war were getting free education on the GI Bill. Homes were being built in newly defined and rapidly expanding suburbs. Business was booming and, even with the returning soldiers, jobs were plentiful. Most people—there were exceptions, of course, especially in the Jim Crow South—were prospering as never before. It was the good times.

The middle class is a relatively new thing in human history. It didn’t really develop until political and social structures had changed: urban life became commonplace, rather than the exception; and capitalism, the free market, and international trade became encoded with commonly accepted practices and rules, rather than just things that happened casually at the village level. The middle class was the place where people who were not nobles and landowners, yet too ambitious and too well educated to remain peasants, could find profitable employment and eventually riches by engaging in large-scale trade outside of selling butter and eggs on market day, or manufacturing outside of single-family cottage industry, or taking on the new roles in banking and legal transactions that supported these intermediate activities.

The middle class was for people with hopes and ideas, for those who sought independence from the old social classes, for those who wanted to do better than their fathers and grandfathers, for those who hungered to prove that they were as good as anyone and a damned sight better than most. It was the class of the feisty ones.

From Roman times and into the Middle Ages and then the Renaissance, the landed class, the nobles and the gentry, despised these strivers. Going into trade or handling money professionally was all about getting your hands dirty. And while anyone might admire a legally trained mind in the Roman Senate or a lawyer at court doing the king’s business, the sort of person who argued about the price of injury to a cow or the placement of a fence line was little better than a conniver and a con man in his lordship’s domain.

And of course the peasants, lately serfs, and still working the land that their father’s had farmed and sharing the proceeds with the lord of the manor, all viewed members of the middle class as social upstarts, the big men from town, whose fathers might have been the local blacksmith or miller, and whose grandfathers had been serfs like the rest of us. People who wore britches and waistcoats rather than the peasant’s smock were already getting too big for themselves.

So the middle class has been under suspicion and under fire for a long time. It wasn’t just idle animosity that made Karl Marx and the other socialists of the 19th and 20th centuries despise the middle class with its striving and materialistic values as “bourgeois”—which is just the French word for this class—or worse, “petit bourgeois,” as if they were too small to be significant. And why not? When the politics you’re selling involves state ownership of the means of production, and puts them all in the hands of appointed technocrats, or the revolutionary vanguard, or the modern equivalent of Plato’s philosopher kings, then the people who know how to handle their own or their neighbors’ business practices and money, who will start new enterprises simply because they think they can make a profit from them, and who will obey rules but not wait patiently on instruction from their betters—these people are the bureaucrats’ natural enemies. These are the people who will upset the serenely floating boat of socialistic doctrine and practice. And so these are the people who must be the first to go up against the wall.

And the peasants, the modern blue-collar workers, the ones who are content to do what they are told and lack the ambition or the education to go out and start their own businesses, even as house painters and contractors—they will be quite happy to work in a factory owned by the moneybags class with protections from their union, or work in the factory owned by the state with those same protections in place according to state law, and still have their union—if that’s even needed. The fate of those middlemen, professionals, and entrepreneurs is irrelevant to the new peasant class, at least at the surface of their minds.1

The middle class has always been in, well, the middle, between two classes that would just as happily see it disappear. And the middle class is disappearing these days. Not only is the upper class getting bigger—in terms of its power if not its numerical size—with wealth beyond the dream of kings and emperors of old. But the lower class is also getting bigger, with more people finding it harder to get the education and the good jobs that will enable them to enter the middle class as professionals, business owners, and independent traders. It is getting harder to own a house rather than rent, buy a new car instead of a used one or a lease, ensure your children a good education, take annual trips on your vacation—if you even get one while working two jobs—and plan for a comfortable retirement.

The middle class is being squeezed. Whether this is a planned process or just the natural course of modern economics,2 it’s happening. It has been going on in every decade of my life since I became politically aware. And I don’t know if it’s because the upper class and the Marxists do well when the majority of the people are more dependent on government and the largesse of big corporations than on their own initiative, or because we’ve lost something of the entrepreneurial spirit that fed bright and hopeful people into the middle class.

But something’s missing. And neither the top nor the bottom seems to notice or care.

1. If the peasant or the blue-collar worker thinks deeply, however, he will wonder where the technologies and inventions of the modern age—electricity, telephones and televisions, personal computers and smartphones, numerous medical advances, and easy credit and banking—all came from, if not from the entrepreneurial spirit of those who have their philosophical roots, if not their family background, in the middle class. But I digress …

2. As Robert A. Heinlein noted: “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded—here and there, now and then—are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as ‘bad luck.’ ”