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What We Talk About When We Talk About the Middle Class

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Beyond white picket fences and stable jobs, a longing for safety is out of reach for too many. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on hopeful visions — or the fight.

Joe Biden, your boomer uncle in the Democratic presidential primaries, has been trying to exhume an old rhetorical device — the fantasy that all Americans belong to a swell group known as the “middle class.” Last fall, he tweeted “Being middle class isn’t a number. It’s a value set. It’s about the issues that matter to every American family: a good education, economic opportunity, access to quality, affordable health care. We’ve got to rebuild the middle class and, this time, ensure everyone comes along.”

While his call to re-build comes with the caveat that we need to get it right this time, that is to “ensure everyone comes along,” it also harkens to a supposed time when the good life was more available to those with the right attitude. Instead of longing for a time when America was great, Biden has nostalgia for nostalgia — a longing for a time when at least we all longed for the same thing. But there’s an implied disciplinary edge. In order to be middle class, you must first adopt his prescribed values. You should be concerned with economic opportunity, not necessarily justice. This is uncomfortably reminiscent of the old “culture of poverty” arguments which implied that higher numbers of people of color were poor not because of structural racism but because they didn’t have a middle-class attitude.

To be fair to Biden, for most of his long life on the public stage, making sure to call everyone middle class has been Politics 101. The poor didn’t want to think of themselves as stuck being poor and the rich didn’t want to take responsibility for being rich. So we all called ourselves middle class. But that was then, and Biden doesn’t seem to see that the tide has shifted.

In 2016, after an election cycle that saw the rise of Bernie Sanders and the election of Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren said, “[T]he entire electorate embraced deep, fundamental reform of our economic system and our political system. The truth is that people are right to be angry.” Warren wrote an entire book about the fight to save the disappearing middle class. When Bernie Sanders talks about the middle class, he locates it in a concrete past tense that was built by unions. Both of these progressive candidates, and primary roadblocks to Biden’s nomination, try to avoid nostalgic attitudes about the exceptional years after World War II when the American middle class was both a political ideal and a fact on the ground. For Warren and Sanders, the challenges for working people in today’s economy serve as a call to action. For them, the loss of the middle class is a way to talk about how most people in America are struggling. They use the dwindling middle class as a rallying cry for the 99%.

If you haven’t noticed that global finance capitalism is concentrating vast amounts of wealth in the hands of a few while everyone else tries to hang on to the promise of the middle class by their fingernails, you haven’t been looking. But does the middle class — as an idea and an aspiration — allow us to talk about something else important within larger conversations about concentrations of wealth? What are we talking about when we talk about the idea of the middle class, given how persistent it is as a cultural touchstone for everything from political rhetoric to television shows?

For Warren and Sanders, the challenges for working people in today’s economy serve as a call to action. For them, the loss of the middle class is a way to talk about how most people in America are struggling.

America has become a society of dynastic wealth and decreasing social mobility. The biggest indicator of a young person’s future wealth is the wealth of his parents. But the fantasy of American social mobility has long been bound up in the idea of equal access to a broad and inclusive middle class. This fantasy can be profoundly isolating. It tells us that those who work hard will reach that place of safety and encourages those who don’t make it to blame themselves.

Cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls the disciplinary edge of middle-class aspiration “cruel optimism.” In the face of overwhelmingly bad news — like the climate crisis, stagnant wages, the rising cost of living and an upsurge of white nationalism — the longing for safety can make this meritocratic fantasy even more seductive. It’s easy to give in to the feeling that maybe if we think positive and ignore all the negativity we will usher in success. It’s also easy to become enraged at academics and intellectuals who throw stones at optimism and hope from their glass houses inside the safety of tenure — that last stronghold of the middle class.

Sticking our fingers in our ears and singing “la la la la I have a middle-class attitude!” is not a solution. In fact, it can, and does, become a way of avoiding hard truths about economic insecurity and the impossibility and injustice of being poor in America. It can also be a way of naturalizing the unearned privilege of the rich. But if we are moving beyond the reality and the idea of the middle class, it’s worth articulating some shared sense of an aspiration to replace it. The tendency towards a kind of black-and-white “billionaire or bust” nihilism won’t serve. Millennials have to fight harder than their parents to stay in the middle class and yet many hold on to a belief that they will somehow become millionaires. None of us may be middle class any longer, but a society structured by radical inequality and a lot of blind faith in the lottery sounds even more unpleasant. 

Since the financial crisis in 2008, the rich have been getting richer and just about everyone else has not. Most class fractions have started to wake up and smell the resentment, while the 1% continues to amass a vast playground at the top of the economy, earning 81 times more than the bottom 50% of adults. At the same time, the top 10% of families held 76% of the nation’s wealth in 2013, while the entire bottom 50 percent of families had to split one percent of the pie.

Millennials have to fight harder than their parents to stay in the middle class and yet many hold on to a belief that they will somehow become millionaires. None of us may be middle class any longer, but a society structured by radical inequality and a lot of blind faith in the lottery sounds even more unpleasant. 

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s 2016 statistics, the gap has only been widening. Rich capitalist Northern countries told a story, for a long time, about how “developing” countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa living with profound inequality could catch up to the middle class First World, if they just played ball and signed trade agreements. The promise was that the Third World could be just like us — the exceptional U.S.! — if they agreed to structural adjustment. But now that the middle class is fading away and the U.S. seems to be following in Brazil’s footsteps, it seems more like Karl Marx and the French economist Thomas Piketty got it right: capitalism tends toward inequality.

So, the middle class is disappearing as both a demographic reality and an attainable aspiration. And that aspiration has been one of the ways — however failed, however imperfect — that Americans have signaled to each other that we do share values. Biden wasn’t wrong about that. The words, though, are starting to seem outdated: “environmental crisis” and “populism” are already here. 

What’s being lost alongside the picket fences and stable jobs?

For one thing, an entire generation’s sense of themselves as adults. In 2013, sociologist Jennifer Silva published a book called “Coming Up Short” in which she explores how a generation of young people blame themselves for not being able to hit the milestones of middle-class belonging. Without stable incomes, they can’t buy homes or cars or get married. As a result, they have little sense of their own agency in the world. They swallowed the lesson that if they worked hard and didn’t complain, they would gain access to that golden place, the American middle class, where they would finally feel independent and secure. Instead, housing prices continue to climb to sums they won’t make in a lifetime, while gig work on top of another job barely covers their student debt. Many retreated to their parents’ basement, if they could, and were mocked in the press for doing so.

Underneath the 90th percentile, everyone seems to be in survival mode — this is what a “middle-class” family called it when The New York Times profiled the group in October of 2019. In major American cities, more and more luxury housing sits empty, awaiting premium AirBnB clients, while homeless families fill the shelters and homeless college students sleep in their cars. Parents who went into debt for their kids’ education now can’t pay their own retirement. Health care is out of range. And if you somehow end up with a kid of your own, even if you can score state-sponsored health care in California, it probably won’t cover the sudden price spikes for Epipens or other lifesaving drugs.

It’s hard to look up when you’re in survival mode. But if we don’t try for some grander vision, we may not all survive.

After the Second World War, the growth of the American middle class was built on a host of federal policies, like the GI Bill, and the Federal Housing Authority. These raised many people into the middle class. They also built racist divisions into the housing and education markets, and thus into the nation. The rise of the historic American middle class coincided with the flight of white people into the suburbs.

America has never achieved its vision of a nation of ordinary equals. Racism, sexism and ableism have intersected with class dynamics across the history of settler colonialism to make lots of lives miserable. But in order to avoid a helpless and overwhelmed reaction to current challenges, we’re going to have to find some new way to meet each other in the middle. Before we get to the post-apocalyptic mayhem and cannibalism imagined for the 99% in the speculative dystopias of Octavia Butler’s “The Parable of the Sower” or Chang-Rae Lee’s “On Such a Full Sea,” we might try to fight for the time and space to get together, across racial and class divides.

Los Angeles, on the one hand, is a dynamic city full of artists and dancers and writers and progressive nonprofit organizations and public interest lawyers, a city that has seen a resurgence in union organizing and real wins for exploited workers in the courts. The Los Angeles Times has come back under local ownership — though, tellingly, to a local billionaire who made his money in biotech — and has been unionized.

But at the same time, the class dynamics of global finance in major cities means that gentrification is now on steroids here. The veneer of global cosmopolitanism is pushing out intergenerational homes in Chicanx and black and Asian neighborhoods, along with the artists and young people. Real estate prices combined with old tax revolt habits and under-resourced public schools mean that most people can’t afford to live here anymore, never mind raise a family or a creative enterprise or both. By one banking group’s estimates, it takes $74,371 to live “comfortably” in Los Angeles, where the median income is $48,682. While some homeowners cash out their California real estate and move to Boise or Denver or Reno, many Angelenos are leaving the middle class just by staying in place.

Having a middle class attitude will not protect you in today’s Los Angeles. We are in survival mode. But as we lose jobs and intergenerational communities get pushed out by gentrification, as we lose independent newspapers and coffee shops and performance spaces and youth groups, as we lose anything financed and designed locally — we lose more than the numerical sum of these parts. We’re losing the shared space in the middle. What happens when we’re not just bowling alone, but staring at our phones all day, alone? As Toni Morrison put it in her last collection of lectures, “The Origin of Others”: “The resources available to us for benign access to each other, for vaulting the mere blue air that separates us, are few but powerful: language, image, and experience…”

Rich politicians taking corporate PAC money, in particular, should ditch the middle-class nostalgia, but we must all face the music. Most of us will never be millionaires or billionaires or even have a defined benefit pension. So, as we figure out who we are when we’re not middle class, we are going to have to demand a greater horizon than partial “access to affordable health care.” It’s hard to look up when you’re in survival mode. But if we don’t try for some grander vision, we may not all survive. Everyone is working hard and a middle class attitude won’t bring anything back, so we’re going to have to find some more capacious way to see ourselves, together. As we kiss the middle class goodbye, we need to find common spaces and common terms that we can use to organize for a better future. We are going to have to figure out who we really are, as Americans, as the 99%.

Los Angeleno