When I was a kid America had three classes. Upper class was yachts, Harvard, Cartier, caviar, crass fat bankers in tailcoats with cigars in newspaper cartoons. Middle class was tree-lined streets in neighborhoods, State U, a class ring, meat and potatoes, Helen Hokinson ladies in New Yorker cartoons. Working class was dust bowl, soup lines, grey faces under cloth caps, cartoons of bums with their toes coming out of their shoes — then overnight it was three shifts at the shipyards and the steel mills, housing shortages, housing developments, public schools full to bursting, and Rosie the Riveter.
And men in uniform. The uniform that cancelled class, or anyhow made it semi-invisible.
Now I’m old, it’s less interesting. America, I’m told, has only one class: the middle.
But doesn’t a middle need the stuff it’s the middle of — the above, the below, the left, the right, the front, the back?
Apparently not. We are, as it were, all middle. There are of course “the wealthy” (never called the rich — rich is a four-letter word) but they occupy a private stratosphere, they are above class, just as they are above paying taxes. “Upper class” is something Americans like to think only the British have. “Lower class” ditto. And the variant forms of lower-classness have vanished too. “Proletariat” was always a commie word. “Working people” sounds so old fashioned. “Labor” — I wonder how many kids, knowing no other connotation for the word, think Labor Day has something to do with having babies? As for “the working class” — haven’t heard of it for years. It probably died (in more ways than one) with the birth of Reaganomics.
I thought maybe my union, the United Auto Workers, could bring itself to talk about the working class, but no. The union magazine, Solidarity, does not use the term working class for its members. An article in the latest issue called “Rebuilding Middle Class is All About Priorities” does mention people who are able or unable to “work,” but uses the word “workers” only once: “the American middle class was built by workers’ struggles.” Evidently now that the middle class has been built, the workers and their struggles are no longer needed.
I used to dislike the phrase working class because it seemed to imply that the other classes all lay about on cushions doing nothing. The middle-class people I knew certainly worked for their living. But at different kinds of work than the working class, less physically consuming, and better paid; so that, however imprecise, the term indicated a real difference. Now even the distinction of blue collar/white collar workers seems to be out. Euphemisms abound. I wonder if terms such as “service industries” obscure discourse more than they clarify it.
Marx thought the workers of the world were going to inherit it, forming a classless society. Our speech now, and our speeches, imply that we live in such a classless society. But where are the workers?
Do we in fact all belong to what Marx called, with loathing and contempt, the bourgeoisie — those supported on the labor of the working people?
To attain a bourgeois standard of living was the so-called American Dream. Have we all achieved it?
Well, if we’re all middle class, I guess so. But I can’t help asking how come so many of us middle-class folks are looking for a job, month after month after month, till they drop us off the rolls so we don’t have to be counted as unemployed any longer? How come a school lunch is the only hot meal, or the only meal, a middle-class kid may get all day (and not on weekends and not all summer)? Why is the nice bourgeois house on the tree-lined street boarded up, lost to mortgage default? Aren’t middle-class young couples supposed to have 2.3 kids and a dog and two jobs and be doing better than daddy did? Don’t middle-class middle-aged people belong on the golf course, not waiting at the unemployment office? And what the hell are all those old bourgeois doing lined up at the Food Bank?
Well, it’s a hard thing to define, the middle class, and who belongs to it.
The only people who clearly can’t belong to the middle class, because they can’t possibly share the American Dream, because they are and can’t ever be Americans, are those illegal people that come across the border and live and work here for forty or fifty years and think their illegal kids ought to be educated by American taxpayers. Well they can just go back where they came from and take their brats and their shovels with them. We’ll dig our own ditches and educate our own kids. Yessirree. Just watch us doing it.
Denial is ingenious. One of its neat tricks is to up a bogey between you and a reality you don’t want to see, so you can fear, and control, the bogey, while it hides the uncontrollable reality.
Fear and hatred of a “communist threat” that never really threatened us led to the use of “socialist” as a bogey-word to blacklist any program for institutionalising social justice. Certain favored institutions and programs that operate essentially socialistically, such as Medicare or the Armed Forces, are exempt from the blacklist — militant patriotism and immediate self-interest do wonders with whitewash. But in most cases, the bogey, the specter of creeping socialism — a term that slithers all the way back past Reagan and Nixon to the so-much-admired Eisenhower — is invoked against any governmental program involving mutual social responsibility, and against any suggestion that the playing field isn’t level.
So, because those foreign unAmerican commie socialists talk about the working class, America can’t have a working class. Or working people. Or, for a very large number of us, work.
But who needs work? We’re all middle class — all living the American Dream.
City of the Plain, by Ursula K. Le Guin
A poem from The Wild Girls, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Play the Podcast of “City of the Plain.”
PM Press Outspoken Authors #06, May 1, 2011