We hear so much about the middle class. The rise of the middle class. The fall of the middle class. The hard-working middle class. Upper middle class. Lower middle class. The plight of the middle class. The jeopardy and peril of the middle class. The social unrest of the middle class. Joe Biden’s Middle Class Task Force. For a so-called classless society, somebody cares an awful lot that we all stay right in the middle.
Whether being middle-class is actually a good thing or not for some reason seems to go unasked.
What is the middle class?
Some would say anything above our abysmally low poverty line and below the so-called one-percent. Other sources are more specific and list the middle class as doctors, lawyers, managers, and business owners. That is, not teachers, civil servants, and sales reps. Claire Suddath, writing for Time in 2009 gave what she called a “A Brief History of the Middle Class“:
Our modern image of the middle class comes from the post–World War II era. The 1944 GI Bill provided returning veterans with money for college, businesses and home mortgages. Suddenly, millions of servicemen were able to afford homes of their own for the first time. As a result, residential construction jumped from 114,000 new homes in 1944 to 1.7 million in 1950. In 1947, William Levitt turned 4,000 acres of Long Island, New York, potato farms into the then largest privately planned housing project in American history. With 30 houses built in assembly-line fashion every day — each with a tree in the front yard — the American subdivision was born.
Suddath goes on to talk about Leave It To Beaver, the Civil Rights Movement, home ownership, and credit cards as contributors to the lifestyle, and then remarks, “[Middle-class Americans] have several credit cards each and a lot of luxury goods, but they still believe that others have more than they do.”
It seems to me luxury goods bought on credit is not a sign of wealth. People might be feeling sunk, not jealous. But if she misspoke, Suddath redeems herself in another article, citing a Pew Research study found that 78% of self-described middle-class Americans have trouble maintaining their current standard of living.
“Still,” Suddath wrote, “the middle class may have a better shot at making ends meet than at influencing the Middle Class Task Force. That’s because no member of the Middle Class Task Force is actually middle class.”
Why would you want to be “middle”?
Since just about everybody you know is probably middle class, whether they are or not, then you may better ask yourself, why do you want to be middle? Why do you want to persist in mediocrity? Maybe it’s because you feel that really you are working class, not middle class at all, and so to maintain the illusion of something higher than your proper station is a dream worth cherishing at all costs, particularly the cost of never rising to or beyond mediocrity. The ever-present crisis of the middle class keeps you from ever trying to break out of the safe middle, and the herds of people in the middle with you reassure you.
And if you awoke from this middle class dream, you might be scared out of your wits.
A theory of the middle class: that it is not to be determined by its financial situation but rather by its relation to government. That is, one could shade down from an actual ruling or governing class to a class hopelessly out of relation to government, thinking of government as beyond its control, of itself as wholly controlled by government. Somewhere in between and In gradations is the group that has the sense that gov’t exists for it, and shapes its consciousness accordingly. — Lionel Trilling
I have to live for others and not for myself: that’s middle-class morality. — George Bernard Shaw
This miserable state is borne by the wretched souls of those who lived without disgs race and without praise. — Dante Alighieri
What I always hated and detested and cursed above all things was this contentment, this healthiness and comfort, this carefully preserved optimism of the middle classes, this fat and prosperous brood of mediocrity. — Hermann Hesse
What I call middle-class society is any society that becomes rigidified in predetermined forms, forbidding all evolution, all gains, all progress, all discovery. I call middle-class a closed society in which life has no taste, in which the air is tainted, in which ideas and men are corrupt. And I think that a man who takes a stand against this death is in a sense a revolutionary. — Frantz Fanon
Social Security and the middle class
Are you still middle class in the nursing home?
The New York Times this January 28, 2013, ran a piece about social security’s current insolvency problem, showing how the program started in 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 2010 “paid out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.” They’ve been writing “hot checks” ever since and no doubt will be way past this current decade.
Even the staunchest middle-class conservative who bashes Medicaid understands the importance of Medicare and that there probably won’t be too many other options besides social security left as we reach that age but the welfare state. No one can afford to question this contradiction.
“There but for the grace of God go I” is the new serenity prayer for every middle-classer with a job. Meanwhile social security taxes are likely to go higher than ever as we are soon forced to buy into “better” coverage.
One of the requisites for tapping into all your tax dollars from a lifetime of work is that you have to trade in anything you have left of value before you can get that wonderful smelly shared room at the nursing home. This is your average middle-class destination if you manage to survive your never-ending working years.
There is no security in social security. Society is never that secure. We’re fools for counting on it.
Bipolar disorder and middle classism
Try to do something great. If you fail, then chances are you might not forgive yourself. Worse yet, your friends and family most likely won’t forgive you either. They may have sympathy for you, but they won’t respect you. They’ll actually think you’re crazy for trying. So will you. You’ll go to the doctor for help and the doctor will tell you you’re crazy too. They have a word now for people who think you ought to try something great in life: “bipolar.”
Jacque Ranciere in his book Proletarian Nights recounts the post-revolutionary France of ten-hour days and all the artists and poets working them that thought they should have been free to pursue their real talents. After so long in the factory, they might just jump off a bridge. They didn’t have a name for it back then, but we do now, thank God. Now we know better. Now instead off jumping off bridges, we hang out in the mental ward till we’ve murdered our delusions and become comfortably numb.
If you’re stuck in the middle
This is not a good thing. And if you’re middle-aged you might feel that you’re in quicksand. There’s no view in the middle seat of a car or airplane, and you’re certainly not driving. None of us was born for mediocrity. So how do we reclaim our own lives?
Well should we be content? We’re not. Then should we keep swallowing pills to make believe we’re content? What if we stopped and failed for once? And then maybe failed again and again. What if it was socially acceptable to be a failure?
If you don’t like the idea of being mediocre but are also pretty sure that greatness in your case is a pipe dream, then maybe aim for the most glorious failure you can think of. If you’re absolutely sure you’ll never reach the top then make the biggest smash at the bottom you can.
Sound crazy? Consider this: Why are we alive? Is it to sit and rust? What difference does it make if we live till 150 if we can’t feel a thing the entire time? And who cares how long we live–does it matter once we’re dead? Maybe a great deal of pain in life is in order. If it’s from trying. And failing. Next time you fail, instead of worrying or taking to your bed in a deep depression, hurry up and fail bigger. Then at least you could say you did something interesting while you were alive.