Discussions of class, prominent in times of societal changes such as we saw during the Depression and the activism of the 1960s in the previous century, are on the rise again. That’s not a surprise given the economic stagnation and concentration of wealth and power that rivals the worst excesses in our history.
Class, however, is something that those with their hands on the levers would prefer we drop. With the exception, of course, of odes to the middle class, which we certainly saw in last fall’s federal election in this country, as well as the one before it.
Of course, the whole idea of a middle class remains muddled. Politicians and bureaucrats carefully avoid defining it, knowing many people see themselves as middle class despite their paycheques being lower than the median. Many of us are more aspirational than actual middle class earners. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts it in economic terms, defining middle-class as between 75 and 200 per cent of median income, which last year meant between $32,621 and $86,990 for a single person or between $65,242 and $173,980 for a family of four.
Rather than talk particulars, politicians, especially while on the stump, prefer to maintain the fiction that as many people as possible will benefit in an “us” versus “them” scenario when invoking class.
There’s lip service to populism making the wealthy and corporations the target of failing middle-class and growing underclass, the kind of thing that gave rise to Donald Trump in the U.S., where the class distinctions are more pronounced, coupled with more than a touch of racial issues.
What we’re seeing, however, is more faux populism.
What the U.S. – and indeed much of the West, including Canada – needs is more class warfare, at least in the sense that we recognize the system is not as advertised. As with Trudeau’s Liberals, governments attempt to sell us on the idea that they’re protecting our interests when they’re simply selling themselves for the next election – appear to be doing something to garner votes, while actually benefiting those of the more elevated classes.
That reality is precisely what’s missing from political debate, here as assuredly as in the U.S. Today, the framework is based on austerity measures: how much to cut from social spending in order to balance the budget. But that’s really just a distraction from the bigger issue, namely the framework of our civil society. That has more to do with regulatory matters than it does with particular spending choices.
In short, it’s about who benefits from the political and economic systems we’ve created – and let’s be clear: they are manmade, not pre-ordained. For much of the postwar era, it was a large segment of the population. For some 40 years, however, the number of beneficiaries has grown smaller, increasingly in favour of the wealthy and corporate classes. Everybody continues to pay, but fewer and fewer profit.
In setting the agenda, those in charge today want to foster divisions, particularly along racial and nationalistic lines, for fear that those who suffer under the status quo – i.e. almost everybody – will attempt to unite against the real enemy.
“Aristotle, Niccolò Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, Adam Smith and Karl Marx grounded their philosophies in the understanding that there is a natural antagonism between the rich and the rest of us. The interests of the rich are not our interests. The truths of the rich are not our truths. The lives of the rich are not our lives. Great wealth not only breeds contempt for those who do not have it but it empowers oligarchs to pay armies of lawyers, publicists, politicians, judges, academics and journalists to censure and control public debate and stifle dissent,” argues writer Chris Hedges in a column this week. “Neoliberalism, deindustrialization, the destruction of labor unions, slashing and even eliminating the taxes of the rich and corporations, free trade, globalization, the surveillance state, endless war and austerity – the ideologies or tools used by the oligarchs to further their own interests – are presented to the public as natural law, the mechanisms for social and economic progress, even as the oligarchs dynamite the foundations of a liberal democracy and exacerbate a climate crisis that threatens to extinguish human life.”
While he writes from a U.S. perspective, though he’s spent plenty of time in this country, his observations apply to much of the West, Canada included, even if things are worse south of the border.
Ekos Research has polled Canadians extensively when it comes to class issues, noting the number of people who identify as middle class has declined over the last decade, for instance, with a corresponding drop in optimism about our economic futures.
In a globalist world, we’re not immune, says pollster Frank Graves.
“The public are increasingly rejecting neoliberalism and conditionally receptive to a more active role from the state to come up with a blueprint (and action) to restart middle class progress,” he says in “Understanding the Shifting Meaning of the Middle Class, adding we’re subject to the same creeping authoritarianism on display elsewhere.
“Of great concern, it appears that the era of stagnation and rising inequality at the top may have mutated into a rise in populism, nativism, and an ‘ordered’ outlook (also known as an ‘authoritarian’ outlook).”
Some 40 per cent of people who describe themselves as working class had previously said they were middle class a decade earlier, he notes. “This fall from relative privilege is linked to anger, hopelessness and less healthy and happy lives.”