Quite often, even on Dailykos, we see the myth invoked of the days of freedom past, when everyone had enough and the police weren't thugs, etc.
However, whenever I read these statements, I have to shake my head. The whole idea of class struggle is still struggling to gain traction here in the Capitalist West, in part because we have the legitimating narrative of the "good old days" that pervades even the moderate left. They still lament the breakdown of the middle class and the rise of plutocracy, but they miss the point; they want to restore the middle class and bring back those days of plenty past.
But what if I said that having a large middle class was entirely the reason we had all the problems we do? What if I said that the decline of the middle class was the beginning of the end for a smokescreen and that the problems we are seeing now are a direct result of middle class complicity to the machinery of capitalism and painful apathy to the suffering of the working class?
There are a lot of dynamics at play here and it would be crass to think I could summarize them entirely in one brief article but one thing is at least crystal clear: the existence of a large and easily-accessible middle class was what lulled this country to sleep in the first place.
Flash back to the late 1960s, when it seemed social revolution was on the horizon. We came damned close, didn't we? Sure, there was COINTELPRO and the various counter-actions by Nixon and his ilk, which took a lot of wind out of the sails of that particular generation, but in the end it was not these repressive measures that stopped the call for a major social change.
So if the call for a complete overhaul of our society was not merely repressed out of existence, where did all those revolutionaries go?
The ones who weren't killed, jailed for life, or discredited and disgraced beyond having any sort of future were scattered to the four winds. The dedicated ones went off to cloister in communes, and the rest went back to school, got business and law degrees, and became "respectable middle class citizens" who looked down their nose at young radicals as "naive," because they assumed these young people would have the same easy money waiting for them. Yesterday's radicals became today's enablers of plutocracy, repression, and war profiteering because the lure of a comfortable and easily-obtained middle class life awaited them.
Now the thing you must remember about the middle class- the petit bourgeoisie- is that they will nearly always side with the upper castes of bourgeois capitalism. Why wouldn't they, after all? The upper castes are the ones who pay for their cozy suburban house, their Buick, and their swimming pool. For being obedient subjects of the upper classes, they are materially rewarded and end up stuck on the hedonic treadmill of middle class life.
Thus whenever someone wants to rein in the bourgeois and curtail their repression of the poor, the petit bourgeoisie either present themselves as lukewarm liberals who are reluctant to endorse major change, or conservative guard dogs of the status quo who come out barking and foaming at the mouth. They become infantilized, terrified that us "evil commie" types are out to take their precious toys away, and they cling to the side of the moneyed interests that keep them from having to live in unaddressed need and social marginalization like us working class types.
And really, that's how it always was. Remember that this country was founded by young, dynamic middle-class businessmen who didn't want to pay taxes or to have to share the market with the crown corporations. They were slave owners who couldn't have cared less about a black man lynched on the barrier islands of South Carolina, and they couldn't have cared less about the will of the overwhelming majority of people who were frankly OK with British rule because it didn't matter one way or the other to them. The American revolution was by the wealthy minority, for the wealthy minority, and of the wealthy minority and the fact that the overwhelming majority of people went along with them was only secondary to the fact that they preserved the social structure of mercantile capitalism that the people of the colonies had lived under for nearly a hundred years at this point.
The sociologist Harriet Martineau said it best in 1838:
The United States are the most remarkable examples now before the world of the reverse of the feudal system- its principals, its methods, its virtues, and vices. In as far as Americans revert, in ideas and tastes, to the transition being not yet perfected- to the generation which organised the republic having been educated amidst the remains of feudalism.The fact is that twenty years ago, before the economic crises that saw many people plunged from a cozy middle class life to struggling austerity in the working class, nobody cared that the wages of fast food workers were too low. Nobody cared that the police were being militarized. Nobody cared that wars were being fought for the benefit of the military-industrial complex. Nobody cared that minorities were being targeted and summarily executed in the streets. Our country didn't change; our country was always made and tailored for the bourgeoisie from its inception. It was our perception of this country that changed, because we were no longer the recipients of the blessings of liberty when we fell out of the middle class that those blessings were intended for.
It is now our task- our moral imperative- to not only be agents of change, but to understand the nature and scope of the change we must orchestrate. Buying into the old narrative of "the good old days when the government served the people" will not save us because we will inevitably make the same mistakes and screw ourselves again and again. Instead, we must understand that the present crisis is a direct result of the inaction of the petit bourgeoisie, who were the former majority in this country, and that a return to bourgeois values and lifestyles will only kill the reform that we so desperately need.