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On the Role of the Middle Class in Occupy Wall Street

I’ve been involved in a conversation with Juniper Shoemaker these past few days about the Occupy Wall Street movement, the worry that the middle class will eventually co-opt it, and that the concerns of the less-privileged will be subsumed into returning the middle class to the status quo. It’s also been a conversation largely about language, and it’s covered a good deal of territory that we’ve already been over. At the same time, I think the conversation exposes a lot of nuance that we haven’t discussed, so it’s worth continuing in a new post. I’m answering this comment primarily, but there are other bits of the conversation in the “Clue this dude in” post and it touches on something martha said as well.

There was a good deal of other stuff in Juniper’s last comment, the comment from which most of this post sprang fully-formed from my mind. But I start my response to what she said here:

I loathe the idea of denigrating people because they’re poor and Southern. I have sympathy for most individuals who are poor and struggling to survive as a result.

I do too. There’s no reason to denigrate someone for something over which they have no control, especially not if the one thing you CAN control, is within your own power to ameliorate. It’s a lot of why I was happy to get on board with the Donors Choose project this year (LAST DAY TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS CHALLENGE BY THE WAY). And it’s also why I love Kiva so damned much, since you can give loans over and over and over again, helping a lot of people bootstrap themselves out of poverty. Especially when it comes to education — that’s the first place I target any time I want to make sure my (or others’) dollars have maximum impact. The right knows education is their silver bullet, and that’s why they fight to keep people dumb and complacent. It’s probably also a component in the overt racism and sexism you encounter so damned frequently.

I’d prefer that we have a system of government with far fewer inequalities, one with far fewer corporate hooks where people with money set the agenda to siphon more money upward. I’d prefer, therefore, an informed electorate to build this system of government, probably out of the same system we have now but with better and less corruptible politicians whose positions better represent both reality and their constituents. And I know you can’t get this without teaching people about the wonders of this universe. The more you get kids interested in science, the less likely they are to remain uneducated, and therefore poor, the rest of their lives. Now, granted, there are a lot of people today who are getting higher education and don’t get jobs. But that’s a different fight. The one that OWS is fighting. Educating kids in poor areas helps alleviate the worst suffering, but at the same time leaves them buried in debt when it comes to secondary education with the system we’ve got now (and Canada’s system is hardly different in that respect).

Education is one of the biggest reasons the civil rights movement succeeded, and I’m absolutely certain that it’s a key component to fixing this current mess. An educated electorate is less prone to voting against their own interests.

Similarly, despite my internal conflict over the difficult question of just or optimal wealth distribution, I won’t hypocritically disparage middle-class individuals merely for belonging to the middle-class. I also wish that the media would concentrate on the Occupy Wall Street activists who want those who made fortunes from bad financial instruments prosecuted not because they’re rich but because they are no better than individuals from lower classes who made money by robbing banks and breaking into houses. That’s where I’m coming from.

No, I don’t think anyone’s disparaging the middle class just for being middle class. I think the crux of the problem here, what Greg is upset about and what Stephanie is worried will happen, is that the middle class — traditionally comfortable and happy with working and producing and owning their little plot of land — is eroding thanks to the predatory practices of the confluence of government and big business. The underclasses, the lower and lower-middle classes, the hippies, the freaks, the anarchists, were all affected first and all started fighting this new corporatocracy, this capitalist oligarchy, long before the middle class did.

The right-wing, trying to preserve this oligarchy, has smeared these underclasses as being underclasses. The middle class, having not fought any of these imbalances before, is only getting involved now that it’s starting to directly affect them via foreclosures, job loss, bankruptcy after a health issue, etc. And they’re being taken seriously, even though the underlying issues were taken up by the freaks, the anarchists, the Cassandras of society long prior.

There are middle-class hippies, middle-class anarchists. Look at Greg, a university professor who exudes middle-class lifestyle. You have to have a certain amount of privilege to rise to the station that he has — you don’t just get there by sheer merit, knowing how this society actually works. This is not a disparagement of him by any stretch, just an acknowledgement that Greg’s privileged. And look at me, who despite working my ass off for far less than I deserve, can only afford a tiny house in a trailer park and a crappy car that probably costs more to keep on the road than I’ve paid on its lien. And that’s with Jodi working full-time (save three months of winter — which she has to save up for, to pay her student loans). But I have a house! And a car! And a smart phone! And internet connectivity! And time enough to prattle on the intertubes. That’s something, right? That’s some amount of privilege. And it’s more than some of the first protesters had.

I absolutely agree that there’s a certain class of people that are primarily responsible for our current mess, predating on the lower and lower-middle classes in order to make absurd amounts of money off their suffering. And I absolutely agree that they should be made to pay. I just don’t want the Occupy movement to peter out before it hits that goal.

But I think you are ignoring the question of whether or not a given person has the luxury of refusing to reject stereotypes in her effort to be taken seriously by people with more political power. I feel as if people with more political power than I have take me more seriously than they would if I were a black stereotype. I sympathize with what this protester is trying to do with her sign.

This sign and its rejection of the stereotypes is giving power to the stereotypes. Imagine a person (this is going to be a stretch and will probably get slapped down for being impolitic and a bad analogy so I apologize in advance) in a hypothetical civil rights march today, who does not show any outward signs of being black, who also carries a sign saying “NOT a watermelon-eater, NOT a fried-chicken-eater, NOT 3/5ths of a person, NOT lower IQ, just a mom looking for a better world for her kids”. That’s the problem the self-described hippies and freaks are seeing here — though again, none of the slurs are comparable, as I said in my parenthetical. (And what’s wrong with eating fried chicken anyway?) Here’s a woman showing no signs of being in the outgroup, claiming support for the outgroup, but using the slurs the same way as the slur-slingers were. This activity, though it’s supportive of the outgroup, is ringing alarm bells in the members of the out-group.

The worry here is that the people who weren’t interested in fighting when it was affecting the underclasses will also bow out of the fight once a little fairness is achieved for them. They won’t keep fighting til the underclasses get lifted up into the middle class. The worry is that once people are comfortable enough to return to a workaday existence with a 9-to-5 job, two point three kids, and So You Think You Can Dance on the tube, all those disadvantaged people are going to be left out in the cold again. And all because these comfortable people co-opted the movement as being about them, inadvertently (due to their privilege) saying that the hippies and the punks and the anarchists are less important in the fight and that, like with the sign lady, they’re really just there for their kids. Not everyone else’s kids, theirs.

I know, this is a cynical way of viewing things, even the parts you’ve already said you agree with. And I apologize for going over old territory, but it’s important in understanding why the three of us are reacting the way we are. I worry that if people like Greg and Stephanie and I don’t keep harping on it, that it’ll become the case with this protest as with every other one that it’ll hit critical mass when the middle class joins in, and wither and die when they’re sated.

This is a real grassroots movement the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Vietnam War protests. The Iraq protests didn’t gather enough steam. The Bush-era “free speech zones” kept a hell of a lot of protests from gathering any steam whatsoever. This one’s real, and it’s huge. And it’s mostly populated by hippies and freaks, and it’s time they got their due. It’s time the middle class gets expanded to include all these outcasts, and the rich get nibbled on a little bit. Because when there’s nothing left to eat but the rich, they’re just going to get dragged out of their ivory towers by the starving throngs of humanity.

I would first target the assholes who found such new and inventive ways (or found ways to rework old cons and schemes) to perpetuate the up-suck of money, this time via predatory tactics and bad financial instruments designed to bet on people failing. But then, after that, I would prefer that the safety nets that the right has so assiduously demonized and dismantled over the years get re-mantled, reestablished to protect members of our society from losing everything after a medical emergency or getting taken by some shyster with a business suit. I’d prefer that the regulations that have been destroyed, get reinstated, to prevent this kind of travesty from happening again in the future. I’m well aware that doing so would disproportionately disadvantage the already-very-advantaged — but I contend they’ll hardly feel it, no matter how loudly they complain. They would hardly feel it even when the underclasses completely collapse and the rich are the only ones with any money whatsoever.

When the US economy collapses, no country on the planet will be immune from its effects. Canada’s almost certainly first in line for economic shock. And whoever succeeds Obama is probably going to be forced to build a New New Deal if OWS doesn’t achieve any of its goals and in a hurry. We can stop it if we realize that the middle class isn’t the only one worth saving from suffering like the underclass — because the underclass has been suffering all along. And we won’t manage this if we scattershot the underclass every time we try to effect real change.

The middle class deserves a piece of this action (and I’m doing what I can in my meagre way), on the condition that they realize they are supporting the lower class primarily in this fight. Not the other way around.

Comments

  1. karmakin says

    Very good post.

    One thing that I see often, is the assumption that education is the cure-all for economic ills. Now, definitely a step forward in terms of social/political progress, but while it used to be a micro-solution, that is a solution for the individual, it doesn’t do that much to change aggregate demand patterns, and as such doesn’t do that much for the economy as a whole. (Except the work of the top of the creative class, of course)

    OWS is about that micro solution hitting the wall in terms of it being a solution.

    Not saying that was in this post, it really wasn’t. But when you talk about education you have to be careful to not think in outdated patterns, as a secondary degree being an instant solution for economic woes.

  2. says

    Not everybody who makes a certain amount of money identifies as middle class, for some of the very issues Jason raises here. I don’t. I’m pretty sure Greg doesn’t. Jason may or may not, and it may not even be a consistent thing.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … whoever succeeds Obama is probably going to be forced to build a New New Deal if OWS doesn’t achieve any of its goals and in a hurry.

    Best argument against OWS I’ve ever heard.

    Except that whoever comes next would likely screw up even worse than BHO at the FDR role.

  4. martha says

    Stephanie @4

    I think most people use middle class to mean income plus some attendant characteristics like education and privilege. If you are using a different definition, it makes what you say a little more difficult to understand, so I hope you are going to explain what you mean by it.

    I would not say, myself, that I am not middle class. Not because I think the middle class is great and ‘yay me,’ but because it seems to me that when a person makes use of certain privileges, it is a bit insulting to those who can’t to say, ‘Look, I’m just like you.’

    The people I grew up around were very big on “identifying with the poor,” and I sometimes saw that language misused. For example, I remember being told in the earlier 70’s when I was about 11, “Now is not the time for women’s rights, we have to take care of the poor first.” So I am suspicious of language that looks like that. I am afriad that it is going to be used to say X is more privileged than Z, so X’s issues are unimportant, X’s voice should not be heard and we can speak about X as offensively as we like, but I am assuming, provisionally, that this is not the kind of thing you mean. (Please let me stipulate that I am not including multimillionaires among the possible values of X).

    Jason,

    While I support the desire of hippies, freaks, etc. to be recognized for past and present activism, I don’t really see them as the underclass. When I count up the people I have seen in homeless shelters and on the street, I arrive at a list that looks something like this: veterans, mentally ill people, old people, alcoholics, young people bankrupted by health care costs, blacks, hispanics, native americans, aged out foster children, women who’ve left abusive husbands, usually with children…I could keep going, but you get the point. Consulting the news rather than experience, I would add pushed out LGTBQ youth. Yes, please, let us put their issues first. But are we so sure that their issues are not everybody’s? It seems to me that the two things they most need (in the US) are universal health care and an abundant supply of low income housing. I feel a very personal interest in the creation of both those things, partly because I or my family or friends could need them some day and partly because their non-existence limits everyone’s freedom to take risks with their careers, change jobs, start their own businesses and so forth.

  5. says

    Here’s the thing, martha: those people you listed all fit into at least one of the categories in the original sign, whether they identify with it or not. The term “hippie” has come to mean in the right-wing parlance any young layabout more interested in weed than social change, thus any young person who’s had student debt crush their future is de facto a hippie. Everyone else is a “freak” or “anarchist”. All of these people deserve to be heard, and helped. I don’t want to exclude anyone in this movement, least of all those most affected, since they’re the ones who bloody well started the damn thing.

  6. says

    martha, I didn’t grow up with middle class income or middle class privileges. I don’t live in a middle class neighborhood. I have no romanticized notions of what poverty is like. I have a better than middle class education. I have a real, nondegraded middle class income. I don’t identify with any class.

  7. martha says

    Stephanie, Jason, I read Stephanie’s blog & links and I read in the newspaper today about Occupy Portland, although I can’t find a link to the article.

    I concede. Apparently OWS looks just as you say it does. Both the pro and con sides are calling the protestors “hippies.” The phrase in our paper is “do-gooder hippies.” Apparently there is an encampment of anarchists in Portland and I wish, I wish, I wish I still lived there. You were very kind to help sort all this out. And I am now out of here.

  8. Juniper Shoemaker says

    This sign and its rejection of the stereotypes is giving power to the stereotypes.

    I don’t know where to start. I guess I’ll start by providing a functional definition of socioeconomic class. I won’t define socioeconomic class in terms of either an insult or a compliment. I won’t define it as a category of labels that are as easy to adopt, disavow and exchange as those in the political philosophy category, either. One’s membership in a given socioeconomic class isn’t as easy to conceal as one’s political philosophy, and it affects the treatment one receives from society. So I’m interested in defining socioeconomic class in an attempt to get real and understand what’s actually going on. I will state that one’s membership in a given socioeconomic class is not wholly contingent on one’s annual salary. It’s additionally determined by education, culture and social connections. When I refer to socioeconomic class later, this is the sense in which I am using the word.

    I accept the argument that it’s problematic to reject stereotypes. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with being a hippie or a punk, just as there isn’t anything wrong with listening to hip-hop, studying African American history or being voluptuous. Efforts to reject stereotypes can reinforce the idea that people who don’t fulfill mainstream ideals are immoral or undesirable. Moreover, I have never been unaware of this danger. You are not telling me anything I didn’t already know.

    However, I despise the notion that all attempts to reject stereotypes are worthy of the type of self-righteous rebuke that I feel you’ve endorsed here. I will repeat that not everyone has the luxury of embracing stereotypes. Bluntly, I am really tired of white people who have no idea what it’s like to belong to a racial group uniquely reviled for its physiognomy as well as its recent history as a slave class telling me that I’m sinning through my efforts not to be a black stereotype. My middle-class parents who originated in poverty raised me this way because they knew I’d be more employable as someone who was culturally white. Unlike a lot of my Berkeley classmates, I don’t have a trust fund. I must work for a living.

    Maybe the protester with the sign– who, by the way, strikes me as a member of the lower-middle class at most, and possibly not financially privileged at all– has the same concern. Is Occupy Wall Street not a movement about how difficult it’s becoming for the overwhelming majority to scrape by in a neo-feudalist economy? Why vilify people for their honest efforts to pay their bills in the face of today’s economic challenges?

    I am equally tired of racists of various backgrounds who reinforce cultural attitudes that blacks can’t be individuals as whites can. I don’t care whether they’re the victims who take mysterious, moronic pride in adopting these attitudes themselves or the perpetrators who have much to gain by these attitudes. I’ve already told you about my paternal aunt. The story of my life is encountering other black people to whom I’m not related who also feel entitled to say rude things that they’d never say to the white people they unwittingly respect far more than they respect one another to me because I’m a skinny atheist who talks like a white chick and loves science. There’s a Korean undergraduate research assistant in my lab who refuses to speak to me or acknowledge my presence because I identify as half-Korean whereas she thinks of me as just some black abomination no self-respecting Korean would create. There are sundry people who insist that I can’t identify as half-black and half-Korean when that is precisely what I am, and who assume that I’m not an American citizen because I don’t look or sound like a girl in a rap video.

    All of these wearisome people with a pathetic lack of thoughtfulness and imagination make me ever more determined to keep right on not being a stereotype. I am entitled to be myself, even if that self isn’t very “black” and never has been. I’m not going to swallow self-righteous rebukes from people who have no fucking clue what my experience is like, and I’m not going to hide that self as if I’m ashamed of it. Similarly, this protester is entitled to be herself, even if she’s not a hippie, punk, anarchist, etc., and even if she is a member of the bourgeoisie.

  9. Juniper Shoemaker says

    I cut my comment in two because it was getting way too long. Why don’t I summarize the rest?

    1. As I said, I agree with you in principle about the slurs.

    2. I agree that the rejection of stereotypes is problematic.

    3. I don’t agree that one should never reject stereotypes in the manner of this protester. If I did, ‘twould be hypocritical.

    4. If you, Stephanie and Greg are worried about the role of the middle class in Occupy Wall Street because you think the movement needs to stay radical in order to implement the radical improvements that our economy and society need, then I understand and agree with you.

    5. However, this: “The middle class deserves a piece of this action (and I’m doing what I can in my meagre way), on the condition that they realize they are supporting the lower class primarily in this fight” makes me uncomfortable. I will have to think more about why.

    6. I can’t suppress this comment, even though this subject has been alluded by another commenter: I think it’s beyond privileged to pretend that one can disavow the “middle class” label the way one could disavow “punk”, “Democrat” or “Republican”. I live like a little princess compared to a large portion of the U.S population. That fact is probably obvious to most people I encounter. It would be disgusting to me to pretend that I’m not middle-class. It would be as disgusting as either melodramatically claiming to have the same struggles as single parents without high school diplomas in violent inner-city ghettoes, as the rich suburban teen runaways on Telegraph Ave. used to do, or as bragging of one’s “colorblindness” whenever discussions of race arose.

    7. Of course I eat watermelon and fried chicken breasts. They’re delicious. What fool would give up those?

  10. says

    Can I add that the term “middle class” is extremely problematic in discussions like these? I was raised by a single mom who earned about $30k a year, I currently earn about 40k a year, and my dad and step-mom are living on probably about $140k a year, and the differences between those 3 incomes are stark…but no one wants to talk about it, because they are all middle class.

    It seems to me that there’s a lot of obfuscation when it comes to what the middle class is and what the middle class wants. Someone making 30k and someone making 100k want very different things, but we’re to assume they make up the same demographic. It’s irritating especially to me: my social group has often included a huge variety of incomes, and I always encounter deep culture shock when I find myself in a conversation about, say, taxes or social justice with someone who owns a house, two cars, and takes multiple vacations a year, vs how I grew up, where vacations meant a drive to visit relatives in New Brunswick and dinner was of the boxed pasta variety.

  11. says

    Juniper, on #6, there are a couple of things to unpack, I think. The first is that there is a difference between disavowing a middle class identity and disavowing middle class privilege. I have the second. I do not have the first. If anything, that makes my awareness of my middle class privilege more acute. I can’t miss the fact that I get this treatment because of who I am–because it isn’t actually who I am. The only difference between me then and me now (or between me and several of the people I actually identify with) is that I have a job that pays a living wage, but the difference in how we’re treated is unmistakable.

    The second thing to note is that as wages have eroded over the last several decades relative to purchasing power, the basis for a middle class identity has changed. When it can no longer reasonably be based on what you can afford, as Quietmarc’s comment demonstrates nicely, it has to be based on something else. “Not them” worked (in general) quite nicely for maintaining perceptions of social status, right up to the point where too many middle class people found themselves becoming “them” financially too quickly to be ignored.

    There is nothing wrong with having a middle class identity or owning that identity. However, the role of middle class identity in creating and maintaining the current political/economic situation has to be understood if we’re going to fix the problems. It’s tough to do when you are in the middle, but a middle class identity is going to have to be based on something other than “not them” for this to work. The whole idea of “them” being different in some way more fundamental than luck is too big a part of the mess we need to fix.

  12. Juniper Shoemaker says

    Someone making 30k and someone making 100k want very different things, but we’re to assume they make up the same demographic.

    Quietmarc, I agree. Razib Khan irritably remarked on his blog a few months ago that most black American families belong to the middle class because they make between $30K and $70K annually. This surprised me. I realize that Khan is unsympathetic to many discussions of racism against blacks, but I still didn’t expect him to accept an annual salary of $30K as sufficient for a middle-class lifestyle in much of the United States. It amazes me that so many thoughtful people do.

    If one is a single, childless graduate of a competitive college in good health and with gainful employment, then I will still consider one middle-class even if one only makes 30K a year and lives in an alpha city such as New York. I make less than 30K a year as a graduate stipend, but I can avail myself of a number of middle-class luxuries for these sorts of reasons. However, I wouldn’t categorize anyone else with a 30K salary as middle-class. Two parents with no education beyond high school, blue-collar jobs and two kids living on 30K a year in Los Angeles in 2011 are not members of the middle class. They may call themselves middle-class during an NPR interview out of misplaced pride, but that is not what I call getting real. Incidentally, I don’t care what race they are.

    One’s socioeconomic class is determined by one’s salary, education, culture and social connections. I could add “discretionary income”, in case the definition isn’t explicit enough to address the issue of children and other dependents. This definition is not an antiquated effort to determine an individual’s worth as a human being by these criteria. It’s not a disingenuous attempt to justify bigotry against affluent whites. It’s not postmodernist gobbledegook. It’s a realistic and functional definition that equally applies to every group, racial or otherwise. I also like this definition because it dissuades people from dishonestly lumping together those who make 30K, those who make 100K, and everyone in between, calling them all “middle class” and pretending as if “90%” of the population is living the American Dream as a result.

    Juniper, on #6, there are a couple of things to unpack, I think. The first is that there is a difference between disavowing a middle class identity and disavowing middle class privilege. I have the second. I do not have the first.

    Stephanie, I see what you are saying now. That makes sense. Thank you for explaining it so clearly.

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