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The Making of the American 99% and the Collapse of the Middle Class
Posted on Dec 17, 2011
By Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich
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—E.P. Thompson, “The Making of the English Working Class”
The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1% of the wealth distribution—the bankers, hedge-fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “super-rich,” in recent years.
Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000 square-foot mansions, $25,000 chocolate desserts embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007-2008, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1% to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy, and our political system stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.
Still, until a few months ago, the 99% was hardly a group capable of (as Thompson says) articulating “the identity of their interests.” It contained, and still contains, most “ordinary” rich people, along with middle-class professionals, factory workers, truck drivers, and miners, as well as the much poorer people who clean the houses, manicure the fingernails, and maintain the lawns of the affluent.
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But Occupy could not have happened if large swaths of the 99% had not begun to discover some common interests, or at least to put aside some of the divisions among themselves. For decades, the most stridently promoted division within the 99% was the one between what the right calls the “liberal elite”—composed of academics, journalists, media figures, etc.—and pretty much everyone else.
As Harper’s Magazine columnist Tom Frank has brilliantly explained, the right earned its spurious claim to populism by targeting that “liberal elite,” which supposedly favors reckless government spending that requires oppressive levels of taxes, supports “redistributive” social policies and programs that reduce opportunity for the white middle class, creates ever more regulations (to, for instance, protect the environment) that reduce jobs for the working class, and promotes kinky countercultural innovations like gay marriage. The liberal elite, insisted conservative intellectuals, looked down on “ordinary” middle- and working-class Americans, finding them tasteless and politically incorrect.
The “elite” was the enemy, while the super-rich were just like everyone else, only more “focused” and perhaps a bit better connected.
Of course, the “liberal elite” never made any sociological sense. Not all academics or media figures are liberal (Newt Gingrich, George Will, Rupert Murdoch). Many well-educated middle managers and highly trained engineers may favor latte over Red Bull, but they were never targets of the right. And how could trial lawyers be members of the nefarious elite, while their spouses in corporate law firms were not?
A Greased Chute, Not a Safety Net
“Liberal elite” was always a political category masquerading as a sociological one. What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1% who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities, and walled estates.
The authority figures most people are likely to encounter in their daily lives are teachers, doctors, social workers, and professors. These groups (along with middle managers and other white-collar corporate employees) occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy. They made up what we described in a 1976 essay as the “professional managerial class.” As we wrote at the time, on the basis of our experience of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there have been real, longstanding resentments between the working-class and middle-class professionals. These resentments, which the populist right cleverly deflected toward “liberals,” contributed significantly to that previous era of rebellion’s failure to build a lasting progressive movement.
As it happened, the idea of the “liberal elite” could not survive the depredations of the 1% in the late 2000s. For one thing, it was summarily eclipsed by the discovery of the actual Wall Street-based elite and their crimes. Compared to them, professionals and managers, no matter how annoying, were pikers. The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1% took your house away.
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