Saturday, September 29, 2018


Recently, class structure, particularly in the US but also world-wide, has been the subject of much debate and theorizing.  In most of these discussions, the middle class has been Goldilocks: equitable, comfortable, to be supported as the source of stability.  What creates it, who's in it, what is its relationship to some kind of ultimate virtue or even high research, are all subject to argument, but they're not too hot, not too cold.

My understanding is unsophisticated but relies on the continuity of culture in a large sense.  That is, I think that the middle class is the product of combining British landed-gentry with the agricultural base of life on this continent in my parents' generation.  In Europe the middle class comes out of the formation of cities and merchandizing, both small shops and vast networks like the Hudson's Bay Company.  Prioritizing of mineral resources was paramount.  As general wealth increased, it was easier for the middle class to develop, but also for equitable distribution to suffer and for wealth to become characterized by certain kinds of people.  (White, male, European, educated, well-connected.)

So we end up with what "Victorians" considered important characteristics:  owning one's own home, maintaining a lawn rather than a garden, keeping up with machines like cars, pianos, typewriters, and then all the electrical conveniences: dishwashers, clothes washers, refrigerators, and attachment to all the cooperative amenities like piped water, wired electricity, paved roads, radio, television and computer internet.  Worldwide, most people live without these things, but we continue to consider all this normal, basic, essential.  Also, attending a Christian church every morning.

That's all coming apart now that many prosperous people are Muslim, Buddhist, or simply non-believers or non-affiliated.  They may not look or dress like Brits.  Beyond that, people are "particulating" -- carrying their internet/telephone in their pockets, ignoring standard networks, getting education in new ways, keeping in touch with voluntary affiliations since they have few generational connections in the US.

Many are worried that we are becoming fascists, distorting our parents' belief that if we went to good schools and got good jobs, we would be safely prosperous, part of a meritocracy who earned what we got and therefore were entitled.  But now a new group is saying that we've retreated back to feudalism, where small prospering bosses, "kulaks", are making their money on the backs of the poor laboring people.  This is related to the coming apart of biological families because of sex without pregnancy, the unavailability of cheap housing, and education based on insupportable debt.  Tax bases of jurisdictions are shrinking just as old infrastructure breaks down and new demands are made.

It's more complicated than that, but the crucial task is to assimilate the new understanding of the world that comes from high technology science -- the ideas that are being called "deep time" or "long time" and are derived from DNA in all living matter and isotopes in all non-living matter, plus incredibly powerful lenses and detecting strategies.  It is disconcerting that the animals we learned to name in kindergarten turn out to be something else, that the land masses we call continents don't just float around on the backs of fractals but also get submerged now and then by an ocean that fluctuates according to the planetary ice mass which depends upon global warming.

We learn about sudden catastrophic change in everything: eruptions, tsunamis, magnetic storms, sun flares, all the other massive and horrific changes that give little or no warning and for which are really no cures or managements.  Suddenly returns the blind dependence of the Biblical people on anthropomorphizing whatever happens so it's all the work of someone we can blame or bribe or thank.  

And then they tell us that everything is related, that a tiny change in the cellular code of humans means a plague that wipes out half of us.  Don't you think that diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure in such big proportions are due to some kind of code change, whether we call it disease or toxicity?

Two concepts that created the middle class were the devising of "money" as a way of bookkeeping wealth, and the class obligations of a biological family which always struggled to make children the path to increase, one way or another, rooted in property ownership.  We are questioning both ideas now.  The people who are in most distress are those who didn't know that was possible.

A symptom of not grasping reality is the storage industry, which rents supposedly secure but accessible spaces for the middle class to store "stuff" while moving, expecting times to get better, refusing to give up the small luxuries like boats or RV's even though their living location won't accommodate them.  The people of the future are more like the people of the deep past, taking very little more with them through life than what they can carry.  They are replacing their ethnic roots with affinity for particular music. 

Victorians, who were Enlightenment people, depended upon binaries and categories to keep the world sorted out.  Today they are not just pressed to convert so many fields -- like sexuality -- into spectrums and continuums, but also to recognize whole new ways of understanding them.  What difference does sex make in gender roles?  When does life begin?  When does it end?  Depends on the criteria you use, doesn't it?  Sometimes what day it is. 

Nothing is more middle class than PBS.  I get fed up with the ladylike Judy with her spread fingers and dismay at trouble.  I even get fed up with the two gentlemen she so treasurers, Brooks and Shields.  Discussing a throwback like Kavanaugh, they wobble and stutter and frown.  (Kavenaugh dates to the years when beer was an entitlement for sailors and working men, though they might have called it "grog", necessary for tolerating inescapable and cynical work.)  Somehow the News Hour manages to make a national crisis into a merely puzzling and dismaying event.

Brooks, with his books about class, is better equipped.  Even now he travels around the country.  He tried to turn the discussion away from R/D party loyalty, so loosely and inaccurately framed as left versus conservative, over to a re-organizing idea about people who are "in" the fight and those who recoil, feel that it's a filthy mess and they just want out,  a very middle-class idea that arises from entitlement to their lives, impossible as that has become.  (Cleanliness is next to godliness, esp. on Sunday morning.)

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