In an earlier post we spoke of how the political terms “Left” and “Right” entered our lexicon a few decades ago and spoiled our politics ever since. But those who use such language in an effort to divide us have also done quite a number on the term “middle class.” They have taken a term that once described a movement, a new and energized entity in the progress of the human race, and turned it into an economic term. In the process, they have robbed it of much of its imagination and rendered it as some kind of political jargon that hollows out its meaning.
It’s easy to see both how and why it has happened. With the escaping of accountability by the wealthy elite on the one hand, and the growing clutches of poverty on the other, “middle class” has come to represent some kind of Promised Land – a comfy place in the middle of the economic spectrum.
But the moment we make the term “middle class” an economic term, we have already lost the battle. We have been at this long enough to know that the development of the middle class has come along late in the narrative of human history. It poked its head up on various occasions over the last 300 years, but its dominant presence was felt following World War Two, as economies boomed, plenty of labour was available, and governments began to get their head around the promising reality that a working and productive citizenry is the best hope for the things people really aspired to.
We talk about the middle class as some kind of consumer support group, but in previous decades leaders couldn’t refer to the term “middle class” without adding the word “values.” In other words, it was a generation unleashed upon their respective nations in a manner that was economically healthy, but socially and politically accountable as well. It wasn’t just about rising wages and home ownership, but community, volunteer sports organizations, citizenship, voting, parent-teacher partnerships, tolerance, escalating individual and group rights, education, enhanced health, and meaningful retirements.
George Bernard Shaw came to the last years of his life just as the middle class was booming following World War Two. He provided his own kind of benediction on the movement before his passing: “I have to live for others and not for myself: that’s middle class morality.” And so it was. But if you listen to current commentators from numerous disciplines, this no longer seems to be the case. The middle class is a group falling into an economic decline and … well, that’s it. The values are gone; their financial worth all that is left.
Yet some of the rustic and heady days of middle class influence stubbornly remain in our memories despite this troubling reduction to merely economic indicators. Country singer, Tim McGraw, introduced a song recently by saying, “The issues that matter to me are the social safety nets for people, health care, middle class concerns. We need to take care of the middle class and the poor in our country.” Yes, pundits and economists can attempt to take the “values” component out of “middle class values,” but it remains stubbornly resilient in a people who recall better days. In fact, the vast majority of Canadians consider themselves middle class in their better angels and it is a deeply held Canadian cognitive dissonance that the political order abandoned years ago.
Citizens used to look for leaders who would help middle class communities to plan and prosper over the long-term, but they have learned to stop looking for any such action. And yet the political establishment continues to tout their belief in the middle class even as it witnesses and condones the filtering up of resources from the poor and middle classes to the wealthy elite and their special privileges.
But the middle class remains, not in high-end suburbs, but in neighbourhoods. It continues to fight for citizen engagement instead of the political back rooms. It refuses to address children living in poverty as a class and believe that the best way to eliminate child poverty is to elevate the middle class itself. They still believe in the hard work of brains and hands, instead of financial advisors compounding interest on funds that left our communities years ago. It still believes in public schools and public libraries, public healthcare and public infrastructure, the public space and the public ethos.
No, we haven’t gone away. We are still here and getting just a bit tired of being politically pandered to by the same hands that take our money and our jobs from our communities. We are value-driven people who just happen to fall into an economic sector, not the other way around. And we wait for those politicians and their economic advisors who will have the courage to invest in those values again instead of the current economic disorder.