The Curious Malaise Of The Middle Class

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Above Photo: Be.thorough/Flickr

Watching their futures fade, the marginally comfortable do little about it.

Passing through the vestibules of airports, one experiences the quotidian toil of modern neoliberal life. Even as one’s spirits rise at the thought of a fresh destination, or perhaps a familiar one, the vast task force of transit works fastidiously about you. The TSA army bark irritated orders to lethargic queues of travelers; everywhere badged employees swipe cards and pass through nondescript doors; a lone, lank youth brushes the carpeted floor with a broom, sweeping miniscule dust mites into his empty dust pan; the cashier issues her rote boilerplate: “Is that all?”, said with a faintly accusatory air, as though you were not spending enough into the economy, a consumer-citizen’s first duty; and “Have a pleasant flight”, a casual aside uttered as she is half-turned away from you, her thoughts already involved in some internal calculus. A mixture of slow- and fleet-footed travelers course through this infantry of minor taskmasters, seeking their all-important departure gates. The entire mis-en-scene happens like clockwork, a cast of somnambulents sleepwalking through lives of endless routine, the class character of the setting muted beneath the wholesale price points of the duty free.

It is strange to watch the sleepy drama of airports, in which a bourgeoisie and a working class effortlessly intermingle, both seemingly inured to the routines of capitalist life. Something soulless inhabits the pace of capitalist life. One observes it here in the deadened gaze of the wage workers, watching their lives tick away in terminal jobs; but also in the ceaseless arrivals and departures of businessmen charging off to another sales conference; and in the harried rush of families to make it on their annual holiday junket. One wonders if any of these classes, more the workers than the professional caste, might ever revolt against the system that keeps them ensnared in their drudgery.

The Haves Revolt

In his 2001 novel Millennium People, British author JG Ballard contemplates not a proletarian revolution but a middle-class one, launched in a small bourgeois London neighborhood called Chelsea-Marina. The revolt is led in part by charismatic dissident Kay Churchill, a film studies lecturer at a local college. Her goal is to unsettle the middle-class, awaken them from their dogmatic slumbers, the normalized routines of work, family, and travel. She and the narrator, David Markham, conduct various half-comic, half-subversive activities in posh City bedroom communities. They go door-to-door conducting fake surveys designed to discomfort bourgeois households, asking probing questions about personal hygiene, sexual infidelity, and beastiality that disturb settled social codes. They put exploding cassettes on shelves of video stores, creating havoc in one of the favorite hobby shops of the middle-class. Throughout, Churchill and Markham have a curious back-and-forth in which Markham questions whether the middle-class is actually happy with their mindless routines. “Maybe they’re happy being conned.” Chuchill is unconvinced, “The prisoners polish their chains? I won’t accept that.” She adds that the rebellion needs to, “Stir things up. Make them realize they’re victims.” She sees the brainwashed bourgeoisie languishing in “cultural prisons” of safe and surveilled mediocrity. She holds the travel industry with especial contempt:

Today’s tourist goes nowhere…All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same pina colada bullshit. The tourists smile at their tans and their shiny teeth and think they’re happy. But the suntans hide who they really are—salary slaves, with heads full of American rubbish. Travel is the last fantasy the 20th Century left us, the delusion that going somewhere helps you reinvent yourself.

As for the supposed benefits that accrue to emerging economies, “‘The Third World!’ Her voice rose to a derisive hoot. ‘Gangs of coolies who mix the cement and lay the runways. A select few get to mix the cocktails and lay the tourists.’”

But the rebels understand the larger threats that neoliberal capitalism poses to middle-class life. Their novel’s tragicomic revolution is sparked by “declining fortunes”, a situation mirrored in today’s middle-class suburbs around the capitalist West. Rather than sitting atop a building mountain of home equity, spacious housing, and a one-income lifestyle, like their parents, the contemporary middle-class is saddled with extravagant debt burdens, underwater mortgages, and an increasingly crude and abrasive culture industry that thrives on political conflict, manufactured terrorist threats, and reality TV centered on the thriftless, alcohol-fueled Tlives of the accidentally rich. Americans owe the mortgage, credit card, auto, and student loan industries in America more than a trillion dollars each, with mortgage debt leading the way, at close to nine trillion.

The Great Unbanked

And yet we have nothing quite approximating the rebellion in Chelsea-Marina. Set in a Middle Earth of creature comforts and crumbling fortunes, the middle class finds itself placated through the instruments of debt finance, the political establishment’s endless hectoring about personal responsibility, and the media’s numberless features on the lifestyles of celebrities and the rich. This last circulates through our heads, a pastiche dream of social media fame, grand galas, and cosmopolitan jet-setting (cooly aping the transnationalism of elite executives, a parody of actual power).

The instability of middle-class life is a product of neoliberal economics implemented in the early Seventies, but it seems that this has only lately come to be more generally understood, thanks to the Great Recession and a river of alternative media dialogues that contradict the mainstream narrative. Of course, the mainstream media focuses on ruling class extravagance, occasionally the crises of the floundering middle-class, and very occasionally it pauses to celebrate the perseverance of the disenfranchised in the face of deeply insulting economic fortunes. (Journalist Adam Johnson calls this, “perseverance porn,” which might include, for instance, an article congratulating a worker who walks twenty miles a day to his job, or who has to work five jobs to raise three kids, etc. A recent beer ad featured the headline, “A 12-hour workday is just a prelude to a 12-ounce beer” as though the latter were anything more than a bleary consolation for being overworked.)

Yet the mainstream deliberately ignores the underlying causal catastrophe of neoliberalism. Fortunately, alternative and some academic media does mainstream journalism’s job on its behalf. Author Peter Phillips, for instance, details a number of telling figures in his recent book Giants: The Global Power Elite. As Phillips points out, when you argue for the current system, particularly in the US, you’re arguing for a capitalist oligarchy in which 1 percent of humanity controls more than half the world’s wealth, and in which 30 percent control 95 percent of the world’s wealth, leaving 70 percent of the world’s population to support itself on 5 percent of the world’s resources. Second, Thomas Piketty’s monumental study of capitalism demonstrated that it produces ever-widening inequality, which sociology has long found to be correlated with social and political conflict. Third, recent studies have shown marked rises in suicides as neoliberal austerity takes hold in the metropole itself, while hundreds of thousands of Indian farmers have already taken their own lives in an ongoing epidemic that provoked meager interest in western capitals. Fourth, it’s been conclusively argued that we are heading into the sixth mass extinction event in history, one produced by capitalist industrialization.

One would think this would all be enough to launch a society on a different path of social organization. Yet we are not shifting gears, save for a few outnumbered socialists in Washington, whose Cassandra warnings are washed away beneath a tide of media coverage of celebrity centrists declaring their candidacies for office. And then there is the teeming horde of  hidebound conservatives, rehearsing underlined passages from their university textbooks and declaring, generally with affected weariness over watery tumblers of Kentucky mash, that capitalism is not a zero sum game. They argue that there is ever more growth available to us, and it will soon trickle down to even the laziest among us. This argument ignores the finitude of planetary resources, the dangers of financialization as a path to non-material growth, and the obvious refutation that more growth is pointless when it continues to be unequally divided, thanks to institutional fetters designed to ensure the upward flow of accumulation. All this as corporate largesse to the fossil fuel industry now exceeds the Pentagon budget.

The Decline of Dreams

Despite these realities, the collective hope for escape to an alternative tomorrow is quietly reeled back, from heady dreams of communal democracy to more mundane daydreams of mini-breaks and tourism junkets to overdeveloped tropical venues. Capitalism’s bourgeoisie humbly accept this diminution of possibility in their lives, the very notion of class erased from their memories, leaving them to credit or blame themselves for their successes and failures—the ultimate form of alienation.

They accept too the acquisition of a few creature comforts, enough to cobble together a shambling quasi middle-class lifestyle, debt-fueled and marked by stress, obesity, and quotidian drudgery. Not to mention the high-decibal media cant reminding them of the frontier dangers of radical Islam, authoritarian socialist dictators, and more proximate perils of urban violence and auto-wrecks. They accept their lot. The intellectual dissidents, finding one avenue of resistance after another foreclosed, ideologically worn down, find themselves acting out the society of spectacle described by French philosopher Guy Debord. Acts of resistance become merely performative, rebellions normalized and incorporated within the horizons of neoliberal life, little more than a venting system for consumer frustration that, maddeningly, is said to represent the robust health of the democratic state. Once-ruddy rebels, enflamed by a raft of injustices, resolve into a tableaux of bored travelers, waiting for a call to board, hoping they will soon be ferried to the worlds of their imagination.

The liberal class thus divides into two breakaway clans, those who limit themselves to lip-service monologues with which they publicize their sense of injustice over comfortable meals, wine glasses brandished as weapons to punctuate their outrage. Then there are the true thespians, who take to the streets, wielding placards filled with exclamations and chanting songs of resistance as their throngs progress clumsily down the avenue, thoughtfully cleared of traffic in advance by local authorities. On the one hand, gestural politics; on the other, theater.

A Process of Incorporation

In Ballard’s Chelsea-Marina, the rebellion is finally defused as the municipality accedes to several of their material demands, revealing the superficial commitments of the angry but easily pacified professionals. Their class pretensions confirmed, discomforts assuaged, they melt back into the bland triptych of sensible consumer behaviors: earn, buy, consume. Kay Churchill gains some noteriety, which she parlays into regular television appearances and a commission to produce a documentary and companion book on the aims of the revolution.

Here, we see the subtle mechanics of capitalist incorporation almost invisibly at work, defusing the prospects of revolution. First, the ideological is divided from the material; the ideological aims of the rebellion are ignored while some of the material demands are addressed, creating the illusion of concession while stabilizing the status quo. Next, the insurgents and suburban mutineers are individually bought off, separated like a street gang divides a flock of pedestrians, slicing them off from one another for individual exploitation. Assigned roles within the establishment, they are permitted a patina of defiance while in actuality performing a counterrevolutionary role.

Lastly, they are encouraged to memorialize their insurrection. Now that it is past, it can be safely reevaluated, like the retrospective of a deceased artist’s body of work. The uprising is recontexualized and assimilated, redefined in the sunny optimism of neoliberal kultura as a successful, even necessary, outburst of civil disobedience. As the narrative travels through time, the real character of the uprising is mystified until it can be finally commoditized as a salable cultural artifact for the edification of the masses, sold as a tee-shirt or a fashion statement. Firmly established in the media of myth, it is one more item on the menu on your seatback screen, an entertainment to alleviate the boredom on the flight of capitalism to a future that appears to resemble a disappointing past, only more so. Spike Lee was wrong: the revolution will be televised, and we’ll all pay a fee to watch it, another profitable revenue stream for the transnational merchants sitting in business class.

(Is this not the revisionist history of Martin Luther King, Jr., his outsized vision truncated to a voting rights act, his broader narrative of triplicate evils swept aside, finally repackaged as a holiday and a video on-demand?)

Back in the realm of nonfiction, the plane taxies onto the early morning airstrip, and one can peer out the double-paned porthole window into the dawn light. The tarmac offers a straightaway of golden footlights on either side, strings of glancing jewels beckoning the rumbling jet forward. The straightaway runs into the near distance, eventually terminating into a pinpoint enveloped in a sheath of gray fog eclipsing the sky. The jet engines hum to a high whine and the vessel surges forward. You can feel the human and steel freight being pulled ahead, the first class passengers in the vanguard, shifting irritably in their leather lounges, as though anxious to shed the rear of the plane and all the unwanted cargo holding them back.