Proletarianizing the Middle Class

I have been reading and studying Karl Marx in the last week as a part of a European History course I am taking that focuses on the 19th century.  In the context of Marx, it was interesting reading the NY Times recent article on income inequality (the newspaper is not comfortable unless it has visited this topic at least once every week or so).  You might think that I would latch onto this quote from the Times (HT: TJIC)

The top 0.1 percent of earners"¦ now brings in 11 percent of the
nation's total income, triple the share that they did just a generation

And indeed, I have written on the implied zero-sum fallacy any number of times, including just yesterday.  Implied in this one sentence from the Times is what I call the "bubbling spring" theory of wealth, where wealth and income just sort of magically appear, like a spring out of the ground, and the rich are all those piggy people up front taking more than their fair share of the water.  Of course this is ludicrous, because it implies that if the wealthy made less money, then the poor would make more.  In fact, the reality is that if the wealthy made less money, then the nation's total income would be lower.

But this is not what caught my attention.  What was new to me in my recent study of Marx was his writing on the tactics of socialist revolution.  Specifically, he spent a lot of time talking about the need to "proletarianize the middle class."  He knew that to have a successful socialist revolution, the middle class had to be made to feel marginalized and put upon by the system.  If he had lived long enough, he would have said that socialist revolution failed to occur in countries like Britain because the middle class became too large and too successful.

In this context, then, I found this quote from the Times most interesting:

There is now a big push in both Washington and state capitals to come
up with policies that can alleviate middle-class anxiety.

The author himself editorializes:

There is now a big push in both Washington and state capitals to come
up with policies that can alleviate middle-class anxiety. That's all
for the good. In fact, it is overdue.

What middle class anxiety?  The middle class is doing better than ever, except that there has been a concentrated media campaign by the Times and others, abetted by various politicians on the left, to try to make the middle class feel anxious and marginalized.  To the author's credit, he observes that while "Layoffs seem to happen more frequently than they once did," the actual evidence for increased volatility is really not there:

Only later do you come to the surprising part: there is the same
amount of variability now that there was in the 1980s and 1990s. In
journalism, this is known as burying the lead.

"Intuitively, you would think volatility is increasing," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who along with Senator Jim Webb
of Virginia requested that the study be done. "But it isn't, which I
guess shows that the American economy has always been very flexible."

What the author does not explain is, if the increase in volatility is not real, then why do so many people believe it to be true?  The answer, of course, is that his employer, among others, have been pushing a PR campaign for years to convince the middle class that their lot sucks.  Why?  Well, read your Marx.


  1. Brad Warbiany:

    You know, I'm probably solidly in the middle class. At my age, I'm probably upper middle class. Right now, my wife's pregnant, we're moving [unfortunately] back to California, and trying to figure out how to work our finances so that we can live on one income and she can stay home full-time with the baby. There's one thing I understand about being middle or upper-middle class. I make enough money that the government doesn't give me squat, and I make enough money that they've got their boots on my neck trying to squeeze more money out of my wallet.

    I'm middle class, and I'm pissed off. The thing is, I don't point my anger at the corporate structure, or at capitalism. Those things have been very good to me, and continue to do so. I'm pissed off at government. They're the ones stealing 30-50% of my income, not the capitalists... They're the ones making it hard for my family to live on one income. You want to talk about middle class anxiety? How about knowing that I'm moving from a reasonable place with moderate state taxes to a land where government regulation artificially increases the cost of real estate, the taxes will be at least 3% higher, and where the government views my type as a source of revenue, not as a free citizen.

    Tell the damn government to get their hands out of my wallet, and their regulatory jackboots off my neck, and I'll be a much happier middle-class individual.

  2. Debbo:

    Dear Brad Warbiany and Coyote:

    Here's a quote from Coyote:

    "There were social and political changes that greatly increased the number of people capable of entrepreneurship. Before this time, the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had one. By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability to use their mind to create new wealth. Whereas before, perhaps 1% or less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom."

    People like us who appreciate the necessity of the capitalist and don't mind providing some charity for the poor have every right to feel resentful. Someone's philosophy of "promote the race to the top, prevent the race to the bottom" makes us feel that energy is misplaced. People like Lou Dobbs realize this, and are trying to protect and promote the essential middle class that you talk about, Coyote!

    As far as providing for the poor, let Bill Gates, Oprah, Bono and Brangelina keep up the good work. Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't heard much about them doing much in Latin America...and don't expect us to try and help the poor of the whole world, or even our closest neighbors to the south by letting them come here and get free services that we pay for every week or two!!