The Divisive Meme of the Middle Class

Carl Davidson Author and Writer, Beaver County Blue

The Divisive Meme of the Middle Class

I hate the middle class. Not the people who think that’s what they are, of course, but the term itself, and all of the elastic meanings one can give it.

Growing up in blue collar Western Pennsylvania as young greasers back in the late 1950s, we thought we were middle class, as opposed to the blacks or the ‘white trash’ poor hidden in the rural hollows. We actually weren’t, but we didn’t know it.

In any case, it always made some of us from that generation uncomfortable. On the inside, it was bland, dull, plastic, and conformist. It was Pat Boone and Perry Como rather than Elvis or Johnny Cash. On the outside, it was risky and adventurous, exploring the worlds of ‘The Other’ in the jazz clubs of  Pittsburgh’s Black Hill District or the rockabilly of road houses in West Virginia. But crossing the color line could cost you a price at times.

By the time I worked my way into the state university, however, I learned that the people around home I considered ‘rich’ were really middle income professionals, while the vast majority of kids in my high school were not ‘middle class’ at all, but were rooted deeply in the working class.

My university days also introduced me to Marxism, and a careful study of it brought me to some clarity on the topic. Be our payment high or low, the large majority of us were working class. Even more so for people of color and ‘the poor’ -- we shared the bondage of wage slavery and a common fate, even as our degrees of oppression and exploitation varied. And the ‘middle classes,' the true small producers and independent professionals, were really a rather small minority. And the capitalist classes, especially those of significance, were even teenier.

So every evening when I turn on my news shows like MSNBC and hear the constant theme, ‘We’ve got to save the middle class’ or ‘the GOP is destroying the middle class,’ it rubs me the wrong way. I can’t help hear a divisive half-hidden subtext in that drumbeat, one that whispers, ‘watch out, or you’ll end up like THEM’—the poor, the people of color, the wretched of this earth, ‘The Other.’

Maybe it’s because I started out in life as a young Johnny Cash fan, but I decided to cast my lot with those folks on the bottom long ago, even before I found it was the proper Marxist thing to do. If we are all in this struggle together, I think it often better to start at the bottom, or near it, and work our way up, uniting all who can be united along the way. My gut feeling is that way we’ll do a lot better, and get a lot stronger, than pretending we’re in the middle, and somehow trying to gain strength by reaching both ‘down’ and ‘up’, trying to ‘defend’ something we only held with a greased hand anyway.

Rather than ‘defend the middle class,’ it’s high time to start talking about ‘emancipating the working class,’ and through that effort, all humanity.

Carl Davidson, a retired computer technician, is a USW Associate Member now living in Aliquippa, Pa., his hometown, and the location of the former J&L Steel Mill, where many in his family worked and where his grandfather and a cousin died on the job. In Chicago, he served as a computer consultant for SEIU and several other unions, and was the editor of FIRR News for the Federation for Industrial Retention and Renewal during the campaigns against plant closings. In the 1960s, he was active in the civil rights movement, a national leader of student new left and the anti-Vietnam war movement. He worked on President Barack Obama’s first political campaign in Illinois, on his campaign for the U.S. Senate and for the presidency. Together with Jerry Harris, a former Chicago steelworker, he is author of CyberRadicalism: A New Left for a Global Age and editor of Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet. He is the author and co-author of several other books and lectures on the topic of the Mondragon Cooperatives, a network of 120 worker-owned factories centered in Spain, and writes for the Beaver County Blue website.

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