Friday, December 3, 2010

Which Side Are You On?

There has been a bit of debate of late among my “Facebook friends” as to whether the middle class is, basically, a bunch of dupes – i.e. whether they have been brainwashed into supporting the people who are, in fact, their worst enemies – big business and the financial hustlers and manipulators of Wall Street. The age-old notion seems to be that the working class and minorities are naturally attracted to liberal politics and opposed to “cut-throat capitalism” with all of its exploitative ways – and rightly so. In other words, the interests of “labor” and the poor are naturally served by socialism and collectivism – and maybe even totalitarianism! Which means that when these demographics vote liberal and/or Democratic, they are doing the sensible thing, which is voting their pocketbooks + for human rights in general, and freedom from oppression, etc. etc. Capitalism and “business” are, as always, the enemy, just as Marx said. In other words, labor is doomed to always be at odds with their employers... and the poor are doomed to be at odds with... well, basically, anyone who is earning a decent income and paying taxes.

The middle class, on the other hand, according to this model, does not vote in its own interests... because if they did, they would join forces with labor and the poor. The great divide, in other words, is not between labor and the poor on one side and everyone else on the other, but between the rich on one side and everyone else on the other. So the middle and lower, or working, classes are natural allies. Or so the premise seems to be. And this is because it has become obvious that the middle class is also exploited by the rich, just not in as gross, crude, and obvious a way as the working class. They are, by and large, wage slaves... and what if they're foolish enough to invest in the stock market, which is clearly a plaything of the rich where the more modestly-endowed have no business? And what if they dare to try and save money, with unseen powers controlling the rate of inflation and taxing what little they can earn in interest? And what if they dare to purchase a home, the value of which is determined by other unseen forces? The middle class may appear to be more in control of their fate; they certainly think they are – but in fact they aren't. All they have is a bit more of a buffer -- and that is more psychological than real. They are not literally one paycheck away from homelessness, despite what the fearmongers claim... but it's easy enough to convince them that they are. Which means that whereas the lower ranks of society are at least realistic (if resigned) about their situation, the middle class is delusional, and easily taken in by (1) the propaganda that filters down from the financial and power elite, via the media; (2) traditional “American”, “family”, and “Judeo-Christian” values, which are other forms of brainwashing, and which constitute the opiate of the middle class; (3) politicians who only pretend to be their friends at election time, but then turn on them the minute they get into positions of power; and – last but not least – (4) the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly. Which is to say, those last-mentioned are nothing but shills for the business/power/financial elite – and their job is to keep the middle class (1) fear-ridden, (2) in line when it comes to voting, and (3) ignorant of the real problems in the country in the world, by providing them with games and circuses, talking head-style.

This, as I said, is the conventional wisdom among liberals... and I am not going to say quite yet which pieces of it I agree or disagree with. But I thought of it last evening when I happened to walk past one of the larger venues in downtown Pittsburgh, which featured a live Glenn Beck show entitled “Broke: Restarting the Engine of America". And, it turns out, he made many of the same points about the U.S. vs. the EU that I just made (“The Lack O' the Irish”). But what struck me was the crowd going into the theater – the paper describes it as “mostly middle-aged with a good helping of young and elderly”. But allow me to expand on that. They were, with no exceptions, white and middle-class. In other words, the bourgeoisie! The very people who stand accused of being dupes and collaborators... and yet they seemed to be listening to a guy who, in some ways, is more on the side of the poor and humble than of the complacent, apathetic, smug bourgeoisie. Thus, something truly new under the sun – the middle class taking to the streets (both figuratively and literally) while the working class and the poor stay at home watching TV. But according to certain liberals, progressives, and free thinkers, the middle class are all dupes who don't know what's truly good for them.

I should mention, in passing, that the last time I saw a comparable crowd flowing into a venue it was while I was driving through Omaha on the very weekend of one of Berkshire-Hathaway's annual meetings. The contrast could not have been greater. Last evening I found myself walking upstream against a quiet crowd of earnest, sincere, but also worried and concerned... but far from militant in the usual sense, and certainly not radical... middle-class Pittsburghers. In Omaha, on the other hand, I was surrounded by a sea of hyper-prosperity and American success stories -- pink, gleaming faces, perfect (mostly white) hair, custom-tailored blazers, custom-fitted shoes, and designer “business attire” for the ladies – mostly dresses. I thought I'd accidentally discovered a hatchery for Dick Cheney clones – except for the snarl. And I would be willing to bet that there is no overlap – zero, zip, nada – between the shiny, prosperous beneficiaries of Warren Buffet's genius and the crowd that panteth after the words of Glenn Beck. If you're in charge – or feel that you are – you're unlikely to take to the streets for “change”. What you are likely to do is hire your Congressman to gin up some bogus government programs that fool the proles into thinking they're experiencing change, when they really aren't. This is the age-old way in which revolutions are neutralized or sidetracked, and the best example, perhaps, in all of human history is the New Deal. The problem with dealing with a middle-class revolt is that those tactics won't work, since that is precisely what the revolt is about. You can throw the lower classes an occasional bone... but when someone like Beck speaks out against bone-throwing per se... then what? Thus the dilemma of the Regime, and the extraordinary lengths its captive media are going to to neutralize the tea parties, talk radio, and “right-wing” TV personalities.

But to return to the question, is the middle class being duped? Are liberal commentators and critics right on this point? And where is the real socio-economic fault line in this country? Should the middle class be pro-business or should they link arms with the oppressed and march to the tune of the Internationale? My answer is yes, the middle class is being duped – up to a point. And part of this lies in the origin of much of what the middle class considers its “beliefs”. Many of those beliefs, rather than being founded on principles, are reactive. Whatever the furry, scruffy, aging-hippie socialists and college professors, and liberal politicians and media types believe, "I'm agin it," in other words. And this is actually not a bad rule of thumb, since the other side very seldom does anything right, or thinks anything that makes sense. But this lack of sound logic leads to anachronisms. A middle-class person may support small business – or be a small businessman – but that doesn't mean they have to support multi-national corporations, Wall Street, or the international financial cartel. It's like saying that because I like cats, I should be willing to live under the same roof with lions and tigers. As I've discussed before, there is a point at which businesses grow to a certain size where they almost inevitably become abusive and exploitative, and start buying politicians and taking over governments (especially things like the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department). Anyone should be able to realize that this is bad... and it's not being disloyal to the basic idea of free enterprise to say so. Capitalist theory can be basically sound, but its practitioners can run amok – but at that point they cease to be true capitalists, in my opinion. Thus, they give capitalism a bad name, and the collectivists... um... “capitalize” on this in order to pursue their own agenda.

So yes, unthinking defense of “capitalism” in any form and of any size is one failing of the middle class. Another failing is their dogmatic belief in American exceptionalism. It can be admitted that America was, and still is, in some respects, exceptional without extending this into the perceived need for us to be the world's policeman and to spread democracy to those who don't want it, or can't handle it. And it becomes particularly grotesque when we attempt to spread democracy through military force – as if that is not, per se, the best argument anyone could come up with against the American system and world view. “We're going to turn your country into a democracy, or kill you – and maybe ourselves too – trying.” Yeah... that'll win a lot of hearts and minds. Do people overseas perceive that we're doing them a favor, or do they see us as a delusional, out-of-control bully with borderline-psychotic leaders (both civilian and military)? I think the latter answer is more often the case than the former. And yet if I had surveyed everyone going into that rally last night, I'll bet nearly all of them (except for the odd paleocon or libertarian) would have been 100% “pro” American Empire... and spreading democracy at all costs... and not cutting and running... and “supporting the troops”... etc. etc. (And, as an aside, I'm sure the vast majority would have agreed that Israel is “our best friend in that part of the world”, instead of an albatross hanging around our neck.)

So “here's a howdy-do”, as Gilbert and Sullivan would say. We have a very large demographic that has a proper appreciation for tradition, family, property... a loyalty to their native soil... who are religious... who exercise reasonable self-control and restraint in their lives... so far so good. And they are avid followers of Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly, et al – who are right about most things most of the time (especially when they're talking about liberals). But there is an Achilles heel, which is (1) their confusion of international financial cartels, big business, and Wall Street with “free enterprise”; and (2) their unquestioning support for the American Empire, in all of its manifestations, waste, and abuses. They are, in other words, basically good people with a few bad – and very destructive – ideas. Whereas their critics on the left are, by and large, basically bad people with the occasional halfway-decent idea... but even they can be duped, and they are – on a regular basis. I've often mentioned how disappointed they are every time one of their favorite candidates turns into a monster – a “war president” or supporter of some other form of “fascism”. It shows that they don't understand how the system really works. So they have no reason to look down from on high and laugh at how foolish the bourgeoisie are – far from it! There are still many more “useful idiots” on the left than on the right. But all have fallen short of true sanity and discernment when it comes to politics and economics.

And if you ask me whose world I would prefer to live in... Let's say that the ideal “conservative” world would be a place like Utah. (Beck is a Mormon, after all.) And let's say that the ideal “liberal” world would be a place like Berkeley, or Northampton, or Ann Arbor. Well... can you guess? I'd prefer to live in the liberal world, of course! Seriously, you want me to move to Utah? I'll bet they think Mexican cuisine begins and ends with Taco Bell. No, I reserve the right to live among philosophical enemies, but speak the truth. (You can tell that “popularity” is not high on my list of “values”.) But that's what makes Pittsburgh a fascinating place. Of all the cities of the “Rust Belt”, it probably has the largest remaining demographic of old-time machine-politics Democrats, who are “white ethnics”, working class, and also quite traditional and conservative when it comes to things like religion, economics, family, and property. They certainly have enough historical experience with big business to know that the truth is not there... but they have also managed to avoid most of the union organizers' and social-change mongers' propaganda about the blessings of socialism, collectivism, communism, “diversity”, “tolerance”, “ecumenism”, and what not. They are solid Americans – patriotic as least as much as nationalistic – but they reserve a certain healthy peasant, Old-World skepticism when confronted by the humanistic propaganda machine or by chamber of commerce palaver. So they are avoiding one of the major delusions of main-line conservatives... but are still a long way from having the scales fall from their eyes when it comes to the American Empire. But there is hope, I believe – because they are not complacent... they are feisty... and they are, thank goodness, just parochial and provincial enough to not fall for the empty promises of globalism. And besides, they resist deracination – the robbing of their ethnic and religious identity for the sake of “diversity” (yes – ironic). They are not in thrall to the Great American Melting Pot – since they know, on some level, that that has always been a myth... that our strength is in _real_ diversity, not the anemic fraud perpetrated by the media and the schools.

But at what point, if ever, do they all stand up united against The Power? And yes, the liberals are right on that score as well – the true fault line is between the Regime and everyone else, including the middle class, the working class, and the poor. But the middle class does not have to make the same mistakes the working class made – aligning themselves with socialists and communists (and atheists) for many generations. True conservatism – of the “paleo” sort – is just as appropriate for the farmer and the laborer as it is for the small tradesman and merchant.

A healthy society really can be made up of people who share the same philosophy – although you'd never know it from our history since socialism started making inroads in the cities and among factory workers. There is not, in my opinion, a need for the Marxist dialectic; a people can, for example, agree on the primacy of Natural Law and then work out the details at their leisure. Socialism is so shopworn that it's a miracle anyone still gives it any credence; one “worker's paradise” has already been established, and has been found sorely wanting, as have any number of lesser imitators. Capitalism, while acceptable enough in theory, has become so corrupt at the higher levels that it has given even the small businessman a bad name – why, if he has employees who are paid by the hour then they must, by definition, be exploited and in need of rescuing (by liberals and big government)! Labor and capital have been at each other's throats for generations... and this onus has spread to labor vs. business in general, and to the working class vs. the middle class. Those two groups have been pitted against each other (socially, culturally, economically) for generations both by revolutionaries and by the power elite – each in pursuit of its own agenda. So it's no wonder the middle class feels caught in the middle, and flocks to Glenn Beck rallies. They are caught on the horns of a dilemma – between the unwashed rabble (the mob, the “street”) and the all-powerful, who are as far above them as the most abject street person is below. And as far as they can tell, everyone hates and despises them – the working class certainly does, as do the poor, the “minorities”, the media, the entertainment industry, teachers, social workers, librarians, liberals, the art world, the Democratic Party, nearly everyone in the federal bureaucracy (and state and local bureaucracies as well), and certainly everyone in the Obama administration. They have become the forgotten Americans, and are well on their way to obsolescence and irrelevance at best, or annihilation and extinction at worst – at least this is the lurking fear that creeps upon them in the still hours of the night. “We thought this was our country, but we were wrong.” But was it ever their country? I think that one thing one can say, with confidence, about the United States is that it was, at one time and for a long time, a profoundly middle-class country. Yes, it was founded by a wealthy elite of country squires, but its backbone has always been the homesteader, the independent farmer, the tradesman, the merchant... and later on the urban laborer, but that's when the big split really got under way. Suddenly the cities, which were at one time an outgrowth of the agrarian sector, become entities in their own right, with different needs, problems, priorities, customs, and values. One would think, or hope, that the interests of all Americans would be largely the same – but that is not the impression one gets from election campaigns, for instance. There it seems that we are of at least two competing and mutually hostile cultures, both vying for dominance, and only one can win. But again, I think a lot of this is illusory – it's the product of social-class baiting, and propaganda, and agendas that have been imposed on people and on their thinking. Yes, there will always be a middle-class mindset and lifestyle, and a working-class mindset and lifestyle; there are intrinsic qualities to their respective states that dictate this. But if the game of politicians and the ruling elite is to exaggerate their differences, then the way to combat this is to seek out long-lost similarities. So I say that it's time for the middle class and the working class to discover each other again – their respective strengths and virtues – and together cast off the yoke that has been placed on each of them by the ruling elite.

No comments: