Class consciousness – class warfare – the mainstays of Marxism, but also essential to the teachings and activities of American liberalism, are a foundational element of the Democratic Party. There was a class system in colonial America, which naturally resembled that in Europe, although the boundaries were, partly by necessity, much less rigid and more fluid (for one thing, no hereditary titles). There was never an official American royalty, but there were certainly landowners and grant-holders, merchants, craftsmen, peasants, laborers, and, yes, slaves. This class system, so natural to any human society, did not seem to overly offend anyone at the time, because, after all, it was what they were used to. It was the way the world worked, wasn't it? And anything else was unimaginable. (We tend to forget how radically different our world view is from that of our colonial ancestors.) And what probably helped was that all were united, more or less, against the offenses being committed by the mother country, i.e. Britain, and its king. But then came the founding documents, with “all men are created equal”, and so forth – implying that class was an illusion, or an unfortunate accident, and that it might soon be done away with (or so was the fond hope). But the American Revolution was a political one, not an economic one. Landowners remained landowners, merchants remained merchants, peasants remained peasants, and slaves remained slaves – at least for a time. Before long, Marxism had taken hold in Europe, and real political revolutions had occurred (1848 being a critical year) – plus the Civil War brought out class divisions (in both North and South) in sharp relief. (Basically, the North's upper classes sent the North's lower classes out to defeat the South's lower classes and thus to render the South's upper classes powerless and bankrupt). So class consciousness, while it is always with us, grew from a taken-for-granted state of affairs into a political cause, and we had, later in the 19th Century and into the 20th, a rise in both immigration and anarchy – not a coincidence, since many of the immigrants were from areas where the new consciousness had taken hold, particularly the animus against hereditary rule – kings, czars, and emperors. (The immigrants came here in part because things were moving too slowly back home – and the minute they got off the boat, they started to agitate for the political, social, and economic changes here that they had longed for in their places of origin. And let's admit, their optimism was well-founded, at least up to a point. Where Old Europe had failed, America became the great testing ground; the American Experiment was taken over from the WASPs by the teeming masses from Eastern and Southern Europe. But this effort only succeeded up to a point; we became, for all intents and purposes, socialistic, but balked at becoming a people's republic, a failing which continues to irritate the hard left to this day.) Plus, we had the rise of Progressivism, not the very first manifestation of populism (forget not Andrew Jackson) but one with many more long-term consequences. Then came the Russian revolution, and yesterday's anarchists became, almost overnight, today's totalitarians – and at this late date, we can say, with confidence, “'twas ever thus”. Put populism and Bolshevism into a stew pot, stir for a while, and you have – ta-da! -- the New Deal, which, in most any way that counts, we are still living with.
So the question is not – nor was it ever -- “do we, or do we not, have, or want to have, a society defined by class?” Every society is, to some extent, defined by class – by social status, hierarchy, pecking order, what have you. Any honest anthropologist will admit this. It's such a universal phenomenon that it might almost be described as “natural”, or “all too human”, or even “instinctive”, except that it's the very people who are always longing for a “return to nature” who are the most opposed to the idea. And collectivist/totalitarian propaganda reflects this. Who carries on the most about “a classless society”? The very people whose ideal social structure is a ruling political class, or nomenklatura, supported by the military, and a mass of faceless serfs (peasants and workers) on the bottom, with a conspicuously missing middle class. This is the way it always turns out with communism – no exceptions! The only thing that seems to stand in the way is the existing middle class, unless you're talking about a society that is so primitive that it hasn't yet developed one – and when it is eliminated or suppressed things tend to deteriorate, particularly in the economic sector, and no one can figure out why. After all, the “bourgeoisie” are dull, boring, conventional, rigid, wed to tradition, and, basically, politically hopeless – and the answer is to declare them superficial and unnecessary, and then to either kill them off or impoverish them to the point where they are no longer distinguishable from the proles. And yet, the occasional honest economist will admit that, in a proper economic system that is likely to succeed, the middle class is a needed element; it is, in effect, a go-between, connective tissue between rulers and serfs. Imagine even a small town with a mayor and village council, and everyone else either a subsistence farmer or factory worker. What's wrong with this picture, and why do we never see it borne out in real life?
But of course, economic “success” is a matter of definition, and in our time it's clear that it takes a remote back seat to things like “equality”, “fairness”, and “diversity” -- that it's better to fail as an economic system than to commit the sin of “unfairness”. (This has been an explicit meme throughout the Obama administration, for example.) And yet, paradoxically, the more government tries to remedy the many offenses of the traditional class system, the more it's forced to create a new class system whose job it is to enforce sanctions against the old class system. This does not eliminate class, or hierarchy, or anything of the kind; it only substitutes new types of people at the various levels. So under the old American system, you might have had bankers and industrialists at the top, then politicians at the next level to serve their interests, then merchants, craftsmen, farmers, laborers, and so on. Under the more recent American system, you have politicians at the top, then the bankers and industrialists who must defer to the “people's representatives” and conform to a heavy burden of regulations, then merchants, craftsmen, farmers, laborers – with the bottom layer populated not by people suffering the abject poverty of the Third World because they are supported by the state. But this is only in theory, understand, because in reality the bankers and industrialists are still in charge, but cannot show their colors in as blatant a way as they did back in the “robber baron” era. Politicians can still be bought and sold (and amazingly cheaply at that), but the money spends more time under the table than on top of it. And the ones who suffer the most are the ones caught in the middle – the storied bourgeoisie, or middle class, whose resources and political power are eroding day by day. And much of their suffering is not in terms of their financial straits per se, but in the total lack of respect they receive from the other sectors of society. They are, by and large, sufficiently fed, clothed, and sheltered, but at the same time treated as lepers by the dominant culture.
Any economic distortions caused by big government will result in winners and losers, and the losers of our time are the middle class. Call them the people who earn enough to be taxed, but don't earn enough to avoid taxes, and who earn enough to miss out on entitlements. They are, in a sense, the only self-supporting class we have, and are thus ripe for the picking. Is it any wonder that they have come around to the notion that no one is on their side – and they they flocked to Donald Trump, who at least said that he was, although it remains to be seen how this plays out.
But – you might say – if the middle class is an essential element of an economically successful society, why would those in charge want to eliminate it – or at least bleed it dry? Call it short-sightedness, ignorance of economics and history, or just plain greed, but it's clear they just don't care, any more than the guy who cut down the last tree on Easter Island cared. (This is from “Collapse” by Jared Diamond.) Rare is the man, even at the very pinnacle of world power, who looks beyond his own life span. “Apres moi, le deluge.” (This is one of the many reasons why concentration of wealth and power is bad. The people who wind up with it are still just as human as any of the rest of us.) And this is just on the material side; you also have the theorists, who still subscribe to the Marxian orthodoxy that the middle class is an artifact of an intrinsically unfair and unjust system, and that only by eliminating it can we make any progress toward universal liberation.
I've been saying for quite a while that the American middle class has a very large target painted on its back. The liberal/Democratic agenda is to hobble, humble, and ultimately eliminate the middle class from the American scene, and they are quite open about it. The Republicans are not in quite such a hurry, but they aren't doing anything to reverse the trend either (although one wonders where their support is going to come from if the largest part of their base vanishes – there just aren't enough country-club types to so the job). It seems like every time a Republican is elected president, the middle class breathes a sigh of relief – they have a new lease on life, and have been spared from the ministrations of the executioner for a while longer. But then along comes a Democrat, and the ax is raised higher. The rise and victory of Donald Trump has been called many things – and in a way it resembles the peasants' revolts of ages past, or the relatively more recent revolutions throughout Europe... or the “softer” revolts of populism, Progressivism, and the New Deal. Except for one thing – those were all revolts of the lower classes against their rulers and oppressors, and, occasionally, against the middle class as well, as in the cases of France, Russia, and China. (Revolts against oppressors are typically fueled by brutality, starvation, and hardship, whereas revolts against the bourgeoisie are typically fueled by Marxist theory, which is the reason they are a relatively new phenomenon, although it must be admitted that the French Revolution was pre-Marx.)
The Trump phenomenon is something truly new under the sun for America – a revolt of the middle class (as foreshadowed by the Tea Party). And as such, it's a revolt against both the ruling elite and against the dependent class, AKA tax receivers. But it's shocking, and this is the main reason why the establishment and the media (and Hollywood, and academics, etc.) are so thunderstruck. “Never before has a boy asked for more” said a character in “Oliver”. Likewise, never before has the middle class done anything even remotely resembling a rebellion – and yet here it is. It happened, and they won. Or, at least their chosen leader won.
See, here's the real problem. The middle class is not supposed to revolt. They're not supposed to complain. They're supposed to be polite, passive, submissive, and take whatever comes their way like bobo dolls, and come back asking for more. They're supposed to be complacent, satisfied, and if not politically apathetic then at least non-activist. These qualities have defined the middle class for generations, or even centuries. The idea of them actually standing up and defending themselves is... well, it goes against theory, for one thing (Marxist theory and all of its derivatives). And it's disruptive to the political economy, which demands some sort of balance between doers-to and the done-to. One might even say that as the lower classes have gained political power and social and cultural influence, society in general started looking around for a new out-group, and it found one.
It seems that the middle class has been unleashed, and this is what has everyone upset. That, and the growing realization that Trump is not a politician, and not an ideologue, and neither a conservative nor a liberal. This has turned the political world upside down, and violated rules we didn't even know were in place until someone violated them. Who knew that political etiquette was such a fine-tuned thing, and that so many people would be so sensitive to its breach? One might even say that Trump has united the country after all – or at least the “chattering class”. They are unanimous in their hostility and resistance to who and what he is, and everything he stands for – which is why this is, if only for a season, a time for those who have been voiceless for so long to find a voice. In fact, it may be the last chance for the middle class to have a voice. Judging by the reaction against Trump, if he runs again in 2020 and is defeated, it will be the signal for the long knives to come out, and the life expectancy of the middle class will suddenly be shortened, possibly to a drastic extent.
Another way of looking at this is that even with all the (largely non-violent) egalitarian uprisings of the past in this country, the middle class remained more or less intact, and it was not targeted per se. (This, again, in contrast to France, Russia, and China.) The lower classes wanted a piece of the pie, and the perception was that the ruling elite owned that pie and had to be forced to divvy it up a bit; the middle class was more or less ignored and left to its own devices. This time around, we have a relatively pacified lower class (yes, despite the war between them and the police – the new opiates of the people being sex, drugs, and rock and roll), and an unheard-of, up until the Tea Party phenomenon, rise in consciousness among the middle class. Another way of putting it is that the middle class is now less satisfied than the lower classes, despite any statistical advantages they may have in terms of income, quality of life, and so on. Satisfaction is, as we ought to know by now, not an absolute. No one compares their lot to some Platonic ideal. It is simply as follows: Satisfaction = Results minus Expectations. The middle class expected this society to be a certain way, and they are grossly disappointed and disillusioned. The lower classes, on the other hand, being more resigned and fatalistic, had expectations, but they were not as high (despite “Hope and Change”), and the contrast between those expectations and the reality are not as stark.
As I said, the election of 2016 and the Trump administration may be the last hope of the middle class. And by that I mean not all of the self-consciously middle class, but those who don't feel guilty about it, despite decades of shaming on the part of the media, the entertainment industry, and liberal politicians. There is another group which I will call the self-hating middle class, and that includes not only the so-called “snowflakes” -- the most obvious subgroup – but also what have been referred to as “guilt-ridden liberals”. They are the products of public schooling, for starters – but also of both public and private collages and universities, and, above all, of political correctness (which was amplified and fine-tuned by the likes of Hillary Clinton). And in a way, it's easy to understand. If we are really brought up to believe that “all men (or whoever) are created equal”, but at the same time shown, on a daily basis, overwhelming evidence of inequality of outcomes, that's going to cause some cognitive dissonance. And the reactions can vary widely. One might be simply that “those people” (the “underprivileged”) are lazy, apathetic, and uncooperative, and therefore deserve what they get (or don't get). Another reaction is that even if this is partly true, it's not their fault, because they are victims of “the system”, of institutional racism, prejudice, etc., and therefore deserve at least a helping hand; this is the affirmative action level of liberal social policy. But there are plenty more possibilities, including the radical notion that all differences in outcome, for whatever reason, are intrinsically unfair and have to be done away with – and this is the point at which the middle class finds itself on thin ice. What “right” do they have to have more – to have a higher standard of living – than anyone else? This is obviously a serious problem, and only liberals/progressives have the solution. So over time, the middle class is subjected to the death of a thousand cuts, and while the masochistic among them might welcome this (“snowflakes” again) the rest are puzzled, dismayed, and eventually become angry. And when it gets to the point where they have little enough left to lose that they might take a chance on revolt, if not outright revolution, we have phenomena like the election of 2016.
So are we seeing a true sea change in the political history of this country, or only a four-year stay of execution?