There is nothing more sacrosanct in common American discourse than the Middle Class. Every politician, from the pig-ignorant Chris Christie to the brilliant but doomed Bernie Sanders must and will appeal to this vaguely defined constituency. Every marketing campaign takes it as a given that their target audience is this All-American ideal of material security, festering somewhere in the suburbs. Even the self-proclaimed intelligentsia will talk and talk about the importance of the Middle Class without ever getting near the truth.
I got to see that third one up close and personal over the weekend. The annual Brooklyn Book Festival assembled a panel of progressive boomers - with a few token brown ladies - to discuss the current state of the Middle Class. What followed was an hour of kvetching over the particulars of "economic class" versus "creative class" with not a single criticism of capitalism raised once. These strident New York Liberals managed an entire hour discussing class without once discussing power. It would be impressive if it weren't so goddamn grotesque.
I'm going to explain this in much fewer, and much more true words than that gaggle of iconoclast-wannabes: The American Middle Class is defined by fear. A fear of losing their privileged position in the suburbs of course but just as much a fear of sticking out too much. For all their striving, Middle Class Americans are terrified of stepping out of bounds of their regimented culture, where lawns and wine pedantry replace anything close to a philosophy.
The panel managed to demonstrate this fear quite well. One gentleman who spoke the most and was the most obnoxious lamented how his now adult children in the "creative class" do not have the material security he enjoyed at their age in the 1970s. You'd think this would necessitate a discussion of the impersonal mechanisms of the global economy and you'd be wrong - this was merely a launchpad for for the much more pressing issue of the kids listening to that hippity-hop music these days.
Really, that was his beef. He referred to music and film as "cultural capital," betraying his own commitment to the very system that is screwing his children. Middle class middle-brows like him - like the entire panel and most of the audience - are today in a perpetual state of crisis because they can no longer expect the same material comfort and security of these traditional class signifiers... but they absolutely will not turn on capitalism.
Because of fear. A very real fear of their own lack of power in the world. A fear working schmucks got over generations ago but which the celebrated Middle Class has been insulated from for the half century following World War II. They can point to all the cultural signifiers of class they like - New York Times, hybrid cars - but they can no longer distract themselves from the stark truth that a homeowner with a white color job holds just as much political power in modern America as a migrant fruit-picker.
You won't ever hear that from the mandarins of America's cultural liberals. They stopped talking about the power dynamics of class back when Eugene Debs was sitting in prison for having the courage of his convictions. But, thanks to the rise of identity politics, they can point to material possessions and snobbery as a class marker - which leads to declaring Beyonce and Jay-Z "upper class" despite their lack of power over the economy or who the US bombs next. Further, when class standing is merely a matter of consumption, these lukewarm liberals can comfort themselves with the delusion "I can always advance."
By its very nature a capitalist class system stymies advancement. The more people you have with real political power, the more you'll have to spread the spoils of American production. Many an American liberal thinks unions are a good idea but you'll rarely find them manning the picket line with the McDonald's workers or supporting a strike by bus drivers. Not just for base selfishness or because "working class" in America more often than not is synonymous with "brown skin" but because again that fear of sticking out too much. It could give people the wrong idea and hurt your career, then how would you make the mortgage payment on your overpriced house? Or pay back the exorbitant student loan that primarily goes to a labyrinth of bureaucracy rather than the ever more impoverished professors? They rationalize it as "I can't afford to take a risk, not in this economy," ignoring that they can be canned at any time for any reason because that's what the people with the power want.
The panel, the audience, and all those obedient blue state voters who are wringing their hands over the collapse of the middle class would like to think they live in an era of tumult and transformation but really this is just an era of more honest predation.