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Can America's Middle Class Be Saved? (III) Hammers, Saws, And Drills

Aug 27, 2009
"My wisdom is as despised as chaos.
What is my annihilation?
compared to the stupor that awaits you?"

-- Arthur Rimbaud(1) --

We were taught in good faith that the American middle class is rock-solid, ever expanding. Indeed, security and growth characterized that class for over two centuries.

But times have changed. Official data show that beginning in the 1970s, the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class smaller. A new horizon is emerging, of which only one thing is certain: it certainly is not the one about which we were so certain.

Assuming that two tendencies of capitalism -- centralization of enterprise and the specialization of labor -- continue to erode the middle class, what does the future hold? Hammers, saws, and drills: please consider the following fates as tools in a toolbox, to be used as appropriate.

(1) Writing in the 1830s, Tocqueville envisioned this "1984"-Big Brother scenario:

"I can imagine the new traits with which despotism could reproduce itself in the world:

I see an immense crowd of men all alike and equal who turn around themselves ceaselessly, in order to acquire small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill up their souls. Each one, marginalized, is a stranger to the destiny of all the others . . ., and although he may still have a family, it can be said that he has no country.

Above all of them is an immense, titular power, which designates itself to be the sole provider of their joys and to look after their fate. That power is absolute, detailed, regular, attentive, and soft . . .
It provides for its citizens' security, anticipates and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, takes in hand their major affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, divides their inheritances. Can it not take away entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

Thus, with each day that passes, the titular power renders less useful and rarer the work of an independent arbitrator . . . It never tyrannizes, but it bothers, it upsets, it snuffs out, it creates problems, and it reduces in the end each nation to being a herd of timid and hardworking animals, of which the government is the shepherd."(2)

Paralysis, stagnation, drift: Tocqueville's prediction in many ways foreshadowed President Jimmy Carter's famous -- or infamous -- "Malaise Speech" of July 15, 1979.

Tocqueville's despotic anti-utopia implies the following development: class moderation will be taken over by the government. Here the state does not wither away; it is the middle class that withers away. The class which heretofore was politically indispensable, is disposed of. Other than serving as Mandarin bureaucrats in the state apparatus, the middle class would cease to exist meaningfully.

(2) Growing scarcities of natural resources could create unprecedented international strife. To meet the demands of warfare, the demand for higher levels of education and training, particularly scientific, would rise dramatically. Those colossal outlays would benefit the middle class.

A case study of this fate may already exist: Los Alamos, New Mexico.

(3) The transformation of services into commodities is only one instance of the commingling of what heretofore were separate and distinct economic sectors and functions. The mixture of public and private domains, of productive and unproductive labor, of economic surplus and non-surplus financed activities, has only just begun:

Pubic versus private seems obvious enough (for the moment). Let us look at Adam Smith's classic idea of "productive" versus "unproductive" labor:

"There is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed: there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive the latter, unproductive labour.

Thus the labour of a [manufacturing worker] adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master's profit. The labour of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing . . ."(3)

Smith characterized as "unproductive labour" soldiers and other "servants of the public . . . maintained by a part of the annual produce of the industry of other people." He also cited what we today consider to be middle class, service sector employees: "churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc."(4)

But if such people perform unproductive labor, where does the value come from to pay for them? Answer: the surplus created by the productive work of other people. Smith on surplus value:

"[W]hen by the improvement and cultivation of land the labour of one family can provide food for two, the labour of half the society becomes sufficient to provide food for the whole. The other half, therefore, . . . can be employed in providing other things, or in satisfying the other wants and fancies of mankind . . .

The desire of food is limited in every man by the narrow capacity of the human stomach . . . Those, therefore, who have the command of more food than they themselves can consume, are always willing to exchange the surplus, or, what is the same thing, the price of it, for gratifications of this other kind. What is over and above satisfying the limited desire is given for the amusement of those desires which cannot be satisfied, but seem to be altogether endless."(5)

The inherent problem of distinguishing productive and unproductive labor (notably services) is compounded when the question of surplus versus non-surplus-financed activities is introduced:

The post office, for example, should furnish a clear-cut, elementary case of (i) unproductive labor performed in (ii) the public sector paid for by (iii) the economic surplus. However, the French post office mixes existing options, i.e., it is publicly and privately owned, and performs private-sector functions such as banking.

I believe the French post office is ahead of its time, that we are witnessing the emergence of the counterpart in economics to the All-Directions politics practiced by politicians as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Barack Obama. Indeed, the former may be driving the latter.

Commingling of sectors and functions can obscure vital differences, e.g., a middle class service sector employee is more readily confused with a production sector worker if each performs some functions of the other within the same, public/private, unproductive/productive organization.

With an All Directions government overseeing an All Directions economy, the potentially revolutionary repercussions of the middle class decline would be blurred, blunted.

That mixing and commingling are new cards in the deck of Western civilization. If Rimbaud, Tocqueville and Jimmy Carter are right, Marxists are not the only ones who may read them and weep.


(1) Arthur Rimbaud, "Vies: I" in "Illuminations" in Arthur Rimbaud, "Oeuvres completes," Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, Gallimard, Paris, 1994, p. 128.
(2) Alexis de Tocqueville, "De La Democratie en Amerique II," in Alexis de Tocqueville, "Oeuvres," Volume II, Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, Gallimard, Paris, 1992, pp. 836-8.
(3) Adam Smith, "The Wealth of Nations," Penguin Books, London, England, 1997, pp. 429-30.
(4) Ibid., pp. 430-1.
(5) Ibid., pp. 268-9.
About the Author
Thomas Belvedere is the pseudonym of a political consultant to senators, representatives, governors, and the media. He worked for all levels of government, and for all three branches. An accredited expert witness in federal court, he has a Ph.D. in political science.

He authored "The Source of Terrorism: Middle Class Rebellion."

For his website, go to Thomas Belvedere.
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