class, USA

Class awareness from a decent distance

As the economy supposedly improves, many of those in the middle classes find themselves teetering and struggling to keep their heads above water. But they have not the luxury of publicly examining the nature of their struggles. In the middle classes of the first world, it’s indecent to speak of poverty and want. The neoliberal language of blame brings shame to the victims of poverty because surely, if you had worked hard enough and smart enough you would not find yourself in this position. Surely if you had paid your bills on time, you would not now be bleeding money in bad credit, insufficient funds fees, and late fees. Surely you ought to have enough money from your paycheck to purchase gas so you can drive to work. Surely, if you were irresponsible enough to have a child, you should have put aside enough money to educate her. Why don’t you lower your standards a little? Why don’t you save a little on milk and cheese? Why don’t you skip shopping at thrift stores for work clothes? Why, why, why? If we who are so like you in cultural style and taste can manage and flourish, why can’t you? And if you, who have done all the right things by way of education, work, and finances, can fail – that sends us a deeply unwelcome message that we would rather not hear. We don’t wish to hear the conclusion to that argument. We’d rather speak of decontextualized poverty somewhere else so that we can establish a comfortable distance from it.

The upper middle and upper classes live in a world of ideas, preferences, options, and possibilities. To speak of penury in this ethereal realm is immodest and indecent. It’s like speaking of crime and lust to wealthy Victorian women in a Dickens novel. It is theoretical. Imagine talking about quantum physics to farmers sitting on a porch in the evening. Imagine blank stares. Poverty does not fit in a world where people are trying to decide whether to select a cruise to the Bahamas or a down-to-earth (!) backpacking trip to Europe. Poverty is inappropriate in such a world. It’s inappropriate because it makes the cruise look so very wrong. It makes that shopping spree, that mansion in the suburbs, the multiple cars, the designer toys, seem irrelevant. We want to be prosperous and happy, but we also want to garner the symbolic wealth of being socially conscious and outraged about other people’s misery. Feeding on other people’s hunger, disease, and misery is an integral portion of prosperity, health, and comfort.

Through Facebook memes and cable news poverty makes its way into our comfortable homes. We can convincingly wring our hands over the plight of starving children in Africa and struggling farmers in India. After all, we won’t be witnessing swollen black bellies at the dinner table next to the roast. But when a colleague is unable to buy gas to get to work, or cannot save up because he keeps getting slammed with late fees, or doesn’t have the money to buy a cup of coffee – now that strikes home. That is believable. That is an experience you could have if you had a few unlucky investments or unfortunate health events.

So that is a narrative you don’t want to hear. Not at the dinner table. Let’s not get too close. Can you unfortunates move to Rwanda or Myanmar and live in a famine-stricken village or urban slum? From that appropriate distance we can paypal you an appropriate monthly sum of money through a relief organization and they can send us a tax deduction receipt and a short video of your grateful child. We kill people with a button and a screen rather than a scimitar; we get our protein from a grocery aisle, not a bloody slaughter in the yard. Why should our class awareness be any different, any closer?

1 thought on “Class awareness from a decent distance”

  1. Absolutely. I grew up on benefits (welfare) and was lucky enough to get some scholarships which lifted me into the middle-class world. But I have never trusted it entirely; the fear of poverty drives me more than the fear of failure in some abstract sense. I have also come to see being middle class as a set of economic, familial and social practices that have as their aim the retention of privilege (which includes all the good ‘power-with’ things as well as plain ‘power-over’, like the space to further human understanding and compassion or to heal or facilitate others). Nonetheless, the secret (unsayable) knowledge of the middle class appears to be the knowledge that it could all be taken away from us and that only constant, frenetic effort can increase or maintain a sense of security. This silence is less obvious in Britain perhaps these days than in the US. I think the thatcherite/neocon shift of the 80s appeared to open up the middle classes to more people but only succeeded in creating an untenured penumbra around the traditional professional class for whom all privilege is borrowed.

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