A middle class that outnumbers the combined poor and aristocracy is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to around 1900. The rise of the middle class was the result of Industrial Revolution capitalism. It has been one of the most significant and epochal developments in history, yet the intellectual reaction for the most part has been to either ignore it or treat it with disdain. Now the project to destroy the middle class is well under way, with unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences that promise to be just as epochal as its creation.
Intellectual condescension towards the middle class is so common it’s a cliché. What’s rare are attempts to go back in history and see things through the perspectives of that despised group and its progenitors, the poor.
In 1800, virtually everyone was poor, living under conditions of deprivation and grinding poverty. Even being wealthy was no picnic; present-day poverty-line Americans live better. Life expectancy was an estimated twenty-nine years. Farming, the occupation of most, was dangerous, backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk. Most of those so engaged eked out a tenuous subsistence. There was no electricity, no running water, primitive sanitation and health care, and none of the machinery, gadgets, and appliances we take for granted. Only a few wealthy poets who didn’t have to wrest a living from nature waxed euphoric about its “joys.”
As the nineteenth century progressed, primitive factories, mostly in cities, began producing goods of better quality, in more quantity, and at lower cost than had been possible by artisans handcrafting their wares. No doubt conditions in those factories were abysmal—long hours, pittance pay, child labor, dangerous and filthy conditions, and horrible accidents and injuries. All that has been well-chronicled and dramatized, but an important point gets overlooked.
Capitalism requires capital, and early industrialization provided profits to capitalize: more factories, further innovation, new inventions and industries, and eventually the astonishing burst of dynamic energy that became the Industrial Revolution. Each new generation of mines, factories, ships, trains, farms and other productive assets became less labor-intensive, produced higher average real wages, had lower percentages of child labor, and were less dangerous than their predecessors. Again, by present day standards most working conditions were still abysmal, but less so than what had preceded them. That was the relevant consideration for the millions of people who worked in Dickensian conditions:
The nineteenth century produced more technological and scientific innovation that all the centuries before it combined. Societies don’t go from poor to rich overnight. However, real world conditions―opportunity, income, wealth, health, and overall quality of life―steadily improved. By 1900, life expectancy in the US was 46 years for males and 48 years for females, an unprecedented one-century increase.
Those who throw rocks at the Industrial Revolution, the period when America approached laissez faire capitalism, have to minimize or ignore one simple fact.
Sometimes the payoff was huge. Andrew Carnegie really did get off the boat with eleven cents in his pocket. Cyrus McCormack, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other success stories came from impoverished or modest backgrounds and made multimillion dollar fortunes. The self-made businessman became the American archetype, fueling countless aspirations.
The emergent middle class was a cohesive force for political stability. The immigrants passed their memories of what they had escaped to their children and grandchildren. They embraced the reality and the promise of America based on their own fruitful experience. Life was good and would get even better, why rock the boat? Few noticed the thunderhead on the horizon.
That thunderhead was hate, directed not at America’s flaws and weaknesses, but at its virtues and strengths. The sacrifice, hard work, thrift, and ingenuity that had lifted millions from poverty was condemned as selfishness, blind ambition, and greed. The middle class that didn’t exist a century ago was materialistic, anti-intellectual, and spiritually impoverished. The unprecedented wealth America was producing was wrong because it was unequally distributed, or the most philanthropic and charitable people in history weren’t giving enough away.
You can guess where the hostility came from: the intellectuals who found what they peddled commanded little attention or respect, and would-be rulers in a nation with little desire to be ruled. The desire for autonomy, to be left alone, to be free to make one’s own decisions and live one’s own life, are the benchmarks of well-adjusted normalcy. The desires to tell or force other people what to do are the opposite, wellsprings of hate which are, depending on their intensity and quality, neurotic, sociopathic, or psychopathic.
That the middle class is now fighting for its life reflects two intellectual failures. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the intellectuals, political class, and many of the tycoons were pressing for expanded government, the income tax, central banking, and American interventionism and imperialism. The truisms that any expansion of the government’s power and resources would only reduce the people’s liberty and be funded with money stolen from them was overwhelmed by what’s become the standard propaganda: coercion is necessary to address some risk, danger, or “unacceptable” condition. There were no prominent voices connecting the prevalent peace, prosperity, and optimism with the era’s unprecedented personal freedom, nor arguing their essential inseparability.
The other failure: most “average” Americans simply couldn’t comprehend or even conceive of the hatred directed against them. Statism, whatever its variations, is never about doing something people, it’s about doing something them. Even now, with virulent vitriol and hatred on full display, much of it is minimized or rationalized by people who should know better. The corruption of the “middle-grounders” may run deeper than the statists and the collectivists, who at least no longer try to hide their agenda and acknowledge that freedom cannot coexist with the unlimited governmental power they covet.
When somebody claims that your life is their property, they’re telling you that they have the right to do with it what they will, which includes killing you. All manner of statist belladonna reached full florescence in the twentieth century—socialism, communism, nazism, fascism, welfare statism, cronyism, kleptocracy, kakistocracy—and the murder, genocide, and war have been orders of magnitude greater than anything that preceded it.
You shall know them by their works. The thing that statism does best to people is kill them; the record is clear and unmistakable. Anyone now promoting more of the same is simply evil. Only unmitigated hatred accounts for the particular antipathy directed towards the middle class: their values, their prosperity, and their predominate race (white) and religion (Christianity).
The middle class being a relatively new phenomenon, nobody can say what the consequences of the all-out war against it will be. It is the bedrock of modern economies and its destruction will take out most of the developed world’s productive capacity and consumer markets. That doesn’t seem to bother the statists. How they plan to free themselves from the economies that sustain them is a question they ignore. It calls to mind Ayn Rand’s observation: the deaths they desire the most are their own. That has to be the true definition of insanity. Truer even than Einstein’s: repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
The notion that our rulers are insane has slipped loose from the alternative media where it was once confined. Certainly US foreign policy meets Einstein’s definition: repeated regime changes in the name of democracy promotion that promote only carnage and chaos, endlessly inconclusive interventions, war profiteering, terrorism, and intense hatred of the American people and its government around the world. Donald Trump questioned those repeated failures and that provided his margin of victory in 2016.
To this day nobody can explain the logic behind the bailouts during the last financial crisis and what ensued, the world’s central banks monetizing massive government debt and pushing interest rates below zero. The high and mighty pretend this is all normal, but for normal people buying a bond with a guaranteed loss is insane. Microscopic rates force them, against their better judgment, into a stock market that’s crashed twice since the turn of the century, decimating their savings, and now sits at historically sky-high valuations. Here is the “investment landscape” you’re supposed to embrace: lose money or put it on the pass line and hope the Wall Street roll of the dice doesn’t once again come up craps.
Keep spending money you don’t have and inevitably you’ll go broke. Keep making promises you can’t fulfill and inevitably you’ll break them. There are hundreds of trillions of dollars worth of claims on the future out there that have no chance of ever being redeemed, yet the pile continues to grow. The mathematical outcome is as straightforward and devastating as playing Russian roulette with all the chambers loaded.
Obamacare is the latest insane gift from the government that keeps on giving. It’s an obvious failure, but it’s a foaming-at-the mouth, murderous pit bull that from some deranged concept of mercy or an appalling lack of fortitude nobody will put out of its misery. Medical care stands in a long line of industries that malevolence masked as good intentions has destroyed.
As the middle class watches the America it once knew and cherished collapse, and comes to understand why, it realizes its head is on the chopping block. A bright middle-schooler can see that the Green New Deal will bring the economy to a shuddering stop and plunge many who have managed to escape so far into poverty. Yet the Democrats’ leading lights rush to praise the imaginary raiment of would-be empress Ocasio-Cortez.
The middle class has always aspired to better things—the American dream. Talk of 70 percent or higher tax rates and wealth taxes capitalizes on hatred of the rich, it’s open season. Why work and sacrifice to get rich if the government gets it all? Take away middle class dreams and you may well be taking away the last thing that keeps them paying their taxes, observing the law, supporting the troops and police, in short, everything that from the vantage point of the ruling class, “keeps them in line.”
What began as a gentle squeeze a century ago has become python-like constriction. Government has drained economic vitality and shuttered opportunity as the once politically stable, prosperous, and optimistic middle class dwindles. A few still reach the upper echelon, but most are consigned to creeping poverty, blunting the economic consequences with credit and the personal consequences with cannabis, alcohol, opioids, pornography, and promiscuity. It’s only going to get worse as debt grows, massive unfunded medical and pension liabilities come due, taxes rise, economies shrink, and promises are broken.
The ruling class has backed the middle class into a corner. Shoving them into poverty and vanquishing their dreams amounts to an unprecedented and dangerous experiment. Aristocratic arrogance, condescension, exclusivity, and isolation add to the combustibility. Yet they remain steadfastly oblivious to the rising anger and the risks. They don’t even recognize the danger of billing the governments they control (or the global one they want to create) as the solution to all problems. Who’s going to get the blame when things fall apart?
The potentates may find their nuclear arsenals and well-armed militaries and police forces comforting. However, their experiment confronts unanswered questions. What if a substantial portion of the population has taken to the streets and far outnumbers the praetorians? What if praetorian sentiment is with the protestors and insurrectionists? Are the rulers really prepared to use tanks, heavy artillery, bombs, and even nuclear weapons on their own population? Will the people charged with pressing those buttons actually press them?
For America’s ruling class failing policies, looming insolvency, rising awareness via the alternative media, their own hypocrisy and corruption, political polarization, and a well-armed populace are a stairway to hell. What happens when the disaffected, many who will have nothing to lose, try to reclaim their lives and liberty and upend the political order that has roadblocked their pursuit of happiness?
Disaffection is a battalion, righteous moral certainty an army. The latter has moved the world and will do so again. Victor Hugo said that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. Here’s an idea so powerful yet so simple it fits on a bumper sticker: Fight for life. It’s megatons of TNT, the fuze has run, and the explosions have started. There’s no way to predict or control the consequences. The only certainty is that anyone who thinks they can do so will be proven disastrously wrong.