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The war on the middle class: Reflections on politics in the age of depletion

[Author’s note: I would like to put the following into context in two ways. First, when the Wisconsin protests began I was focusing on the issue of the dispute over pay, either because it received more attention near the beginning, because I misapprehended the stakes of this dispute, or both. I am not ambivalent about worker’s rights and having strong unions will, I think, be an important feature of a peaceful economic contraction. I applaud, and have joined in protest, the unwavering insistence on collective bargaining rights and the resistance to what increasingly appears to be a GOP Kleptocracy, funded and inspired by the likes of the Koch brothers.

On a more personal note, the disputed bill affects me personally and I am not writing from a position above the economic fray. My wife is a “Lecturer” at The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (a lecturer in the U.S. is a part of the academic underclass, generally teaching more, and more labor-intensive, classes than tenured faculty, for far less compensation and on a semester to semester contract); she is facing a certain pay cut and greatly increased job insecurity. Meanwhile, I am holding on to business solvency by my finger tips and without a miracle will probably lose my building upon which sits what may have been the world’s first rooftop CSA farm. http://www.jsonline.com/business/47001727.html
Nevertheless, the notion of “war on the middle class,” of which I am certainly a member, is, if put into a broader context, narcissistic hyperbole: there is little chance that my family will go hungry or be homeless. Transition and other similar movements have a tremendous responsibility to keep any general revolts focused on the truly poor and on the rights of future generations.]

A War on the Middle Class

Does anyone, especially those familiar with the structural problems caused by Peak Oil and the likely end of economic growth, share any ambivalence about the recent Madison protests? Walker is of course a disaster, and solving the budget problem on the backs, mainly, of public employees and the middle class, without tax raises on those who can afford them, is unconscionable and is just plain bad economics.

This, we are told, is part of "the war on the middle class." But a way of seeing is a way of not seeing, and when we hear this phrase over and over again, we are turning away from the longer and more violent war on the poor.

We also turn away from the fact that when put in any comparative perspective, historical, international, even the basic spectrum of American citizens and residents, the American middle-class--even with our 30 year decline in real wages--is one of the most affluent, wealthy, high-consuming, luxury-entitled group of people to ever walk the earth, a class whose accumulation is only exceeded by a small number of ultra rich today and a few kings and emperors in years past.

When we see the broad contours of the conflict largely as a decrease in the prosperity of the middle class, we turn away from basic structural world-economic facts, like that our privileges would not be possible without our continued and increasing extraction of third-world natural resources. We cut their forests, mine their ores, drill their oil. And when it is gone, we leave a denuded land with people whose skills to live in a non-extractive economy have been mainly lost.

When we see things mainly as a war on the middle class, when we compare our privilege mainly to that of the increasingly small and wealthy economic elite, we fail to see that we remain the group of people most destructive of the ecosystem, the people who are the single largest source of CO2. The war on the middle class means we may lose our average 900 sq. ft. per person household space, and have to return to an area per person still twice the size we enjoyed in 1950, and still more than any other industrialized nation. When we look at our wages shrink, that means we may have to deforest Oregon and its cedar to build our new deck instead of the far nicer ipe from Brazil's shrinking rain forest that we would have preferred.

My point is only this: yes decreasing our wages (and of course our rights) without touching those more wealthy than us in the middle class is unfortunate. But what about the silent billions who are closer to the threshold of starvation and disease than we, even with our higher co-pays, will likely ever to be.

My point is only this: the economy will shrink; dealing with this gracefully and without kicking the misery further down the economic and global ladder will take a tremendous recalibration of our expectations.

My point is only this: we will not come close to an equitable distribution of the world's resources unless we in the middle class learn to do with less. Again, Walker's way is horrible, and scares me as the primary way a shrinking world of abundance is being handled. But we also need to think about the truly poor and desperate as we consider how much we deserve.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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