There is nothing "normal" about a nation having a middle class, even though it is vital to the survival of democracy. As twenty-three years of conservative economic policies have now shown millions of un- and underemployed Americans, what's "normal" in a "free and unfettered" economy is the rapid evolution of a small but fabulously wealthy ownership class, and a large but poor working class. In the entire history of civilization, outside of a small mercantilist class and the very few skilled tradesmen who'd managed to organize in guilds (the earliest unions) like the ancient Masons, the middle class was an aberration. If a nation wants a middle class, it must define it, desire it, and work to both create and keep it.
Published on Friday, June 18, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
"That liberty [is pure] which is to go to all, and not to the few or the rich alone."
--Thomas Jefferson to Horatio Gates, 1798.
There is nothing "normal" about a nation having a middle class, even though it is vital to the survival of democracy.
As twenty-three years of conservative economic policies have now shown millions of un- and underemployed Americans, what's "normal" in a "free and unfettered" economy is the rapid evolution of a small but fabulously wealthy ownership class, and a large but poor working class. In the entire history of civilization, outside of a small mercantilist class and the very few skilled tradesmen who'd managed to organize in guilds (the earliest unions) like the ancient Masons, the middle class was an aberration.
If a nation wants a middle class, it must define it, desire it, and work to both create and keep it.
This is because a middle class is the creation of government participation (conservatives call it "interference") in the marketplace, by determining the rules of the game of business and of taxation, and by providing free public education to all. And it wasn't until 1776, when Thomas Jefferson replaced John Locke's right to "life, liberty and property" with "life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" that the idea of a large class of working people having the ability to "pursue happiness" - the middle class - was even seriously considered as a cornerstone obligation of government.
(That was also the first time in history that "happiness" had ever appeared in any nation's formative documents. As Jefferson wrote in 1817 to Dr. John Manners, "The evidence of this natural right, like that of our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man.")
Thomas Jefferson laid out in an 1816 letter to Samuel Kerchival what today would be a blistering attack on the conservative/corporate war on labor and Bush's union-busting planned privatization of over 700,000 government positions.
"Those seeking profits," Jefferson wrote, "were they given total freedom, would not be the ones to trust to keep government pure and our rights secure. Indeed, it has always been those seeking wealth who were the source of corruption in government. No other depositories of power have ever yet been found, which did not end in converting to their own profit the earnings of those committed to their charge."
He added: "I am not among those who fear the people. They, and not the rich, are our dependence for continued freedom. ... We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude. ... [Otherwise], as the people of England are, our people, like them, must come to labor sixteen hours in the twenty-four, ... and the sixteenth being insufficient to afford us bread, we must live, as they now do, on oatmeal and potatoes; have no time to think, no means of calling the mismanagers to account; but be glad to obtain subsistence by hiring ourselves to rivet their chains on the necks of our fellow sufferers."
A totally "free" market where corporations reign supreme, just like the oppressive governments of old, Jefferson said could transform America "...until the bulk of the society is reduced to be mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering. Then begins, indeed, the bellum omnium in omnia, which some philosophers observing to be so general in this world, have mistaken it for the natural, instead of the abusive state of man."
As Jefferson realized, with no government "interference" by setting the rules of the game of business and fair taxation, there will be no middle class.
Although this may come as a sudden realization to many, we've really known it all our lives.
For example, every year, millions of Americans revisit Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" about Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob (and Tiny Tim) Cratchit. Yet somehow Americans fail to realize the subtext of the story (and so many of Dickens' other works). That subtext is that the middle class is not a normal thing: exploited workers are the norm. In fact, in the six-thousand-year history of the "civilized" world, a middle class emerging in any nation has been such a rarity as to be historically invisible.
As Dickens pointed out, Cratchit lived the typical life of that day's English working poor. He couldn't afford medical care for Tim, dooming his son to death or a lifetime of deformity. He had no idea where his Christmas dinner may come from, let along how to get gifts for his children, and always lived on the edge of the terror of unemployment and homelessness. Although he had a full-time job at Scrooge & Marley, Inc., he was so desperately anxious to keep his job that he worked weekends and evenings and put up with years of daily abuse from his employer.
This demonstrates the true liberal/conservative divide. Conservatives believe what business does is business's business, and government should keep its nose out of it, even when it leads to centuries of Tiny Tims and terrified-of-job-loss employees. As the Wall Street Journal noted in 1997, Alan Greenspan sees one of his main jobs as being to maintain a high enough level of "worker insecurity" that employees won't demand pay raises and benefits increases, thus provoking "wage inflation." ("CEO inflation" is fine with the cons.)
Liberals, on the other hand, subscribe to the notions of the founder of today's Democratic Party -- Thomas Jefferson -- that if the government doesn't actively participate in regulating how the game of business is played, the middle class (what in Jefferson's day were the "yeomanry") would vanish.
The United States has had two great periods of what we today call a middle class. The first was from the 1700s to the mid-1800s, and was fueled by virtually free land for settlers. People owned the means of their production (their farms), could sell their surplus, and had time to be among (as deTocqueville pointed out) the most well-educated, politically active "non-aristocrats" in the world.
As big business grew in the 1800s after the Civil War, the farm-based middle class collapsed, in large part because the early progenitors of companies like today's Cargill or ADM came to control the sale and distribution of farm produce. Middle class farmers rose up, created the Grange movement as part of their own way of competing with the big ag companies, and -- seeing that their "representative government" was being taken over by the largest corporate interests -- launched the Populist and Progressive movements.
Step one was to limit the size of corporations to limit their power -- thus the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1881 (still law, but unenforced for all practical purposes since Reagan.)
Step two was to take Teddy Roosevelt's advice that, "We must drive the special interests out of politics. The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have themselves called into being. There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains." Progressives pushed hard, and in 1907 a law was passed (still on the books) making it illegal for corporations to give money to politicians. It needs to be expanded.
The last parts of the progressive agenda included a direct election of the U.S. Senate (Senators had been pointed by political machines in the states) so the progressives may get more democracy and representation, and the hope that when women voted (besides it being the morally right thing) they may help break up the old boy's club of big business. (These goals were achieved in 1913 and 1920.) And, even in the face of corporate violence that often escalated to murder, Americans struggled to bring together the budding union movement.
But the middle class of the farmers never really again recovered their middle class status in America (although there are dying pockets of it still about, supported by Willie Nelson, Farm Aid, and other groups), and the Gilded age saw a very Dickens-like America -- a small group of very wealthy business and land owners and a very large class of desperately poor workers.
It took the leadership of FDR for government to again take a hand in creating a middle class, this time via industrialized labor instead of land (times change, and we'd taken about all the land we could from the Native Americans).
The Wagner Act of 1935 guaranteed Americans the right to form a union and bargain collectively with their corporate employers. Combined with the later G.I. Bill that sent millions of young men and women to college and technical schools in the late 1940s and early 1950s, not only did America recover its prosperity, but a second great middle class began forming. A middle class that wouldn't have existed without "government interference" in the game of big business.
(Some say WWII was the stimulus out of the depression, and it was an economic stimulus from which many, like the Bush family benefited [even to the extent of helping out Hitler], but the real events of the 1930s and 1940s that set the stage for a second American Middle Class were primarily the Wagner Act, the G.I. Bill, and tax changes ranging from raising the top rate on the most rich to 90 percent to offering an emerging middle class home interest tax deductions. Spending money on weapons that serve no useful purpose after they're used doesn't stimulate an economy the way building roads, bridges, houses, or domestic consumer industries, which "keep on giving," does.)
And to stimulate that domestic economy, we instituted progressive taxation, which gave workers more to spend, thus stimulating demand for more goods and services.
Progressive taxation has a long history: As Jefferson said in a 1785 letter to James Madison, "Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise."
But the conservatives -- who since the days when John Adams called working people "the rabble" and Alexander Hamilton suggested they should play no (or only a token) role in government -- fought back. A true middle class represented a threat to the aristocrats and pseudo-aristocrats of America's conservatives. They may have to give up some of their power, and some of the higher end of their wealth may even be "redistributed" - horror of horrors - for schools, parks, libraries, and other things that support a healthy middle-class society but are not needed by the rich who live in a parallel, but separate, world among us.
At the height of early participation in the newly empowered union movement (at one point 35 percent of American workers were union members), in 1947, over Truman's veto, congress passed the Taft-Hartley Law that significantly weakened union protections defined (and working well) under the 1935 Wagner Act. Taft-Hartley was (and still is) a powerful weapon for employers over employees (banning sympathy strikes, etc.), and was used, although most aggressively in the southern states (who declared themselves "right to work" states under another provision of Taft-Hartley) until Reagan declared a national war on unionization with his attack on PATCO in 1981.
The cons had first launched their attack on labor in 1947, and Reagan brought it to full fruition: education was next.
Today, although there are still some educational benefits to GI's (Jessica Lynch joined the army to get financial aid to go to college to become an elementary school teacher, for example), they're minimal and hard to both accumulate, track, and take advantage of (and must be paid for in most cases). Although Jefferson started the University of Virginia with the notion that part of building a middle class (necessary to a democracy, he said) would require people with some education, and advocated a national program of free education up to and including university levels, the last state to fall from that ideal was when Governor Ronald Reagan ended free enrollment in the University of California system.
Jefferson said, in an 1824 letter: "This degree of [free] education would ... give us a body of yeomanry, too, of substantial information, well prepared to become a firm and steady support to the government."
The attack on higher education was being won (and continues with cuts in college grant programs), and the cons moved to attack the third requirement for a society to produce a middle class: progressive taxation. This, of course, infuriates the elite cons who seem to truly believe that a CEO actually works 500 times harder than his employees (or is 500 times smarter).
But history shows that the third pillar of creating a middle class requires a modest control of how wealth is distributed. The richest, who benefit the most from our society, pay proportionately more, so the middle class can have home interest deductions, child tax credits, free public education, and health care. Progressive taxation has helped create every middle class in the First World, and without it the middle class will vanish (to Steve Forbes delight, apparently).
As Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1784, "Taxes should be proportioned to what may be annually spared by the individual." And, as earlier noted, as wealth rises, so should taxes -- "geometrically."
But as president, Reagan cut the top tax rate for billionaires from 70 percent to 28 percent, while effectively raising taxes on working people via the payroll tax and using inflation against a non-indexed tax system. It was another hit to the already-beginning-to-shrink middle class, to be followed by more "tax cut" bludgeons during the first three years of the W. Bush administration.
Nonetheless, a never-ending parade of conservative economists and commentators march through our living rooms daily via radio and TV, assuring us that it is good for American workers to go along with the Wal-Martization of America, accept lower pay and few benefits, and fear for their health, so multinational corporations can "level the playing field" for labor.
They say it will create winners in the system, and they are right. The winners are the multinational corporations, and the losers are the rest of us. No matter, say the TV commentators -- nearly all millionaires themselves. "Free trade" sounds sexy; "protectionism" sounds downright selfish. And it's all too complicated to explain in 20 seconds, even quoting Jefferson.
But, unless we repeal Taft-Hartley; start enforcing the Sherman act, provide free education for Americans (and not just Iraqis); abandon WTO/GATT and NAFTA; restore progressive taxation (including on dividend income); force corporations to pay their fair share; and go back to selective tariffs to protect domestic industries and stop offshoring to explicitly bring home the ability for us to make our own clothes, furniture, autos, and electronics, the conservatives will have won and the middle class -- and, thus, democracy -- will lose.
As Jefferson warned in an 1826 letter to Will B. Giles, even then some conservatives "now look to a single and splendid government of an aristocracy, founded on banking institutions, and moneyed incorporations under the guise and cloak of their favored branches of manufactures, commerce and navigation, riding and ruling over the plundered ploughman and beggared yeomanry. This will be to them a next best blessing to the monarchy of their first aim, and perhaps the surest steppingstone to it."
Jefferson's vision rose to fruition in the Gilded age, was fought back by FDR, and again rose its antidemocratic head under Reagan, the first Bush, GATT/NAFTA Clinton, and Dubya.
If conservative economics are allowed to continue, and we fully revert to the way life was lived by the average person in America in 1890 or Dickens' England (over 40 million in America already have, by the way, many in the past 3 years), there will be no more middle class, just a few more rich CEOs and Bushies, and a lot more terrified workers living in slavery to debt and terrified of unemployment or a serious health crisis.
It'll be a marvelous thing for the profits of the multinationals (including those who supply our "news"), but the end of a way of life in America, and possibly around the world, since so many nations imitate our lead. And only you and I - the ploughman and yeomanry - can stop them and restore an America where it's possible to raise a family on one income and still have enough for housing, transportation, food, education, vacations, health care, and a decent retirement.
The middle class is not a "normal" thing: it's just the core that holds together democracy and an informed, healthy, and active citizenry.
To bring it back from its steady decline since the Reagan era is going to take a lot of active work spreading the word (call talk radio, blog, forward this article and similar ones, write a letter to the editor to your local paper), and participation in or contact with elected officials at all levels (writing elected officials, joining and volunteering to help your favorite local political party or activist organization, showing up for rallies, etc.). We must get out the vote and remove the whole con bunch from the White House and Congress, repeal Taft-Hartley, get corporate money and lobbyists out of our governmental processes, restore progressive taxation, rebuild our schools, return to the tariff system that protected American industries (and jobs and communities) from 1786 until 1996, strengthen Social Security, and turn Medicare into a universal single-payer health system (among other things).
Are you willing to join? Or would you prefer to re-read "A Christmas Carol" to your children, so they can understand the future America that conservatives have in mind for them?