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A Historical Neurosis

“People who do things test my endurance — give me a man who solicits insurance” — Dorothy Parker

The following arrived in my email, a dispatch from my old friend Bill Shortell, a union activist in Connecticut:

“I think we attempt to define class in order to facilitate class struggle. With that in mind it seems essential to try and formulate the largest group of workers to fight the capitalists. That's why I draw the line at the relation to the means of production. The capitalist class are those who make the majority of their living from the labor of others, through their ownership of the means of production.

We, the working class, make our living using the means owned by capitalists. They appropriate a share of the value we produce.

The term 'middle class' has no place in this context. We define the classes in order to marshal the greatest force against capital. Who are the enemies of this so-called 'middle class?' The capitalists and the poor. How can we unite with a 'class' that targets a major portion of the working class for enmity?

Middle class might be more usefully conceived as a cultural portion of the working class, or even a psychological type, in fact a historical neurosis.”

— Bill Shortell, Political Director Eastern States Conference of Machinists

So there it was. I am not the only one sick to death of hearing about the the woes of the middle class. Politicians go on and on about “saving the middle class.” From what? From whom? From the corporate and financial entities that bankroll them? Fat chance but they still want the votes. My middle-class success-story friend in Portlandia voted for Jill Stein, a radical move for him, basically a protest against the political standardization of Barack Obama. I told him that had I voted, it would have been for Jill Stein (a “pathetic failure” according to Slate, and like Dennis Kucinich a real human being and therefore, media laughing stock). The middle class “believes” in voting, whereas I do not. The excellent political cartoonist John Jonik has one in which a citizen at the voting booth tries to decide between the Greater Evil and the Lesser Evil as two demons sit behind one-way glass, drinking champagne and laughing.

My parents moved to Connecticut when I was eight years old, and it was the suburbs. And suburbs were new then. Levittown had been built when... in the '40's, '47? ... and this was a brand-new suburban subdivision called the Highlands. My parents bought a house, and everything seemed okay except that there was a part of me that immediately felt something was definitely wrong there. There was something wrong with all the little nuclear families in little boxes, as Malvina Reynolds' song says, all made of ticky-tacky. It wasn't really a neighborhood, in the urban sense, and couldn't have been further from the idea of a community (sounds too much like communism). Even then, mass media were busy keeping the populace afraid... of communism, the bomb, polio, or locally, bats with rabies.

We were the lower end of middle class, but of course in America you could aspire and work hard, pull yourself up by the bootstraps and reach the upper middle levels. What you could not do was enter the upper class. That was and is the territory of people born into it, and even if you were the rare person who struck it rich somehow you couldn't really join the club. So the middle class in general learned to pretend. And the pretense was that they were better than the neighbors, who were pretending the same thing. What they had in common was that they pretended to be better than “colored” people and working people who got dirty. This was not discussed, of course, but naturally assumed. This leaves us with the working class and “the poor,” who have a lot of overlap and are never mentioned by the politicians.

Dorothy Parker's typical bitter sarcasm in the opening quote tell the story perfectly.

One Comment

  1. Bill Shortell May 10, 2019

    Jeff, my old bestie, still way cool. Glad to have cooperated in a rant.

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