Turn on any cable news channel or log on to Twitter and it’s not hard to see what Tocqueville meant. Each election is, allegedly, “the most important election of our lifetime,” says David Roediger in his The Sinking Middle Class, and the coup de grâce is “self-serving, vague, and often empty political rhetoric regarding ‘saving the middle class.’”
By tracing the evolution of this rhetoric, from the capture of the Democratic Party by conservative forces in the ’70s and early ’80s to the recent GOP and Democratic presidential campaigns, Roediger demonstrates how this middle-class-specific language amplifies the conflation of electoralism with politics while effacing structural issues tied to the nexus between race, gender, and class.
What exactly is the middle class? Göran Therborn, writing in New Left Review, traces the term in English back to the 19th century when industrialization supplanted the last vestiges of feudal life. This led to new forms of social stratification, to which liberal thinkers like James Mill could write paeans about it being “the most wise and the most virtuous part of the community.” The English definition was merely one of several at play during industrialization across Europe. Other versions, such as the French “bourgeoisie” and “classe moyenne” and the German “Bürgertum” connoted slightly different meanings based on geography, but one thing these terms had in common was the notion that to be of this class meant tradecraft as opposed to the rents enjoyed by landowners or large capitalists.
This conjoining of middle class and work also existed in the United States where plentiful land, constantly wrenched from indigenous control, made possible the small farmer or entrepreneur of the Jeffersonian or Jacksonian mold and solidified the fiction that the US was the first middle-class society, a belief Roediger contests, rightly. Of his travels, Tocqueville observed “in America there are no paupers,” but in 1840 the term “middle class” was rarely used (approximately once in every 10 million printed words, according to ngrams graphed in Roediger’s book).
Productive work tends to play a minor role in any definition of middle class today. In Asia, the category means earning $2 to $13 per day, according to World Bank economists; or $2 to $20 per day according to the Asian Development Bank. In the United States, economists have defined the middle class as those earning 67 to 200 percent of the median income, or like Joe Biden recently, anyone making under $400,000 per year. No one has a good idea of what the term means, but everyone seems comfortable using it for their purposes.
This fuzziness is one of the most frustrating parts of Roediger’s book as well as broader discussions of class, though he means to buttress his argument for jettisoning the term. At no point in the essays does he attempt a stable definition of what the middle class is, going so far as to say “the vexing questions of the size and the composition of the middle class are so variously posed and answered as to make the category a blunt tool for political analysis […] problems of definition cannot fail to appear because the middle class is, at least as theorized to date, not really a class.” Instead, after the sociologist C. Wright Mills, Roediger argues it is better to see “middle class” as a loose bloc of different classes whose interests sometimes converge and at other times throw them into conflict. As a singular term, middle class “gets created either in the imaginations of experts or those of men and women claiming membership” or in another moment, “the dreams matter more than actual class position.”
The term is used at a constant clip, from economics papers to union press releases to the Bernie Sanders campaign to the nightly news, all of which go out of their way to describe the middle class as in serious peril. It can be defined as a catchall for whatever a particular person wants it to mean in order to sway voters or readers or policymakers. This is most strikingly the case when politicians do not want to broach the subjects of labor, race, and poverty so tangled up in, but constantly avoided in US political discourse.
Therefore, during the 2012 presidential campaign Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could agree on a definition of middle class as those making less than $250,000, which Roediger points out, covers 96 percent of Americans, “The 96% was not so much a class as it was a nation. To wage political war on its behalf seemed good patriotic politics.” Such slippery terrain makes it difficult to make meaning of the concept or to argue against it. If the president says, I define the middle class this way, who can argue with it? The best one can do is throw up a different definition, which is just as easily dismissed by one’s opponents.
Obama’s definition is the stuff of dreams, a kind of canvas of inclusivity bolstered by voters’ prior self-conception and the enduring mythology of the classlessness, or middle classness, of American society. When you combine that with a tailored kind of polling or, as Roediger argues, the purposeful elision of key findings by pollsters, you have a term into which many of the fears about race, family life, and prosperity are contained without anyone ever agreeing with what it all means. All of this Roediger deals with in scrupulous detail (impressive considering the slimness of the volume).
Roediger has spent much of his academic career focusing on the nexus between organized labor and race, and his expertise in those subjects stands out clearly. This is particularly the case in the second and fifth chapter and the book’s afterword in which he reprises some of the ideas he has previously elaborated in these pages about the rise of the concomitant term “white working class” and one of its main proponents in the popular press, Joan C. Williams.
In the second chapter, Roediger takes the reader on a deep reading of Stanley Greenberg’s outsize influence on Democratic electoral strategies. Likening him to a modern Herbert Hoover, progressive paragon of the early 20th century, Roediger calls Greenberg “our era’s emblematic, unprepossessing progressive, typifying a time of diminished political possibilities.” Like so many of his generation, Greenberg’s flirtation with left-wing politics ended with an embrace of the reactionary turn that had gathered pace within the Democratic Party in the 1980s and reached a zenith with Bill Clinton’s election in 1992. Embodied through his interest in the heavily white Macomb County, Michigan, a place which Roediger notes is probably more famous than Greenberg himself, Greenberg’s signal achievement was to make “an enduring case that disastrous Republican electoral victories could be fended off only by keeping demands for racial and gender justice meager.”
It’s hard to imagine that someone whose Harvard doctoral supervisor, James Q. Wilson, was one of the principal theorizers of “broken windows” policing would ever be tempted by the left, but according to Roediger, Greenberg produced, over a 20-year period, “significant radical political science scholarship,” particularly in his close study of and connections to South Africa. Even as he moved rightward within the American context, Greenberg maintained far more left-wing sympathies for politics abroad. Such amazing tidbits fill the chapter, such as the fact that the Yale Local 34 organizing efforts, which would not come to fruition for another decade or so, were run out of Greenberg’s basement or that he was in part denied tenure by new Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti, who opposed South African divestment efforts. Greenberg’s trajectory is an almost perfect microcosm of so much of the New Left revolutionary zeal typified by the Jerry Rubins and Tom Haydens of the world.
While some of the chapter focuses on close readings of Greenberg’s academic output, what is most central to The Sinking Middle Class is that following the Walter Mondale’s massive 1984 defeat to Ronald Reagan, Greenberg was given funds and access to UAW members in Macomb County, a place conservative Democrats had been eyeing with consternation since at least 1972 when George Wallace captured more votes in the primary than McGovern did in the general. That Macomb County was not at all representative of the United States in the mid-’80s, being “too Catholic and too unionized to be typical as a suburb, and at that time too prosperous” didn’t seem to matter because it flattered already deep-seated assumptions about the American political trajectory. Almost immediately Greenberg went about using the impoverished term “middle class” to erase race and actual class struggle from his analytic.
On the surface, the residents of Macomb were the caricatured beings of professional elite derision. They were boat owners, admired Reagan the man more than they cared about economic grievances, feared Detroit as the thing “that threatened good lives.” In Greenberg’s telling, “not being black was what constituted being middle class; not living with blacks was what made a neighborhood a decent place to live.”
The same way elites in 2016 were willing to adopt the term “white working class” and then lay all the blame at their feet, Greenberg’s “conclusions regarding the unvarnished racism of ‘blue-collar’ and unionized workers overshot the evidence by far.” For one thing, the composition of Macomb County was already trending white collar and skilled autoworker while service, health care, and retail jobs “increased astronomically” throughout the ’80s. For another was the unwillingness of Greenberg et al. to position the racially integrated workplace on equal footing with racial grievances dressed up as class ones. He also short-changed the “deep gendered crises of time and money” and abortion which by then were a huge issues in Macomb County.
Possibly the most damning aspect, especially for an alternate history of the left, is “the rich, lengthy material in the original reports” in which informants “urge a return to shop-floor militancy and union power, hearkening back to the time, twenty-plus years earlier, of frequently interracial wildcat strikes in the plants.” Roediger points out that these respondents weren’t ignorant of capital flight and the structural exigencies of rapidly globalizing capital markets, but were also capable of laying blame squarely at the feet of conservative union bureaucrats and Democrats, the very people bankrolling Greenberg’s research. One can only imagine how things might be different if the tremendous militant energy of the early ’70s had been embraced, possibly even leading to a repeal of Taft-Hartley, mooted by labor again in the ’70s as capital’s siege against labor became more brazen. Unfortunately, GOP hostility and a tepid reception from the Carter administration means Taft-Hartley remains law, severely constraining worker militancy.
If Greenberg called for Democrats to listen to these grievances, the primary question we should be asking is, Is this so-called middle class worth saving? Roediger starts the book with an epigraph from George Orwell, who wonders if it really will be so bad for all the middle-class aspirants who fear falling to actually fall.
Roediger, using sociologist Juliet Schor’s ’90s-era diptych The Overworked American (1993) and The Overspent American (1998), demonstrates that striving for middle-class status is a Sisyphean task of accumulating enough wealth to afford a mortgage, car payments, retirement, children’s college education, health care, and a vacation per year. One can only guess what this leads to: massive debt and a huge increase in working hours as well as the attendant feelings of profound failure as the boulder rolls back down the hill. And it isn’t much different from a working-class life. As waged work turned to salaried work (one traditional metric for distinguishing working and middle class), upper management came to reproduce the same kinds of tyrannical and arbitrary behavior the foreman and shop floor managers of industrial capitalism exhibited during the teens or ’30s. Only now the language is shrouded on concepts of personality, enthusiasm, and doing what you love, as Miya Tokumitsu has elucidated.
When many of these management tools were first being developed in Detroit, Akron, Toledo, and other sites of industrial capital, the idea was workers were making a tradeoff between scientific management and leisure. Even Keynes believed we were headed for a 15-hour workweek, but the Treaty of Detroit, struck between the UAW’s Walter Reuther and GM executives undercut any momentum for more leisure. Instead, by 1987 “on average, more than three hours of free time per person disappeared each week into marketed work.” This also led to a “time squeeze at home” as more women entered the middle-class workforce but were still doing the vast majority of unwaged work necessary for social reproduction.
This has translated into ever more work, sometimes holding two or three jobs to meet the demands of middle-class life. Fully one-fifth of contemporary US workers work at least 60 hours a week with two-fifths working 50 or more. But this increase in work has not translated into more financial stability. US household debt and credit reached $14 trillion at the beginning of 2020. In spite of all the lip service to saving the middle class, it would appear government policies have done little to quell its indebtedness and immiseration.
What then are the consequences of all this talk of the middle class, and its recent offshoot, “the white working class,” which seems to be just a more obvious way of saying what Greenberg was saying in the 1980s? One of these seems to be a strategy first attempted in Wisconsin in 2011 and is now the strategy of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is committed to expanding the working class to include formerly middle-class professions, namely teachers. Clearly attracted by the militancy of teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and elsewhere, teachers and other seemingly middle-class professionals like nurses, DSA members posit they could be a vanguard for some rebirth of American labor.
I remain hesitant that such strategy has much merit; firstly, because craft unions, such as American Federation of Teachers or California Nurses Association, are unlikely to be the vanguard of any long-term confrontation with capital, just as they weren’t at the turn of the 20th century or in the ’30s when the AFL was openly hostile to industrial unionism. Roediger also points out an important contradiction regarding class. In this strategy, what do you do with a teacher-turned-labor activist, for example, who sees herself as middle class? Such a strategy has to expend effort fighting the rhetoric of middle-classness.
Secondly — and this is one place where I found myself wishing Roediger would have expanded his narrow focus on the United States — the fact is capital is so globalized now that any confrontation between it and organized labor or some conception of the working class seems beyond the pale. Drawing US teachers into the working class doesn’t necessarily do much for the sweatshop worker in Bangladesh. Capital is now everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The iPhone, designed in America, assembled in China, powered by lithium mined in Chile. Understandably, this is a book about political history in the United States, but it could have been useful to get a sense of how these shifting forms of class inform interactions between the US and beyond.
By mistaking the narrow field of elections, which fill our screens with politicians claiming to have the answers to saving the middle class, for the sum total of politics we remain in grave danger of failing to confront the international flavor of contemporary capitalism and the US imperialism that props it up. This is where the strategic thinking of DSA failed this past year. By choosing to devote significant energy into the Bernie Sanders campaign, they made the same mistake that Roediger cautions against. The majority of those making less than $30,000 per year do not vote and even much of the alleged middle class does not. They are barred from doing so by carceral status, by questions of citizenship, by tyrannical bosses who have learned by example that the state does not take labor violations seriously, and by ever-deepening precarity work and housing precarity.
Nearly 40 years ago, as Stanley Greenberg was launching his tenure in Macomb County, Mike Davis was already surmising in Prisoners of the American Dream that “[u]nionism is probably not headed toward extinction but toward a kind of Babylonian captivity in a system of decentralized industrial relations dominated by the corporations and conditioned by the great mass of unorganized labor outside.” According to Davis, this was largely a result of the labor bureaucracy’s accepting a role as coalition partner within the Democratic Party and rejecting the various civil rights struggles that erupted in the ’60s and ’70s, leaving those unorganized masses, to which many of the skilled industrial workers would soon find themselves among, to the whim of capital.
People like Greenberg probably saw the same thing Davis did, but ran with it in an entirely different direction, directly into the reactionary politics of the segregated enclave and the mythical middle class. It would be good to recall one of Roediger’s observations about Greenberg’s innovation:
Central to his success was ambiguity. Macomb’s voters were seen as white and workers on the one hand, ennobled by their labor and rightly concerned with straitening economic circumstances. They were paid attention to on the other hand as a suburban white middle class, not as trade unionists. There being few economic fixes or even meager labor law reforms on offer, the listening that Greenberg urged seized on racially coded issues: neighborhood schools, taxes, crime, and welfare, the last two of which the Clinton administration did deliver on with a vengeance.
The consequences of this politics of ambiguity are now undeniable. Racial resentments, stoked by both parties, exploded on the streets this summer while the global pandemic revealed to many that their middle-class lives were merely mirages created by debt and the empty promises of politicians. If the 2020 elections demonstrated anything, it is that such a politics, one in which politicians vie for an ever-narrowing slice of the electorate fed endlessly on a nostalgia for a Golden Age of middle-class life that never actually existed, is a dead end. Yet, the Democrats again ran on this Greenbergian strategy, hoping to peel off affluent suburban voters with abstractions like law and order, green jobs, and a return to decency while remaining openly hostile to calls for abolition, debt cancelation, and universal health care. The rewards: Barely winning the presidency and a raft of mandate-crushing down-ballot results nationwide. One need look no further than Macomb County, where the Reagan Democrats once again delivered for the GOP.
John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and critic, currently living in Maine.