Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
Thursday, December 15, 2011 4:10 PM
By Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch/The Nation.
“Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”
-- E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
The “other men” (and of course women) in the current American class alignment are those in the top 1% of the wealth distribution -- the bankers, hedge-fund managers, and CEOs targeted by the Occupy Wall Street movement. They have been around for a long time in one form or another, but they only began to emerge as a distinct and visible group, informally called the “super-rich,” in recent years.
Extravagant levels of consumption helped draw attention to them: private jets, multiple 50,000 square-foot mansions, $25,000 chocolate desserts embellished with gold dust. But as long as the middle class could still muster the credit for college tuition and occasional home improvements, it seemed churlish to complain. Then came the financial crash of 2007-2008, followed by the Great Recession, and the 1% to whom we had entrusted our pensions, our economy, and our political system stood revealed as a band of feckless, greedy narcissists, and possibly sociopaths.
Still, until a few months ago, the 99% was hardly a group capable of (as Thompson says) articulating “the identity of their interests.” It contained, and still contains, most “ordinary” rich people, along with middle-class professionals, factory workers, truck drivers, and miners, as well as the much poorer people who clean the houses, manicure the fingernails, and maintain the lawns of the affluent.
It was divided not only by these class differences, but most visibly by race and ethnicity -- a division that has actually deepened since 2008. African-Americans and Latinos of all income levels disproportionately lost their homes to foreclosure in 2007 and 2008, and then disproportionately lost their jobs in the wave of layoffs that followed. On the eve of the Occupy movement, the black middle class had been devastated. In fact, the only political movements to have come out of the 99% before Occupy emerged were the Tea Party movement and, on the other side of the political spectrum, the resistance to restrictions on collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
But Occupy could not have happened if large swaths of the 99% had not begun to discover some common interests, or at least to put aside some of the divisions among themselves. For decades, the most stridently promoted division within the 99% was the one between what the right calls the “liberal elite” -- composed of academics, journalists, media figures, etc. -- and pretty much everyone else.
As Harper’s Magazine columnist Tom Frank has brilliantly explained, the right earned its spurious claim to populism by targeting that “liberal elite,” which supposedly favors reckless government spending that requires oppressive levels of taxes, supports “redistributive” social policies and programs that reduce opportunity for the white middle class, creates ever more regulations (to, for instance, protect the environment) that reduce jobs for the working class, and promotes kinky countercultural innovations like gay marriage. The liberal elite, insisted conservative intellectuals, looked down on “ordinary” middle- and working-class Americans, finding them tasteless and politically incorrect. The “elite” was the enemy, while the super-rich were just like everyone else, only more “focused” and perhaps a bit better connected.
Of course, the “liberal elite” never made any sociological sense. Not all academics or media figures are liberal (Newt Gingrich, George Will, Rupert Murdoch). Many well-educated middle managers and highly trained engineers may favor latte over Red Bull, but they were never targets of the right. And how could trial lawyers be members of the nefarious elite, while their spouses in corporate law firms were not?
A Greased Chute, Not a Safety Net
“Liberal elite” was always a political category masquerading as a sociological one. What gave the idea of a liberal elite some traction, though, at least for a while, was that the great majority of us have never knowingly encountered a member of the actual elite, the 1% who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities, and walled estates.
The authority figures most people are likely to encounter in their daily lives are teachers, doctors, social workers, and professors. These groups (along with middle managers and other white-collar corporate employees) occupy a much lower position in the class hierarchy. They made up what we described in a 1976 essay as the “professional managerial class.” As we wrote at the time, on the basis of our experience of the radical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, there have been real, longstanding resentments between the working-class and middle-class professionals. These resentments, which the populist right cleverly deflected toward “liberals,” contributed significantly to that previous era of rebellion’s failure to build a lasting progressive movement.
As it happened, the idea of the “liberal elite” could not survive the depredations of the 1% in the late 2000s. For one thing, it was summarily eclipsed by the discovery of the actual Wall Street-based elite and their crimes. Compared to them, professionals and managers, no matter how annoying, were pikers. The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1% took your house away.
There was, as well, another inescapable problem embedded in the right-wing populist strategy: even by 2000, and certainly by 2010, the class of people who might qualify as part of the “liberal elite” was in increasingly bad repair. Public-sector budget cuts and corporate-inspired reorganizations were decimating the ranks of decently paid academics, who were being replaced by adjunct professors working on bare subsistence incomes. Media firms were shrinking their newsrooms and editorial budgets. Law firms had started outsourcing their more routine tasks to India. Hospitals beamed X-rays to cheap foreign radiologists. Funding had dried up for nonprofit ventures in the arts and public service. Hence the iconic figure of the Occupy movement: the college graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debts and a job paying about $10 a hour, or no job at all.
These trends were in place even before the financial crash hit, but it took the crash and its grim economic aftermath to awaken the 99% to a widespread awareness of shared danger. In 2008, “Joe the Plumber’s” intention to earn a quarter-million dollars a year still had some faint sense of plausibility. A couple of years into the recession, however, sudden downward mobility had become the mainstream American experience, and even some of the most reliably neoliberal media pundits were beginning to announce that something had gone awry with the American dream.
Once-affluent people lost their nest eggs as housing prices dropped off cliffs. Laid-off middle-aged managers and professionals were staggered to find that their age made them repulsive to potential employers. Medical debts plunged middle-class households into bankruptcy. The old conservative dictum -- that it was unwise to criticize (or tax) the rich because you might yourself be one of them someday -- gave way to a new realization that the class you were most likely to migrate into wasn’t the rich, but the poor.
And here was another thing many in the middle class were discovering: the downward plunge into poverty could occur with dizzying speed. One reason the concept of an economic 99% first took root in America rather than, say, Ireland or Spain is that Americans are particularly vulnerable to economic dislocation. We have little in the way of a welfare state to stop a family or an individual in free-fall. Unemployment benefits do not last more than six months or a year, though in a recession they are sometimes extended by Congress. At present, even with such an extension, they reach only about half the jobless. Welfare was all but abolished 15 years ago, and health insurance has traditionally been linked to employment.
In fact, once an American starts to slip downward, a variety of forces kick in to help accelerate the slide. An estimated 60% of American firms now check applicants' credit ratings, and discrimination against the unemployed is widespread enough to have begun to warrant Congressional concern. Even bankruptcy is a prohibitively expensive, often crushingly difficult status to achieve. Failure to pay government-imposed fines or fees can even lead, through a concatenation of unlucky breaks, to an arrest warrant or a criminal record. Where other once-wealthy nations have a safety net, America offers a greased chute, leading down to destitution with alarming speed.
Making Sense of the 99%
The Occupation encampments that enlivened approximately 1,400 cities this fall provided a vivid template for the 99%’s growing sense of unity. Here were thousands of people -- we may never know the exact numbers -- from all walks of life, living outdoors in the streets and parks, very much as the poorest of the poor have always lived: without electricity, heat, water, or toilets. In the process, they managed to create self-governing communities.
General assembly meetings brought together an unprecedented mix of recent college graduates, young professionals, elderly people, laid-off blue-collar workers, and plenty of the chronically homeless for what were, for the most part, constructive and civil exchanges. What started as a diffuse protest against economic injustice became a vast experiment in class building. The 99%, which might have seemed to be a purely aspirational category just a few months ago, began to will itself into existence.
Can the unity cultivated in the encampments survive as the Occupy movement evolves into a more decentralized phase? All sorts of class, racial, and cultural divisions persist within that 99%, including distrust between members of the former “liberal elite” and those less privileged. It would be surprising if they didn’t. The life experience of a young lawyer or a social worker is very different from that of a blue-collar worker whose work may rarely allow for biological necessities like meal or bathroom breaks. Drum circles, consensus decision-making, and masks remain exotic to at least the 90%. “Middle class” prejudice against the homeless, fanned by decades of right-wing demonization of the poor, retains much of its grip.
Sometimes these differences led to conflict in Occupy encampments -- for example, over the role of the chronically homeless in Portland or the use of marijuana in Los Angeles -- but amazingly, despite all the official warnings about health and safety threats, there was no “Altamont moment”: no major fires and hardly any violence. In fact, the encampments engendered almost unthinkable convergences: people from comfortable backgrounds learning about street survival from the homeless, a distinguished professor of political science discussing horizontal versus vertical decision-making with a postal worker, military men in dress uniforms showing up to defend the occupiers from the police.
Class happens, as Thompson said, but it happens most decisively when people are prepared to nourish and build it. If the “99%” is to become more than a stylish meme, if it’s to become a force to change the world, eventually we will undoubtedly have to confront some of the class and racial divisions that lie within it. But we need to do so patiently, respectfully, and always with an eye to the next big action -- the next march, or building occupation, or foreclosure fight, as the situation demands.
Barbara Ehrenreich, TomDispatch regular
, is the author of
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
(now in a 10th anniversary edition with a
John Ehrenreich is p
rofessor of psychology at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He wrote
The Humanitarian Companion: A Guide for International Aid, Development, and Human Rights Workers
This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print at the Nation magazine.
Copyright 2011 Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich
Friday, August 19, 2011 3:01 PM
What happened to the days when only punks, criminals, gangsters, and sailors had tattoos? Now you can’t walk into a Culver’s without tripping over 17-year-olds with butterflies inked onto their ankles. Counterculture fought back and pushed the boundaries of socially acceptable body art: Extreme piercings and dermal modifications became more common—as did the once-outré neck, face, and hand tattoos.
Well, the tattoo may have gone mainstream years ago, but only recently has it become a signifier of privilege. “As ink spreads beyond the button-up,” observes Good’s Amanda Hess, “the visible tattoo has emerged as a new middle-class status symbol—a stamp for those rebellious (and privileged) enough to pull it off.”
Hess is referring, of course, to the perceived unemployability of someone with a tattoo anywhere not concealed by their business casual garb—for example, a skull-and-crossbones stamped on the side of their neck. But Hess explains that those who have ample job experience, who aren’t seeking entry-level experience, or who are among the creative class are less likely to miss out on job opportunities because of visible body art than young workers, service-sector employees, or minorities. “Ironically,” a software-industry sales consultant told Hess, “I reckon I’d have more problems getting a job in McDonald’s than doing what I do.”
In other words: Body modification is now a class issue.
Image by kvangijsel, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 08, 2011 11:01 AM
Criticizing any aspect of hip-hop culture is a task fraught with danger. If you’re white, you might be called a racist. If you’re black, you might be called Bill Cosby. And if you’re over 30, you might just be called old.
Author Thomas Chatterton Williams—30 years old, black, and a fan of hip-hop music—is unafraid to enter the fray. His book Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, recently released in paperback, lays down a strong critique of the disturbing messages behind the beats. Marc Smirnoff of the Oxford American interviewed Williams in a Q&A with the baiting title “Is Hip-Hop Evil?”
Williams contends that thug-life fantasies are sold because they are profitable commodities—follow the money, follow the money—not because they capture the totality of the black experience. These fantasies distort reality in order to confuse children and get their money—in so doing, hip-hop is toying with heavy consequences.
Here are some of Williams’ most provocative lines from the interview:
• “[In hip-hop] the material side of life has been so overemphasized, so glorified over the intangible, over the intellectual, over the spiritual, even over the artistic. This is a shame. This is why Jay-Z can say, ‘I dumb down for my audience and double my dollars’ and his listeners, far from being offended, actually respect him all the more for it!”
• “So many have been taught to define themselves and one another as niggas and bitches, thugs, goons, hustlers, pimps, dealers, gangstas, hoodlums … If you believe, as I do, that how you describe and present yourself has any correlation with how you feel about yourself, then it’s hard not to see some self-hatred going on here.”
• “Even in the upper-middle classes, it’s amazing the degree to which blacks buy into an idea that intellectual development is not cool. … And that is why Barack Obama said we must ‘eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.’ It was incredible that the president had the bravery to address the issue, but he can’t do it alone. Too many of our black academics—and white academics—today are content to spend their time making the case on television that rappers are really our modern-day philosophers and bards. What I wish they would do instead is make the case that all of us should be reading more philosophy and literature.”
Source: Oxford American
Image by Luke Abiol, courtesy of The Penguin Press.
Monday, March 07, 2011 3:46 PM
It was reassuring, in the midst of Wisconsin’s labor strife, to see a New York Times/CBS News poll showing that many Americans sympathized with the workers. A majority of the people surveyed opposed weakening collective bargaining rights or cutting the pay or benefits of state workers to reduce state budget deficits.
It was very telling, however, to see where that sympathy dropped off. The richest Americans, it turns out, are the ones who are most eager to slash away:
Although cutting the pay or benefits of public workers was opposed by people in all income groups, it had the most support from people earning over $100,000 a year. In that income group, 45 percent said they favored cutting pay or benefits, while 49 percent opposed it. In every other income group, a majority opposed cutting pay or benefits: Among those making between $15,000 and $30,000, for instance, 35 percent said they favored cutting pay or benefits, while 60 percent opposed it.
That’s right, a solid majority of people making only $15,000 to $30,000 a year—that’s near or below the poverty line for many households—still mustered compassion for the public workers’ cause, while the biggest earners were much more eager to roll over the workers because times are tight.
The poll hearkens back to other surveys that have shown lower-income people give a greater proportion of their income to charity, and to a study done last summer by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, showing that poor people are in general more altruistic than rich people.
Could it be that the rich, unsatisfied with simply always getting richer, are now getting meaner?
Source: New York Times, Greater Good
, licensed under
Friday, August 06, 2010 3:21 PM
In our September-October issue, we rounded up some of the most forward-thinking articles about food that the alternative press has to offer…
We led off with an excerpt of Michael Pollan’s “Food Fight,” from the New York Review of Books, and followed up with Rachel Laudan’s “In Praise of Fast Food,” from The Gastronomica Reader. We heard from Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton (“The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Go Hungry,” from A Nation of Farmers) and Nicole Miller and Michael Penn (“Waste Not, Want Not,” from Grow). And we wrapped up the section with Heather Rogers’ “The First Family’s Fallow Gardens,” a muckraking essay from our 2010 Utne Independent Press Award winner The American Prospect.
But if one thing is true about the alternative press, it is that its bounty knows no end: There is more, so much more thinking about food than we could fit in our print edition. So here you go. Read until you’re stuffed; debate until you’re sated. More than ever, the future of food is in our hands.
-- The Columbia Journalism Review’s Brent Cunningham interviews Grist’s Tom Philpott on why class needs to be part of the food debate.
-- Read about a pair of activists (profiled in Permaculture Activist) working to reintroduce staple crops to regional farming—and why their work is at the heart of food security.
-- We spotted ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber’s “Organic Manifesto” reprinted in a recent issue of In Good Tilth.
-- Head over to Enviroblog to read about kids’ food even a fly won’t touch, and if you are sufficiently grossed out, peruse our Cafeteria Chronicles, a series of blog posts about revolutionary school lunch reformers and childhood nutrition.
-- Want to grow food in the city? Terrain has a great piece about urban farms vs. urban zoning. And in our July-August issue, we excerpted a dispatch from Next American City about Cleveland’s progressively zoned urban garden overlay.
-- One family’s experiment: crap food vs. sustainable food. (We spotted it in the Sacramento News & Review).
-- What do you think: Should organic cattle finish on grain? The Cornucopia Institute has a few thoughts on the matter…
-- Read our report on a piece from Spacing about a truly organic community transformation, spurred by front-yard gardens. Ready to go whole hog? Watch Chow’s documentary short about Novella Carpenter and her urban livestock.
-- At his blog Wild Green, Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman talks about composting in the city—the good and the rotten. Plus, check out this dispatch from Governing about fighting food deserts—with groceries at the library.
-- EcoSalon takes a firsthand look at the underground food craze.
Image by *clarity*, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, May 28, 2010 2:58 PM
Back in March, the Insight Center for Community Economic Development published a startling report on the wealth gap: “Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America’s Future” (pdf), reveals that black women have a median wealth of $100 and Hispanic women $120—a staggering disparity stacked up alongside the median wealth of white men ($43,800), white women ($41,500), and black men ($7,900).
There’s been plenty of ink spilled over recession and recovery, but this report, the first measurement to probe the intersection of the gender and racial wealth gaps, barely registered with mainstream media, Extra! reports. And this type of information is critical to understanding the nature of and effectively responding to our present economic troubles. As Julie Hollar writes:
While income is the most common measurement for inequality, wealth—an individual’s assets minus their debts—reveals even greater disparities in the United States. While the top 1 percent received 21 percent of the income in 2006, it held over 34 percent of the wealth (UCSC.edu, 2/10). And racial disparities are drastically greater in terms of wealth than in terms of income.
Wealth can be more relevant to people’s lives, too, particularly in a time of economic crisis. Not only does wealth have a lot to do with the ability to retire or support yourself in old age, people of all ages are much more likely to lose their homes or otherwise find themselves unable to support themselves or their families without savings or assets to fall back on during economic hardship. And, indeed, women of color have had the highest foreclosure rates of any group during the current recession—both as a result of their lack of wealth and their being targeted for subprime mortgages, regardless of their income level (National Council of Negro Women, 6/09).
Wealth also helps people get ahead: Home equity can be borrowed against to send children to college, for example, and wealth can be passed down through the generations to provide them with more stability, access and options. Research has found that family wealth is the biggest predictor of the future economic status of a child, giving lie to the old American “bootstraps” mythology.
Sources: Insight Center for Community Economic Development, Extra!
kevindooley, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, August 13, 2009 12:45 PM
When pundits talk about “class warfare,” they almost exclusively refer to actions taken on behalf of non-rich people. Warfare, though, usually has two sides. Research reported in Extra! found that a “class warfare” story was 18 times more likely to refer to bottom-up activities—like taxing rich people—rather than top-down actions—like dismantling unions. Extra! uncovered plenty of critiques against top-down activities, including bank bailouts and anti-labor policies, but these actions are seldom described as “class warfare.”
Image by Joe Saunders, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 15, 2009 1:19 PM
For many middle class, white American parents, the decision to send their children to private, predominately white, well-funded schools is a no brainer. Confronting or even thinking about race and class barriers is easily avoided and life continues smoothly and comfortably.
Writing in Geez, Dee Dee Risher laments the “massive desertion of the public school system by middle-class whites” and defends her choice to send her children to an urban, poorly funded public school.
“I seek experiences that would not infect my children with a sense of privilege, entitlement or racial superiority. I want to give them a truer sense of all the diversity and inequality in the world and help them develop their own sensibility for justice. I want my children to move through the world able to relate to and understand very different people. I want them to be safe and to grow up feeling strong.”
Even as her father wonders if Risher is using her children in “an ideological experiment,” Risher finds a “richness” in her decisions that is not “rooted in elitist and stratified social choices.”
Image by calculat0r, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009 1:08 PM
How do people relate across racial and economic boundaries in post-apartheid South Africa? Cape Town artist Bryan Little designed a temporary public installation that broaches the question, based, he says, on “the names we call each other in the new South Africa.” Culled from the country’s 11 official languages, the names are both epithets and endearments, reflecting the divisions that persist as well as the connections being forged. Kees Jan Husselman used the installation as a backdrop for a poignant short film that gathers South Africans’ views on race, class, and the future of their country:
(Thanks, Wooster Collective.)
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!