Why attempt now a theoretical discussion of capitalism, however skeletal and fragmentary, when so much else is going on in the world, America’s militarization of culture and society reinforcement for its global posture of hegemony threatened as not before since World War II by the rise of other nations and their political economies in what is rapidly becoming a multipolar international system? The question almost answers itself. The US is running tight, perhaps even scared, not used to challenges to its unilateral overlordship of that system, backed by compliant “friends and allies” and the FORCE, actual and held in reserve, to implement its suzerainty. This week India and Saudi Arabia: fine-tune the Empire, negotiate and/or renew military alliances, offer guarantees of security-protection, a never-ending process of putting a finger in the hole to close the dike, the hole being peoples’ aspirations for a life free from exploitation, one-sided trade agreements, an ever-hanging mushroom cloud darkening the future.
Why, again, now? Perhaps for the slightest of reasons, Obama’s State of the Union Address, with its latest cliché of obfuscation: the so-called middle-class economics, to cover over a differentiation in wealth and power, and therefore a rigidifying of American class structure with increasing antidemocratic consequences. Income-distribution findings partially tell the story. Not the whole story, because power is geometrically enlarged the more established its foundations, and the more it is taken for granted by the (submissive, indoctrinated, habituated) populace. For power brings with it false consciousness, with IDEOLOGY coming to the fore in the stabilization and enhancement of capitalism, nowhere more so than in America with its fictitious claims of democracy, classlessness, guardian of world peace and the rule of law.
Hence, middle-class economics, a saran-wrapped monopoly capitalism made to look like an inclusive polity of opportunity in the making: We are all capitalists! We are all altruists! We are all equal—by virtue of all being Americans. The subterfuge is as old as the hills—Tocqueville bought into the myth, modern public relations/advertising firms subsisting on it ever since, as the Gospel of Wealth operates non-stop, corporate and banking executives, gluttonous in extremis, shoveling in the proceeds. Obama is perfect for our times, without scruples, the advanced agent of plutocracy. With his predecessors the chicanery was obvious, Clinton, the Democrat, matching Bush, the Republican, stride for stride in the arena of deregulation, overseas market penetration, and the economic stimulus of war preparation, which is solemnly pronounced “security” and “defense”. However, Obama takes the cake, burying the process of wealth-accumulation in the platitudes of Americanism, the latest, middle-class economics.
Herbert Marcuse in “Reason and Revolution,” among the most significant works in 20th century political philosophy, stated in the Epilogue that capitalism’s survival was predicated on absorbing its negativity, a task, critical to its success, nevertheless beyond its means. Simply, capitalism is its contradictions, not as some abstract (to me) formula of dialectical materialism, but bread-and-butter, nitty-gritty structural and political modes of systemic behavior conducive to the formation and maintenance of a class-state in which working people by and large, in relative terms, approximate to Marx’s reserve army of labor, via a condition of underconsumption to keep them in place and the principle of HIERARCHY firmly intact on an everyday basis. Contradictions as code, then, for the normalization of repression. But no, let’s call this instead, middle-class economics. I’ve recently discussed the Address in these pages, the gimmick of Ben and Rebekah to personify and miniaturize advanced capitalism, Everyman and Everywoman sitting around the breakfast table making out the grocery list while Johnny goes off to school—a pastoral tale of Mega-Capitalism worthy, as I noted, of Goebbels.
But let’s turn to income distribution, albeit, not Kuznets, or better, Gabriel Kolko’s “Wealth and Power,” to counterbalance Michael Harrington’s social-democratic, namby-pamby “The Other America,” and, rather, the New York Times article by Dionne Searcey and Robert Gebeloff, “In the U.S., the Middle Class Shrinks Further as More Fall Out Instead of Climbing Up,” (Jan. 26), as an informal answer to Obama’s middle-class economics. They begin: “The middle class that President Obama identified in his State of the Union speech last week as the foundation of the American economy has been shrinking for almost half a century.” Not bad for The Times, thus far. But they too disappoint, using the elastic stretch on income range of $35,000 to $100,000 to define middle-class standing, in which in the late 1960s half of US households qualify. No-one (except those who fell out) noticed a shift occurring because more were “climbing the economic ladder into upper-income brackets.”
Then Searcey-Gebeloff get serious (I say that because pre-2000 statistics show a different picture when income-levels are more precise, including the proportion in the bottom two-tenths of income share): “But since 2000, the middle-class share of households has continued to narrow, the main reason being that more people have fallen to the bottom. At the same time, fewer of those in this group fit the traditional image of a married couple with children at home, a gap increasingly filled by the elderly.” And the writers admit, “Still, regardless of their income, most Americans identify as middle class. The term itself is so amorphous that politicians often cite the group in introducing proposals to engender wide appeal.” (Perish the thought that Obama would stoop to propaganda—mine.) Even at that range in incomes, “many Americans making more than $100,000 consider themselves middle class,” especially “those living in expensive regions” like the Northeast and Pacific Coast. One feels for those at or above $100,000—again, mine; the reporters observe: “However the lines are drawn, it is clear that millions are struggling to hang on to accouterments that most experts consider essential to a middle-class life.”
Demographic changes in the composition of the “middle class” are instructive. “Even as the American middle class has shrunk,” they write, “it has gone through a transformation.” Seniors working after retirement falling within, couples with children falling below, the middle class as presently constituted. Thus, “In recent years, the fastest-growing component of the new middle class has been households headed by people 65 and older,” their benefits providing a cushion as “older Americans are increasingly working past traditional retirement age.” In contrast, “Married couples with children—who make up a category that is shrinking overall—are diminishing even faster as a share of the middle class.” Married women in the labor force have kept this group from falling further. “The most recent recession put a halt to the advances of even that generally successful group. Its share in the middle class has fallen by three percentage points and the share earning less than $35,000 has increased.”
All is not well in Obama Candyland. My New York Times Comment on the Searcey-Gebeloff article, same date, follows:
So long as we speak of the “Middle Class,” whether statistically (the range $35,000-100,000 is absurd) or as narrative, we will be fooled into thinking income-distribution is more democratic, and power distributed more equitably, than is actually true. Obama’s middle-class economics is a public relations stunt, a deliberate obfuscation of reality. Its comforting appeal is to look at America in non-class, non-structural terms, thereby hiding the concentration of wealth and shoving under the rug all that makes for INEQUALITY.
By using his frame of reference, which of course has predominated for decades, The Times contributes to the view that poverty and wealth can be analyzed and discussed in non-systemic terms. But what if inequality is inscribed in the foundations of US society? And how much, for good or ill, does massive defense spending, war, intervention, and militarism in general, have to do with economic-demographic breakdown?
We as a nation depend on militarism. The figures would be still worse absent these policies and expenditures. Yet no mention is made of the artificial prop to the economy. Obama’s State of the Union Address was a solemn farce in serious discussion of where we’re at? His proposed corporate tax rate is still lower than at present. His deregulation fostering financial consolidation is one of several engines of capital accumulation. Factor in inflation and a lot of people are struggling out there, as per bipartisan consensus on policy.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.