Transition Milwaukee

Rebuilding Community Resilience & Self-Reliance

The War on the Middle Class: Reflections on Politics in the age of depletion

[Author's note: as I write this, our mortgage is two days late, I'm on the verge of losing my commercial building and my wife is a state employee, facing a pay cut and increased job insecurity]


Does anyone, especially those familiar with the structural problems caused by Peak Oil and the likely end of economic growth, share this sort of ambivalence: Walker is of course a disaster, and solving the budget problem on the backs, mainly of public employees and the middle class, without tax raises on those who can afford them, is unconscionable and is just plain bad economics?


This, we are told, is part of "the war on the middle class." But a way of seeing is a way of not seeing, and when we hear this phrase over and over again, we are turning away from the longer and more violent war on the poor.

We also turn away from the fact that when put in any comparative perspective: historical, international, even across the whole spectrum of American citizens and residents, the American middle-class-- even with our 30 year decline in real wages--is one of the most affluent, wealthy, high-consuming, luxury-entitled group of people to ever walk the earth, a class whose accumulation is only exceeded by a small number of ultra rich today and a few kings and emperors in years past.

When we see the broad contours of the conflict largely as a decrease in the prosperity of the middle class, we turn away from basic structural world-economic facts, like that our privileges would not be possible without our continued and increasing extraction of third-world natural resources. We cut their forests, mine their ores, drill their oil. And when its gone, we leave a denuded land with people whose skills to live in a non-extractive economy have been mainly lost.

When we see things mainly as a war on the middle class, when we compare our privilege mainly to that of the increasingly small and wealthy economic elite, we fail to see that we remain the group of people most destructive of the ecosystem, the people who are the single largest source of CO2. The war on the middle class means we may lose our average 900 sq. ft. per person household space, and have to return to an area per person still twice the size we enjoyed in 1950, and still more than any other industrialized nation. When we look at our wages shrink, that means we may have to deforest Oregon and its cedar to build our new deck instead of the far nicer ipe from Brazil's shrinking rain forest that we would have preferred.

My point is only this: yes decreasing our wages (and of course our rights) without touching those more wealthy than us in the middle class is unfortunate. But what about the silent billions who are closer to the threshold of starvation and disease than we, even with our higher co-pays, will likely ever to be.

My point is only this: the economy will shrink; dealing with this gracefully and without kicking the misery further down the economic and global ladder will take a tremendous recalibration of our expectations.

My point is only this: we will not come close to an equitable distribution of the world's resources unless we in the middle class learn to do with less. Again, Walker's way is horrible, and scares me as the primary way a shrinking world of abundance is being handled. But we also need to think about the truly poor and desparate as we consider how much we deserve.

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Comment by Barbara Richards on February 25, 2011 at 9:59am

Yes, Eric,  to rage about a war on the middle class does not clarify but confuses.  There is a telling chart in David Holmgren's  "Permaculture:Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (2002), F.14, p. 78.  It compares preindustrial and current energy use by social class.  As we enter the post carbon era we must expect the middle class that was grown by cheap carbon harvest to decline.  Walkerites (tea-ites) see the reality and want to make sure they are above this.  Their solution is to coddle the rich with tax cuts so they have a deep pocket for their ambitions and crush the rest of us a ASAP before we have time to grasp what has happened.  And the poor get poorer.  

Insufficient though necessary is standing in solidarity with the poor as we protest the violence/evil being done to ourselves and our neighbors.  My hope is that we can convince those with whom we stand to gather this energy of protest and harvest it to build a resilient reskilled tradesperson class for the post carbon society.

Comment by Lance Weinhardt on February 17, 2011 at 11:13am
I appreciate your perspective, Erik. (and I say that as someone who recently accepted a state job to start later this year)

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