Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Basis of Middle Class Ideology

"Market returns are to a certain extent affected by a person's effort and willingness to take risks. Since that is so, it can seem preposterous to those [read: middle class professionals, small business owners, managers, etc.] who are both better-off and very hard-working to suggest that they do not deserve to be paid more than others who may be lazy and unadventurous. And... because people care more about what unjustly harms them than about what unjustly benefits them, they can easily ignore the fact that some of the other factors contributing to their economic success are not in any sense their responsibility and therefore can be said to have produced advantages that are not deserved. The natural idea that people deserve to be rewarded for thrift and industry slides into the much broader notion that all of pretax income can be regarded as a reward for those virtues. Here... a normative concept is being taken beyond the context in which it legitimately applies." (Nagel and Murphy, The Myth of Ownership).
Of course, nobody denies that in order to be a successful doctor, or lawyer, or small business owner (or whatever), one needs to be hard-working and disciplined in certain ways. Often, success in any of these fields depends on deferred gratification of various kinds. To be sure, many people have a far easier time, given a wealthy family background and all that that entails, making their way into these walks of life. But it must be conceded that some degree of effort, hard work, and so on are key to being successful in these middle-class endeavors.

Still, members of this social class tend to have a distorted picture of society (along the lines described in the quotation above). This isn't universally true of all members of this roughly coherent (though, to be sure, internally differentiated and complex) class. But as a sociological generalization that explains a good amount of the data, I think it's more or less true.

Middle class people, because they worked hard to get where they are, assume that it must be true that all offices in society (including their own!) are more or less awarded on the basis of "merit" alone. They are tempted to generalize from their own specific social location and apply the values of hard work, thrift, individualism, and deferred reward to the entire social system. Many of the "professions" in question (especially Law and Medicine, but also Academia) are pre-capitalist in many respects and have well-defined profession-specific values and norms of excellence. Thus, it's easy for many middle class people to get lost in their specific mode of social existence and to generalize from it. It's also easy, given the often (but not always) individualistic character of their work lives, to forget that their own well-being depends upon a massive network of social labor that draws the entire working population (excepting the industrial reserve army) into its operation.

It's also easy for professionals to assume that because they satisfied the qualifying procedures internal to their profession, that they are 100% responsible for their economic "success". Thus, they are encouraged (by their social location) to overlook structural and biographical contingencies that helped land them where they are. They overlook structural features of capitalism that determine the total number of jobs available, the funding for professional education, etc. They also overlook any familial advantages, social connections, and so forth that helped give them an edge over those without such informal means of personal advancement. But everything "good" (i.e. everything that connotes social prestige or "success" conventionally defined) is due to nothing but their hard work and ingenuity. Accordingly, those worse off than themselves deserve their plight. Or, perhaps, they deserve paternalistic acts of charity from above.

What I'm describing is an ideal-type. It's not as if everyone in such a social location is mechanistically determined in such a way that they can't but exemplify the ideal type. The point, however, is that there are structural pressures that encourage people located in this role within the system to adopt this picture of the world (because, in many ways, it looks plausible from where they're standing).

So what is to be done about it?

Let me first of all say that I'm not advocating for increased middle-class guilt or acknowledgement of "privilege". In general, I don't think the Left is well-served by adopting the language of "privilege". When I hear people talk about "underprivileged groups" I feel nauseated. "Underprivileged" suggests that a person is only suffering from a lack of "privileges" that others enjoy. This language fits neatly with talk of "social mobility" and individual achievement and all the rest of it. It's primary function is to individualize social injustices. It's secondary function is to make it sound as though we only need to make it possible for some fraction of the "under-privileged" to be able to fight their way into the camp of the "privileged".

I reject this kind of talk wholesale. Let's not individualize what are, in fact, social and economic forces occurring on a macro-level. Let's not talk about "lack of privilege" or the "less favored". Let's talk about what social reality is actually like. This, of course, requires a different vocabulary that often offends the delicate ears of the well-to-do "bleeding heart liberals": exploitation, oppression, domination.

But let's tie this back to the middle class and the question of middle class ideology. If I'm not calling for an acknowledgement of "privilege" on the part of the middle class, what is the political upshot? I don't begrudge people who, as individuals trying to make a life for themselves in this system, navigate it as best they can and work hard. So I'm not saying that lawyers, doctors, academics, small business owners, and so on should all feel really guilty or something like that. The political upshot is that they must resist the fact that they are encouraged to adopt a false picture of what capitalism is like. They must resist calls to side with the ruling class by means of subtle mechanisms of social control that trade on cultural capital, prestige, and the ideology of merit. But many don't buy into this. Many professionals--particularly in periods of escalating social struggle such as what we're seeing today--are won over to the idea that the system is fundamentally flawed. Professionals are open to revolutionary politics when they see that--despite their relatively cushy social existence--their interests are not prioritized by a system bent on accumulating profits for the 1% at any cost. Moreover, some of the pre-capitalist values and norms internal to the practices that define their profession--medicine is a great example--lead them to criticize capitalism for distorting their craft for the sake of profit. The interesting thing about the middle classes is that they can be pulled either way in period of struggle.

But the key to any successful social revolution is the level of organization, confidence and militancy of the working class majority. Not because workers are more virtuous people, or more morally deserving, but (primarily) because they have a social power unlike any other class to shut the entire economic system.

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