The Disappearing Middle Class

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According to a report from the Pew Research Center, the American middle class, once the backbone of the economy, is now in the minority. Persons identifying as “middle class” are finding it more difficult to make ends meet; the number of “middle class” Americans has shrunk from 53% to 44%. According to the Pew survey, the number of people who identify as “lower middle” or “lower” class has risen to 40%, compared to 25% in February 2008.

Here is the “free market” supposedly working its magic. The idea that if we just let the capitalists do their thing, without the government intervening – except to grant tax breaks and repress dissidents, like workers organizing – we would all prosper, and not just stockbrokers and hedge-fund managers. We are returning to the period just after the Civil War, the “Gilded Age,” when capitalists dominated the government and all public discussion, when workers -including the women and children – worked from before sunrise to after sunset, in mines loaded with poisonous gasses ready to collapse, working for close to nothing and having to pay for their equipment which enhanced their bosses’ prosperity, watched over by supervisors who had no respect for workers and could shoot them if they got out of line – these are the days to which we are returning.

There is a history, which I and other Labor scholars are digging up. It speaks to resistance of corporate tyranny and of workers organizing for their rights, their lives and their dignity. Contrary to what you might have been told, they did NOT passively accept their industrial fatalities, poverty, sickness and oppression as their fate, instead they organized. While mistakes were made along the way, they demanded respect from their employers, and this is how the American middle class, the envy of the world, was born. This was a level of society to which all aspired. With good-paying union jobs, workers could buy houses, send their kids to college, and have leisure time to do other things besides work. From the union movement, workers had a mechanism to work out disagreements between supervisors and workers, attain medical care, and develop skills to advance in the company.

Currently, the number of American union workers has declined to around 11%. Any progressive revival in this country must include a revival of the union movement, and I believe we can do it. It’s better to believe we can do it, as opposed to corporations and their media dictating to us what or what not to believe.

The latest epitome of capitalism at its finest, and its ultimate outcome, is Martin Shkreli. He is the hedge fund manager (with no background in medicine or pharmaceuticals) whose company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, jacked up the price of Daraprim — a life-saving drug used to kill parasitic infections (particularly in HIV-AIDS and cancer patients), from $13.50 a tablet to $750.00 a tablet. A jump of 5,000%. This had nothing to do with medicine or healing sick people, it was just a way to make money for investors, and for Shkreli to line his own pockets. In a CBS News interview, Shkreli portended, “What’s the big deal?”

Shkreli has been arrested for securities fraud, transferring money from one company to pay off the debts in another. He is accused of defrauding other investors and capitalists. Ripping off patients and the public is considered by some to be the “free enterprise system” at its finest. The only thing separating Shkreli from other corporate types is that he was caught and charged.

According to the Republican right-wing politicians and media, Shkreli and his ilk are the people to whom we are expected to trust our economy. These are the people our working-class forbearers fought against while organizing for their rights and their benefits. They are those who owned the government, including police and militias used it to beat down efforts by workers and other repressed groups fighting for their rights. These are the people who run the government, at the local, state, and federal levels — party has nothing to do with it — and we the working and low-income people are not part of the discussion about our economy, our society or our future as a nation.

There is a meme that working-class white men are irredeemably bigoted on the basis of race and religion, and many liberal commentators also pick up on this idea. This, supposedly, is the basis of the appeal of Donald Trump, the billionaire real-estate tycoon running for President, calling for a “stronger” wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, saying “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best…They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.”

Trump has played on the legitimate fears of terrorism, talking about banning all Muslims from entering this country, including American citizens traveling outside the country. I wonder if that includes U.S. military servicemen and servicewomen not being able to return to the country they served and their loved ones? Trump, the billionaire, has become a rallying point for racists to come out of the woodwork, receiving the endorsement of notorious neo-Fascist hate groups.

We have seen the videos of white males beating up non-white people at the instigation of Trump’s rhetoric. And Trump is part of the same capitalist-plutocratic class that has ruled the country with impunity since the Reagan administration “got the government off the backs” of racists and oligarchs. Here is the ultimate realization of the “Southern Strategy” of Nixon and the Republican Party. The idea is to play on the racial hatred and fears of working-class whites, who had finally attained some economic security, and blame African-Americans, women, and other minorities asserting themselves and their liberal enablers, for whatever difficulties they have encountered in recent years. Many pundits have treated this tactic like it was a stroke of political genius, as if racism could not be removed from our minds and our politics.

Now we have Donald Trump as the front-runner among Republican presidential candidates, and the party bosses are nervous. But he is the monster they created, along with the Tea Party movement.  Individual taxes cover the tax breaks of corporations, like Shkreli’s and Trump’s, which historically paid for reinvestment in new equipment and to hire more workers. Changes to the tax code over the past several decades have shifted winners and losers and have enriched an already rich plutocratic class, which has set up plants in countries with low wages, corrupt and compliant governments, and paying workers pocket change as wages. This is where we were in this country before unions, and to which we are headed back, if we don’t organize and educate ourselves about the issues that really affect us. I hope we resolve to do so this year.

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