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Barbara & John Ehrenreich: The Making of the American 99%

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Headlined to H3 12/15/11

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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You might almost think the news was good.  The Europeans, so headlines tell us, have at least a "partial solution" to the Euro-zone crisis (until, of course, the next round of panic is upon us); the stock market has sort of rebounded (until the next precipitous plunge); the unemployment rate "dropped sharply" to 8.6% in November, the lowest it's been in more than two years (thanks in part to the strangest category around -- the 315,000 people who grew too discouraged last month to look for work and so were no longer considered unemployed but out of the labor force); and talk of a double-dip recession seems on holiday.  So why pay attention to the modest-sized Associated Press story you were likely to find, if at all, deep inside your newspaper (as on page 21 of last Friday's Washington Post)? It was headlined "Household wealth down in 3rd quarter," with the telling subhead, "Corporate cash continues to grow, Fed report says."

Still, if you wanted to sum up the growing gap between the 1% and the 99%, you couldn't ask for better.  In fact, household wealth wasn't just "down" 4%, it was the "biggest loss of wealth" for Americans "in more than two years," and those corporate cash stockpiles didn't simply continue to grow, they reached "record levels" at $2.1 trillion.  Since American wealth is deeply linked to homeownership, the fact that "most economists expect home prices to keep falling" wasn't exactly good news, nor when it came to pensions and retirement was the July-to-September 12% drop in "the average balance in 401(k) plans managed by Fidelity Investments, the largest workplace savings plan provider."  In sum, the average American household managed to lose $21,000 dollars in those three months, a total loss in household wealth of $2.4 trillion.

You might think that would make front pages nationwide, but we're evidently too busy dealing with complex subjects like whether the $10,000 bet offered by Mitt Romney, the $202 million man, during Saturday's Republican debate meant he was "out of touch" with normal Americans.  In the meantime, TomDispatch regular Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich unerringly home in on a fast-changing American reality first brought to national attention by Occupy Wall Street: that, as the middle class goes down the chute, we're left in a world in which 99% "R" Us.  This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and will appear in print in the latest issue of that magazine. Tom

The Making of the American 99%
And the Collapse of the Middle Class

By Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich

"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

Next Page  1  |  2  |  3

 

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 
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