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the rise and fall of the middle class « Previous | |Next »
June 8, 2006

The paragraphs below are from an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich over at two points that are of sigfnificance. One is about what is happening to the middle class in the US; the other is about the changing functions of the state in the ownership society where you take care of yourself.

On the first point Ehrenreich says:

In Fear of Falling, I was concerned with the distance between the professional managerial class and the traditional working class. I thought I saw a new class developing. The strict Marxist idea is: You've got the bourgeoisie. Everybody else is a wage earner and they're not that different, whether they're accountants or laborers. And I was saying, no, there's a real difference here. The white-collar worker who sits at a desk is telling other people what to do in one way or another. Such workers are in positions of authority when compared to blue and pink-collar people.

I remember reading that text drawing our attention to the professional-managerial class. That was then--the 1980s. Capitalism has changed since then. Ehrenreich goes on to highlight what has happened to this middle class since.

Ehrenreich says

Back then, I was emphasizing the differences. Today, in Bait and Switch, what I'm emphasizing is the lack of difference, that the security the professional-managerial class thought it had is gone. The safest part of that class, when I was writing in the eighties, seemed to be the professionals and managers with corporate positions. Then something happened in the nineties. Companies began to look at even those people as expenses to be eliminated rather than assets to be nurtured. What I was seeing in the late eighties was this pretty tight middle class where, really, the only problem was to get your kids into it, too.

So we have the squeeze on the middle class, which leads to downsizing, the slide into working clas jobs (taxis and call centres) and middle class unemployment.

The other point Ehrenreich makes is the one about the changing functions of the liberal state: the shift of government, at the end of the Clinton years away from the helping functions and toward the military, penitentiaries, law enforcement. Her thesis of a liberal state, with vastly expanded military and surveillance functions and sadly atrophied helping functions, is illustrated with the fobbing off of the civil parts of government onto religious and charitable groups, often politicized:

It's partly that the evangelical churches have reached for these things, and then there's the faith-based approach coming from the Bush administration where the dream was: Let's turn all social welfare functions over to churches. A lot of the megachurches now function as giant social welfare bureaucracies. I wouldn't have found this out if I hadn't been researching Bait and Switch and gone into some of them, because that's where you go when you want to connect with people to find a job. That's also where you find after-school care, child care, support groups for battered women, support groups for people with different illnesses. As government helping functions dwindle, the role of the churches grows. What's sinister is that so many of these churches also support political candidates who are anti-choice, anti-gay, and -- not coincidentally -- opposed to any kind of expansion of secular social services.

It's what is happening in Australia isn't it? The welfare functions of the liberal state is slowly being outsourced to the church. The state becomes less a social democratic one and more a neo-liberal one.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 2:17 PM | | Comments (5)


Yes, and we all get unwillingly dragged into the religious movements.

Especially the modern ones who know how to work the system, and very seldom criticise the neo-libs. In fact, a lot of their ideology meshes sympathetically. Unlike the traditional churches who will go out and tip buckets on bad social policy.

It would be interesting to see whether the market share of the new churches is increasing where it comes to government money for social programs.

Do we not then increasingly brush up against the razor edge of the harshest and most destructive tendencies of religious evangelism?

still class matters. The lives we lead are shaped by where we stand in society.

I'm not sure about this being represented by a ladder with lots and lots of rungs anymore.

have you noticed that the meaning of the term "redistribution" has changed. It used to mean taxing the better-off to assist society's less fortunate. Today the flow is in the reverse direction.

Are we not seeing we are seeing thousands of Australians settling for lower paying jobs, finding health and education increasingly expensive and watching pensions evaporate. Economic inequality is increasing,is it not?

Gary and BB - it seems to be hard to get undisputed facts. The sense you get is that the gap is widening, but there are contrary stats. I'm not across all the details - I should be - and some of it revolves about how you define poverty, which once again splits on ideological lines. It would be very useful to get some stats on which churches are getting the government funds for services.

As someone opposed to organised religion, I share your disquiet at this trend as we can be pretty sure that it will lead to more organised religious influence on policy and across the board. To say that people settle for lower paying jobs and forego health care and education in favour of holidays, 4WDs and plasma TVs is easily dismissed as elitist.

But it's a fair argument to link the increasing marketisation of all elements of formerly public/community life with the ongoing devotion to having more 'stuff', bigger houses and so on and the increasing insecurity of employment - ie you don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, bank credit is easier to get (otherwise the banks would be out of business if they continued to tie credit to having a f/t job) so why not get the toys now?

In Somalia, the Islamic militia there built their 'civil' credentials by providing basic health services.