Talking About Class Without Talking About Politics
The relevant questions, then, relate to how the New High/Lowbrows can learn from the errors of the Old Highbrows and shrinking Middlebrows. How can we respect the value of vocational diversity without assuming that “these sorts of people” belong in “those vocations”? How can we ensure that individuals are fairly compensated for diverse, fulfilling careers? And how can we promote an egalitarian society without being unified by greed? – Nathan Roberts, “Farewell, Middle-Class Morality? Capital In The 21st Century By Thomas Piketty”, patheos.com, January 14, 2015
A book review looking at the increasing economic divisions in industrialized society should, at the very least, consider the sources of that inequality in the various legislative, international, and private actions of governments, international bodies, and private companies over the previous generation, including stripping unions of bargaining rights and leverage; making it easy to transfer business and manufacturing across national boundaries without undo burdens or liabilities; international treaties and transnational bodies that center their focus on trade at the expense of environmental and broader economic concerns. Nathan Roberts, however, states up front he isn’t the least bit interested in these matters. Rather, he follows the lead of another reviewer, A. O. Scott, who, being a cultural critic, is far more interested in the cultural ramifications of losing what is commonly termed “the middlebrow”.
To which I can only say, “Whoa, fellas. Is this really the most important question to be asking?” Scott’s review at The New York Times seems a bit too concerned with Virginia Woolf’s denigration of “middlebrow” culture, as if somehow the pursuit of egalitarian socio-economic policy resulted in the dulling both of the aesthetic sense as well as a desire among those not fit for “highbrow” culture to try to do so. This is the long lament of the elite that American-style egalitarianism results in a dull mediocrity, rather than a lively arts community pursuing “the best” as already previously defined by those “highbrows” who “naturally” understand such things.
Is this really something about which we should concern ourselves, when considering socio-economic disparity? Is it even possible, morally, to wonder whether the loss of the middle class is a good thing? Is it possible to write the following with any seriousness?
[N]ow, as distance between the rich and the poor increases, the greediness that underlied an egalitarian 20th century made way for a stratified, polarized 21st century. Occupy Wall Street gave us a sneak preview: blasé tightfistedness from the “haves”; entitled, jealous bullying from the “have-nots.”
Because the demand for economic justice, for jobs, for a return to the more egalitarian tax and employment policies of the generation immediately following the Second World War is obviously rooted not in a desire for a better society, but “jealousy” and “entitlement”. These are complaints I’ve heard before, yet I have yet actually to see or read anything that makes the claim true.
The loss of the middle class is devastating, economically and socially. The question of its effects on culture are, in the long run, neither here nor there, compared to the devastating impact on human lives struggling to make a way in the world that is more and more harsh. To write a review of a book on economic equality and wonder whether it might not be a good thing because middle class culture was some kind of malignant mediocrity that was a drag both on “lowbrows” who understood their place and “highbrows” who had to deal with “middlebrows” constantly trying to edge their way past their station is offensive, to say the least.
At the same time, it is par for the course for The New York Times, a paper that does not hide its appeal to a readership filled with their own sense of success and a dismissal of those who have not succeeded. That Patheos, a website dedicated to religious discussions, would further this immoral tactic is both sad and offensive. It might be nice to read what Piketty had to say about the effects upon democratic governance, and possible prospects for reversing a generation and more of policies pursued that have led us to where we are. This is no accident. It can be reversed. One wouldn’t guess that was either wise, let alone a possibility, from reading these reviews.