How much longer will the middle class politely tolerate its own destruction?
A middle class that outnumbers the combined poor and aristocracy is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to around 1900. The rise of the middle class was the result of Industrial Revolution capitalism. It has been one of the most significant and epochal developments in history, yet the intellectual reaction for the most part has been to either ignore it or treat it with disdain. Now the project to destroy the middle class is well under way, with unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences that promise to be just as epochal as its creation.
Intellectual condescension towards the middle class is so common it’s a cliché. What’s rare are attempts to go back in history and see things through the perspectives of that despised group and its progenitors, the poor.
In 1800, virtually everyone was poor, living under conditions of deprivation and grinding poverty. Even being wealthy was no picnic; present-day poverty-line Americans live better. Life expectancy was an estimated twenty-nine years. Farming, the occupation of most, was dangerous, backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk. Most of those so engaged eked out a tenuous subsistence. There was no electricity, no running water, primitive sanitation and health care, and none of the machinery, gadgets, and appliances we take for granted. Only a few wealthy poets who didn’t have to wrest a living from nature waxed euphoric about its “joys.”
As the nineteenth century progressed, primitive factories, mostly in cities, began producing goods of better quality, in more quantity, and at lower cost than had been possible by artisans handcrafting their wares. No doubt conditions in those factories were abysmal—long hours, pittance pay, child labor, dangerous and filthy conditions, and horrible accidents and injuries. All that has been well-chronicled and dramatized, but an important point gets overlooked. Bad as they were, the factories were a better option for those who worked in them than the farms from whence many of them came, or they would have stayed there.