Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class

I realize how callous the title of this article sounds. The decline of the middle class, which in recent years has been the subject of innumerable articles, books, and movies, entails a terrible increase in human suffering. The descent of millions of families into relative poverty is beyond appalling, not something to be celebrated. However, the perverse Marxist in me feels obliged to complicate the narrative of unmitigated catastrophe that dominates all journalism and scholarship on the subject. The fact is that “progress,” like God, works in mysterious ways, paradoxical, inhuman, “dialectically contradictory” ways. And the contemporary decline of the West’s middle class may end up advancing, indirectly, the banner of humanity that the Left has carried forward since the seventeenth century.

The point isn’t a very deep one. Consider the gravest threat that life on Earth faces today: global warming. This threat cannot be adequately confronted in the framework of capitalism, which indeed is responsible for it; it demands a systemic socio-politico-economic revolution, a social transformation that systematically elevates human needs above capital’s needs. The most realistic way to address the crisis is for governments to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and shift resources toward renewable energy, which should be produced and distributed through publicly owned utilities. And this is only the beginning. There have to be international reforestation and afforestation programs, for instance, and massive deployment of carbon sequestration methods and technologies. The very dynamics of the political economy have to be altered.

How can society ever get to this point? Evidently only through upheavals so painful that it becomes clear there is no other option. Revolutionary change on such a scale happens only by means of unprecedented crisis, which is to say social discontent so extreme that half-measures are cast aside as pitifully inadequate. As long as a large middle class exists to serve as a bulwark of social stability and relatively conservative politics, the requisite crisis will not happen. Society has to polarize between a tiny minority of ultra-rich and a huge majority of unprotected, insecure, ecologically vulnerable, politically desperate people whose violent discontent propels the “revolution” forward. Systems have to be radically disrupted, on a scale greater than during even the Great Depression, which led to the welfare state. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the middle class is an effective barricade against revolution.

We might also reflect that, climatically speaking, the best thing that can happen in the short term is a global economic depression. Carbon emissions in the U.S. dropped by 11% between 2007 and 2013, mostly because of the Great Recession. A deeper economic collapse would have an even more positive effect, quite apart from the contributions it would make to the sort of systemic breakdown that would facilitate radical change.

Karl Marx recognized that class polarization and economic crisis present unique opportunities for systemic disruption, opportunities that activists must seize. That’s the imperative, after all: to disrupt the smooth functioning of powerful institutions, and to create new institutions in their place. The more polarization, the more opportunities there are for revolutionaries. There are also more dangers, as we’re seeing by the rise of the far-right across Europe and the U.S. But these dangers aren’t necessarily insurmountable, if only the Left can get its act together and organize the drifting masses.

Millions of people are out there waiting to be organized. We can only hope that by the time of the next economic crash, the Left will be ready to seize the initiative.

Chris Wright has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Notes of an Underground Humanist and Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States. Read other articles by Chris, or visit Chris's website.