George Orwell thought the precise and purposeful deployment of our language was the key to the kind of politics we hoped to advance. By that standard, virtually everyone—from the center to the left, from Barack Obama to Richard Trumka to the activists of Occupy Wall Street—has made a hash of the way we name the most crucial features of our society.
Exhibit A is the suffocating pervasiveness with which we use the phrase “middle class” as the label we have come to attach to not just all of those who are hurting in the current economic slump, but to the entire stratum that used to be identified as working class. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka proclaims “it was the labor movement that built the middle class; it was the middle class that made America great,” while out in Indiana, when the Republican-dominated state legislature stood on the verge of enacting a new set of anti-labor laws, a local unionist declared, “Fighting right-to-work legislation is about standing up for our middle-class values.”
The Obama administration has raised this conflation of working class and middle class to a fine art. Vice President Joe Biden, whose blue-collar roots in the gritty Pennsylvania coal country are quite genuine, presided over a “Middle Class Task Force” during his first couple of years in office; more recently, President Obama—in an effort to identify his policies with the Progressive-era social reformism of Teddy Roosevelt—used the phrase “middle class” twenty-eight times in his highly-touted Osawatomie, Kansas speech of early December 2011.
So what’s the problem? Who cares what we call something if we know what it means?
But there is much difficulty with this rhetorical switcheroo. First, the phrase “middle class” is virtually indefinable in any fashion other than as a crude income calculus. To be middle class is to be comfortable with a certain basket of goods and a heart full of desires. As Biden’s Middle [End Page 10] Class Task Force put it: “middle-class families are defined more by their aspirations than their income.” This is very much at variance with how we used to define the middle class. Historians and sociologists once distinguished between the old middle class and the new. The old middle class was comprised of self-employed proprietors and independent professionals who, in the nineteenth century, carried real social and moral weight in a society where farmers and craftsmen were also numerous. Then in the twentieth century, a new middle class of salaried white-collar workers seemed to constitute another relatively well-defined class and cultural cohort. But today, the middle class is defined entirely in terms of income. That may be useful for those seeking to push forward a liberal tax policy. But it’s pretty useless when it comes to virtually anything else. Thus in the summer of 2011, during a strike of forty-five thousand Verizon workers, union publicists declared the struggle as a “fight to defend middle-class jobs.” But this characterization enabled Verizon to run newspaper ads claiming that the $75,000 a year or more earned by telephone technicians made them part of the “upper middle class” and thus, apparently, not worthy of much public sympathy.
Indeed, the 60 percent of households in the center of the American income distribution make anywhere from $28,636 to $79,040 per year. That’s family income by the way, which means that these people are clearly struggling. By any standard, they compose an American working class—although most definitions in common usage today, certainly those put forward by most liberal Democrats, extend the definition of the middle class up to about $200,000 a year. At that point, we are talking about salaried professionals and moderately successful entrepreneurs whose income puts them in the top 10 percent of the American population. And if the 99 percent is taken as any sort of coherent grouping—and here even my comrades at Labor Notes have taken to calling for “Solidarity for the 99%”—then we are linking together...