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Social Text 18.4 (2000) 117-133
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Rethinking the Middle for a Different Left
A stalwart leftist tradition rests on the ability to articulate what is missing from the present, to give voice to hard times. This does, however, pose a problem for the Left's own self-concept, namely, what to do when times improve. It is important to point out that such improvements are not for everyone, all the more so for those who live outside the borders of the United States, where four-fifths of the world's population has seen their standard of living decline in the past decade. 1 But for a leftist critique directed to those living inside the United States, economic expansion can prove disorienting to standard approaches for popular appeal. At issue is not whether things seen as sweet might sour again, but whether these ways of waiting and weighting are fruitful to begin with.
Common wisdom has it that the people lie in the center, in some amalgamation of an economic and political middle. A Left might try to realign this center as a progressive majority whose political disaffection was fueled by economic disappointment. This diminished horizon of opportunity, a punctured bubble of the American Dream, was supported by decades of middle-class decline. After years of decline the middle has now, by many standard reckonings, undergone expansion. An expansiveness of political vision, which characterized earlier growth spurts, has hardly been in the offering. Instead, I would suggest, we are faced with the paradox of an expanding middle that lacks the ability to orient progressive politics in general and a Left in particular. It is important not to succumb to a centrist realpolitik that insists on the limits of the possible and thereby undermines a more ambitious self-conception. While the middle is expanding, the center it suggests offers an impoverished political map. How then to rethink the middle for a different Left?
In its most recent incarnation, the study of middle-class decline has already produced a substantial literature. 2 Part of what is at issue in this work is what counts as an indicator of the middle class itself. Some of this material will be reviewed here, but my interest is less in the validity and robustness of the measure than in the operation of the middle class as a means of orienting population to an emerging societal project. In the few years since the bulk of the literature on middle-class decline has appeared, some of the indicators, home ownership especially, have recouped what had apparently been lost to reach historic highs, and the midlife crisis of a [End Page 117] self-described centrist president captured popular interest. Yet it is not clear that these indicators measure the same middling phenomenon.
There is no doubt that one can do the statistical procedures to find the central tendency in aggregations of the public's income, housing, health care, education, and so on. The Left can be particularly susceptible to the vagaries of basing a politics around movements of the statistically measured center. Income distribution is a good example, since mounting inequities in distribution would seem to open the way for popular appreciation of a leftist critique of capitalism's fundamental injustice. For twenty years (from 1973 to 1993) income inequality between the wealthiest and poorest households widened as wages dropped for four-fifths of the population. 3 Concern with income inequality has now been pressed into conventional media and public consciousness. In the past few years, some of these indicators have shown improvement, despite growing wealth concentration among the already well off. The longest economic expansion in U.S. history has finally brought some gains for those at the bottom of income distribution. Since 1993, income growth has actually risen faster among the poorest fifth than among the fifth with the highest income, thanks in no small measure to a long-deferred increase in the minimum wage. 4 The shift from wage to portfolio income dramatically complicates the question of measuring inequality, but the problem remains...