Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The socioeconomic context of the "Occupy Wall Street" protests and its imitators has been most astutely analyzed by Volokh Conspirator Kenneth Anderson and blogger Megan McArdle. Riffing on columns by Anne Applebaum on the bifurcation of the American middle class and Ross Douthat on privilege protection by liberal interest groups, Anderson and McArdle identify the OWS movement as a cry of despair from the newly downwardly-mobile lower tier of the upper-middle class.

Applebaum's observations on the divided middle class are nothing new--I noted the phenomenon some twenty years ago, and it was one of my early blog topics. During the 1960s, America's white-collar middle class, having grown explosively and prospered spectacularly during the entire postwar boom, began to assert itself as a separate class, with economic, social and cultural interests that diverged sharply from those of the blue-collar lower-middle class. Much of the political and cultural turmoil of that decade and subsequent ones--the takeover of the Democratic Party by the (upper-middle class) New Left, with its emphasis on (white-collar-run) services for the poor, rather than the (blue-collar-run) union movement; the sexual and feminist revolutions, driven primarily by the more libertine mores of the upper-middle class; and of course the rise of the coalition uniting the blue-collar lower-middle class with the wealthy to form the modern conservative movement, as embodied by the Republican Party--can be traced to this historic schism within the American middle class.

The schism has also evolved over the decades since the 1960s. Most notably, the boom of the 1990s sharply reduced the political significance of serving the poor, as large numbers of them became gainfully employed, effectively joining the lower-middle class. At the same time, the wealth accumulated by the upper-middle class during that boom caused their interests to shift closer to those of the wealthy. By the crash of the late 2000s, in fact, the left-right partisan divide had come to resemble a straightforward split between the white-collar upper-middle class and their wealthy allies, on the one hand, and the blue-collar lower-middle class on the other.

The effects of that crash are the subject of Anderson's and McArdle's observations. As they point out, the upper-middle class is itself now splitting, with its more tenuously affiliated members--"the helping professions, the culture industry, the virtueocracies, the industries of therapeutic social control", as Anderson puts it--rapidly losing socioeconomic ground. (To that list of losers can also be added the legal profession, which now finds itself in the midst of a terrible glut, and journalism, which is being demolished by the Internet revolution.) Hard times, government budget cuts, and student loan debts imposed by skyrocketing college tuition rates, have conspired to markedly dim the once-bright futures of college graduates with ordinary liberal arts degrees and no other marketable skills--that is, a large portion of the less fortunate scions of the upper-middle class.

The "Occupy Wall Street" movement--and the protests in Israel which preceded it, I might add--appear to be this cohort's cri de coeur, as they demand what everyone would have assumed to be their natural birthright a decade ago: a comfortable, satisfying white-collar job, with all its accompanying economic security and social status. Although their official demands are incoherent--a hodgepodge of vaguely radical leftist and populist proposals to be funded by taxes extracted from "corporations" and "the rich"--their overall theme is society's obligation to pour billions of dollars into addressing the concerns of (and, implicitly, valuing--and appropriately remunerating--the contributions of) young, privileged-but-unambitious left-wing liberal arts graduates. Student loan forgiveness, money for environmentalist projects, anti-corporate regulatory regimes (presumably staffed by activist investigators)--these are hardly the stuff of revolution, but they certainly resonate among the protestors' demographic.

What, then, of the ostensible focus of the protests--wealth and income inequality, as symbolized by the supposed depradations of the "1 percent" at the top? Ironically, the protests themselves are proof that the problem is resolving itself as we speak. As Applebaum notes, "[d]espite all the loud talk of the “1 per cent” of Americans...the existence of a very small group of very rich people has never bothered Americans. But the fact that some 20 per cent of Americans now receive some 53 per cent of the income is devastating." In other words, it's not the richest 1 percent, but rather the bifurcation of the American middle class itself, that has generated the most class friction and resentment in American society. And by slipping down and out of that coveted upper tier into a kind of hopeless socioeconomic limbo, the OWS protesters and their supporters are doing more to bridge the gap between the middle class' estranged upper and lower halves than any of their radical proposals could ever hope to accomplish. Eventually, once the howls of entitled indignance have trailed off, we may well see a resurgence of "middle-middle-class" solidarity, uniting middle-income white-collar and blue-collar workers to protect their common interests.