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The politics of middle-class hegemony and the growth of inequality

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Provincial or federal, left or right, there is one thing that mainstream politicians agree on. The government needs to make life more "affordable" for "hard-working families" and the middle class.

While they may, to a smaller degree than one might assume,  disagree as to how to accomplish this, they all frame much of their social, economic and political narrative around this notion.

As a Macleans article just prior to the calling of the 2011 election noted: "The tripartisan preoccupation with voting moms and dads nesting in nice suburbs might sound like politics as usual, but the uniform emphasis—almost to the point of obsession -- is new." The article also noted NDP leader Jack Layton saying that: "“Mr. Harper had an opportunity to address the needs of hard-working middle-class Canadians and families, and he missed that opportunity,” ...adding seconds later that the budget didn’t “give middle-class families a break.”"

In fact, the title of the party's entire federal election platform was "Giving Your Family a Break: Practical First Steps" The platform promised in part, as headers, to Kick Start Job Creation & Help Out Your Family Budget.

The Harper Tories, obviously, disagreed about how they were abandoning the middle class. But not about who they were also representing. They too made it very clear that they were the party of the middle class. In their  ultimately triumphal 2011 "Here for Canada" platform we find that they are also "Here for Hard Working Families". They promise to "create jobs" and "support families" and they make sure to emphasize what are presumed to be "middle-class" values such as "playing by the rules", etc.

Not to be left out, the Liberals, of course, were also running to represent the middle-class. The "Your Family, Your Future, Your Canada" platform made it clear whose Canada they were talking about. "Middle-class families are the bedrock of Canada’s economy and our way of life. They come in all descriptions -- large and small, “nuclear”, single-parent, blended, and of all cultural backgrounds."

The recent Ontario by-election in Kitchener for example, which the NDP's Catherine Fife won, also shows the prevalence of the ideological hegemony that exists around the idea that catering to the "middle class" is the purpose of Canadian politics.

Fife's website talks endlessly about how she will " work to find real savings for hard-working families." She has headings like "Let's focus on real savings, not political games" and talks about "playing politics" which could be all be lifted from a Republican playbook. She nowhere opposes the wage freeze on teachers per se...only the alleged fact that it will supposedly cost "Ontarians" more than "$780 million" and by noting how she balanced a school board budget herself. (In fact, during the last campaign debate, she appears to endorse the fundamental Liberal wage-freeze approach by stating “If you don’t understand what a wage freeze is it’s zero and zero and that was on the table.”, without noting that this was only "on the table" due to the Liberal government's aggressive anti-union actions). As her party did in 2011 she continues the campaign against the HST on home heating and generally as an alleged burden to these same families. Fascinatingly the NDP centred their campaign around denying a majority to the governing Liberal Party, despite having allowed the Liberal austerity budget to pass a few short months ago and despite the fact that this budget was an outright attack on Ontario's poor.

To note that the Liberals and Tories ran campaigns centred around such "folksy" pocketbook themes would be beyond superfluous. Of course, they did. Neo-populism is the new political "normal". Their campaigns were simply slightly more reactionary in tone and content.

But it is slightly. The truth is that the entire narrative is reactionary, no matter what nuance it is given, and platforms centred around the narrow perceived interests of the middle-class have been little other than a catalyst for inequality.

It has become somewhat fashionable of late to blame the tremendous growth of inequality over the last twenty-five years on the mythical 1% and to suggest that everyone else is somehow in it "together", in the same boat of powerlessness before the corporations, wealthy, etc. This is a typically American narrative that ignores real issues of class and that, inevitably, equates the interests of what is left of the traditional working class, as well as the new working class and the poor, with the interests of professionals or families making $100,000 a year, the average that a middle-class two income family makes.

The problem lies in the reality that the history of the North American deconstruction of the welfare state and the creation of a new era of ever increasing inequality and decline in social mobility is entirely centred, in our democratic system, around this ideological appeal to the prejudices of those who see themselves as "middle-class". They have repeatedly voted these changes in, and they have repeatedly voted in their own short-term middle-class self-interest.

To talk about the "hard-working" is by definition in this ideological context to imply, as so many have for so long, that there are those who are not "hard-working" and who are therefore undeserving. While sometimes this is directed at the ultra-wealthy, it is also far more often and to far greater detriment, directed at the poor and the working poor.

To centre a political platform around the idea that one form or another of "pocket-book" tax relief is what is in order is to not only ignore what has been occurring since the rise of neo-liberalism, it is an inexcusable denial of the reality that when you cut taxes, (personal, corporate, or consumption), you always, as has been repeatedly shown, create a context in which government has less to spend and where a permanent revolution of ever increasing austerity becomes a social norm. Taxes and social programs are akin to a massive insurance program... only in this case the benefits accrued from taxation and the social expenditure it facilitates are in inverse proportion to income. All taxes, of any type, ultimately benefit the poor and the new working class far more than anyone else

There is a direct, demonstrable and proven line between austerity, the gutting of social programs and the growth of inequality and income tax cuts. While the left will talk about taxes on companies or the ultra wealthy, that is a minor component of what is required.

Governments do not have a spending problem they have a revenue problem. Until that is accepted, and until that is understood, we cannot reverse the trends of the last period of Capitalist retrenchment and we cannot possibly tackle issues like inequality or poverty and child poverty.

The imbecilic notion that we can maintain middle-class tax cuts and the idea of a middle-class politics and still eliminate child poverty, inequality and corporate power is an illusion. They are inextricably linked. Every time a politician talks about the middle-class they empower the ideas of corporate power by definition. If for no other reason than the obvious one that the middle class can only exist as a class so long as there is a working class and underclass beneath it. The entire goal of middle class politics is to ensure that the middle class avoids falling out of the relatively privileged position they hold. That this desire is totally inimical to the struggle for social justice and that sustaining a middle class lifestyle and social vision for some ensures a situation of poverty and oppression for others, becomes incidental.

It is an inconvenient truth.

In addition, by catering to middle-class mythology politically you also create a context where rapid growth in inequality is inevitable. The middle class idea of less government, of "freedom" and of individualism and self-actualization as an economic and social construct is a terribly destructive idea, especially when it is severed from programs centred around social mobility and poverty reduction. In fact, the promise of "tax relief" has been the carrot that has drawn the middle class to the stick that has then been wielded against the poor.

"Deregulation" was supposed to deliver lower prices to consumers and help their "pocket books". So was "privatization". So was "tax-relief". Even insofar as it may have done this for some, it also created the new over-class of the extraordinarily wealthy. The difference is that now all of these once radically right wing concepts are basically accepted by all political parties. And this despite the demonstrable fact that each of these ideas have also had the opposite of the allegedly intended effect.

There is not a single "mainstream" political party in Canada that favours reversing the personal tax cuts, market deregulation and privatization  that has occurred. The left now speaks, by definition, in right wing terms.

And these notions have lead the same middle-class that voted for these changes and that repeatedly reinforce them into the paradoxical position of becoming economic serfs to the mortgages and debts that they require to live the lifestyle that they have been led to expect.

The Hungarian Communist Bela Kun  in 1918 wrote that "the small shopkeeper is the debtor of the great capitalist, and must remain in dependence on him as long as there exists the system of credit -- which cannot be destroyed while the domination of private property continues."

What he noted here, when advanced one hundred years, is the direct interrelationship between what is middle-class debt and what would now be called "Big Business". Times have changed, of course. Now it is not the "small shopkeepers" that are solely beholden to creditors and banks, but rather it is the entire middle class. And neither the illusions of the one or the other are sustainable in the event that either party, socially, can no longer keep up their end of the social "bargain". This is why housing and personal debt are a left issue.

None of the political parties fundamentally cared or cares, in an ideological sense, about the very real poverty that millions endured during the pre-2008 "prosperity" and that they continue to endure in the post-recession economy; but they all care very deeply that much of the middle class may now be in an unsustainable situation where lifestyle and the realities of capitalist credit will collide.

Yet they "care" in a way completely detached from how the government might actually do something about it.

This is the great neo-liberal irony.

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