What about the people in between the two groups described by Charles Murray?
He kept saying they were too new and bourgeois. … Everything I had was bourgeois as hell. Even my fountain pen was bourgeois. He borrowed it off me all the time, but it was bourgeois anyway.
– The Catcher in the Rye
Without the middle class, Marx had nothing to write about (“the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class”). Nor Sartre, nor Freud. We are the middle class and we loathe the middle class (–may the name of the middle class be praised!). Setting aside the benefits of medicine, education, democracy, and Big League Chew, I begin my missive.
Hollywood, Twitter, Ikea – these are not the real problems. If there is any scruple we may have with the middle class, it cannot be in its fetishes and neuroses. No, we must discard the criticisms of anyone who even attempts irony. The problem with the middle class is that it is a way to vacate responsibility and replace imagination with atomized self-sufficiency.
I repeat myself: an indictment of a particular group – say, the American middle earners – would be easy and snarky, so we are moving to the idea of middle class itself. You see, where there is neither want nor plenty, there is no vice. Where there is neither suffering nor surplus, there is no responsibility. This is the problem.
Has America a middle class? Last week’s symposium focused on class rift, from an objective and statistical analysis by Charles Murray. However, we must credit the Marxists with some insight: class must realize itself in class consciousness. The middle class is then alive and well, for a full 80% of us think we are it.
There are of course plenty of rich people who identify as middle class, but as long as they identify as such, they will tend to think that their leisure (and money) is their own. The aristocrats of old may have been prideful in believing their fortunes and their status were due, but they could never account for it of their own labors. So the upper layer of society has always invented its devices for connecting money to munificence, even if it is self-justifying – the right and responsibility to rule, to school, to protect, to guard the faith. In contrast, the middle class may have plenty of cash, but it has not wealth.
We are middle class, then, if we think we owe nothing to anyone, and to God in particular. Forget charities and volunteer work – I’m talking about an ethos. We are bourgeois if we believe our money does not make a difference in us, because we create ourselves.
Heed, then, the words of Fr. Robert Farrar Capon: “Strive to be either very rich or very poor – or both.” Let us live wealth with regality. Let our meager apartments be filled with joy. And may the need for imagination resuscitate the crass stuff we’ve consumed … from Ikea.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.