“Being determines consciousness.” — Marx
The upper petit-bourgeois is a strange character indeed, his consciousness made up of a thousand pieces that are all at war with one another, producing a marvelous opportunity for study. All of modern society, one might say, is collected in this species, in various proportions, and various strengths, with different aspects predominating based on changes in his habitat (whether produced by him or by factors outside of his control).
To the upper petit bourgeois, nothing is more important than his own security and comfort. Such “activism” as he engages in cannot threaten the status quo, which means brushing aside or sometimes denying any problem that cannot be solved by a reshuffling among the upper ten percent—preferably a reshuffling that improves the status of Mr. Middle himself.
He resents and envies those in the layer above him, that is, the 1%; he despises and fears those below him, that is, the bottom 90%. There is nothing more threatening to him than the idea of the masses–those poor, ignorant, unwashed layers—standing up and demanding equality. (Not that Mr. Middle opposes equality. On the contrary, he is in favor of equality, provided it means, as Orestes Brownson observed, humbling those above him, not elevating those below him.)
And this brings us to one of the most interesting of the paradoxes that grow in Mr. Middle’s mind: the unions. First of all, he laughs (though it may be a nervous laugh) at the notion of the masses taking independent action. He might know something about the mass working class movements of the 30s and late 40s (although probably not; he prefers to get his history from journalists whose agendas match his rather than historians who might shake up his thinking); but even if he does, he relegates that to the past. Nothing like that can happen now. And yet, and yet, for all of that, he considers himself pro-union.
How do we resolve this paradox? Because, you see, to Mr. Middle, “pro-union” means support of the nationalist, pro-capitalist union bureaucrats who are doing everything they can to suppress the class struggle—that is, the very ones who have taken on the job of making sure the class battles of the 30s and late 40s don’t happen again. And these bureaucrats, of course, are all earning six-figures—above the table. So, it turns out not to be a surprise at all that they match Mr. Middle’s agenda; they are him in every way that counts. And when they come out with strong “social justice” positions that sound very progressive while never coming near to threatening the property rights of the elite, why, that’s just icing on the cake. Mr. Middle nods and feels very good about himself indeed.
Feeling good about himself is near the top of Mr. Middle’s agenda, second only to making sure his position isn’t threatened. But how do you feel good about yourself in a world whose foundations are crumbling and need replacing when nothing terrifies you more than a threat to those foundations? This is tricky.
Fortunately, Mr. Middle’s own position points the way out of this dilemma. Mr. Middle is not necessarily a selfish person; indeed, he is very likely known for his generosity. But his position makes him subjective—he cannot evaluate society objectively, because that evaluation would reveal all of the contradictions of his position. This subjectivity provides him the opportunity to project: if he must reject an objective analysis of his own position, he can simply apply the same principle to issues around him: there is no objective truth, only subjective feelings. Thus he can say that racism, for example, is purely subjective; you cannot have an opinion about whether something is racist unless you are non-white; you cannot have an opinion on whether something is antisemitic unless you are Jewish, you cannot have an opinion on whether something is sexist unless you are a woman.
And here, at last, we get the big payoff for Mr. Middle: because if racism, for example, is purely a subjective question—up to each individual’s feelings—then it is insoluble. And if it is insoluble, if it is “in the DNA of the country,” it is pointless for Mr. Middle to take any action beyond what is necessary to demonstrate that he is on the right side. Maybe “call out” a few people, or ruin Thanksgiving dinner, or jump in on a social media mob where someone has been accused of racism. Actually changing the material conditions that produce racial oppression requires objective analysis of those conditions, and this, you see, is impermissible.
Mr. Middle does not have the immense resources of the 1%; he doesn’t own a newspaper, or a major social media platform, or a television network. But he is not entirely without influence; he holds the most prestigious positions in the academy, he writes editorials for the New York Times, he speaks on MSNBC, he has twitter followers in numbers as great as his yearly income. If only he can convince enough of those below him to accept his view that the foundation of society are unshakeable, that is, of the permanence of capitalist property relations, then maybe, just maybe, he will be able to keep his balance during the earthquakes to come. And should it prove the case that there is no way to secure his position except through fascist dictatorship, rest assured that he will feel really bad about that.
And, yes, many do listen to him, and are deeply and passionately committed to programs that will keep them forever in chains. But the trouble is, the masses also have brains, and perceptions, and they see what is happening around them, and they start to think, and when they start to think, they start to act.
That is why the fight within the consciousness of the masses against the 1% also means a fight against Mr. Middle and all he stands for.
Good luck, Mr. Middle. You’re going to need it.