The Anatomy of Mr. Middle

“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.

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21 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Mr. Middle”

  1. And most supporters of Donald Trump hate Mr. Middle because they (correctly?) perceive him as a traitor. And Mr. Middle hates most supporters of Donald Trump for reasons stated in the OP–they live in a trailer park and eat hot dogs when it is time for a fancy meal. Which is about the best they can do given the raw deal that late-stage capitalism has served up to all of them.

    And there are millions of them, and they are needed for class solidarity. Big challenge.

  2. Kragar:Most supporters of Trump are not trailer park dwellers. 2/3 make over 50,000 with 1/3 over 100,000. 31,000 is the US median income.
    They (trumpists) are, like Mr. Middle above wildly confused about, well just about everything. Mr. Middle and Mr. Trumpist are largely two sides of the same coin. Both consume their news in carefully apportioned chunks that have very different seasonings but are, at their core, both reflections of support of capitalism and what they perceive to be their favorable status quo.

  3. When I hear young people going on and on about how unions are the solution, I think, “Poor child, you have a lot to learn.” When I hear anyone above their mid-thirties doing the same, I think, “You’re either a fool or a collaborator.”

  4. 70 or so million people voted for Trump in 2020. If one third of those make less than $50,000 per year, that is 23 million, many of whom likely live in trailers. Also, $50,000 does not exactly go as far as it used to 10 years ago, so probably some of them, too. These working class folks turned to Trump instead of Socialism. I think they can and should be redirected to understanding and serving their own economic interests.

    As for unions, unions controlled by the working class are indeed the solution. But not the established unions and the Democratic Party, where social movements go to die.

  5. “ most supporters of Donald Trump for reasons stated in the OP–they live in a trailer park and eat hot dogs when it is time for a fancy meal.”
    “ If one third of those make less than $50,000 per year, that is 23 million, many of whom likely live in trailers.”
    When did some large fraction of one third become defined as most?

  6. The point is, more and more US Citizens are being left behind, intentionally, in the death throes of late stage capitalism. They are not happy about it. Mr. Middle and his high-ranking Democratic cronies are a suitable target for this ire, since Mr. Middle peddles obvious falsehoods in service to the status quo.

    But Donald Trump won the “white” vote in 2020. So many of these folks who are seeing their wages frozen, spending power waning, health failing, communities dying, and their homes threatened, are turning, not to socialism, but to Trump’s easy soundbite candidacy of blaming the libs. Mr. Middle is very much a lib.

    Also, they are killing themselves at a very alarming rate as their lives collapse before their eyes. If these marginalized “whites” could be energized within a united working class, they would make a potent force for the fight against the true problem, capitalism and its toadies.

  7. I guess the question is, Is it possible to get enough voters to change from whomever they voted for to realize there are better choices for whom they might vote.
    I hope that such a thing can happen. It seems obvious and rational to me, but I fear that it won’t. Nonetheless, patient explaining and trying to move things in a better direction seems like the right thing to do.
    On Twitter, earlier today, Salzburg said (in a discussion on censorship) “My understanding is that it is perfectly legal to protest injustice, and protest censorship, and to organize against it. It is also the right thing to do. …“
    The whole conversation was an excellent example of patience on Steve’s part and an obtuse example of Mr. Middle thinking on the other side.

  8. What we want to do is get from where we are to the next phase of economic/political evolution. The status quo gets us to a dead planet, so that approach doesn’t work for very long. My preference for the next phase is a form of Socialism with voting. There are a few ways to get there.

    My preference is that people realize the mess we are in and vote to change the system. I prefer to avoid the deaths of millions if I can avoid it. (Note that, of course, my preferences are pretty small in the scope of things–it should be the preferences of the people that matter.)

    We have already seen that the preference of the reactionary class is violent revolution and the suppression of the voice of the people. I am against the preferences of the reactionary class.

    If things break apart prior to being able to realize a totally peaceful transition (unfortunately, historically, violence is the trodden path) then we would find ourselves in a very different position.

    I think that the more “patient explaining” we do on this side of history, then the smoother any transition can be. There are signs that this is starting to work. More and more people don’t think that Socialism is a four letter word and are seeing through the propaganda of the reactionaries. The reactionaries see this and so the, react. This time, their reacting was stopped and it has to be stopped every time.

  9. I think the last few years have proved, pretty conclusively, that the political system is a wholly owned subsidiary. No matter how many “progressive” capitalist politicians are voted in, the fundamental property relations will remain, as Mr. Middle desires so he can keep drawing his bloated salary.

    Therefore, the working class must cast aside that apparatus and take direct power in their own name. But first it must unite.

  10. Who said anything about voting in “progressive” capitalist politicians or keeping fundamental property relations?

    Once people unite, what stops them from voting in whomsoever they want?
    Of course, reactionaries are very much attempting to stop people from voting in order to prevent just these things from happening.

  11. Because the folks who truly understand the currently existing power relationships, and the need to dismantle them, would never be able to make it on to the ballot while the political levers of control are captured by the two parties of corporate power. So we could vote all day for Sanders, Warren, or even Ocasio-Cortez, and neither could or would change the fundamental setup.

    It’s always “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” in national elections in the United States. You can have corporate power and vicious imperialism with a bible and an AR15, or you can choose corporate power and vicious imperialism with a trans bathroom and more brown faces in suits on the roster.

  12. Yes, that is how things currently work. Because, people keep falling for disuniting rhetoric. If the vast majority of people would actually unite and vote as a block, there would be no contest. Roughly 1/3 of the people don’t vote. 1/3 vote Dem and 1/3 vote Rep.
    Here’s a decent link as to why people don’t vote:
    TLDR; Many don’t vote because of various structural barriers. About 20% don’t like either party or don’t think their vote matters. Out of the 1/3 Dem and 1/3 Rep, there are many who should naturally prefer a Socialist path if they had information and the ability to vote for such candidates.

    If you can unite to an extent that they can “take direct power” then you can unite to vote. Voting the czar out wasn’t a choice to the Russian working class.

    Now, there is the question of what would happen if the people did unite and vote for a truly Socialist slate of people remains to be seen, but first we would have to get to that point. None of this is easy or guaranteed but it is a lever to keep on trying to use; until we can’t.

  13. “You can have corporate power and vicious imperialism with a bible and an AR15, or you can choose corporate power and vicious imperialism with a trans bathroom and more brown faces in suits on the roster.” Oh, nicely put.

    As for the rest, I guess I agree with Emma Goldman: if you could change things by voting, elections would be illegal. And we’ve seen the bourgeoise more than once make elections illegal, just to be sure.

  14. Some recent discussions on twitter (some more discussion than others) and one of the common themes in this discussion have caused me to think about the subjects of how do we unite, who do we unite with and just what does united mean?

    A common goal and shared set of beliefs seem like a good starting point as a method of determining if you are currently united, have the potential to be united or are in hopeless disagreement.

    A good starting point (it seems to me) is:
    A Statement of Principles from Jonas Kyratzes

    I also pretty much agree with this. Depending on which and how many of the statements in this we agree upon, I think I could pretty much tell if we are currently united, allies with a common goal or in various stages of disagreement.

    So, let’s briefly apply this to Mr. Middle and see where we get.

    Mr. Middle will likely say that he agrees with most of the basic statements excpet maybe:
    I believe the economic and political system we live in is required to provide these things, or be considered inadequate.
    I believe that social antagonisms are rooted in economic inequality and serve to reinforce systems of oppression.
    I believe that meaningful change can only occur through a democratic mass movement aimed at radically altering the fundamental principles by which our economy is organized.

    Then, as we get to the statements under “The difference between the point of view of socialists like myself and that of “social justice activists” and related identitarian groups is that:”, Mr. Middle is likely to start disagreeing more and more and may very likely start to become somewhat angry with the questioning.

    So, I would say that I am clearly not united with the Mr. Middle in the post and depending on the vociferousness of their disagreement, there may be no chance of an alliance.

    If instead of Mr. Middle, we encounter a Mr. PresumptiveMiddle, we can run through the same discussion and maybe we find out they don’t necessarily disagree, but want to find out more. Then, we can have a good discussion and maybe find out they are really Mr. PotentialAllyOnceTheyFillInTheirLearning. We may also find that Mr. VotedForTrumpButHasn’tReallyThoughtThingsThrough also fits here but maybe needs a bit more work.

    How about Mr. TrueReactionary? They may very well disagree with a large percentage of the basics and aren’t interested in learning anything more. They may even state they know all about Socialism and it fails for [set of generic reasons]. There is likely no hope of any sort of alliance here.

    Now, how about Mr. IAgreeWithJonasButDisagreeOnTheTacticsToGetThere. It would seem that they might make a fine ally, but we aren’t quite united. Of course, some of the tactics they were willing to use might expose them as maybe not believing quite so much in the basic statements and so more discussion would be needed.

    Based on these examples, it seems like “united” is a fairly hard test, but allyship and commonality of goal are easier and maybe enough.

  15. Steve:I think that as regards voting, what I am trying to say is that I want to exist in a socio-economic system where voting can produce change in a positive way. Getting to that state is a current problem. I can certainly see that the Republicans are attempting to essentially make it illegal for anyone who disagrees with them to vote and that the Democrats aren’t doing a lot to oppose that. They have a decent voting rights bill that they could easily pass if they would get rid of the anti-democratic filibuster. That they haven’t done so speaks out on its own.

    So, yeah, not much hope there, but it is a potential tool that I am unwilling to discard.

  16. Using Jonas’s statement of principles there is interesting. And, yeah, no disagreement from me. In fact, even under capitalism, though we can’t use it to create change, voting can sometimes be an important tactic.

  17. I’m going to have to revise the ally portion of my comment based on some things I’m seeing on the interwebs (mostly twitter). If someone says they agree on all the points but then threaten other people (who also agree with the points) with threats and slander, then the ones doing the threatening are probably not really allies.
    This is known as watching how people actually act rather than just listening to what they say.

  18. I say, to get a working society we need a way to get consensus about the important things. Voting can help with that, done right. More important, if there is going to be a small group of people who is more-or-less in control, voting gives us a possible way to replace one group of controllers with another without a lot of violence and property damage.

    The USA used to have a consensus about the important things. The mass media told everybody what to believe, and most people believed it. The people who believed the tabloids instead were not politically important, and the people who rejected both media and tabloids were small and utterly disorganized. I can’t say I approve of how it worked, but it did work. For all its flaws it was reasonably stable, and it survived long enough to turn into something else.

    Now we have two media that disagree on everything they notice to disagree on. Everybody who cares to, has access to foreign media. And people who want to believe something else can find each other on the internet and make their own echo chambers.

    There is no hint of consensus. I don’t see any prospect of getting one in the foreseeable future.

    We started to get a consensus after 9/11. A consensus AGAINST Arabs and AGAINST Muslims. But it didn’t work, and it didn’t last. It delayed the movement against unquestioning support for Zionism, maybe by as much as a decade. But not even Mossad would think it’s worth doing again.

    Maybe we can’t get a working society. Maybe we have to break up into little local societies that can each get their consensus with a lot of ethnic cleansing.

    Or maybe we can find a way to get a workable society without a consensus. I don’t know.

    I read that according to 2020 exit polls, the only segment of voters that had a majority for Trump was whites without a college education. My interpretation from that is we can’t expect the “working class” to get a consensus for socialism any time soon.

    But I’ve been wrong before.

  19. A large majority of United States citizens believe that foreign wars should be wrapped up, corporations and the extremely wealthy should be heavily taxed, and that education, health care, and child care should be free. That’s a pretty good consensus to start with.

    But the will of the majority is ignored by those who hold power. The structure of national poltics and true decision making is in the hands of the elite, whether Democrat or Republican. The decisions are made to benefit the elite while paying lip service to the working class.

    But this arrangement is fraying more and more as the lies of the capitalists are laid bare. So some in the ruling class are grudgingly throwing a few bones to the citizenry. Others in the ruling class still believe dissent should be violently crushed. But neither believe that true power be given to regular people. So regularly people will have to take it.

  20. And the homeless problem has already exploded exponentially, even before the eviction moratoriums have lapsed.

    Covid has served to accelerate the inevitable crisis of Capitalism. Time to move to the next stage. The words of Mr. Middle, to preserve the status quo, are ringing hollower and hollower.

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