When Worlds Collide: Why The Middle Class Matters
Examining a need for cross-class organizing, and the issue with animosity towards the 'other'.
When Worlds Collide: Why The Middle Class Matters
There is no doubt that the economic struggle for health and well-being rests on the shoulders of our poorest citizens. There is also no doubt the gap between the very wealthy and the very poor is widening. It is for these reasons the needs of the poor should take a central focus in social, economic, and political organizing efforts. However, in the thinking among some activists, the needs of the poor have some how been entirely separated, or disconnected from the realities of the middle class. This is not to say middle class Americans have the same needs as our most disadvantaged, they don't. What it is to say, is that the success of any social, political, or economic, revolution may in fact depend on the support of the middle class, as well as a transcendent unity across most economic strata.
Due to the widening of the poverty and wealth gap, there is some debate as to who specifically makes up the middle class, "The term middle class in more colloquial language use may refer to all those individuals who might at one point or another be identified as middle class, as they occupy neither extreme of the socio-economic strata (U.S.Census.gov)." In some cases the middle class can refer to all of the upper, middle, and lower working classes. In other definitions, simply the working class with a mid-range income or just above poverty level. However classified, there are some key aspects to consider as an activist when organizing around issues that deal with class difference.
Why does the middle class matter? To start, the middle class is slowly disappearing, and there will soon be few economic distinctions between those who are below poverty level, and those right on the poverty level. The middle class matters in activist organizing because they have the potential to either be your largest resource of support, OR your largest obstacle. The middle class tends to be the largest consumers of goods, thereby financially upholding all of the corporate powers many activists seek to dismantle. The middle class is interested in pursuing efforts they believe will help them down proverbial yellow brick road of American success. They have achieved just enough to have them buying into the "dream" but not enough to actually realize it. Corporations and big media know this, and have the resources to manipulate/convince the middle class to keep on the yellow brick road of consumption and system dependency. The middle class is not necessarily that naοve however. Provided with the right amount of information, and afforded opportunities to realize their own potential and empowerment, they could become the waking dragon of a new movement.
For some in the activist community, the middle class is a lost cause. "They just don't get it. " For those who say this, you are right in many cases. They don't. There have been numerous unsuccessful attempts and valid criticisms of middle class unwittingly or wittingly perpetuating many of the harms activists seek to change as a result of white, patriarchal corporate imperialism. We have seen many among the middle class become duped, and instead of engaging in authentic environmental causes, are engaging in green washing. We have seen programitization, as well as the over trusting of certain powers and systems, thereby undermining the radical cause. However these are often falsely equated to reasons like apathy, laziness, opposition, or even infiltration or sabotage. While this may be true is some cases, there is more to the middle class than meets the eye. Many of the underlying reasons for the working to middle class 'making errors' or not engaging in direct actions, or other forms of activism, is rooted in something much more complex and primal... like fear, lack of knowledge, and system dependency.
Transcendent unity requires understanding and compassion, rather than judgment. Seeking transcendent unity does NOT mean uncompromisingly asking others to accept your needs and join YOUR cause. Transcendent unity requires a give and take, extraordinary efforts in cross cultural relationship building, patience, compassionate listening, humility, and meeting people where they are at, even at the expense of your own personal desires. Transcendent unity is learning the underlying needs of others, and being willing to adapt in order to meet those needs. It is the willingness to lead by placing oneself in a position of service, rather than dominance. This can be extraordinarily difficult to do, when engaging with privileged communities. No one said it would be easy. Transcendent unity building is extremely difficult, and few in history have been authentically able to achieve it. It takes courage, dedication, and a strong personal will, not to abandon ship at the first sign of conflict or adversity. It is the ability hear and see ignorance, but love anyway, and view such scenarios as learning opportunities, rather the start of a personal battle or war.
Meeting People Where They Are At:
Those who support change of the system, tend to simply want more access to it, not dismantle it. Baby steps to transformation. It is the burden of the activist community to educate and provide resources to help people understand how the system is not desirable. Seek to meet people where they are, not where you are.
Those who have the most to lose are most hesitant, compared to those who have less to lose. Do not judge others or place unrealistic expectations of direct actions upon individuals or community groups not yet ready or willing to risk life, limb and life-style. Do not engage in these actions with an unrealistic expectation of unity, until true unity and readiness are achieved. Non-violent direct action requires training, commitment, and strategic planning. The willingness to engage in direct actions can be fostered, but only with the right amount of information, patience, outreach, and, trust.
All those who work full time, regardless of class, have little time for engaging in activism. Time is a precious commodity in a society where people work to live. When given the choice between 'the cause', family time, or recreation/rest time, 'the cause' will lose out almost 100% of the time. Do not take this personally. Activism must creatively seek to meet the needs of time, and scheduling. This may mean combining, fostering, and welcoming family and recreation opportunities with the cause. This may also mean organizing in spaces and places out of your comfort zone to meet unique family and recreation needs.
From the working class to lower middle class, there is little time for farming, ecological living practices, or other alternative lifestyles that require part to full time attention. Transcendent unity will require creative solutions in combating system dependency and lack of know how. For example, many middle class home-owners have green space, but lack the know how or time to use it for food growing. How might you creatively engage with this scenario? How about those who live in apartments or condos with no green space? What then?
In American culture, material accumulation and consumption are directly associated with positive identity frameworks and personal success. If you are seeking to assist upper classes to reduce accumulation and consumption, you are also asking them to reject an entire identity. Doing this will create physical and emotional isolation and so you will need to be prepared in offering a new identity framework with the needed emotional support that goes along with it.
Many who are caught between material desire and wanting a change, also lack the skills, and social capital to do so. The concept of community is a rare occurrence in a competitive, individualist culture. People will not necessarily exist within one, despite the numerous centers, or neighbors surrounding them. Building community and social capital is in this culture, is a learned skill.
Sense of place is reality even for the middle class. Simply put, galvanizing the middle class will require a willingness to non-judgmentally meet in neutral or comfortable spaces, or you will need to go where they live and work. This may mean corporate owned spaces, or middle class houses in suburbia, or non-locally sourced restaurants, or all the places typically placed on an activist protest list, until enough trust is established to meet in other spaces.
Create a community of welcoming shared knowledge. Do not assume that middle class individuals or groups know little. The majority of the middle class is often highly educated, and they tend to serve as gatekeepers to the perceived opposition. Seek humility, and be willing to receive insight and even constructive critique from those who you may perceive as your opposition, and visa versa. Resist the temptation to 'tell' people new information, and instead illicit open-ended dialogue in a mutual learning space.
At times activist culture is tedious at best, and exclusive at worst. Be willing to utilize communication styles that are appropriate for the communities you are seeking to engage, do not impose activist culture upon anyone. This requires an inter-cultural competency not typically encouraged towards the middle class. Allow for cultural variance, and be willing to speak the language of those you are seeking unity with. Do not demonize or reprimand people who may be unfamiliar with activist etiquette or protocols, instead politely share with them about your different style and why you engage in it, all the while honoring and respecting theirs.
"If you can't understand someone's silence,
you will have a hard time understanding their words." -Anonymous
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