Friday, June 27, 2008

Between Rockefeller elites and rural 'rednecks', the illusions of the middle class

The idea of a new inequality where only billionaires are the rich is debunked easily enough; what is not looked at is the other side of the coin of illusion: the labeling of 'working class' as people who live in rural areas and are 'rednecks'. Joe Bageant has made a career out of interpreting the 'redneck', his label, as representative of the working class, to middle class elites. Here, we have a problem.

The fact is that Bageant's people live in rural Virginia. Virginia in this sense is agricultural. Richmond and DC form a part of it but rural Virginia abides. Now, what exactly do people who live in an area where farming is the principle activity have in common with folks whose jobs consist of working in factories and who have never lived in the country? People who have lived in either urban or suburban places their entire lives and who may in fact either be skeptical or outright laugh at people from the sticks? What, for example, do working people in L.A. have to do with folks living in small towns in the Central Valley?

Labeling folks who live in rural places as being the ur-working class, as being the seminal representatives of the working class, is not only inaccurate but it serves the purposes of the middle class in moving the working class away from their own back yard, so to speak, and into settings where they're easily looked at without much of a threat. Of course if the working class are rural 'rednecks' they can be comfortably laughed at and maybe sympathized with from a distance. If working people were identified as who they really are, people who have a lot in common culturally with the middle class, have the same sorts of ideals for themselves and for their children, have a similar mindset, and who live a couple of miles away instead of fifty or sixty, it would make middle class people feel uncomfortable. Why? Because you tend to feel sympathy for folks you realize are like yourself.

Working people as they actually are are too close to home for middle class folks because they can't be comfortably laughed at like rural people. They're too similar, meaning that the sort of condescension and feeling of cultural superiority that they might feel in relation to Bageant's people isn't there. It's harder to deny people their rights when they're right there in your backyard.

If elites are billionaires living in luxury somewhere out there and working folks are 'rednecks' living in the country then that leaves middle class people with no challengers in the place where they actually live. They can sleep comfortably. If the truth was out there, perhaps put on magazine covers like the 'New Inequality' articles were put on the cover of The Nation, it would be less fun because it would put the rich right around the middle class, including some members of the middle class who didn't think they were rich in that category, and it would humanize the working class, making them into people much like themselves and not stupid caricatures from the country. This would bring home the issue of exploitation, because the people being exploited would be seen to be right around you. Not in some far off place but in your town or city. It's harder to engage in practices or in exploitative professions when you can see the faces of those who you profit off of around you and realize that fundamentally they share the same humanity and dreams as you do.

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