Today’s news certainly shows concern over the demise of America’s “middle class.” From the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, to both Democrats and Republicans now claiming (in an election year) to champion the average Mr. and Mrs. Joe and Jane, to headlines claiming that a whopping 48 percent of Americans are below or just at the poverty level; everywhere it seems – and with spectacular regularity – that middle class Americans are seriously under some kind of threat.

So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to state that there is something going on here. But it does take a historian to show the grand sweep, the grand historical narrative over what has been a few centuries worth of Middle Class predominance. In the written history of homo sapiens, the Middle Class is actually a recent phenomena. Since the Renaissance, at the least, the “Middle Class” (and countless other numerous terms, insert your favorite here) effected political, economic, social, and religious mores in a massive way (see J.R. Hale’s War and Society in Renaissance Europe, 1450-1620 for how the middle class came slowly but surely into such a position of influence).

But as the twenty-first century spins anew, I would argue that the middle class ability to affect politics and economics has largely been removed. There are now forces larger than the middle class that dictate (if I can borrow a term from the first President Bush) a “new world order,” and no, it’s not a “kinder and gentler” place. Further, it’s not just America’s middle class that is hurting. The grand sweeping new change that marginalizes the middle rung of society in the United States is also minifying middle class societies on a global scale.

What name can be put to this paradigm shift that best reflects the crumbling influence of the middle class globally? Archetype fits: its Greek roots “archétypon” meant a model, or pattern, a neuter of archétypos – or the first mold. Which leads to the question, what then is being molded that is now a first? My answer suggests that this new paradigm is not only based upon the dwindling influence of the middle class, but that this new paradigm could not emerge were it not true. In other words, there is a global abatement, a purposeful lessening of the influence and power held by the centuries-old middle class so that something new can replace it. Thus, this archetype is built upon attenuating the role of the middle class while strengthening the ascendancy of international boards, banks, and businesses.

Welcome to what I call the “Attenuation Archetype,” a construct of diminishment. Two factors are at work simultaneously, but they are of the same root. First, the usurpation of the political, economic, and social influences historically held by the middle class; and second, the securing of new laws, the manufacturing of new regulations, coupled with the creation of new globalized regulatory agencies unanswerable to any democratic people. This dual force is currently reshaping a new world order, producing or molding a globalized system that seeks to marginalize middle class societies around the world while strengthening the hands of global elites. Nation-states are – and have been – less and less answerable to its own citizens, and by virtue of international treaties and organizations (World Bank, IMF, the European Union, NAFTA – the list is enormous), more attuned to the want and desires of multi-national boards, banks, and businesses.

So much so that despite the near meltdown of the world economic system – brought to you by lax or nearly absent governmental oversights – rather than a rise of populists anger at the destructive greed, graft, and loose ethics depicted by boards, banks, and business (such corporate depictions and populists anger over a hundred years ago spawned the Progressive Era), the most successful populists in America and in Europe today are right-wing, conservative movements (see the Tea Party as the USA example and the rise of the New Right as the European example). Occupy Wall Street just hasn’t caught on. In an article in Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama clangs the alarm bells by pointing out that without a global middle class liberal democracy may become a thing of the past.

Which is what this Attenuation Archetype represents. No longer are middle class societies able to author the events within their respective countries. In the era of nationalism, nation-states paid enormous attention toward its citizen voters. Our own American history is rich with anti-railroad, anti-bank, anti-trusts and anti-monopoly sentiments. When the Great Depression hit, Americans turned to their government for solutions.

Yet, with the onset of the 2008 global meltdown a significant majority of America’s middle class deems government as inherently evil, or at least overly regulatory, which in actuality is the opposite of what caused the current depression.

Why the switch? Why over one hundred years ago does the Gilded Age give birth to the Progressive Era, while the Second Gilded Age gives birth to foam-at-the-mouth-birthers and Tea Partiers?

I believe that culture plays a huge role in answering those questions. Today we are much more urbanized, much more reliant on corporations for the basics: food, clothes and shelter. In 1900, Americans were much more self-sufficient, able to produce their own food stuffs, their own clothes, and build their own homes. Fin de siècle Americans were much more concerned, therefore, with issues of fairness. Perceptions of favoritism prompted middle class Americans to demand the destruction of corruption in corporations by governments. Today, however, Americans are ever-dependent on corporations and therefore much more tolerant of the graft, greed, and loose ethics. It is a curious thing to witness how members of the Tea Party see corruption – but only in their government, while wearing blinders to remain oblivious to the Jack Abramoff’s of the world and the lobbying industry he represented.

So where does this go? A sociologist name Daniel Chirot once claimed that society does not change unless there is a calamity (economic, ecological, war, etc). The 2008 global meltdown is not the calamity; by and large corporations are still able to supply food, clothes, and shelter and at a price reflective of a globalized economy. And as long as this remains true, government will remain the problem, not WalMart.

Advertisements