Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Middle Class Where Goest Thou? (A Tale of Fear or Solidarity)

My friend Ed Ward, who moved back to the US from Europe a little more than one year ago, provides his first year in review here. Like me, he is on the fence – some things are good and some things European he misses (food prices!). He is still “broke, not poor”, if a little less so. I like his motto, which he has promoted for many years, and which is an expression of hope that this state we are in is a temporary one.

As a recently turned single (-income) parent I myself have changed from very affluent to pretty strapped financially – supporting half the number of family members at this household on 20% of the former combined salary and not a single asset to call my own anymore.  A little scary at age 50. But thanks to supportive friends, family and employer, and a socio-economic system that assures health care, retirement and education (and no, it’s not free, I pay taxes and contributions for it) – thanks to all that, we manage quite well.  And we will soon start to pass on the solidarity and add a member to the household, probably a young student from a less fortunate country. So I’ll change Ed’s motto to “poor, but fortunate”.

Not everyone here feels this way. A small, but growing number of people in Germany could now be described as “still pretty fortunate, but vaguely pissed off”. Yes, Germany now has its own Tea Party! A new social movement called Pegida, which stands for patriotic citizens against the “Islamisation” of the occident. Really, the occident.  Pegida and their especially inept and shady leaders (reminds one of Sarah Palin and the likes) provide much amusement to the media, comedians and the twitter community. Yet, every Monday they meet in growing numbers (last rally had 17,000) in Dresden and now in other cities, and protest – not sure what exactly…. since foreign nationals of Islamic faith comprise something like 1.2 % of the population of that state, Sachsen. Pegida people chant “We are the people”, copying the peaceful revolutionaries of 1989 East Germany. And they march for peace - but I am not sure what kind of peace they are thinking of.  The peace of a racially homogenous society, maybe. They are a bunch of ignorant dimwits, just like the US Tea Party. But they come from the same environment of middle class fear that the Tea Party emerged from.

And they do worry the shit out of the political establishment. This week, voices from the ruling party CDU emerged, saying that the traditionally conservative CDU moved so much to the middle, to social democratic policy positions, to an open society welcoming refugees, and to embracing the EU, and as a result they have lost some of the more right wing constituents on the way. This is probably a somewhat accurate description of what happened here. Is the reaction of the CDU and the AfP (that's our new Anti-EU Party) going to be what the GOP did in the US, which is embrace the Tea Party and let it take over? I doubt it.  Of course in Germany, we worry about right wing, racist movements way more than we do in the US.

And on the US side of the fence? Tom Schimmeck, a columnist with our local paper who loves and is very familiar with the US feels after a recent visit that the spirit of the citizens has been broken – the dishwashers don’t believe the millionaire story anymore.  He says that while the economic statistics are promising, the current recovery and economic growth happens without the middle class, which is now 40% poorer than before the recession. Income inequality continues to rise, and education has become just another for-profit line of business, just like prisons and health care. (Btw- our little family is looking forward to welcoming the first educational ‘refugees’ from Silver City next fall.)

It’s true- looking at the US from this side of the fence is totally depressing these days. The persistence of structural racism evidenced by police violence and a failing justice system, the report on CIA torture and subsequent discussions, the result of the recent elections, and the loss of all the progressive enthusiasm of the first Obama years. The hope we had that policy may be about people again – health care reform about healthy people, immigration reform about hard working families –gone. Instead, corporations are now considered people and propaganda and the influence of money on policy is now considered protected free speech. And the next elections? Bush III vs. Clinton II ? Money rules.

I think living in a small, predominantly progressive community like Silver City for all these years made it easier to handle- you could always rest assured in the warm community spirit and believe that the country had not completely gone to shit, and then rant of facebook about all the bad things from a protected place. I don’t know whether this is good or bad or both.  Is it collective illusion or a supportive oasis, where we make small local improvements, when we can’t affect the big picture anymore?  

Benny, at age 10 and living again in Silver City, loves it there, but he also worries about the people in Sudan and the refugees from Syria living in Berlin. And on Christmas Eve he cries and wonders why he is so privileged and others are so poor, sick with Ebola or displaced by war. It affects him deeply, emotionally. Us socialists here in occidental Europe call that solidarity.  I am proud of my middle class global citizen son.


Anonymous said...

In der Politik wid seit sehr sehr langer Zeit nicht mehr mit Visionen (oder Modellen, Entwürfen für die Zukunft, um es profaner zu benennen) gearbeitet, sondern nur mit der Verbreitung von Ängste: Wir fahren in eine Katastrophe, wenn wir nicht das Rentensystem (kaputt) privatisieren. Das Land geht unter, wenn wir nicht die Löhne (real) kürzen. Wir verlieren alles, wenn wir nicht die Banken Rettung! Wir werden von China überrollt, wenn wir unseren Kindern nicht die Kindheit nehmen...(G8)!"
Ich denke, da kommt dieses Grundgefühl einer diffusen Angst her: wer seit vielen Jahren Vermögen und damit ja auch Sicherheit umverteilt, weg von vielen, hin zu wenigen, der muss sich nicht wundern, dass die vielen eben diffuse Verlustängste entwickeln.
Es wäre dringend nötig, positive Szenarien zu entwickeln und langfristig ausgrichtet zu regieren. Das erfordert Unabhängikeit und Mut bei den Politikern - und etwas mehr Gelassenheit bei den Wählern.
Beides gibt es weniger denn je. Insofern muss man sich auch nicht wundern, dass sich diese fatalen Entwicklungen laufend verstärken ;-(
Nicola Straub

Ed Ward said...

Oh, man, I'm sorry I waited so long to read this! I do want to make a tiny comment, though: the "broke, not poor" meme was from a biography of the abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning, where he protested that "I'm not poor. I'm just broke." Poverty is something that comes to live inside you, where you doubt your own abilities to rise any higher and do any better. Ghettoes are filled with poor people who've given up. I refuse to give up.

That said, I haven't done another blog post even though there was a point that last one was working up to that, because I did it so late in the day and was tired, I forgot to get to, and it's an expansion of the idea of entitlement versus poverty, and the lack of compassion that's pretty much universal in the U.S., from what I can tell. It also has to do with the destruction of the educational system, the technocratic stranglehold on the arts, and the numbing of the general public by entertainment. (And here I am saying this on the day before the Super Bowl!)

Anyway, thanks for mentioning this, and I hope to get that next post out soon. The last one was seen by more people than I've ever reached, although most of the reaction was very hostile. That's okay: after I finish these books, I'll probably leave the country again. I think by then it'll be a foregone conclusion that America is over.