Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (1989)

Barbara Ehrenreich's late-'80s meditations on the foibles of the American middle class from the '50s to the '80s is arguably badly dated now. In many ways it put me in a foul, depressed mood simply because so many of the worst trends she identified have only worsened, metastasized, in the 20+ years since it was published: irrational public policies toward poverty, work, money, family, and moral values, along with the ongoing debasement by right-wing politics. It's all here. Even income inequality, which she makes a good case was getting pretty bad in the late '80s, has only worsened by orders of magnitude. It's apparent that the American wealthy have been playing a very shrewd long game, and that they are still. It is so bad that it is tempting to say simply that they have won, that they have won and the rest of us can all go home now and accept our crumbs. But the Charlie Brown in me sees perpetual shoots and leaves in things such as last fall's election cycle, which in spite of everything was tremendously satisfying, however momentary. Back in 1989, Ehrenreich was getting into Nixon's politics of resentment. She doesn't call it that, but it's the familiar idea of siphoning away the blue-collar working class from the professional middle class and pitting the two groups against one another on culture-values issues such as welfare and feminism. The pendulum will swing back again, I'm convinced of that (provided we can survive as a species)—the pendulum always swings back. But the difference between now and the last time we were in such unbalanced circumstances, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, is that now we don't necessarily have the equivalents of fascists on the right and communists on the left to force cooperation from the wealthy. Sadly enough, it looks to me like we will now have to go all the way through all those gyrations again. And I'm probably too old now to witness it anyway. So the high point in my lifetime in terms of public policy is likely to remain approximately 1972. A book like this, which so carefully and artfully (and outdatedly) dissects how we approached that point and sailed through it and went on to ignore all the historical lessons that led up to it ... well, it's useful enough one way or another, I suppose. But it's also extremely painful. </craven self-pity>

In case it's not at the library.

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