The End of the Middle Class?

A growing middle-class is considered to be an indicator of prosperity. According to one of the proponents of the neoliberal capitalist euphoria in India, Gurcharan Das (India Unbound) – “the most striking feature of contemporary India is the rise of a confident new middle class”. According to him the middle-class in India is 20% of the population now, obviously under the impact of “open economy”. Further, “If our country’s economy grows 7% over the foreseeable future and if the population increases annually by 1.5%, if the literacy rate keeps rising and if we assume the historical middle-class growth rate of the past 15 years, then half of India will turn middle class between 2020 and 2040. Das concludes that “to focus on the middle class is to focus on prosperity. This is unlike in the past, when our focus has been on redistributing poverty. This does not mean that we are becoming callous. On the contrary, the whole purpose of the enterprise is to lift the poor — and lift them into the middle class”. And how is this growing middle-classness measured? Obviously the measurement “is ownership of consumer products”.

If the secret of the billionaires’ wealth is not more gadgets and things at home, but their ability to control over the majority’s means and conditions of production, then why should more gadgets and things at home be the parameters of judging the poor’s poverty? Even if we find consumerism rising – with new gadgets cropping up in the home of the new poor, it only increases her material and mental destitution and dependence – this is not a sign of enrichment. Absolute Poverty (not just relative poverty with growing divide between rich and poor, which is generally recognised) is increasing, as people are more and more dispossessed, alienated from their means of production, losing control over the conditions of production and reproduction. It was in this sense that Marx saw “Labour as absolute poverty; poverty not as shortage, but as total exclusion of objective wealth”. It is “labour separated from all means and objects of labour, from its entire objectivity”.

In fact, does not the following story published in The Times (May 19, 2008) show THE END OF THE MIDDLE CLASS in the ‘centre’ of world capitalism (even by the standards of bourgeois economists)?

Soaring food prices have led to a growing number of middle-class New Yorkers joining an unusual organisation that “dumpster dives” in rubbish bins for food.

The trash tours form part of a growing movement called “Freegans”, which is rapidly increasing in popularity as New Yorkers find it harder and harder to make ends meet.

Freegans – a name derived from the words “free” and “vegan” – sift through garbage cans and bin bags in the evenings looking to find edible food and discarded items such as shelving or kitchen appliances that can be reused.

Janet Kalish, a high school teacher from Queens and member of the freegan.info movement, which organises dumpster dives and trash tours, told The Times that the numbers were increasing. “We are seeing more people dumpster dive – some people who were not in a position before to worry about food prices and now they have to. We are seeing more people come on our trash tours,” she said.

Ms Kalish said that freegans did not sift through household rubbish – “that really is garbage, you know, half-eaten food and old food” – but through the refuse of New York’s fast-food businesses such as Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Pret a Manger and the supermarket chains D’Agostino and Gristedes.

“The companies tend to put leftover food in black plastic bags on the sidewalk at about 9 in the evening. About an hour later, the garbagemen come and take it away. We try to get there first. It is not as shocking as it sounds. Once food is in the garbage, it’s just a big bag of food.

“Because it is on the kerb, it’s not on private property so there’s no issue of trespassing,” she added.

Ms Kalish, who said that she did not know how many Freegans there were in New York, insisted that she had never been ill because of food reclaimed from bins, but added that she would always tell new dumpster divers never to touch meat. “It could have gone off and, besides, meat is always more dangerous.” Another freegan, who declined to be named, said: “I’ve always taken five or six packets of sandwiches on my way home from work from the Pret a Manager near the office. There’s nothing disgusting about it. They are sealed sandwich packets. I put them in my bag, eat one myself, offer them to colleagues or friends and give them to homeless people on the subway on the way home. Food is so expensive now, I can’t afford not to. I reckon I save myself $50 [£25] a week from dumpster diving and going through the garbage.”

Ms Kalish added: “Bananas are a real find. You open the bag and you can’t believe what you are seeing – maybe 100 beautiful bananas that have been thrown out probably because the store got a new shipment in and this lot weren’t as fresh.”

Over the past two years Americans have had to contend with soaring food and fuel prices triggered by increased demand for ethanol, the clean biofuel.

Washington has pumped subsidies to American farmers as an incentive to grow grain for producing ethanol, which is made from fermenting corn. As the price of grain rose, the cost of maintaining dairy herds rocketed. Milk prices have doubled in America since 2006, the cost of grain has soared and the rising price of oil has increased distribution costs for other types of food such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

This month, Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, was forced to ration long-grain rice to protect supplies. It said that businesses such as restaurants were hoarding the grain because they were anxious that the price would continue to rise.

Harvard University estimated last year that Middle America was suffering its worst financial hardship since the 1950s as families were forced to struggle with rising food and fuel costs, tightening credit conditions, sliding residential property prices and soaring healthcare premiums.

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