The Experiment by Robert Gore for Straight Line Logic
How much longer will the middle class politely tolerate its own destruction?
A middle class that outnumbers the combined poor and aristocracy is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to around 1900. The rise of the middle class was the result of Industrial Revolution capitalism. It has been one of the most significant and epochal developments in history, yet the intellectual reaction for the most part has been to either ignore it or treat it with disdain. Now the project to destroy the middle class is well under way, with unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences that promise to be just as epochal as its creation.
Intellectual condescension towards the middle class is so common it’s a cliché. What’s rare are attempts to go back in history and see things through the perspectives of that despised group and its progenitors, the poor.
In 1800, virtually everyone was poor, living under conditions of deprivation and grinding poverty. Even being wealthy was no picnic; present-day poverty-line Americans live better. Life expectancy was an estimated twenty-nine years. Farming, the occupation of most, was dangerous, backbreaking labor from dawn to dusk. Most of those so engaged eked out a tenuous subsistence. There was no electricity, no running water, primitive sanitation and health care, and none of the machinery, gadgets, and appliances we take for granted. Only a few wealthy poets who didn’t have to wrest a living from nature waxed euphoric about its “joys.”
As the nineteenth century progressed, primitive factories, mostly in cities, began producing goods of better quality, in more quantity, and at lower cost than had been possible by artisans handcrafting their wares. No doubt conditions in those factories were abysmal—long hours, pittance pay, child labor, dangerous and filthy conditions, and horrible accidents and injuries. All that has been well-chronicled and dramatized, but an important point gets overlooked. Bad as they were, the factories were a better option for those who worked in them than the farms from whence many of them came, or they would have stayed there.
Capitalism requires capital, and early industrialization provided profits to capitalize: more factories, further innovation, new inventions and industries, and eventually the astonishing burst of dynamic energy that became the Industrial Revolution. Each new generation of mines, factories, ships, trains, farms and other productive assets became less labor-intensive, produced higher average real wages, had lower percentages of child labor, and were less dangerous than their predecessors. Again, by present day standards most working conditions were still abysmal, but less so than what had preceded them. That was the relevant consideration for the millions of people who worked in Dickensian conditions: it was their best option, and better than anything they had previously known.
The nineteenth century produced more technological and scientific innovation that all the centuries before it combined. Societies don’t go from poor to rich overnight. However, real world conditions―opportunity, income, wealth, health, and overall quality of life―steadily improved. By 1900, life expectancy in the US was 46 years for males and 48 years for females, an unprecedented one-century increase.
Those who throw rocks at the Industrial Revolution, the period when America approached laissez faire capitalism, have to minimize or ignore one simple fact. Millions of people braved the dangers of travel, the uncertainties of life in a new land, the difficulties of learning a new language, the prejudice and hostility they knew they would encounter, the daunting challenges of starting at the bottom, and the absence of government giveaways and freely chose to immigrate to the United States.
Sometimes the payoff was huge. Andrew Carnegie really did get off the boat with eleven cents in his pocket. Cyrus McCormack, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and other success stories came from impoverished or modest backgrounds and made multimillion dollar fortunes. The self-made businessman became the American archetype, fueling countless aspirations.
The emergent middle class was a cohesive force for political stability. The immigrants passed their memories of what they had escaped to their children and grandchildren. They embraced the reality and the promise of America based on their own fruitful experience. Life was good and would get even better, why rock the boat? Few noticed the thunderhead on the horizon.