Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Being in the Middle when the Average is over

How does it feel to be in the middle when average is over? The middle classes know: They feel squeezed, and clueless, as the fusion of ubiquitous globalisation and pervasive automation push the economies to the tipping point of making people in the middle redundant. The middle class values, of moderation, patience, of deferring consumption and long preparation, continuity and persistence, are all baggage in this brave new world of superstars. Bragging, not modesty; consumption, not savings; street smarts, not preparation; opportunism, not commitment; the things that win are instinctively abhorrent to the middle classes - or, the old middle classes, more correctly. They have been left behind, comprehensively and irredeemably, in the world we created.

But this means more than just the decline of a class of a people: It may mean a change in the way of life. Civilisation is a big word, but it is not altogether inappropriate to say that we did build a whole civilsation around the emergent middle classes in the last 150 or so years, which now lay wasted. The reasons are far too numerous, though the global equalisation of consumption leading to scaling of production, hollowing out of the traditional organisation structure, process driven management leading to automation of great many tasks, and the value system that put corporate profits ahead of stable communities, have gradually led to a superstar economy: Few winners, lots of losers, and no place in between. In a world where 150,000 people Kodak goes bankrupt and 13 employee Instagram is ever ascendant, there is no place in the middle.

Besides, there is a political dynamic to contend with too. It seems that the death of petite bourgeois is linked with the death of its supposedly great enemy, state socialism. With the failure of an alternate state form in Soviet Russia, the roll-back of welfare state became politically possible in the West: All those middling professions which lived in the safe shadows of the great state started disappearing just as soon. In fact, the greatest prosperity of middle class in these modern times is precisely in the land of the cultural revolution, where a great state looks over intently over all activities.

But if the state made the middle classes, middle classes made the state it was, as they did with all the institutions we know: Our universities transformed themselves from bastions of piety or privilege to the factory of possibilities, a middle class mantra; the banks found nirvana in mortgages; the royal suppliers lost their place of pride to department stores; and paperback fiction and Coronation Street (and its likes) took over the high culture and dinner table conversations. The world we live in, all its artifacts, is steeped into a vision of middle class life: The same redundant, ineffectual, pervasive, boring life.

So, for the opening question - how does it feel like - the answer perhaps is that being middle class today is like observing one's own body after death: As a ghost, one should feel totally ignored and redundant, watch life going on without slightest trace of concern or consideration for the person departed, new relationships forming and old ones falling apart around the emptiness one left behind, so quickly that one may feel their existence made no difference. If such an imaginary position was ever possible, one would have watched their possessions taking a new form, an old favourite discarded, a silly junket taking over a vantage point in one's own room, a new life emerging almost in a vacuum. One may resent it with full knowledge that such resentment is as redundant as one's self; one may be amused but such amusement is also meaningless. And, while such ghostly existence is only an imaginary, that may be exactly what being in the middle is like today - to see one's own institutions, language, values and cultures moving on as if by themselves, morphing into something previously unknown, in a form whose only intent may be to make its own lineage redundant.

Change is good, perhaps. Nostalgia is a boring game old men play, perhaps. The ineffective but pervasive, intrusive but insensitive, repressively colourless middle class life is perhaps dead for good. But in the brave new world of constant change, there are not many winners: Rather, those millions of the middle are now dispossessed, not just of what they owned, but their dignity, just like that ghost who fell short of redemption and was forced to observe their own bodily demise. Indeed, such things happened before, an entire way of life ended, and the middle classes were the people ascendant then: Then, too, ghosts were invoked to describe the feelings (read Walter De La Mare) and the house of memories is still celebrated in popular culture (watch The Grand Budapest Hotel). However, it is time to turn a new page and write the obituary of the middle class now. It would be like walking through a grand house with many clocks all of which stopped working at various times for the want of wounding, or walking through a vast unread library whose books are dust-covered but untouched: It is time to start mourning what we all were meant to be.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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Will be to arrive where we started
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