Heard a strange little show on the CBC today, on Family Day, our lovely government mandated holiday round this province wherein we get to take a day off and not spend time our families in lew of drinking and such like. Rewind, hosted by CBC regular Michael Enright which repeats old shows from the CBC archives, had a special for the day, on the definition of the family from the 1940’s until today. A rich part in the beginning: Mr. Enright affirming with all seriousness that the CBC once was dominated by politicians, pundits, intellectuals and stars, but no longer; the misses quipped rightly ‘sure, now they have call in show occasionally.’ Then the segments, all of them interesting for the particular attempts to deal with the changing role of the fathers, the freedom of teenagers and woman’s place in the home and workplace. The first dealt with….well, with not much at all, just interviewing a couple about the possibilities of post-war prosperity in 1945, but the way in which the CBC framed their interview is a telling sign of how much ‘the middle class’ was a construction even then. The CBC opined that this small shopkeeper, who runs a shop out of the front of his house and makes (in 1945 dollars) $2000, is part of the largest social group in Canada, the middle class, and is a part of that great prosperity that so distinguishes Canada. The actual shopkeeper and his wife seem less certain, but eagerly agree that they are just like everyone else, privileged, wealthy, happy, bourgeois. They are the backbone of society.
It has long been an argument, voiced as much in Barthes and Sontag as in any classic or canonical Marxist text, that the bourgeoisie assumes universalism, assumes that its mode of life, aesthetic sense, cultural mores and political beliefs are universal and shared by all; actually, this is more likely a liberal bourgeoisie attitude, because I can’t imagine the conservative or monarchist financiers of Paris arguing they ever had much in common with the shopkeepers. That the majority of the CBC’s reporters now, as then, are bourgeois, upper middle class, educated, professional, travelled and mostly intelligent, should be a given. That they impose their own sense of what is right about politics, war, society, the economy, on what they report, without doing so actively or even in some cases realizing it, and assume that their listeners all hold stocks, think politics is about soundbites and image, care about the Dalai Lhama and the employer’s eye view of the world, is not as popular an explanation. It makes more sense, I think, though it would need to be sketched out much more, than the Chomsky thesis from Manufacturing Consent (I suspect his later works are better than this), that all media is bought out and controlled by governments and corporations; I’d argue that plenty of reporters for a figurehead of the liberal, business establishment like the CBC don’t need to be bribed to follow the narrative of the War on Terror or fret over employer’s and their problems, because they genuinely assume those issues are of universal concern and are approached in the same way by all Canadians. It isn’t an agenda, it’s just being upper-middle class professional reporters. Now, this analysis can and should be more complete, and far be it from me to discount the fact that their political editorial lines at Canwest or the CBC, or that many reporters are deeply moral people who care actively about reporting injustice and corruption; but try telling me when they ramble on about stocks in the business reports that that isn’t for a specific, privileged demographic who actually has an extensive portfolio they manage themselves.
Back to the 1945 middle class. The concept of the middle class is ideological, a product of a universalising assumption and tendency integral to the bourgeois. That there is a middle class is beyond question, of course, and its existence can be objectively proven, as much as possible, through census data on incomes, mobility, jobs and such. But far more people, just like those shopkeepers in 1945, belief they are middle class than is actually demonstrable by any census data. This may very well be an artifact of the post-war world, the result of a prosperity that allowed even millworkers like my dad to afford a big house, televisions and two cars, and that continues to inform many of our assumptions to this day, that owning a computer, an iPod or a car is a symbol of being ‘one of us,’ that universal middle class. The inscription of objects with class values has a long and storied history of its own, from sabots and sans culottes to peaked caps or tails to denim and bow ties, so it isn’t really a surprise that it still occurs to this day. But it is a confused identification, for the costs of those items have gone done, most obviously in the cases of appliances and electronics, and because so much of our culture is popular, and denim is no longer a class signifier. It is a confusion that leads Labour governments in Britain to argue ‘we are all Middle Class now’ even if such uniformity is bought by cheap tricks on censuses and the manipulation of poverty measurements, so that the lower you go, the more middle you are (and this just isn’t in stats and figures, I remember reading an article in the Guardian by Polly Toynbee in which City bankers were certain an employee would ‘only’ need 20,000 pounds a year to live, which is below the official poverty line). And even if Canada is more egalitarian and less class conscious and allows for more ‘upwards mobility’ than Britain, or even ‘egalite, liberte, fraternite’ France, or the United States, that a universal middle class does not make.
That the project to make a middle class is so old did surprise me, as ten years earlier in 1935 it was quite clear there was something called a working class, which made up a good percentage of the population; ten years and one depression and one world war later, we are all middle class. The shopkeeper, the miner, the lumberjack and steel worker and textile worker and professor and doctor, all middle class, all friends, the bedrock of our democracy. That was what the CBC said in 1945, telling the petty shopkeeper he is now a member of the good class, it does the same now, in 2009. There are some potent democraticising elements there, especially when compared to the fierceness that Tories, capitalists and the Church clung and endorsed hierarchy and aristocracy even today, and rail against popular culture, that is to say working class culture, of a sort, which has triumphed against all odds over its more rarified but universaling bourgeois antecedents; indeed, popular culture now makes those same claims, that it is represented by all, and counter culture and subcultures are placed in the position of railing against their own forebearers. There is something very nice that my father is no longer as openly snubbed by doctors and teachers, even as they both behind each others back mutter curses.
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