Why We Aren't All in This Together: The Middle Class' Lack of Economic Agency

I think one reason that the Obama adminstration (including the preznit) don't comprehend the level of anger about the economy is that many of them dwell in a world where they possess economic agency, whereas too many people do not. John Lanchester writes (italics mine):

From the worm's-eye perspective which most of us inhabit, the general feeling about this new turn in the economic crisis is one of bewilderment. I've encountered this in Iceland and in Ireland and in the UK: a sense of alienation and incomprehension and done-unto-ness. People feel they have very little economic or political agency, very little control over their own lives; during the boom times, nobody told them this was an unsustainable bubble until it was already too late. The Greek people are furious to be told by their deputy prime minister that 'we ate the money together'; they just don't agree with that analysis. In the world of money, people are privately outraged by the general unwillingness of electorates to accept the blame for the state they are in. But the general public, it turns out, had very little understanding of the economic mechanisms which were, without their knowing it, ruling their lives. They didn't vote for the system, and no one explained the system to them, and in any case the rule is that while things are on their way up, no one votes for Cassandra, so no one in public life plays the Cassandra role.

I think the other thing that pisses people off is the feeling that the rules were suddenly changed on them--they did what they were supposed to do--got that government job or showed every day on time to the plant--only to be told that how they earn their livelihood is 'antiquated' or 'wasteful':

Greece has 800,000 civil servants, of whom 150,000 are on course to lose their jobs. The very existence of those jobs may well be a symptom of the three c's, 'corruption, cronyism, clientelism', but that's not how it feels to the person in the job, who was supposed to do what? Turn down the job offer, in the absence of alternative employment, because it was somehow bad for Greece to have so many public sector workers earning an OK living? Where is the agency in that person's life, the meaningful space for political-economic action? She is made the scapegoat, the victim, of decisions made at altitudes far above her daily life - and the same goes for all the people undergoing 'austerity', not just in Greece. The austerity is supposed to be a consequence of us all having had it a little bit too easy (this is an attitude which is only very gently implied in public, but it's there, and in private is sometimes spelled out). But the thing is, most of us don't feel we did have it particularly easy. When you combine that with the fact that we have so little real agency in our economic lives, we tend to feel we don't deserve much of the blame. This feeling, which is strong enough in Ireland and Iceland, and which will grow steadily stronger in the UK, is so strong in Greece that the country is heading for a default whose likeliest outcome, by far, is a decade of misery for ordinary Greeks.

It's also felt here, trust me. Just visit a dying mill town in the Northeast.

But don't you know, it's hard all over, especially for those who make above $250,000 or $450,000 per year.

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I don't quite agree with this since - according to an NPR story I heard - Greecians have raised avoiding taxes to an art form.

@ KeithB: That's part of the same deal. If there is a feeling that you're going along with everyone else, why should you be the one to absorb the hurt. It's part of the mass delusions that [almost necessarily] accompany democracies. Even where it is obvious that shared sacrifice is needed, this feeling is translated into group rage instead of a calming the one would hope for. This is added onto the fact that those who have profited the most from the system will probably end up sacrificing the least.

It's just a part of common denialism. This economic denialism is roughly parallel to climate denialism. People just went with the flow, buying houses in the suburbs, bought energy sucking toys, became dependent on their cars and are faced with the fact that in the near future, they will be faced with giving up with many of those things. It becomes easy to deny climate realities as it is to deny economic realities.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 12 Jul 2011 #permalink

I think the other thing that pisses people off is the feeling that the rules were suddenly changed on them--they did what they were supposed to do--got that government job or showed every day on time to the plant--only to be told that how they earn their livelihood is 'antiquated' or 'wasteful'

What pisses me off is how the meme among the GOP is that my job (a federal gov't job) is "not a real job" because it "doesn't generate wealth". Like somehow the money I spend on my mortgage, groceries, gas, etc. is specially tagged as "not real money" or something.

I rather doubt the average citizen had any control of the policies that lead to our current economic debacle; none of them were running the banks in question. Most of the ones who did get involved in any way did so on advice from people who supposedly knew what the "right thing to do" was. One can argue people need to pay attention more when it comes to the people who are in charge of these things (or the government regulation of them at least), but aside from voting and contacting representatives I don't see how the average person had any way to influence the current situation at all.

So it's no wonder they're pissed; they're getting squeezed for something somebody else did, and in fact said somebodies are dancing away casually doing even MORE of the same crap that caused problems in the first place (and complaining how "ungrateful" the average person is being). People are damn right the rules have been changed to screw them over, they just missed it happening for years until now is all.

The "pain" of cleanup should be distributed exactly as the "profits" over the past ten years were distributed...

Hear, Hear, MP.

Republicans: Stealing from the middleclass to give to the rich.

By Nelson Chamberlain (not verified) on 13 Jul 2011 #permalink