When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it had the power to suppress dissention and heretics, and organize wealth. The church took on the authoritarian qualities of the Roman imperial culture – a powerful central hierarchy, a judicial system to enforce obedience from church members and its effective enforcement formalized rituals and institutionalized sacraments, a defense against any divergence from accepted ideology. Richard Tarnas, professor of philosophy and psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, noted, “leading early Christians concluded that the beliefs of the faithful must be established, disseminated, and sustained by an authoritarian church structure.”[i] With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the church was the only centralized, organized force in Western Europe accumulating power and wealth over the subsequent seven centuries.
The medieval church became the most dominant institution in western Europe. It was one of the largest landowners of the time and collected rents and many fees for offices and services. The church did not pay taxes. Its top down structure facilitated control of information and the creation of wealth. The church’s measures to suppress heretics had less to do with spirituality and everything to do with maintaining social and political control. In medieval times the church was the most dominant institution. (In the 21st century the corporation is the most dominant institution.)
John Locke (1634-1704) developed his ideas on individual freedom in the 17th century during a civil war driven by religious differences. Locke believed one should use reason to search after truth rather than simply accept the opinion of authorities or be subject to superstition. Used properly, reason could determine the legitimate function of institutions and optimize the functioning of society with respect to both material and spiritual welfare. For philosophers of this time, the point of promoting science and reason was not just the desire to understand the world, but to change it as well. This thinking evolved into the optimistic faith in the ability of man to develop progressively through education and the use of reason.
John Locke believed that man’s possession of reason made him unique among the inhabitants of the Earth. To Immanuel Kant, combining free will and reason creates the capacity for free choice. In France, Voltaire (1694-1778), an outspoken writer known for his brilliant wit and sarcasm, preached freedom of thought. The thinkers of the Enlightenment believed that ‘truth’ discovered through reason would free people from the shackles of corrupt institutions, such as the church and the aristocracy, whose misguided traditional thinking had kept people subjected in ignorance and superstition.
To Enlightenment thinkers, science was much more than a set of topics to be studied. It represented the unshakeable triumph of the empirical method, the crucial testing of hypotheses against evidence that could be applicable to all aspects of human enquiry, including questions of morality and religion. The basis for the Scientific Revolution was the Scientific Method. The Scientific Method uses observation and experimentation to explain theories on the workings of the universe. This process removed blind adherence to tradition from science, and allowed scientists to logically find answers through the use of reason. This method of research is the basis for modern science.
In Germany, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the feudal lords transformed themselves into feudal princes. They were able to reduce the freedom (feudal rights) of the people with the explanation that they were defending the people from an outside threat, the Emperor. By the 18th century, the princes across Germany had secured control of various states; the people only had the rights and liberties that their territorial princes gave them. They had given up various freedoms held in medieval times; now the prince had the power to determine the content of their freedom.
In Germany during the Enlightenment, reason became an instrument of the state. In contrast, in France, reason was a weapon wielded by the radicals against the state. The territorial princes imposed rational order on their jurisdictions with the sole purpose of maximizing their power. Rationalism (in Germany) became linked to the power of the princes. Enlightenment became a tool of the state to support the status quo. From a distance the French philosophers of the Enlightenment praised many of the German states because of their rational administration that encouraged science and business, and granted religious freedom. In the 18th century, the German middle class did not feel they could do anything to change their lot, thus they adhered to convention. Then Kant admonished the middle class that only through laziness or cowardice would one allow another to control them. Kant defined enlightenment as the process of man’s release from self-imposed control or direction from someone else. He asserted one must recognize this, break free, and dare to think (for themselves).[ii]
However, the guardian or system controlling the individual is not static. As one prepares to take a step to freedom and maturity, Kant noted, the guardian will identify that the step is very dangerous and difficult to achieve. Once the guardian (system) secures control over individuals they will go to great lengths to identify the dangers to them if they should dare do something on their own.
In the late 19th century, about 80% of the population was working class. In order to be considered middle class you had to have at least one servant. The move toward urbanization, the ‘new’ or second Industrial Revolution, and increased consumerism all played significant roles in middle class development. In some countries this was more rapid, such as in England, known as a nation of ‘shop-keepers and merchants.’
Over the past two hundred years individualism and capitalism rose together. In the last three decades of the 20th century, people expressed their individuality through exercising choice. Corporations now work with advertisers to develop corporate entities that are individualistic and perpetually new – using branding. Under branding, brand X is not a product, but a way of life, an attribute, a set of values, a look, an idea. Consumers believe they have purchased a unique product. Where did the modern middle class come from? During the 1950s, the gradually expanding economy created prosperity throughout North America. The 1950s is considered the decade that eliminated poverty for the great majority of Americans. The decade was associated with the shift from suburban areas to the suburbs, with the supply of housing increasing 27%. With a shorter work-week and increased disposable income, the middle class adopted conservative values. In America, the 1970s and 1980s belonged to the middle class.
There is fundamentally developing two types of economy, increasingly distinct and divergent.[iii] The financial debacle and its aftermath have as the big banks were bailed out while many lost their homes, increased focus on inequality people in the system. Leading the fears is the control exerted by the Wall-Street Washington oligarchy, and the development of a plutocracy in which the rich control government activities. The new emerging super-elite of first and second-generation wealth has more in common with the global community than with their fellow countrymen. This new global community is connected by information technology and liberalization of world trade.
Peter Lindert, an economist at the University of California at Davis and one of the leaders of the ‘deep history’ school of economics, a movement devoted to thinking about the world economy over the long term, notes that the productivity gain and the wave of disruptive innovation in the last two decades have been much faster than the processes of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 19th century.[iv] The fruits of globalization have not been shared evenly – China’s middle class has grown exponentially, income equality has increased in India, executive pay of global corporations has sky rocketed, while the middle class in the West shrinks. The majority of workers have missed out on this windfall economy, and with the polarization of incomes the gap in income grows. The next generation must understand the consequences of corporate globalization – they will have lower incomes and poorer health than the previous generation.[v]
There is a new world aristocracy that forms a global community connected by interest and activity. They are disengaged from the middle class. This global community, distinguished by their unique talents are above devoting their taxes to paying down the deficit and this group is held together by their extreme individualism. They are an exclusive group sharing a devotion to ideas and similar ideology. Many of their reactions to the middle class can be explained by narcissism. Extreme individualism leads to narcissism. Narcissism creates the illusion that once one has an idea, then it must be reality. It is about bringing individuals of like thinking into their bubble, and attributing unique or perfect qualities to those with whom they associate. This consists of an idea of a hierarchical system in which elites are superior, have no empathy for the middle class, in fact, express distain for those who they consider inferior. In this case it is the middle class who were caught off guard with the economic crisis, and in fact, are blamed for the economic problems. Narcissists cannot take criticism. The plutocrats consider themselves singled out, unfairly maligned, and punished for their success. This creates a situation in which self-interest is the mother of rationalization.[vi]
Hollowing out of the middle class is a global phenomenon that started fourteen years before the Great Recession. This was a shift away from middle class jobs to jobs in industry with lower productivity. Manufacturing is the one industry most susceptible to offshoring, automation and global supply chain that rip jobs out of advanced economies, and make the final products much cheaper (overseas). There has been a polarization in the labor market, in which lower income jobs are growing faster. The evolution of wage structures over the past fifteen years has seen employment polarizing into high-wage and low-wage jobs at the expense of middle-wage work. There is a smaller middle class, with less buying power, reducing the demand for products.
The jobs are in the professional services, but there is a mismatch of jobs skills to the available jobs. The answer lies in retraining, better education, and increased productivity in non-manufacturing jobs. In the short term, there is a need to cushion the human costs of structural change. Job opportunities are growing at the top (college graduates) where wages are rising, and at the bottom where wages aren’t. The lower income jobs are typically low wage, entry-level service-type jobs that do not require much schooling or special skill. The gap between the rich and poor is the widest it has been since the Roaring 20s.[vii]
The new aristocracy opposes any increase in their taxes and oppose any tightening of the regulations of economic activities. They believe this (low taxes) is driving the whole system. Paul Volker, was Chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan from August 1979 to August 1987, questions how much growth this new financial innovation has created. Their reaction is understandable (because of their belief in individualism), but a mistake. The new voice, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), educated many more of the middle class that they have been taken advantage of by a financial system that favors the rich – identifying extreme inequality as the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, and highlighting the failure of the legislators to protect 99% of the people.
OWS protesters reminded us that, since the 2008 financial debacle, there has been no progress on significant reforms of the financial services industry (to reduce the risk of reoccurrence). The OWS protesters challenged the excesses of the corporations in general, and in particular, a government controlled by corporate money and the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest of America. There is also a great deal of frustration over the lack of jobs. One of the goals is to get working class people involved in the political process. The discontent with growing economic inequality provides the unifying force behind the necessary change.
OWS protesters want many more of the middle class to become broadly conscious of what is wrong with the present political economy. They call out to the middle class to have the courage to think for themselves, challenge the blind faith and convictions in the present deregulated market, and support interventions to reduce the influence of the dominant institution, the corporation, on the government. OWS protests have put inequality on the political agenda.
[i] Tarnas, Richard. (1991) The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World. (118, 158-160)
[ii] Foster, Harold J. ed. (1969) An Outline of European Intellectual History: Locke to Hegel (89-91)
[v] Horsman, Greg. 2013 Evolutionary Economics and Equality: An Age of Enlightenment (171-187)
[vii] ‘Canada’s Middle Class being Hollowed Out.” <http://www.business.financialpost.com/2011/12/05/canadas-middle-class-being-hollowed-out/>.