Pictures of the Dead Middle-Class
Issue #15, September 1994
Is it at all surprising that a society founded on the opposition of classes should culminate in brutal 'contradiction,' the shock of body against body, as its final denouement? ... It is only in an order of things in which there are no more classes and class antagonisms that 'social evolutions' will cease to be 'political revolutions.' Till then, on the eve of every reshuffling of society, the last word of social science will always be: Combat or death: bloody struggle or extinction. It is thus that the question is inexorably put.'
— Karl Marx, from The Poverty of Philosophy
Class war begins on your doorstep. This is what I learned in mid-August while staying with my partner in San Francisco's Mission District. As we came back from a late dinner, we noticed a man down the block from us wielding a metal baseball bat and randomly smashing the windows out of every car he passed on the quiet street. At first, we could not believe our ears. Was he really smashing so many windows, or were we confusing the sound of his hitting a nearby chainlink fence with the sound of glass shattering? He walked very fast, and worked quickly. Before we knew it, he had shattered four windows on a car across the street from us and began to walk aggressively toward us, swinging the bat. At that moment, a man stopped his car in the intersection nearby and got out, assuming a defensive posture and looking directly at the man with the bat. The man from the car reached for something black and metallic in his pocket, and my partner shoved me against the wall, saying: 'Get down!'
Holding each other's arms and pressed into the painted wood, we were relieved to discover the man in the car held only a flashlight, and turned out to be an undercover cop. Dropping his bat, the vandal fled across a park in the direction of the Treat Street Projects. Later, as we watched from my partner's bedroom window, we saw the entire block light up with police cars and fill with residents who had come home late to find their car windows destroyed. Apparently, the man had gone around the entire block — across the park we could see people on another street examining their cars and speaking to police officers. In a short time, the man had done an incredible amount of damage. Eight cars were vandalized on one side of the street alone. Most of the cars belonged to working-class neighborhood families who could hardly afford the expense of fixing them. Some car owners were almost in tears. They lingered around in what were literally piles of broken glass, heads down, speculating about the 'son of a bitch' who had done it. We thought he was probably high on drugs — PCP or crack. But maybe not, we reasoned. He might just have been high on life.
That life, of course, is not the life we were supposed to get high on in the 'just say no' Reagan years. It would have been life in the heart of the impoverished Mission District. The man may possibly have come from the projects — that is the direction he went when he ran. Regardless of where he came from, his anti-social acts took place in a region of the city known for its working-class and underclass residents. And yet it was clear the man with the bat had only one thing on his mind. He wanted to do violence to valuable property. He had no other motive; his hits on the cars were far too random. His rage was aimed at expensive commodities which have long symbolized American affluence and class mobility. Having a car makes you look like you have a place in the economy, a good place. Even if this isn't true on a factual level, it is 'true' in our fantasy lives. The nicer the car, the richer the person who drives it seems to be.
Destroying cars, then, is an act of anger directed specifically at people's pocketbooks and economic egos. It is a 'fuck you' to the kind of class privilege — however negligible in a place like the Mission — which allows people to buy cars in the first place. The man with the bat was probably responding at some level to his own exclusion from an economy which allows some lucky people to own cars and houses. This is only speculation. But based on the evidence at hand, it seems likely that the man with the bat was a member of the underclass, outraged by the very objects he desired most to have and could not buy. He was performing, in microcosm, an act of class war. But why did he lash out at a class of objects, rather than a class of people?
In the context of a capitalist society, his act is understandable. Living in what has come to be called 'consumer culture,' we learn to associate objects with people. To some extent, you are what you buy. The ruling classes, for example, are identified by their luxurious houses, new cars, and designer clothes. A middle-class person might be known by their CD collection, home computer, and running shoes. These kinds of identifications can cut across class lines too: both the suburban teen and the ghetto teen might collect rap CDs and wear $80 Nike Airs. Women from all classes tend to buy expensive cosmetics products. Yet we are unlikely to gauge people's race or gender solely on the basis of their purchases. By contrast, often the only way we can recognize each others' class backgrounds is through the kinds of objects we see each other buying and owning. Therefore, when a person like the man with the bat wants to lash out at a particular class of people, it makes sense that he would take aim at the things which identify them as such. Even though the man with the bat ended up destroying cars belonging to the working-class, we can nevertheless understand why he might have imaginatively confused cars with the middle-class itself.
It would seem, then, that all the man with the bat needed to do is figure out the difference between middle-class people and the objects they buy. Had he done that, he would not have vandalized a working-class neighborhood, and he would know who his 'real' adversaries were in the class war. But the problem goes deeper than that. His problem has not only to do with the objects he targeted, but also the kind of act he deemed appropriate to call attention to his anguish. Indeed, his acts are committed against real middle-class people all the time without ever bringing the class war to an end, or bringing justice to all classes equally.
Some of the most violent homicidal acts are committed in the middle-class suburbs, at random, by people with underclass and working-class backgrounds. Like the vandalism committed by the man with the bat, these homicidal acts serve no purpose other than sheer destructiveness aimed at what amount to symbolic objects. In these cases, middle-class individuals become symbolic of the middle-class as an abstract whole. Growing up in the affluent suburb of Irvine, California, I can recall quite distinctly when this kind of class warfare began to seep into my personal life. In 1985, a serial murderer known as the 'Night Stalker' (Richard Ramirez) began killing people in my area. He mostly targeted victims who lived in homes that epitomized middle-class suburban living. Often they were two-story, single family homes. He would break into houses at night where people had left their windows open, a common habit in heavily patrolled and notoriously 'safe' suburban areas. When my friends and I went out at night, our parents began to warn us to lock doors and avoid dark parking lots. Suddenly, all of middle-class suburbia seemed to be potentially dangerous.
Ramirez was identified as an unemployed 'Texas drifter' who drove from town to town killing people. In LA, he had been arrested more than once on drug trafficking charges, indicating that he might have made money on the black market. When Ramirez was caught in late 1985, he was nearly beaten to death by vigilantes in East LA who recognized him from police sketches. Having made the middle-class a target of his homicidal rage, Ramirez was nevertheless nearly killed by members of his own class in East LA , a working-class neighborhood. Interestingly, one of the vigilantes was rewarded for his heroism with a new car. After receiving the death sentence in 1989 for murdering 13 people, Ramirez said to the press as he left the court: 'I'll see you in Disneyland!' Disneyland, like the suburbs, is a place which symbolizes middle-class prosperity, particularly the kind Americans dreamed of after World War II. In previous statements to the press, Ramirez had indicated (at one point by yelling, 'Hail Satan!') that he believed his murderous acts stemmed from a relationship he had formed with the devil. And yet, his impending death made him think not of Hell, but of Disneyland. It would seem Ramirez's imagination, in stressful situations, supplied him with tw o possible destinations: Hell or Disneyland. Had he been able, he might have understood the opposition this way: the underclass or the middle-class.
Like the man with the bat, Ramirez used violence to lash out at the middle-class. Rather than focusing on objects which reminded him of the middle-class, he saw middle-class individuals themselves as objects. In the class war, both sides tend to objectify each other. They do this for same reason the enemy is made into a stereotypical 'monster' in any war. If you objectify or stereotype your enemy, it is far easier to hurt or kill them. I am not trying to imply that the vandal I saw or Richard Ramirez would consciously understand their actions as melees in a class war. What I want to bring into focus here is a striking coherence in the kinds of crimes we describe as 'senseless violence+ — particularly if we look at these crimes in the context of economic conditions.
A murder committed recently in the region where I live now, the San Francisco Bay Area, duplicates a number of the factors involved in Ramirez's serial homicides. I refer, of course, to the infamous kidnapping, rape, and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, a middle-class girl from Petaluma. She was stalked and kidnapped from her home by Richard Allen Davis, the son of a truck driver. Davis had held several working-class jobs doing manual labor, and supplemented his meager income with burglary (for which he was arrested more than once). Certainly we cannot sympathize with Davis or his crimes, but we can recognize their social origins. We know that Davis had a history of poverty; as a child and as an adult, he dealt with the worst aspects of underclass life on a daily basis. His parents moved around a great deal; his father was abusive and often unemployed. Davis, too, was frequently unemployed or underemployed. Many of his burglaries, which began when he was fairly young, were motivated by a need for cash.
Later on, however, Davis' burglaries took a more metaphorical turn. Rather than stealing money from the middle-class, he began stealing people from the middle-class. He became a kidnaper. His first victim was a 26-year-old legal secretary whom he attempted to rape and abduct at a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station. When she was able to escape, he returned for a while to robbing houses again. His next — and successful — attempt at kidnapping mirrored a house burglary in nearly every respect. He broke into a middle-class house and stole something from inside it. What he stole was Polly Klaas, whose name, ironically enough, is pronounced 'class.' Davis seemed to have confused middle-class people with middle-class possessions almost entirely. His modus operandi suggests that he treated Polly Klaas much like stolen property. And he was not entirely mistaken in doing so. As a child, Polly Klaas was in fact the property of middle-class people — her parents. In fact, a child is often the most important property of any class. Children ensure the future, the continuation, of whatever their class represents. By stealing a middle-class child, Davis was able to go one better than pocketing middle-class money. He was robbing the middle-class of its future as well.
Missing or kidnapped children number in the thousands in the United States, and most are from the underclass. Polly Klaas' case made national headlines for two reasons: her parents were middle-class, and they used their middle-class status to spearhead a nationwide hunt for their missing daughter after the police had run out of financial resources and leads. Polly's father Marc Klaas, a rental car executive, helped form the Polly Klaas Foundation, which organized hundreds of volunteers to send out 8 million flyers featuring a description of Polly and details of her abduction. The Polly Klaas Foundation used a particularly middle-class method to achieve its ends: advertising techniques borrowed from consumer culture. What most people remember about the Polly Klaas Foundation and the Polly Klaas case are the flyers they sent out. These look remarkably like advertisements, particularly for those of us who lived in areas where hundreds of them were posted. One version of the flyer, which I still own, is in full color, with a glamorous picture of Polly, a police sketch of Davis, and a short description of the crime. Like all the posters, it says beneath Polly's picture: 'KIDNAPPED AT KNIFE POINT.'
What is even more interesting about the Polly Klaas posters is the way they depict Polly herself. She was not a 'missing child' like the (often underclass) children we find pictured on the backs of milk cartons or junk mail. Instead, the process by which she was stolen gets emphasized, thus heightening our sense that her loss was a result of a specific social transaction. Polly's status as 'missing' is never mentioned -only the act which made her so. These posters tell us a story about the class war as seen through the eyes of the middle-class. They deliberately call attention to the anti-social way Davis interacted with Polly, his capture of her and the kind of weapon he used. If indeed they are 'advertisements,' they seem to promote awareness of underclass violence rather than the search for a missing child.
The middle-class mostly 'promotes' the class war without perpetrating overtly violent acts on the underclass. Instead, the middle-class wages its war, and menaces the underclass, using indirect means. The middle-class does this, in part, by using the mass media to consume the underclass as images, or sheer representations. Posters of Polly Klaas with Richard Davis and prison photographs of Richard Ramirez have become shorthand for the idea that the underclass is a danger to itself and others. Ramirez has been converted into a kind of cult sex symbol, whose crazed-but-seductive face seems to suggest the underclass is beautiful but deadly. On a more general level, reality and docudrama TV shows like Cops and America's Most Wanted turn representations of (mostly underclass) crime into prime-time entertainment. To the extent that underclass criminality and violence are packaged and consumed as titillating 'true crime' culture, working-class and underclass people themselves get used for the purpose of gratifying middle-class consumers. Entertainment of this type is a way of demeaning the working-class, and once again putting them in the position of 'serving' the middle-class, even if in a symbolic sense. Ultimately, the circulation of these images justifies underclass people's 'valuelessness' within the economy — save as objects to be consumed in controlled doses.
The middle-class also wages class war by consuming products and services that underclass people manufacture or provide for poverty-level wages. You might say that the middle-class consumes underclass labor time, and, on a symbolic level, consumes underclass people themselves. Middle-class consumption is a blow to the working-class in large part due to the patent unfairness of the way wealth is meted out in a capitalist economy. A working-class person may labor eight hours a day doing staff work for ten years, and yet never be able to afford the house his boss bought after working the same hours for just two years. Why is staff work necessarily 'less valuable' than management work? Many would argue that staff workers put in more unpaid overtime and deal with far more difficult situations than any manager. From the vantage point of the working-class, it often appears that middle-class affluence and consumer buying power are stolen from the working-class.
We can see that the class war is brutal, and deadly, for both sides. Reduced to lives of material scarcity, members of the underclass lash out violently at signs of middle-class affluence. Treating the underclass as objects it can consume, the middle-class cheats the underclass out of prosperity and social power it deserves. Both classes are equally guilty of perpetuating a class war. It may be true that the middle-class has an oftenadvantage over the underclass, but it is important to remember that this doesn't mean the middle-class has 'won' the class war. The middle-class lives in perpetual fear of the working-class, and would not need to fight if its power were as monolithic as some believe. Indeed, the problem is not so much with one side or the other, but with the idea of economic class itself. More specifically, the problem lies in the way we conceive of the economy as a matter of life and death.
Like most forms of war, the economy is an abstract idea which helps to organize vast, collective human efforts; also like war, the economy works only when people are in conflict with one another. I am speaking here specifically of a capitalist economy, in which 'free market' competition is supposed to equalize employment opportunities and enhance the quality of goods sold. In a capitalist — and some forms of non-capitalist — economy, it is understood that one must work or risk death. Without working, one will earn no money and therefore will be unable to buy food and shelter necessary for survival. Hence we have the term 'livelihood,' which refers to one's work and wages. Because going to work entails competing with one's fellow workers in the marketplace, it would be perhaps most accurate to say that capitalism offers its participants the following choice: fight or die.
Often, unfortunately, the possibilities offered by capitalism are divided up along class lines. Mostly the middle-class tends to fight and live, whereas mostly the working-class and underclass tend to fight and die. Hence, along with all the other kinds of labors we divide up between the classes, life and death themselves are divided up as separate roles assigned to specific class positions. On a symbolic level, the middle class tends to perform the social function of 'living' through its consumer culture. The working-class acts out the fact of 'dying' by perishing due to scarce resources or 'making death' with violence. By setting up a capitalistic system, human beings have made it possible to pretend death is not a fact of life, but rather a fact of economics. The class war continues in part because it helps us to avoid our real fears about death — the economy is a way that we can control death, so to speak, by behaving as if it is the task of one particular class (the working-class) to die. The middle-class has already got the working-class doing all its worst work for it. Why shouldn't they also die for the middle-class too? Certainly no one literally believes middle-class people will live forever. But it is impossible to ignore the way most people behave as if money were equivalent to life itself.
Bearing in mind the idea that capitalism is one way people try to cheat death, it is easy to understand why the 1990s are a time of widespread apocalyptic thinking. When the economy is unstable, suddenly it appears as if we are all going to die; that is , it seems as if were all going to join the underclass. In a nutshell, this the a problem with capitalism as an economic system. Economists on the left and right are well aware that capitalism is a system ruled by 'the economic crisis,' which can take the form of rocketing inflation, recession, widespread unemployment, overproduction, or any combination of these disturbances and others. To remain operative, capitalism must have periodic, recurring crises. Capitalism, in other words, is apocalypse economics. Class war is one sign of how life in a capitalist system encourages us to participate in apocalyptic scenarios, both real and symbolic. Senseless violence and the mass consumption of other people's labor are ways in which we act out small-scale apocalypses in our everyday lives.
Right now, there are two kinds of class war. One is terrifying and pervasive, personal and global in scope. This is the kind of war in which individuals perpetrate violence against one another because their class status has enraged them and pushed them beyond the limits of what might be called civilized self-control. The other kind of class war is also personal and global. But it is not violent; it involves helping people to see where they stand in a struggle between the haves and the have-nots and who stands there with them. This class war, which is a war on economic class itself, is fueled not by rage but by hope. Its goal is not revenge upon the ruling class, but freedom from it. Both kinds of class war are apocalyptic, in the sense that they aim to destroy our existing society. However, only the second form of class war — known as revolution — promises to rebuild society.
I think it is reasonable to assume that nearly everyone wants to end the class war, and the kinds of social antagonisms that go along with it. But an end to the class war requires an end to the economic system which fosters it. And this brings me to the kind of class war which Marx would call 'revolutionary.' In various writings, Marx predicts that capitalism must inevitably end with a clash between the proletariat (the working-class and underclass) and the bourgeoisie (the middle-class and ruling class) in which the proletariat finally 'win' the class war. They will win through a revolution which does away with class division and private property as we know them. After the 'victory of the proletariat,' Marx asserts, human beings will live in a truly classless society.
One of the reasons why Marxism has fallen into such disrepute lately among leftists has partly to do with Marx's insistence that the proletariat must lead the war against class — which is essentially represented as a war against the bourgeoisie. Perhaps a better way of understanding Marxism, and updating the idea of revolution for the 21st Century, would be to speak of revolution as something the middle-and working-class must fight together. A classless society can only be achieved when both the middle-class and the working-class call a truce and share the spoils of war equally among themselves. Moreover, viewing revolution and a classless society as the results of a cross-class communal effort makes it clear that everyone has a stake in ending class war and capitalism. Indeed, the working-class and middle-class also have an enemy in common: the international ruling classes, or the bourgeoisie, who truly own the means of production and supply both classes with their 'livelihoods.'
The point of revolution should not be death to the middle-class, which is too often how Marx's words about the 'victory of the proletariat' are read. If anything, revolution means death to all classes alike. Ultimately, revolution should usher in a new form of social life. In a world where people work together, rather than in competition with each other, we would be capable of creating the materials and goods to ensure our survival as a species. This post-revolutionary society would be one in which everyone would have the means to live comfortably, and therefore would not need to create an economic fantasy about defying death through wealth. And certainly there would be no need for violent rage directed at objects, since no one class would keep valuable property to itself.
But, as I often find myself admitting, it is difficult to imagine such a world. In many ways the very structure of this article mirrors the problem we have in recognizing an alternative to the class war. I am perfectly able to describe and critique at length what is at stake in our everyday economic fight. It is far harder for me to explain what it would mean to create life after capitalism, or life after apocalypse economics. Perhaps, by way of concluding, I should allude to the kinds of theological notions which gave rise to 'the apocalypse' in the first place. Imagining a civilization undivided by economic class is something like having faith in life after death. Only, in a Marxist view, 'death' is what we experience when we must choose between working and dying. 'Life' is work freely chosen, in a system which promises a just society as your reward.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer and a graduate student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. She is currently at work on a series of articles about economics, sexuality, and the mass media. Her dissertation concerns the representation of monsters and psychopaths in contemporary American popular culture. She is also senior editor of Bad Subjects.