Middle Class Manifestoby Sarah Dawson / 20.10.2011
This is a middle class publication. Look at the stories that have been published in this magazine over the last little while: Stories on rocking the daisies, independent music, theatre productions, designer shoe competitions, and a re-elaboration of 19th century South African history by a white guy. As I write this, and as you read it, there can be no illusion between us that the information being exchanged has universal relevance. No. It is just between us. We’re not the Motsepes or Oppenhemeir heirs of the world, but we are bourgeois enough to have access to this platform and have the time and/or interest to amuse ourselves with largely vacuous comment board flame wars on the abovementioned topics of “Music, Culture, Reality”. This is an interesting triad. For us, who are supposedly interested in “what’s really happening along the fault line and in the trenches of South African culture”, according to the About section. But what do we actually all have in common here as readers, as people, who somehow supposedly share at some level this notion of “culture” and “reality”?
What we have in common is that we are all the middle class youth. This is our culture. And it’s more powerful than any national, ethnic or ancestral sense of identity we may believe belongs to us. Those old ideas of “culture” have been bought and sold back to us so many times that they’re dog-eared and false.
We need to fess up and look at the fact that “culture” is what informs our values and norms, and here we are reading a magazine in which, under the heading of “culture”, we find Nike shoe-designers and art films. These are what define what we think is acceptable and desirable. These are the things we care about. Not where our next meal’s gonna comes from (unless you’re a “struggling creative” which is about as bourgie as you get), or what you’re going to do when the government kicks you off the land you’ve illegally settled on because you have nowhere else to go.
We are not very different from other semi-privileged kids across the globe. The South African flavour of the universal consumer: black diamonds proclaim their African femininity in the words of Beyonce, and white boys beat up people who support a different English football team, and dreadlocked trustafarians sing Bob Marley songs, and teenaged girls get breast implants after watching the OC, and slam poets speak in American accents, and skinny alt-girls get pin-up girl tattoos, and art-school trained graphic designers sell petrochemicals and jazz musicians who went to UCT wear beads in their hair.
This is our culture. We are not our fading Afrikaans language. We are not our dad’s struggle cred. We are not our Diwali celebrations. We are not our British ancestral visas. Our culture is consumer culture, and together we are its homogenised grey vomit. We are convinced that we are happy and unique, because we believe we have the freedom to represent ourselves as multicultural individuals and choose how our lives will turn out. But as the global economy upon which this freedom is predicated starts to falter, the brush work of the painted backdrop of the middle class “reality” of freedom starts to fall into relief. Perhaps everything isn’t what we thought it was. The global economy is falling apart in front of our noses, and despite all the choices we believe we have, the one choice we seem incapable of making, is to do anything about it. Let me make no bones about it. I am a hypocrite. I am part of this. I once sold my image to a major clothing company who imports cheap Chinese goods because I needed the money. I own an iPhone. I smoke Marlboro. But there isn’t time for this anymore. A sense of inescapable hypocrisy is fundamental to living in the 21st century. It is one of the primary subtle mechanisms of how late-capitalism convinces you not to do anything about the fact that we know, deep down, that shit is just not okay anymore. But it’s too late now for stumbling on thoughts like, “I know it’s wrong, but I have to buy this expensive shirt because I won’t look respectable at work if I don’t, and I need to get promoted”; or “I know Shell is intent on Fracking the Karoo but I can’t get to that gig in support of AIDS orphans unless I fill up here,” or “I know I’m selling shit to people who don’t need it, but my skills are creative, and the only people who will hire me are ad agencies.”
The fact that contradictions like these are unavoidable, doesn’t mean you should disinvest from wanting equality. The global economic system has monopolised ALL our basic resources. You can only get what you need by “selling out”, so it’s all you’re left with. Being a hypocrite here is not a bad thing. It means you can be critical of the things you realise that you do because you have to, not (only) because you want to. And make space to perform interventions where you can, dependent on who you are and what you need to do to survive. Try saving instead of racking up credit, (which is sold by your bank to other banks, and then to other companies outside our country, and then to Wall Street traders, generating interest at each level until at some point someone realises that “interest’ is made out of thin air and a global recession happens). Try not banking with banks owned by multinationals, meaning oodles of dosh flow out of our economy, onto the London Stock Exchange, and into the pockets of shareholders abroad. Try recycling. Try not buying endless amounts of worthless shit just to make yourself feel like your life has substance. Realise that your life does in fact have substance, even when you stop swiping your debit card at overpriced “vintage” stores. Stop pretending that this hegemonic globalism that’s founded upon conspicuous consumption (that we kid ourselves is a performance of our unique identity to which we are entitled) is not, in fact, who we are. These outdated, romantic definitions of “culture” that we use to divide ourselves up not authentic anymore. All they do is distract ourselves from the fact that our reality is a lot more boring, neurotic, homogenous, and shit than we pretend it is. We have to stop. We are all unique. But not in the way we think. I don’t want to smooth over racial inequality here. Nor do I want to pretend we’re all the same. But somehow, despite our abominable racial history, we, the middle class youth, have found unity in being tireless defenders of the common, shitty mediocrity we call our “culture”. But it’s time to look at the real reasons our society hasn’t transformed in 17 years.
South Africa is the most unequal country in the world according to something called the gini coefficient. And that inequality is still very much skewed in favour of white people. But the level of inequality between white and black people does show signs of being reduced, even if far too slowly. Nevertheless, the overall gini coefficient remains pretty much unchanged, because the level of inequality between wealthy black people and poor black people is growing. In other words, the circulation of the bulk of the country’s capital remains caught in a loop between the wealthy elite, despite the small steps we’ve made towards racial transformation. The force that drives the stubbornness of money to make its way out of (mostly white) hands to the people below is not racial as much as it is economic. Money is remarkably blind to race. The reason it doesn’t flow downwards is not because of racist, white overlords who don’t want to share. Even if they are racist, their money is not. Rather, some greedy, mostly white, motherfuckers got all the money first, and in this system, money only flows to where it can be multiplied. And so it circulates around the upper echelons and very rarely “trickles down”.
And the truth is, middle class, it’s because of us. We are the complicit enablers of economic injustice.
The South African versions of the Occupy Wall Street anti-corporate-greed event took place in five cities this weekend, and were attended mostly by, as one Mail and Guardian article put it “citizens who are white and middle class and have an affinity for the global anti-capitalist narrative.” While the Durban event, was not mostly white, it was certainly mostly middle class. Many journalists, including one from this publication, have come out in disgust at the bourgeois, social media-instigated world-wide protests in a South African context. But why does there exist, in the 21st century, this massive, scathing antagonism towards middle class activism – particularly from journalists, many of whom have BAs and car payments themselves? Why do people with opportunity feel the need to lash out so viciously at those who choose to put their opportunity to positive use? It’s like the regulation of the middle class conscience is paramount to maintaining some very important balance. Everyone must comply with who they’re supposed to be and say only things appropriate to their position, in order for other people to feel they know who they are themselves. What is being said is irrelevant. Who’s saying it is what matters. It’s the same looped definitions over and over that have more to do with a sense of righteousness than about doing anything right. Is it just a lack of creativity? It’s more likely that it’s a terror we feel at starting from naught at constructing an identity outside of the lines we know.
We have a psychological interest in recycling these narratives because they orientate us: The rich need the poor to be poor, not only because cheap labour is a crucial resource to capitalism, but because it makes their richness more meaningful. The middle class decides on which side of the line of dispossession they belong depending on how it’s most convenient to them from moment to moment. The poor are suffering, barely surviving, but have a moral advantage which has to be preserved at all costs, assigned to them mostly by an anxious multiracial middle class who prefers a noble savage. The people of all races in South Africa who have it fairly good financially are remarkably skilled at fending off the niggling anxiety that opportunities are come by, more than anything else, through luck and historical contingency. They do this in three ways: By proclaiming their entitlement as a result of either hard work or historical justice; projecting their guilt about whether they’re really deserving onto the poor experience, simultaneously absolving themselves of the responsibility to do anything, by fretting about condescension, lack of moral authority, or impotence; or, lastly, they just don’t give a flying proverbial fuck.
But while all this allows us to think we know where we slot in society, and what we are allowed to say and do, it does nothing for actually bringing about change. And the status quo is not really an option anymore. No matter whether you have the right to call yourself the 99%, 100% of us are doomed unless we do something. The house around us is going down in flames.
So if the Occupy movement in South Africa is middle class and transnational, then let it be. Arguably it’s the existence of middle-classness and transnationality that is most culpable in this convergence of crises. Those who have criticised Occupy publicly are invariably members of the same modern culture of acquiescent spinelessness that is blind to which country you live in, what language you speak, how recently and by what means you acquired your privilege. It’s not the prerogative of the middle class to arse about censoring each other with, “Who do you think you are to…”s. We are the class of people in possession of the power to change things simply by making a decision to act/consume/think differently. Unlike the poorer sectors of society, for us, change is not a struggle but a choice. And in our culture of modern consumerist roboticism and apathy, we don’t even choose to do nothing, we simply don’t choose at all. We don’t even realise that we have the capacity to choose anything except our brand of coffee. Yet we are the class that, irrespective of race, invests in the institutions that allow for the locking of flows of capital into a closed network of the privileged few, with either no knowledge of or no concern for the effects of this on the economy, the environment, and therefore on every other person living on earth. We give inequality perverse validity, and it’s time that stopped.
A middle-class movement doesn’t have to be a way of patronising the dispossessed by feeling that they can “facilitate” or shepherd them to freedom, nor should it be that the socially conscious middle class do nothing but sit on the sidelines of a people’s struggle to egg them on and throw them an occasional thumbs-ups – which it seems many believe that by not doing, has meant the Occupy movement in SA has failed. The movement is clearly not about “The Poor” with a capital P, but about a systemic problem. The 99% consists of people at every end of the spectrum, who have diverse experiences and responsibilities, but who acknowledge that their experiences share a cause. But maybe the fact that the Occupy movement is not an exercise in old fashioned white guilt is exactly what makes it so offensive to the bourgeoisie. The poor should be allowed the dignity to lead movements against injustice, pragmatically assisted where possible by those who have access to resources. But this doesn’t mean the middle class can and should do nothing themselves. The socially conscious privileged have their own part to play in fixing this mess: the making aware of their peers that doing nothing is doing something and that whether we like it or not, no matter how high the fences we erect, our actions have an impact on others, which in turn have an impact on our own lives.
Pick ‘n Pay is about to fire more than 3000 workers, due to “problems confronting the company in respect of declining profitability”, and because of the impending arrival of Walmart, whose strategies of global exploitation means that, worldwide, they can undercut any company who operates more ethically. Next time you go to do your shopping, and walk past a homeless person in the car park, past a Congolese refugee carguard who has fled his country due to conflict over the Coltan used in your cellphone, and push your trolley under the big, round smiling face of billionaire Raymond Ackerman, to buy your prepacked microwave dinners which cause cancer and pollute the environment, remember, Pick ‘n Pay is “Inspired by You”. What are you going to do about it?
*All images © Sarah Dawson.