Many working-class people have descended into what has been described as the “precariat,” a group of workers who have limited control over the length of their workday and often live on barely subsistence wages. Research reveals that 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the United States and the EU-15 (the 15 member states of the EU as of April 2004), or up to 162 million individuals, does such work.
Conditions for these workers represent a throwback to earlier times. In ultra-expensive places such as Silicon Valley, many conditional workers live in their cars. The typical Uber driver is not the one seen in ads, the middle-class driver picking up extra cash for a family vacation or to pay for a fancy date; most depend on their “gigs” for their livelihood. Nearly half of gig workers in California live under the poverty line. These workers often face a dismal future as they age; only one-third of independent contractors in the U.K., for example, have any sort of pension savings for their retirement.
Critically, the traditional bulwarks of working-class community — religious institutions, neighborhood and social groups, unions, and extended family — are all weakening. Marriages among the upper classes may be getting more stable and less likely to dissolve but take place later, as sociologist Stephanie Coontz has noted. But the situation is different among the middle and working classes; overall, as many as one-third of the births in the U.S. take place outside matrimony.
The decline of these institutions hasn’t happened on its own, but with a strong push from the upper classes.
Like the revolutionaries of 1789, those in the contemporary French third estate (the commoners) have been stirred by the hypocrisy of their betters. In pre-revolutionary times, French aristocrats and top clerics preached Christian modesty while indulging in gluttony, sexual adventurism, and lavish spending. Today they call for working- and middle-class abstemiousness while they live large and exempt themselves by paying their modern version of “green” indulgences through carbon credits and other virtue-signaling devices.
We may be, as Tocqueville wrote in the 1840s, “sleeping on a volcano” destined to explode. The imposition of the Green New Deal proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — which would effectively mandate the end of many industries, from fossil fuels to aerospace to cattle ranching — would likely spark a mass rebellion in middle America. The “green” policies so appealing to a Silicon Valley billionaire, an investment banker, or a grant-seeking scientific researcher seem more like class warfare to residents of Youngstown, Ohio, the Ruhr in Germany, or, increasingly, China’s blue-collar cities.
Being held in contempt is bad. Being held in contempt by obvious hypocrites is worse.