Accidental Activist

The Illusion of Middle-Class Wealth

Middle-class stability is an illusion, and the price of this illusion is cheap labour - or worse, slave labour.

By Ben Bull
Published April 05, 2018

I had a dour thought this past weekend as my wife and I enjoyed our annual Easter ritual, watching The Ten Commandments: Have we really eradicated slavery?

I didn't say it out loud, of course. It was a ridiculous idea and besides, it would have spoiled the movie.

But the next day, as I trudged past Union Station and looked at the glum faces of my fellow commuters, it came back to me.

Who are these miserable workers? How much freedom do they have? Do they work paycheque to paycheque? Do they worry about rising gas prices and pay for their annual Mexico vacation by VISA?

Then I thought of the other faces I see every day: The girl who serves my drink at Tim Horton's. The cleaner who taps meekly on the washroom door at work and never meets my gaze. What freedom do they have?

There is something smug in the idea that: Well, at least I'm doing better than them.

It's an idea I don't knowingly have but it must be there. How else can I gauge my economic standing in society? It's sort of like when I realized I was about to become the worst footballer on my soccer team. I knew I had two choices: Get better or quit. Nobody wants to be at the bottom of the pile (I quit - my knees were buggered).

And there's something impertinent about the pleasure we receive from getting a Mani-Pedi for 30 bucks. Look at me - I'm rich!

But who is really getting ahead?

Monday's 'Long Read' in The Guardian gave me some clues:

The squeezed middle has been bought off by the illusion that it can share the consuming habits of those with runaway incomes at the top; but it can't - not without squeezing those further down the chain.

I know we're in a race to the bottom. I've known it for some time. I read about offshore tax havens and political schmoozing every day. I see how the rich suck money out of our economy, leaving less and less behind for the rest of us to scrabble over.

But what can I do? I'm middle class. I'm not that oppressed, I'm not in that much pain.

I suppose I could have pitched my tent alongside the Occupy protesters. I could nod in sympathy with the French rail strikers. Or I could guard what I have and brag about my latest cut-price Amazon delivery: $200 for a Chromebook? How do they do it?

The Guardian article continues:

If you are being offered a service for much less than you would expect to pay for it, someone is being exploited

I'm not a slave and neither are my fellow commuters. But we do have a diminishing amount of economic freedom. We are all falling further and further behind.

It's imperceptible, this receding - like a slow-moving cartoon character being chased by a fleet-footed dragon. Every time the camera cuts back, we are somehow staying ahead.

But it's real - isn't it? After all, if we can still buy new clothes and go out for a nice meal - we must be doing okay, right?

The price of this illusion, and our repressed agitation (because shouldn't we be agitated?) is cheap labour - or worse, slave labour.

Take the group of trafficked Lithuanians working brutal hours on egg farms around the country (England) who were kept under control in their Kent ganghouses by threats and fighting dogs. What did farm managers and local residents on the same quiet streets see and hear? Alarming antisocial behaviour, and fights in a foreign language that made them want to turn away and keep their heads down, or fellow human beings suffering intolerable abuse and anaesthetising themselves from the trauma with drink?

I like to watch the English Premier League on the weekend. I'm a northerner so I have an affinity for anything above Ipswich. But these days I feel an intense sadness while I'm watching Stoke vs Newcastle (and not just because it's usually a crap game).

Stoke play at the bet365 stadium, named after a gambling company. They used to play at the Victoria Ground, a stadium with a rich history and a name to match. Newcastle are currently sponsored by Fun88, an online gaming company. They used to be sponsored by Wonga - the payday loan firm.

Somehow, as I struggle to pay attention to the inevitable 0-0 draw, I feel like it's sort of the end of the world.

It seems to me that, as we have less and less, we are able to get just as much for cheaper an cheaper. And I wonder - where will it all end?

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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