How the middle class committed suicide

October 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

The old villas of Lido, like all old villas everywhere, illustrate the fall of the middle class.  Beautiful 2 or 3 story houses with gardens and terraces opening upon the sea testify by their design — and often by surviving inscriptions — to their single family past.  They were all built a century ago to house Venice’s doctors and engineers.  Today each has been subdivided into multiple apartments, each apartment occupied by its own family, each family of the same, only much poorer, doctoro-engineerial middle class.  It is the story of my grandparents and parents:  both my grandfathers — one was a merchant the other a judge — went to work at 10, knocked off for the day at 3, and each lived with an unemployed trophy wife in a 10 room apartment downtown, with 3+ servants.  Both my parents have worked all their life, each more that 40 hours a week, not counting the commute.  They had no servants.  They lived in a single family homes in distant suburbs, each of which was smaller than the apartments they had grown up in.

The Le-Corbusierian horrors of Benfica testify to a similar story, in reverse:  the dramatic improvement in the standards of living of the poor.  To you and me Benfica might seem a horror, a completely unlivable factory for living; but compare that to the hovels from which the residents’ parents and grandparents had come – cramped, low ceilinged, with beaten earth floor, and, often with the door doubling as the only window, and, boy, life is good, isn’t it?

Looking at the two, one could say, the middle class… lost.

One source of the loss is dumb mismanagement.  The middle class allowed the poor to breed; then (in 1914 and 1939 again) it put guns in their hands.  By second half of the twentieth century, the poor had the numbers AND the guns.

But there is another cause for the loss, a more pernicious cause.  Empress Elisabeth of Austria illustrates the point:  she was an Empress but she believed in democracy based on merit.  Royalty and aristocracy were to her a ridiculous relic, destined sooner or later for the dump-heap of history.  Similarly, somewhere in early 20th century, the middle class lost belief in its own right to be what it was.  Middle class elders began to found schools and hospitals for the poor and push for social-democratic reforms through parliaments; middle class youth embraced Marxism and revolutionary politics.

In effect, the middle class… committed suicide.


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