Middle Classes and The Middle

The Middle Class is all about paradoxes. 

Those who embrace Middle Class claim not to believe in classes at all, or at least in class as a determinant of human behaviour.

For Middle Classes then, it's about in the middle in terms of income and not about being a class at all. In that sense, Middle Class is only a temporary, transitional, identity. Also, this 'Middle' is neither the average, nor the exact middle point and nor the most common level of earning, but rather, about being in transition - not being defined by what one is, but what one wants to be.

So, the most plausible definition of the Middle Class is not about class, or a point in income distribution, but a mindset. Now what that mindset is, there is no clear agreement on that. One view holds that middle class is about striving, trying to get better, doing better than their parents did. The other is that the middle class is about an endless struggle not to be poor, by mimicking the techniques of the rich, by trying hard to keep the poor out from all areas of 'middle class' life. Usually, when we have such opposite views, truth is to be found in the middle. As with other paradoxes of middle class, the truth is not in the middle, but in the entirety of those arguments: Being middle class is about trying to be rich, trying not to be poor, mimicking the rich and keeping out the poor.

Who needs the middle class then? The dominant approach in Development thinking is that the more middle class a country has, the better: So much so that we can call the whole thing 'Middle Class Economics' with justification. Some might feel poor people are a drag on the nation, or from the opposite vantage point, the rich people are, but never never the people in the middle.

There are empirical reasons to question this, but before we get to that, it is quite easy to see the reasons for middle class economics to be self-evident. First, those who are supposed to question this approach belong squarely to the middle themselves. Second, as we always judge our future by our past, we may believe that the nineteenth-century leaps of prosperity are repeatable. And, in our somewhat garbled telling, middle classes were the 'vanguard' of the nineteenth century march of prosperity. And, indeed, drawing on the same fables, we see middle classes as emancipatory, the 'vanguard' not just of material development, but of democracy and freedom of expression - at the forefront of equality, democracy and liberty.

There are two things to say about this. First, middle classes were not the cause, but the outcome, of material prosperity. Professions came as technologies allowed wealth to be created without ownership of land, and as towns sprang up. Second, the middle classes are judged kindly by history as they are the ones who wrote it (like Churchill): The poor man's struggle usually become middle class' victories (and victorious poor men often became one themselves). The stories of democracy, welfare state, freedom etc are usually told as an accommodation of middle class visions and gifts, but they hide more than they tell: The poor foot-soldiers of those struggles are somewhat set aside and forgotten among narratives of speeches, leaders, manifestos and power struggles.

At this moment of history, though, the role of Middle Class - which is dominant - is not emancipatory, but exclusionary. And, besides, being not a class, it excludes from within its middle. There is no sense of solidarity in the fight for school places or for Christmas deals (discounting Nutella spreads caused a full-fledged riot in Interemarche stores in France last week), and the Middle Class politics is, by the logic of its own design, reactionary and aimed at destroying the middle classes. The Liberals of various hues, a political creation of middle classes of an earlier era, have failed to appreciate this turn altogether, blinded, as they are, by the assumption that future will be like the past. They have not fully understood the chasm in the middle of the Middle Classes - that middle classes have no middle!

We don't usually see this in our obsession with the super-rich, the top 1% who controls between one-third and half of all global wealth and whose influences are only rising (one estimate puts that the top 1% got more than 80% of all wealth created last year). This is a legitimate concern, but the reason why middle class economics and politics are failing miserably is not because of the direct actions of these super-rich, but the day-to-day intervention of the next 20%, upper middle class dream-hoarders, who controls opinions and dominates the political agenda. It is they who want segregated school districts, hierarchical workplaces, preferential lending, gated communities and corrupt politics of influence. They are scrambling to destroy middle classes, as an identity for themselves and a label in general.

The politics of reaction that has arisen in the wake of Trump and Brexit (and Modi etc) is a creation of this Middle Class without a middle. The corruption of education and civic engagement, the rebound of racial identities, the unapologetic return of selfishness and the inversion of the agenda of inclusivity and diversity, are the symptoms of the world this classless class has made. It is an unique political phenomenon of our time, something that explains the regression of our politics and breakdown of the consensus that we lived with over the last half century.


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