Placed on this isthmus of a middle state/A being darkly wise and rudely great
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
One must indeed have turned a deaf ear to the chatter of the public square not to have heard the constant invocation of The Middle Class. Politicians, pundits, bloggers, even economists speak of nothing else. Presidential hopefuls mouth the phrase more often than teenager girls say "like." But a moment's reflection will reveal that "middle class" is a rather odd phrase indeed. In truth, a great deal of ideological insight into contemporary America can be achieved simply by meditating on the phrase "middle class." It is the purpose of this blog post to initiate such a meditation.
As always, a little history is a useful propaedeutic. Old Regime France understood itself to be composed of three Estates, each with its own system of laws and courts, its own customs of dress, and its own sources of income. The First Estate was the Clergy, who owed a double allegiance, to Versailles and to Rome. The Second Estate was the Aristocracy, whose status rested on its possession of the great inherited accumulations of agricultural land. The Third Estate was the Bourgeoisie, which [originally] meant the craftsmen and merchants who lived in walled cities [or bourgs.] The members of the Third Estate were in many cases a great deal wealthier than some of the impecunious aristocrats, and the clergy, of course, controlled vast estates which, however, belonged to the Church, so the classification into Estates was in no way intended to be an indication of relative wealth. The vast majority of men and women in Old Regime France, needless to say, did not belong to any Estate. They were, one might say, beneath the law.
With the dramatic termination of the last vestiges of feudalism, the system of Estates passed into history. When Adam Smith and his followers undertook to analyze the new society emerging from feudalism, they sorted people not into Estates but into Classes according to the position they occupied in the economic organization and processes of the society. It was patently obvious to Adam Smith that England was divided into three great classes: those who owned the land, the Landed Gentry; those who owned the means of production other than land, the Entrepreneurs or Capitalists, and those who, owning nothing save themselves, were compelled to sell their labor for wages, the Working Class.
Understanding society in this way, Smith immediately drew the natural and quite correct conclusion that the interests of the three classes must be in constant and ineluctable conflict, for what went into the pockets of the Landed Gentry came out of the pockets of the Capitalists, and what went into the pockets of the Working Class, meager though it surely was, also came out of the pockets of the Capitalists. Smith believed that the Landed Interest squandered its share of the social product on the unproductive clouds of servants with which it surrounded itself, draining wealth that would otherwise be devoted by Entrepreneurs to the employment of productive workers. His greatest fear was what was then called the "steady state," a situation in which so much of the wealth created by the labor of the Entrepreneurs' employees was paid over in rents to those who controlled the agricultural land that economic growth would grind to a halt.
David Ricardo, writing forty-one years after Smith, had the same vision of society as economic class warfare, and the same fear of the steady state, but he saw even more clearly than Smith the inescapable conflict between labor and capital. Half a century later still, when the landed interest had declined in wealth and power, Karl Marx made the conflict between labor and capital the centerpiece of his analysis of capitalism.
For all three of them -- Smith, Ricardo, and Marx -- the guiding principle for the understanding of society was functional differentiation, an understanding of the different relationship in which the separate classes of society stood to the organization of production. Land, Labor, Capital -- those were the most elementary analytic distinctions on which a satisfactory theory of society could be erected.
Marx expected the lineaments of capitalist society to become more clearly delineated as big capitals gobbled up small ones and old distinctions within the working class were progressively dissolved by the advance of industrialization, but by a generation and more later, when Max Weber was writing, something different and more complicated had happened. Class distinctions based on the relationship to the organization of production had become intermixed with distinctions in social standing, or status, based on education, on religion, and a host of other factors. Weber responded to this development by making the concept of status central to his analysis of capitalist society. The concept of status differs fundamentally from class in incorporating a subjective element. A person's class is determined by his or her objective position in what Marx called the social relations of production, but a person's status is at least in part determined by how he or she is perceived by others.
All of us are familiar with this fact, of course. A unionized automobile worker may actually make more money each year than a college professor, but society will consider the professor to have higher social standing, higher status, than the automobile worker. At least until several generations ago, this difference in status was marked by such differentia as dress, body language, residential location, tastes in music and films and art, and even by speech patterns.
Sociologists seeking to measure this distinction in social standing or status came up with the notion of Socio-Economic Status, or SES. This transformed the complexity of the phenomena identified by Weber into a unidimensional index, with the aid of which sociologists could describe someone as having high, middle, or low SES. Resurrecting the word "class" without any of its analytical power or insight, they described society as divided into an Upper Class of individuals having high SES, a Middle Class of individuals having middling SES, and a Lower Class of individuals having low SES. And so the Middle Class was born.
Two things are immediately obvious about this system of classification. First, since it is an expression of a continuous unidimensional index, the points of division -- between upper and middle class, or middle and lower class -- are arbitrary. Second, no matter where you choose to draw the lines, the sub-groups of the population thus marked off do not at all consist of individuals who bear the same functional relationship to the organization of the economy. Hence the terms have only a descriptive use, no explanatory power whatsoever.
Which brings us to the current obsession with the needs, interests, and recent hard times of the "Middle Class." A question thrusts itself upon us: Why do even supposedly progressive politicians and commentators, who might be expected to feel some concern for the economic hardship of working Americans, virtually never talk about "the Working Class?" There are four reasons, I think.
First, although the term "Working Class" has at least some positive connotations, the term "Lower Class" [or, as it is usually deployed, "the Lower Classes"] has none whatsoever. It is still thought to be complimentary to refer to someone as a "working man" or "working woman," but describing someone as "lower class" is understood to be an insult.
Second, one of the more amusing collective fantasies, or folies à tous, of Americans is that no one is any better here than anyone else, hence that no one is "upper class" [save perhaps the Kardashians, who are probably the only Americans remaining who ought to be described as "lower class."] Thus, politicians and commentators and economists speak as though everyone were Middle Class -- or almost everyone, as we shall see.
Third, now that it has become perilous politically to identify people by their racial classifications, the term "Middle Class" has come to have the secondary meaning "not Inner City Black." As I have observed on this blog before, for countless millions of poor white Americans, their single most important consolation is not their religious faith but the knowledge that they are not Black. To repeat a phrase from my youth that I have quoted here before, the proudest boast of many Americans, especially when declaring their right to act as they pleased, was that they were "free, white, and twenty-one."
Thus it is that although commentators and politicians will frequently speak about the special needs or concerns of "people of color," they simply never talk about the interests of the Working Class. Indeed, even to mention the grotesque inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income in America is to bring accusations of "class warfare," which would have struck the likes of Adam Smith and David Ricardo as very amusing indeed.
The fourth reason why the special concerns of the Middle Class are on everyone's lips is that voting behavior is closely correlated with income and wealth in America. The richer you are, the more likely you are to vote. Inasmuch as one third of eligible voters do not bother to vote in presidential elections, two-thirds in off-year elections, those concerned with affecting the outcome of elections go trolling for votes where they are likely to find them, which is to say in the enormous "Middle Class." Even the welcome calls for an increase in the criminally inadequate minimum wage are touted as serving the interests of the besieged Middle Class, which is, when you think about it, bizarre.
I have noted here the apparent inability of Paul Krugman to write or utter the words "Karl Marx." Perhaps the phrase "the Working Class" is shunned for the same reason -- it seems to some to be the first step down the slippery slope that leads through "bourgeoisie" to "capitalism" and ultimately to "Karl Marx."
It strikes me that the most radical thing I may accomplish at the University of North Carolina is simply announcing the title of my forthcoming course.