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Wednesday, January 25, 2012


In my post on the roots of right wing ressentiment, I made a few passing remarks about the notion "middle class."  I should like to return to that subject and invite my readers to weigh in with their thoughts.  This is not a subject on which I consider myself any sort of expert, but it is important that it be subjected to some sort of critique.
As I have indicated in several of my tutorials, Classical Political Economy is erected on the premise that society is divided into several great economic classes whose interests are ungetoverably opposed:  the landed aristocracy, the entrepreneurs, and the workers, in the writings of Smith and Ricardo, the working class and the capitalist class in the writings of Marx.  All three writers define class in terms of the common relationship of a large social group to the means and processes of production.  Landed aristocrats own and control a scarce, irreproducible factor if production, viz. land;  entrepreneurs own and control capital, the tools and inputs into production as well as their money form;  the working class has no ownership of the means of production nor access to land, and hence in order to survive must sell its capacity for labor to those who wish to profit from its use.  This, in a nutshell, is the basic structure of a capitalist economy, and from it one can deduce the power relations and relations of exploitation among the three great classes of society.
Marx understood that this simple schema did not adequately capture the complexities of the capitalist economy at which he was looking, and it captures even less well the capitalist economy in which we now live.  In the first place, there is clearly a very big difference, on the one hand, between great industrial magnates who command vast stores of capital and employ [and exploit] thousands upon thousands of workers, and on the other hand petty commodity producers who are completely at the mercy of market forces, employ a handful of workers, and by and large serve as the managers of their own small businesses.
An adequate schema must also make some place for the financial capitalists who do not own or manage productive enterprises, either directly or indirectly, but instead engage in complex manipulations of the money supply and the system of credit on which the industrial capitalists rely for access to investment capital.  We all know that in recent decades, this segment of the capitalist class has ballooned in size and importance, taking on a more thoroughly internationalized form than any other capitalist sector.
It is also the case that Marx's relatively simple view of the structure of the working class has diverged farther and farther from the observed realities of modern capitalism.  First of all, the pyramidal wage structure, of which I have several written on this blog, calls into question the assumption that all workers are stand in the same relation of exploitation to their employers.  A good many years ago, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis published a very elegant little paper in which they worked out the mathematics of relative exploitation.  High paid workers, they argued, must be understood as simultaneously being exploited by their employers and also exploiting lower=paid workers.  This observation has important implications for any strategy of mobilization based on worker solidarity.
Max Weber was convinced that Marx's analysis of capitalism was inadequate in this regard, and sought to introduce an alternative mode of social analysis based on the concept of status.  Status, first of all, is essentially a subjective measure, not an objective measure.  Status measures the way in which a social group or individual is perceived by others in the society -- the degree of respect or deference it is accorded.  One's objective location in the social relations of production is certainly an important determination of status -- in this regard, Weber agreed with Marx.  But other factors play an equally important role in determining status -- educational attainments, position in a government bureaucracy, even religion or ethnicity in some societies. 
Out of Weber's work, later sociologists developed the notion of socio-economic status.  SES, as it came to be referred to, was conceived by them as a unidimensional index of the multi-dimensional factors shaping the perceived status and social position.  Thus, a high school teacher, who is an employee of a state or local government, making a good deal less than an industrial worker, might nevertheless have high SES because of the general social respect for educational attainments.  A self-employed medical doctor might have very high SES, despite commanding few if any means of production and earning less than a corporate manager.  Whereas a Marxian analysis of the class structure of a capitalist economy is, in a certain sense, objective, resting as it does on an analysis of the real relations of production in the economy, a sociological analysis of Socio-Economic Status is inevitably subjective, since it is a measure of people's attitudes.  Hence the central tool in the determination of SES is the public opinion survey.
The basic class divisions in a Marxian analysis are determined by the structure of the economy, and hence are not at all arbitrary.  But there are no objective fault lines marking the end of one Socio-Economic Status and the beginning of another.  Once the polling data is in, it is a matter of arbitrary choice where the sociologist draws his or her lines.  So, "high SES," "middling SES," and "low SES" are simply arbitrary marks on a one-dimensional index generated by polling data.  One can try to explain why the public ranks doctors higher than corporate managers, or bus drivers lower than WalMart store supervisors, despite the fact that corporate managers make more money on average than doctors and bus drivers earn more than WalMart store supervisors.  But it would literally be meaningless to say that the public is wrong about these matters, since the public's attitudes [or at least those of a statistically valid sample] are definitive of SES.
"Upper Class," "Upper Middle Class," "Middle Class," "Lower Middle Class," "Working Class," and "Underclass" are a confused mishmash of categories defined in part of family income, in part of Socio-Economic Status, in part by objective relation to the social relations of production ["Working Class"] and in part by an acknowledgement of the caste distinctions rooted in race that have always distorted American society and continue to do so today ["Underclass."]
It would take too long to try to describe, analyze, and describe the secular changes in the sets of categories with which Americans have described their class structure over the past century and more.  In the '50s and '60s, "Middle Class" came to mean, roughly, "owning one's own home, having a salary rather than a daily or weekly wage, able to send a child to college, whether one did or not, having enough disposable income after food, clothing, and shelter were paid for to permit vacations, discretionary spending on luxury items [TV sets, a car, even a second car, etc.], and -- as I have already made clear -- sharply distinguished geographically, culturally, economically, and in social status, from the Black or Hispanic Underclass.
It is in the context of this understanding that we must interpret the unceasing references to "the Middle Class" by politicians of both parties.  In effect, the Democratic Party has assumed sole ownership of the African-American vote, according "Middle Class" status to the most successful segment of the Black community.  The contest, currently being won by the Democrats, for the Hispanic vote is fought almost entirely over immigration policy.  And poor Whites are awarded honorary "Middle Class" status to distinguish them from people of color.
Before a bring these remarks to a close, it is worth putting a few numbers on the table.  The median household income for all households in 2011 was $49,445.  Remember -- this means that half of all U.S. households had annual income of less than that amount.  The median household income for Hispanic households was $37,759, and for African-American households, $32,068.  It may help to put these figures in context to point out that an African-American couple, both working forty hours a week, fifty two weeks a year, for the Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr, would have an annual household income of $30,160.  In short, this couple, working bottom of the barrel jobs, would be close to the median Black household.
The non-stop talk about The Middle Class, in effect, writes off more than a hundred million Americans as not worth thinking about.

Well, enough is enough.  Tomorrow I go into the hospital for one more diagnostic procedure -- a pleural biopsy, under anesthesia.  I invite your comments on these observations.


John S. Wilkins said...

An uninformed response: I think the trouble with talk about class is that it presumes there is a single dimension - status, income, control of means of production, etc. - along which everyone can be arrayed. I think instead there are a multitude of them. Some are economic, some are ethnic (and American would call it "racial" but I think that is too restrictive and prejudicial, as it were), some are age cohort-based, and of course at least one is gender. In each dimension, one's status is determined by one's commencement point (parental standing and power relations or resources), one's personal attributes (tall and strong individuals tend to do better), and one's alliances, sexual and political.

in effect, to establish one's status overall with respect to any one other individual is a massive parallel equation to be solved in practice, throughout life. Since this is computationally intractable in every case, we tend to aggregate markers into "classes" and use them as surrogates for the actual status makers.

So there is a "middle class" almost by definition, if we treat the overall status makers as forming a linear scale of power and autonomy, but the median nature is simply an artifact of being in such a linear scale, and represents nothing directly that is real.

X said...

As long as there's a sizeable group of self-deluded folk who will fight to their death defending the property of a privileged few, well, there's your middle class; same as it ever was.

formerly a wage slave said...

I cannot possibly keep up with everything you've written at your blog, let alone what you've actually published. Nevertheless, my impression after reading this entry is as follows: One key problem is how people actually manage to vote or act against their very own interests.(And for all I know your previous thoughts about ideology are relevant here, but I couldn't manage to read them all) And here, it may be that the problem may be connected with the ability of an individual to identify with others, and form a changing and flexible group identity. (A person can in some sense have many group identifications, and they need not all influence actions at the same time---in fact, they cannot, since they may be contradictory.) So, many citizens of the USA who will never be wealthy think of themselves as potentially rich, and attempt to imitate (what they believe to be) the habits of the wealthy. (And here they are manipulated by advertising/marketing.) The capacity to identify with another human being, I suppose, can be something like empathy, and can lead to helping or less exploitative relationships. (I have always been impressed by the way that my previous bosses have disappeared to attend special "training" away from the workplace, in a more desirable location where they would be far away from those they managed. That's a clear case of making their superiority in the hierarchy a vivid psychological presence.) But, when twisted by advertising/status symbol manipulation, the ability to identify with others can lead to less beneficial , less just, behavior. (As I write this I have in mind the sort of research that Michael Dawson has done.) I wonder, however, whether it is just possible that a concern or commitment to justice can do something to sweep aside the noise here. --Please take all of that as an off-the-cuff reaction, to be read with the warning label, "for what it's worth".......Best wishes, MarkL

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