Before I continue my multi-day reflections, I thought I would say just a word about the phrase “middle class” which in recent years has played a central role in Democratic Party rhetoric. In the feudal era, the distinctions among the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners was marked by law, by custom, and by immemorial tradition. Each group had its own law courts, for example. In England, members of the House of Lords were tried for crimes before their peers, not in the courts that tried the cases of commoners. In France, there were three estates and it was a revolutionary moment when first the representation of the third estate was doubled in the National Assembly and then all distinction among the estates was eliminated.
When Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and their lesser fellow political economists developed the first systematic economic theory of the newly emerging capitalist order, they divided the population of England into three classes defined by their functional relationship to economic activity: landowners, entrepreneurs, and working men and women. Land, capital, and labor are the three elements of the economic order and they recognized that the most important fact about any individual was his or her relationship to that order. The story is a great deal more complicated, of course, and in France, for example, a centuries long three cornered struggle took place among the rural land-based aristocrats, the king, and the merchants and artisans living in the walled cities. The cities were called “bourgs” and so the merchants and artisans were called “bourgeois.”
The clear implication of this mode of analysis was that the interests of the capitalists, workers, and landowners were ineluctably in conflict, a conclusion that was uncomfortable for the economists of the later 19th and 20th century whose task it was to justify, not to anatomize, capitalism. Drawing on the work of Max Weber, whom they somewhat misunderstood, 20th century sociologists and economists began to substitute a different form of classification: what was sometimes labeled socio—economic – status or SES. Thus was born the familiar classificatory scheme with which we have been living for a century or so of lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle-class, and upper-class segments of a modern capitalist society. The purpose of this classification, at least ostensibly, is to take account of non-economic aspects of a person’s social position. How a person was viewed by others was determined not only, or perhaps not at all, by the relationship he or she bore to the capitalist economy but rather by such things as his or her housing, clothing, and other possessions; whether his or her employment was paid hourly, or weekly, or even monthly; how much formal education he or she had completed; and even what sorts of amusements he or she preferred.
My favorite example of this sort of classificatory scheme was the old joke that when two couples went out for an evening together, if they were working-class the men rode in the front of the car and the women in the back; if they were middle-class one couple rode in the front and the other couple rode in the back; while if they were upper-class the husband of one couple rode in front with the wife of the other couple while the husband of the other couple rode in the back with the wife of the first couple. In the great old black-and-white prewar movies, the toffs always seem to be dressed in evening clothes, the middle class men wear suits and the women wear dresses with fancy hats, and the working blokes wear working cloths. All the men wore hats – that didn’t stop until Jack Kennedy took his celebratory walk from the capital to the White House in 1961 hatless and overnight it no longer was the in thing for men to wear hats.
In the decades after World War II, during a time when many working Americans saw significant improvement in their economic condition, “middle class” came to mean “owning one’s own home, having a family car or even two, being paid monthly, not hourly, having paid vacations, sometimes even owning a vacation home.” The term “middle class” also acquired another meaning that is peculiar to the particular history of the United States. After the postwar migration to the suburbs, with black Americans left in the inner cities, thanks to the deliberately and officially discriminatory policies of the Federal Housing Authority, “middle class” took on the special and very important meaning “not black.”
It is useful to add a few facts to this impressionistic account. In 2019 the median weekly wage of persons employed full-time was roughly $950. Forty years earlier, in 1979, the median weekly wage of full-time workers in 2019 dollars was roughly $880. In short, in two generations there has been almost no improvement in the welfare of the bottom half of the American population.
In the next part of these reflections I will try to add to this story some facts about changes in the educational credentials of Americans. As should by now be clear, I am simply trying to assemble facts and thoughts that I think need to be woven into a coherent analysis of our present circumstances, even though I do not yet see clearly how that process of weaving is to take place.