Monday, September 20, 2010

What is middle class, really?

Like its fetishism of "small business", American political culture is enamored with the so-called "middle class". Everyone, we're incessantly told, is middle class. With the exception of the destitute on the one hand, and the mega-rich on the other, everybody in the US is part of the glorious middle class.

But like many features of our manufactured political culture, the idea that "we're all middle class" is a myth which serves only to obscure social and economic reality. Buying into this illusion that"we're all middle class" leaves us without the language to discuss very real divisions and inequalities of power in our society. This effect is not unintended: in order to legitimize unequal power relations, the ruling class must speak the language of universality and rationality, not the language of petty interests.

Although we're encouraged to think of class in terms of a person's consumer preferences, in reality, it refers to economic power relations. Economic power is not a function of how much money someone earns exactly. Economic power is a function of how it is that someone earns their living: Do they employ other people? Do they collect interest from investments of various kinds? Or are they the ones being hired by others who do the employing? What kind of authority does someone have in the workplace, and why do they have it? In short, when we inquire about a person's class, we want to know the extent of a person's control and ownership of productive assets.

Importantly, then, we're now in a position to see that income level is something that the idea of class helps to explain. It is thus not a part of how class itself is defined. That is, if you have a great deal of economic power in a certain kind of society, it is likely that you are in a position to extract a large portion of the social surplus produced by society for yourself. If you are dis-empowered by the economic order, it is not likely that you will be in a position to appropriate such a large portion of socially produced wealth for yourself. Class, understood in terms of power relations, is something that helps explain why income stratification exists in the way that it does.

Think of it in this way. Suppose you were examining a feudal society. You wouldn't get very far in understanding power in that society if you only knew that Lords happened to have a large amount of resources at their disposal whereas Serfs had much less. What a political theory that takes power seriously would have to show is why Lords had a lot whereas Serfs had very little. Class is an analytical tool that draws our attention to just that kind of power, with the result we being to understand how inequality comes about.

Here's how class breaks down in the contemporary US.

If you own and control substantial amounts of capital or productive assets that could be invested to make a profit, you are a member of the capitalist class, the ruling class in capitalist societies.

If you have no substantial ownership or control over means of production (the vast majority of us fall into this category), it's likely that you only have one productive thing to sell in order to earn a living: your ability to work. If this is the case, you are working-class. You don't have to be a factory worker to on a production line to be working class. You could be doing very skilled labor indeed. Teachers are working class. Although it has been sullied and spat upon, if not completely forgotten in the US, working-class should not be a term of abuse. It is, in fact, the class that the majority of us fall into.

Now, if you own a small business but also do some work in it yourself, you are neither capitalist nor working-class. You are classic middle-class ("petty bourgeoisie"). If you are a professional, you are likely also middle class (e.g. a lawyer who owns a small practice, or a doctor of a similar sort, etc.).

There are, to be sure, some difficult cases where people are on the boarder lines of each class. There's also the question of those who are excluded from economy entirely and sub-proletarianized. The perverse paradox in such cases of exclusion, of course, is that "the only thing worse than being exploited by capital, is not being exploited at all". But that there are hard cases doesn't vitiate the utility of this understanding of class in the least. The vast majority of us are working class, a substantially smaller portion are middle-class, and a very small percentage of us are ruling class.

So that's it. The "glorious middle class" is basically just professionals and small business owners. They do pretty well by the system and earn decent livings. They enjoy a standard of living and an amount of security that most of don't have access to. But, at the end of the day, the middle class doesn't control the commanding heights of the economy and their economic power is nothing compared to the power of the capitalist class. Though they do well by the system, capitalism is not set up to specifically service the interests of the middle class. This is seen specifically in the fact that the middle class is far more vulnerable to effects of economic crisis than are capitalists.

But for all this, we need to be clear and resolute in stating that middle class folks are neither the most oppressed nor the majority of our society.

So there you have it. A fraction of our society, constituting no more than maybe 15-20% at most, is substituted for the entire thing. Why do we put up with it?

Because we're trained from an early age to think that "average" means a massive, 6 bedroom single-family home in the suburbs (if you're white, of course). Think of every "family" movie you watched as a kid from Family Vacation, Home Alone, Poltergeist, to Beethoven, etc. etc. Think of most sitcoms. And, importantly, if you don't meet this conception of "average" then you've clearly done something wrong (e.g. you didn't work hard enough or you aren't smart enough, etc.)

When politicians speak blithely of the glorious "middle class", they aren't creating this fantasy out of whole cloth. They are drawing on existing illusions fashioned by capitalist social and cultural institutions. Those on the Marxist Left know better than to accept and reproduce this fantasy.


Sheldon said...

Great Post! but whatever happened to the term the "petty bourgoisie", or "petty capitalist" if you prefer or can't spell the latter word? I prefer to get rid of the term "middle class" all together.

I have enjoyed many of the recent posts here on Pink Scare. Keep it up.

t said...

Thanks, Sheldon.

I'm fine with petit bourgeoisie (or petty capitalist for that matter)- and I agree that we could more or less drop middle class from our political vocabulary entirely. Still- I do think there is a distinction between a so-called professional and a small shopkeeper (i.e. classic petit bourgeois) in terms of how they're related to production.

Also, as a matter of strategy- I do think that reaching some politically inchoate people means revaluing and destabilizing the terms and concepts with which they're familiar living in a capitalist society. In other words, I do think there's some political import to taking up the tools where they lie and using them against the prevailing "we're all middle class" ideology. But, I agree with what you say- given that the term is so ideologically loaded and directed towards convincing people that we live in a classless society without divisions, it would be better if it just went away.

JrDoc said...

I've gotten questions about the role of professionals in the working class, because it seems counterintuitive (in the minds of folks who classify based on income) for a doctor to be a worker.

The way things are going in the medical system, the number of private practice physicians ("middle class") is decreasing and the number of hospital-affiliated / hospitalist physicians is increasing ("working class)."

A person's income is not indicative of their class - doctors in hospital settings are just as alienated and exploited as any other worker. A physician employed by a hospital has much more in common with the nurses, techs, and maintenance staff than with the hospital owners who profit off of people's illnesses.

t said...

I agree with what you say about the fact that some doctors may, in fact, have more in common with techs, nurses, etc. than with the investors who own for-profit hospitals. A person's class, on the Marxist view, is in the first instance defined in terms of their relationship to the means of production. It's this way of thinking about class- in terms of economic power relations- that interests me (and which is desperately needed in our political vocabulary).