Everyone loves the middle class. Everyone claims to be middle-class—some to put a gloss on their sketchy escutcheons, others to dodge chastisement for their awkward riches. But in fact both the socioeconomic reality and the concept of the middle class have been turned on their heads and, at the same time, trivialized into a mere lifestyle choice.
Economically, the middle classes were once proprietors, self-employed owners of property and their own labor. Morally, they were the equivalent of “solid citizens”: decent, hard-working, law-abiding, temperate, proper, staid, virtuous, and—well, moral. The qualifications for being middle class have gotten a whole lot looser, to say the least.
The European term “middle classes” originally served to describe merchants, tradesmen, investors, and skilled craftsmen. The habitat of these classes was the walled city—the burg, bourg, or borough—hence their appellation, les bourgeois. The bourgeoisie occupied a middle ground between the nobility and the lower classes of peasants and servants.
As the historian Eugene Genovese used to say, “The bourgeoisie has been rising for about 500 years. They basically had to muscle in on the lords.” Two major traits defined this new class as it emerged from the chaotic end of feudalism: a close association with money (capital), banking, and investment, and their social independence. Their city walls, their gold, their commercial alliances, their education, and their skills defended them from the rapacity of the nobles, to the point where they could evolve into the leading citizens of a different kind of society.
As G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate write, in The Common People: 1746–1946, about the aftermath of the battle of Culloden, at which the forces of bourgeois Britain triumphed over their Jacobite enemies:
This extinction of the older society completed a process started long before, a process which alone made it possible for Britain in the next hundred years to become the workshop of the world. There were now no feudal lords to be conciliated or cajoled by the rising employing class. Land-owners, bankers and employers, each with their own type of property to support them, made their political bargaining and conducted their trading without any semi-baronial powers, private jurisdictions or infeodated supporters camped threateningly in the countryside.
Prior to the Revolution, France’s Etats-généraux comprised the clergy, the aristocracy, and the people—i.e., everyone else. After 1789 the bourgeois element of the people—a serious and truly revolutionary class—came to the fore and used the rage of the sans-culottes and the foule to wipe out the aristocrats. George Rudé’s The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England 1730–1848 relates many instances of the doomed peasant and cottage-industrial classes—“the hard and black hands”—rising up to demand restoration of their ancient feudal rights, only to be suppressed by the bourgeoisie once property came under attack. “Il faut en finir!” Order had to be restored. It was time for Louis-Philippe, the bourgeois king, to unfurl the banner of “Enrichissez-vous!”
By the time Marx and Engels came along, the new antagonistic classes of capital and wage labor were well established. According to the Marxian model, just as the bourgeoisie had overthrown the absolute rule of church and noble, the working class—wage-earners, laborers, common people, plebeians, the mob, the masses—was destined to overthrow its new masters, the capitalists who capitalized upon its alienated labor. “Property is theft!” declared Proudhon. “We have been naught, / We shall be all!” “The middle class owner of property,” wrote Marx in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, “must be swept out of the way and made impossible.”
At its height, the original middle class radiated dominance, competence, and rationality. It religiously embraced the sciences and their derived technologies and was swept upward with those powers into a world beyond the wildest Utopian dreams. In the words of Charles Morazé’s The Triumph of the Middle Classes:
The year 1900 was a wonderful one, when men were proud to be middle-class, and to be Europeans. The fate of the whole world was decided around green baize-covered tables in London, Paris or Berlin. … Mobilized by steam, the planet’s riches were being shifted … on orders flashed by telegraph in two or three minutes. … Not a single detail escaped the notice of Europe’s financial capitals: they fixed the price of a tram ticket in Rio de Janeiro, and the working hours of a coolie in Hong Kong.
The world the bourgeoisie made opened countless paths to wealth and self-reliance for even the humblest chrétien, as Paul Johnson documents so well in The Birth of the Modern. The greatest elevation of human beings in history had fashioned out of “little men” architects, engineers, shipwrights, road builders, agriculturalists, inventors, lawyers, bankers, brokers, journalists, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists, shop owners, highly educated theologians and natural philosophers, and pursuers of a hundred other professions.
Volume after volume has been devoted to the anthropology of class, its trappings, its contradictions, its “tells” and secret handshakes. Here it is enough to remind ourselves that today’s obsession with the middle class is rooted in the old, old story of human self-classification. People sort, grade, gauge, and rank each other all day and night.
Everyone wants to be middle-class because human beings need to think well of themselves, or else endless misery and retribution ensue. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb called their 1972 book The Hidden Injuries of Class, but most of these injuries are either quite noticeable or hidden in plain sight. Sennett and Cobb discovered that the most marginal of America’s working class would rather be perceived as “middle class” than revolt and overthrow the rule of capital altogether—or even make more money.
Entire nations suffer class anxiety. Adam Nicolson quoted unusually candid Greek sources in National Geographic earlier this year:
When the Greeks joined the EU in 1981, we felt like a ship arriving in port … that we were being treated as a proper part of Europe for the first time. The euro crisis was a moment of guilt, shared by all of us, a sense that somehow we were all responsible for the bad things that were happening to us. It was a huge, national blow to self-esteem, a confirmation of the Greeks’ worst fears, that we didn’t really belong in Europe at all.
Naturally such humiliation is intolerable and accounts for the continuing “violence of shame” in Greece—herself, ironically, the birthplace of classical culture, sedulously aped for centuries.
Older societies are still working through their ancient class systems, which were actually castes: defined conditions into which people were born and where they remained all their lives. The New World, however, posited itself as a classless society, although it never was, even at the outset. In place of the Old World’s “better than thou,” America’s mantra was “as good as thou.” Classes in the colonies founded by Great Britain were fluid and porous; the bourgeois cult of romantic love, as opposed to arranged marriage, enabled many to “marry up,” and the still-open frontier permitted little men to grow grand, liberated from the constant sucker punches of class.
In today’s usage, “bourgeois” has decayed to mean square, unfashionable, boring, narrow-minded, suburban, etc. The exclamation “How bourgeois!” is not intended kindly. The word’s fate is similar to the way chrétien migrated over time from “Christian”—a fellow soul—to “cretin.” H.L. Mencken had this decay in mind when he invented the terms “booboisie” and “Boobus Americanus.” Paul Fussell’s Class ridicules this rank’s shallow status fixations. From captains of industry back down to “little men,” the bourgeoisie has crumbled both linguistically and economically.
Circa 1800, 80 percent of Americans were self-employed. By 1870 it was 41 percent. By 1940 it was 18 percent. By 1967 it was only 9 percent. (The figures are from Victoria Bonnell and Michael Reich, Workers in the American Economy: Data on the Labor Force.) Now, we are told, it is really only the “One Percent.”
“Middle class,” meanwhile, came to mean anyone who works for a living. It is not unusual to see “middle class” and “working class” used interchangeably, which has led to the cheesy equivalence of “white collar” and “blue collar.” Even the unemployed are now eligible for elevation to the great middle. Anyone who has clung to a part-time job or might get one via state largesse is potentially middle-class. Only the rich don’t qualify.
Middle class, in other words, has completely lost its socioeconomic bearings. “High-end” signifiers are fetishized as much by the wannabe middle classes as they are by the One Percent. The very concept of middle class has become confounded with global issues of modernization, imperialism, and cultural hegemony. It is José Ortega y Gasset’s “revolt of the masses” on steroids.
Everyone agrees that the middle class pays the lion’s share of taxes. It is deep in debt—illiquid. It is “endangered.” It is being “squeezed,” “crippled,” “hollowed out.” It suffers from erosion of net worth. Its atrophy is blamed for the widening income gap. It is courted by left and right alike with great vigor during election years, each striving to outdo the other with violent praise for its attributes. It is “the backbone of our economy.” The American middle class is tasked with lifting the entire world out of recession.
Taoist philosophy observes that the more a quality is spoken of—for instance, filial piety—the less it is found in real life. Obsessive talk of the middle class is everywhere. Opening a newspaper at random—the Washington Times—we read: “As he pushed a $500 billion federal investment in infrastructure, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said: … ‘The middle class has been slammed. They are in worse shape than they have been at any time since the 20s … What’s the way to grow the middle class? Jobs. What’s the way to get jobs?’”
Biden’s answer: “generate” jobs via the magic of Keynesian government spending, a repeat of the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration.
A Google search on “Biden speech middle class” returns 702,000 hits; “Obama speech middle class” returns 19.3 million. According to the vice president, the middle class is “the fabric that stitches together this country.” But it’s “currently being killed.” Meanwhile, in his 2015 State of the Union address, the president preached the gospel of “middle-class economics.” According to his ghostwriters, that means “Everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and plays by the same set of rules.”
The actual meaning is another tax increase on those who still have enough wealth left to be worth swiping. Just after the 2012 election, Howard Dean revealed the left’s program to save the middle class when he said, “This is, initially, gonna sound like heresy from a progressive. The truth is, everybody needs to pay more taxes, not just the rich.”
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell insists that the billions of dollars in subsidies disbursed to low-income people who sign up for Obamacare are “further proof that the Affordable Care Act is working for the middle class.” And Robert Reich has said over and over that “inequality is bad for everyone, not just for the middle class and poor,” and that income redistribution must be engineered to raise the income of the middle class to “middle-class levels,” whatever those are.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren talks the new class war better than most. She’d love to be able just to come out and yell about “the working class!” But she knows better than to do so. André Thirion’s book about impotent red intellectuals in Paris between the wars was called Revolutionaries Without Revolution. What Elizabeth Warren keeps jabbing her forefinger at is a workers’ movement without workers.
Like other cynical champions of the mythic middle, Warren deliberately mischaracterizes it. Middle class is not an income level but a material relationship to society. What has vanished from all these leftist analyses are the key middle-class elements of independence, self-sufficiency, ownership, entrepreneurship, and real social power. To echo Cole and Postgate, the essence of the once-great middle class was that they possessed “their own type of property to support them.”
In any event, the 24/7 spin cycle may finally have gagged on the term “middle class.” All at once it is only too obvious that there is no substantial middle left to rhapsodize over or pander to. As Amy Chozick wrote in the New York Times this spring: “The once ubiquitous term ‘middle class’ has gone conspicuously missing from the 2016 campaign trail, as candidates and their strategists grasp for new terms for an unsettled economic era. The phrase, long synonymous with the American dream, now evokes anxiety, an uncertain future and a lifestyle that is increasingly out of reach.”
A family living paycheck to paycheck, heavily indebted and sometimes even “food-insecure”—that’s not a middle-class family. And nearly half of Americans don’t even bother to pretend that’s what they are any more. So instead let’s call them “ordinary Americans” (Bernie Sanders). “Everyday Americans” (Hillary Clinton). “Hard-working men and women across America” (Ted Cruz). “Hard-working taxpayers” (Scott Walker). “People who work for the people who own businesses” (Rand Paul). Or simply “people who aren’t rich” (Marco Rubio).
Everyone wanted to be middle class, but the word that best describes what our country is undergoing now is “proletarianization.” In ancient Rome, the class known as the proletarii were too poor to pay taxes or serve in the army; all they could give the state were their proles (“offspring”—as in “prolific”). Today the welfare-state plan is to force what’s left of “the backbone of America” to pay for its own dispossession and disempowerment. Then our understandable class anxiety will be tranquilized by government transfers that give us an illusory “leg up,” class-wise.
The middle class could only be destroyed in the name of the middle class. Everyone loves the middle class, and everyone kills the thing he loves.
Marian Kester Coombs writes from Crofton, Maryland.