What is the Middle Class?

Never pejorative, always claimed, the salvation of society, the vigor of industry, the bearers of true religion, common sense, able, aware, the silent majority and the moral majority, do no wrong and never the scapegoat.

There was no such term as the middle class just 250 years ago, and they did not exist as a self-conscious entity until after the French Revolution, and after 1832 in England. But they are called both the means and the telos of history. In the current healthcare debate, the biggest question is whether protesters actual represent the middle class – if they do, we know not only the legislation’s lack of numerical support, but its moral decrepitude. If everybody, including most of the wealthy, is claiming to be middle class, then it means all things to all people … uniformly, though, all the badge’s bearers call it good. What is the middle class and why such approbation?

Presumably, the middle class as a distinct category derives from being neither peasants nor aristocrats, and having a certain freedom from elemental necessities but not being raised to preternatural status. This “in-between” is certainly a good representation of the actual nature of all humans: part natural and part spiritual, determined by conditions and choosing them, Created and yet in His image.

Middle class has never meant middle income, since many have been richer than princes, and others have starved, without losing their identity. This was part of Marx’s criticism: the middle class became the rulers, but they were not simply a new aristocracy; rather, they carried their trading, bantering, and limitless ambitions to the power of rulership.

We have generally defined a country’s modernity by whether the middle class is the ruling class: again, France after the Revolution (in spurts) and England after 1832, Italy and Germany in the 1860s and fully after World War I, Russia after overthrowing the czars and China after the emperors lost most power, the Middle East almost nowhere, America almost always. But upon ruling, what happens to the middle class? It is certainly no longer in the “middle” of anything, and expresses over society its ideals of commerce, conversation, and competition – all of which are transgressive, or at least transactive.

The melioration of some poor after World War II evaporated obvious class conflict by providing a different hope, and the aristocracy had been shamed into reclusion even earlier, unable to defend themselves. Eventually, all that was left was “the end of history and the last man,” hence the current clamor of everyone claiming middle class – it is the only remaining acceptable identity.

But without being in any “middle” anymore, what does the middle class teach us about human nature? There is no longer any looking up or down – there are only more or less successful middle classmembers. And that is the weird thing: shorn of its social position, the middle class cannot “tell” us anything by its relation to anything else, anymore. The only message of middle class is the message of inclusion and acceptance: the characteristics of middle class now are the terms of acceptability. They are specific, so they are more than that (I’m not saying suffrage or social mobility are wrong), but the dictates of the teacher are different than the learning of the autodidact, who learns by his engagement with and difference from the world around him. If it is the latter that is being lost (because the middle class is a powerful adumbration of hegemonic social ideals rather than the gleanings of human nature discovered through certain kinds of social interaction), then the appeals to middle class in current debates on healthcare are conditioned by our hopes to be the sole claimants of social vision, rather than attempts to learn the interplay between universal human nature (shared by all but articulated in parts by various groups) and the actual, specific concatenation of social relations in our country.

5 Comments

  • September 9, 2009

    Brian Brown

    Re: “But without being in any “middle” anymore, what does the middle class teach us about human nature? There is no longer any looking up or down – there are only more or less successful middle classmembers.”

    I’m reminded of this line from Rousseau: “One no longer asks if a man is upright, but rather if he is talented; nor of a book if it is useful, but if it is well written. Rewards are showered on the witty, and virtue is left without honors.”

  • September 10, 2009

    steve

    And it is written; “Cease ye from man whose breath is in his nostrils; for wherein is he to be accounted of”?
    A man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things he possesses;
    As far as being ‘upright’ … in Ecclesiastes it says, “…God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions”…
    the ‘middle class’ as we know it…whether past or present…is really coming to an end. Rapidly.

  • September 11, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Did you carp that Rousseau quote from your own capacious memory, or did you see it in the Leon Kass article in issue 1 of National Affairs? Because I just saw it there, too.
    http://nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/looking-for-an-honest-man

  • September 11, 2009

    Bryan Wandel

    Steve-
    Due to the vigor of the middle class’s export to the developing world, I am not ready to sound a death knell. In fact, I think the terminology and values of the middle class are hard to escape (not that I necessarily want to), which is what this article is about. If it is changing or disintegrating, it is impossible to detect without a close reading of history since, as I said in the post, we no longer compare the middle class with anything else. Because of this, there is less debate about ideals (between classes) than there is a pecking order within the middle class as to whom will represent it to itself.

  • September 11, 2009

    Brian Brown

    Well, I copied it from the Kass article because it was a faster find than digging through my boxes of as-yet-unpacked books. Speaking of unpacking, that Kass article is worth some attention….