Middle class

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The middle class refers to people neither at the top nor bottom of a social hierarchy. In today's usage, the term is often applied to people who have a degree of economic independence, but not a great deal of social influence or power in their society. For example, in the United States, a small-business owner who owns her own home and cleans it herself would generally be described as "middle class". This would be in contrast to a lower-class person who relies upon the good graces of an employer and landlord, as well as to an upper-class person who can live off investments. Such finance-based differentiation originates in the U.S. version of the class system. Other organisations of upper, middle, and lower classes are based on behavioural and/or historic grounds or economic relations.


History and evolution of the term

Not everyone will accept the introductory example given above, for the term "middle class" has a long history and has had many, sometimes contradictory, meanings. It was once defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry of Europe. While the nobility owned the countryside, and the peasantry worked the countryside, a new bourgeoisie (literally "town-dwellers") arose around mercantile functions in the city.

Descending from this distinction, the term "middle class" came to be used in the United Kingdom during the 18th century to describe the professional and business class, as distinct from both the titled nobility and the landed gentry on the one hand and the agricultural and (increasingly) industrial labourers on the other. Throughout the twentieth century, the titled nobility of the United Kingdom became less homogenous. This was because of the increasingly eclectic background of new creations, most of which were politically driven by the so-called middle class, and the declining power of the House of Lords relative to the House of Commons after the Parliament Act 1911. So far as the hereditary element of class was concerned, the titled upper class became less numerous because of the near cessation of new hereditary creations after the Life Peerages Act 1958. This was coupled with the natural rate of extinction of existing hereditary titles and the near abolition of the hereditary element of the House of Lords at the end of the twentieth century. At this point, hereditary titles are in no way the key to being "upper class", although they do lend a distinctive panache within the upper class.

In early industrial capitalism, the middle class was defined primarily as white-collar workers—those who worked for wages (like all workers), but did so in conditions that were comfortable and safe compared to the conditions for blue-collar workers of the "working class". The expansion of the phrase "middle class" in the United States appears to have been predicated in the 1970s by the decline of labour unions and the entrance of formerly domestic women into the public workforce. A great number of pink-collar jobs arose, where people could avoid the dangerous conditions of blue-collar work and therefore claim to be "middle class" even if they were making far less money than a unionised blue-collar worker.

By the end of the twentieth century, more people identified themselves as middle class than as lower or "working" class, with statistically insignificant numbers identifying themselves as upper class. Hence, even the British Labour Party, which grew out of the organised labour movement and originally drew almost all of its support from the working class, reinvented itself under Tony Blair as "New Labour", a party competing with the Conservative Party for the votes of the middle class as well as the working class. The size of the middle class depends on how it is defined, whether by education, wealth, environment of upbringing, genetic relationships, social network, etc. These are all related, though far from deterministically dependent. The following factors are often ascribed in modern usage to a "middle class":

  • Achievement of tertiary education, including all financiers, lawyers, doctors and clergymen regardless of their leisure or wealth.
  • Belief in bourgeois values, such as high rates of house or long-term lease ownership and jobs which are perceived to be "secure". In the United States and in the United Kingdom, politicians typically target the votes of the middle classes.
  • Lifestyle. In the United Kingdom, social status has been less directly linked to wealth than in the United States, and has also been judged by pointers such as accent, manners, place of education and the class of a person's circle of friends and acquaintances. Often in the United States, the middle class are the most eager participants in pop culture. The second generation of new immigrants will often enthusiastically forsake their traditional folk culture as a sign of having arrived in the middle class.
  • Low rates of union membership.
  • A middle-range income. What is considered "middle range" can be quite broad, especially since most Americans yearn to be known as "middle class". Though an average yearly income in the United States is about $30,000, incomes all the way from $20,000 up to $75,000 a year are generally considered middle class. Around 1980, when asked what level of personal income would qualify as middle class, George H. W. Bush replied, "$50,000". In fact, only 5 per cent of the U.S. population was making that level of income at the time.
  • A net worth, what a person's total material assets are worth, minus their debt. Most economists define "middle-class" citizens as those with net worths of between $25,000 (low middle class) to $250,000. Those with net worths between $250,000 and $500,000 typically are categorised as upper middle class.

Sociological definition

Some modern theories of political economy consider a large middle class to be a beneficial, stabilising influence on society, because it has neither the possibly explosive revolutionary tendencies of the lower class, nor the absolutist tendencies of an entrenched upper class. Most sociological definitions of middle class follow Max Weber. Here the middle class is defined by a similar income level as semi-professionals or business owners; by a shared culture of domesticity and sub-urbanity; and by a level of relative security against social crisis in the form of socially desired skill or wealth. While 95 per cent of Americans identify themselves as middle class, using the measures of sociology the reality seems different. Some of these individuals are clearly lower or upper class.

Threats to the U.S. middle class

In the 1990s and 2000s, many feared that the spreading wealth gap would lead to a "collapse of the middle" in American society. A modern threat to the middle class is downsizing in many sectors of the American economy, competition from lower-paid foreign workers and contractors, and the systematic elimination of unionised labour.

In contrast, the British author Alexander Deane thinks that the middle class is not under threat, but rather is the cause of problems itself. In his approach, economic considerations are secondary to moral ones, and the UK middle class is not carrying out its responsibilities as it should.

Marxism and the middle class

Marxism does not necessarily see the groups described above as the middle class. The middle class is not a fixed category within Marxism, and debate continues as to the content of this social group.

Marxism defines social classes not according to the wealth or prestige of their members, but according to their relationship with the means of production: a noble owns land; a capitalist owns capital; a worker has the ability to work and must seek employment in order to make a living. However, between the rulers and the ruled there is most often a group of people, often called a middle class, which lacks a specific relationship. Historically, during feudalism, the bourgeoisie were that middle class. People often describe the contemporary bourgeoisie as the "middle class from a Marxist point of view", but this is incorrect. Marxism states that the bourgeoisie are the ruling class (or upper class) in a capitalist society.

Marxists vigorously debate the exact composition of the middle class under capitalism. Some describe a "co-ordinating class" which implements capitalism on behalf of the capitalists, composed of the petit bourgeoisie, professionals and managers. Others dispute this, freely using the term "middle class" to refer to affluent white-collar workers as described above (even though, in Marxist terms, they are part of the proletariat—the working class). Still others (for example, Council communists) allege that there is a class comprising intellectuals, technocrats and managers which seeks power in its own right. This last group of communists allege that such technocratic middle classes seized power and government for themselves in Soviet-style societies (see co-ordinatorism).

See also

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