Politicians across North America are obsessed with the middle class. Even in Europe the narrative has shifted towards a more American model – with an emphasis on money or on various forms of identity politics and away from the economic divisions that dominated Western politics until the end of World War II.
But what is this middle class of which they speak? It is certainly not the petit bourgeoisie that Karl Marx ridiculed and denounced so thoroughly. For him the ‘middle class’ was nothing but a buffer between the two important classes: workers and the owners of the means of production, that is, capitalists. The middle class for him had distinct interests – what in Canada might be called peace order and good government – but no real role to play in the great struggles of history. What is more; they represented a small fraction of the population, consisting mainly of successful farmers and small shopkeepers.
But, of course, all that class analysis has long ago been swept away in the great leveling that supposedly occurred beginning in the fifties when the fulfillment of the American Dream – wealth and prosperity though hard work and adherence to ‘the rules.’ When every man – and eventually woman – could aspire to be a millionaire, the middle class was merely a staging ground for the Great Leap Forward.
Well, nearly two generations later, we’re not so sure. Being a member of the middle class may either be viewed as a prison, a state to be aspired to or something we cling to with every fiber of our being. The Occupy movement tried to identify who had the real power (the 1% or more accurately the 0.01%) but, being American, could never quite grasp what was really happening.
Nowadays, class is not defined by collective interest but by nothing more than money. If a person who makes $50,000 is middle class, is the one who makes $51000 not? It’s not so clear. Indeed because of the gradations of income across the population, it is virtually impossible to determine where the middle class begins and where it ends. Meanwhile, much of the media prefers to pit one group against another – based on region, race, or identity – lest they begin to see the interests they have in common.
Conservatives in particular are interested in expanding the breadth of the middle class (not through any action that would change the distribution but by changing the definition). That way they can claim that programs and policies that mostly benefit families in the top ten percent (or 1%) of income are actually aimed at the middle class. If the middle class includes almost anyone, then help to the wealthy becomes a middle class program and, as for assisting the poor – there’s no such thing. That’s just a creation of statisticians or liberals bleeding for lazy welfare bums.
Meanwhile parties of the left refer to ordinary Canadians (or Americans) or average hard-working families – as opposed I guess to extraordinary Canadians or lazy unusual families. The only parties that seem to still think there are three classes – rich, middle and poor – are ironically enough, centrists who spent most of the last century trying to refute Marxist analysis.
But then who ever said politics made sense?
And that’s ten minutes.