What is this obsession with the concept of ‘middle class’? I find it peculiar and I’m really not enamoured of the applications. It’s looking a bit like a cult with all its do the right thing, work hard, rung on the ladder aspiration. I don’t like the fact that, despite its pedestal placement, it’s still below another set of tiers and I despair of the opposite implication that those who are not middle class are somehow less worthy, less intelligent, less capable, less decent – less everything.
I should say quickly that I’m not making a personal attack on any individual or profession which currently falls into this category of human status. What makes me upset is the fact that this concept, this economic hierarchy of human value exists in any official capacity at all; that it is offered as a symbol of meritocracy; that it is the main concern of politicos looking for votes; that it is the measurement of a patriotic life; that it is the standard sold to the lower strata as the correct and proper conduct of decent people; that to get on requires faith in and obedience to false premises.
‘Middle’, without the garnish, is something existing at equal distance from its extremities, one end being the relegated working class, the other, the highest echelons of absolute privilege. With a range from lower to upper, the middle can be a very wide space, indeed. As an entity, it gravitates towards a notional centre ground and is viewed and promoted as the very linchpin of society; the aspirational goal for right-thinking persons. It could also be said to be representing the status quo and a barrier to change.
‘Class’ is a rating: the taxonomy of social status, widely recognised and commonly accepted as alive and well. Its divisions have been blurred by middling expansion over numerous generations which, contrary to predictions that this would render class obsolete, has actually produced ever more pernicious levels of have and have-not relativity. This is the essence of the ladder: there is always another rung looming, to induce some sense of dissatisfaction and inadequacy – a manufactured rubbish which has found extraordinary purchase on our psyches.
Myself, I prefer that other definition of class: being one of character and style – and you can’t really buy that.
It’s always amused me how the term Middle Class conveys a sense of distance between itself and the plain ‘ole working class as though it meant a life of leisure. They are just the better paid working class, assigned professional as some escape label designed to look like socio-economic progress. They’re ultimately still subordinate to the same neoliberal forces, whatever the colour of their collars. And the poor lower middle? They have worked hard and yet they are running to stand still in a climate which threatens what they believe about a meritocratic society and the supposed natural order of things. Indeed, they are rapidly joining the lower ranks of the working poor and will be wondering what happened to that social security net they assumed was too benevolent.
However, blaming those at the bottom, who are struggling to get literally, from one day to the next because they are unemployed, underemployed, disabled, young or old is neither justified nor bright. They did not cause our ills: they are the tragic consequence of failed economic philosophy and, if a middle class education and/or upbringing is so damned fine, this economic fact should be clear enough. If blame is justified, it should be directed more accurately: that is, towards the politicos, academic theorists, economists, media et al, who championed, built and continue to fight to uphold the shoddy system we endure.
Most people want a decent education, a nice home, a good job, livable wage. Most people want a fulfilling, productive and creative life. Most people want a supportive, loving network of family/friends in their lives. Everyone knows that poverty, like illness or bereavement, can put all this under immense and even unbearable pressure but, add to that the deliberate stripping away of respect, dignity, trust and hope as is currently occurring and how, pray, are the poor meant to see ideological policies and attitudes as anything other than an intent to punish? To expect the State not to deliberately hinder entire demographics’ pursuit of normal, basic human desires is not unreasonable and yet these very desires are being re-created as the image of middle class reward and success.
Cameron is rightly concerned, along with a lot of the world, about the first generation to be less likely to improve on their parents’ lives. But when it comes to addressing the issues involved, he has the nerve to say he’s focused too much on the poorest – and we all know how detrimental that focus has been. When he says he wants to do something for hardworking people he means the shrinking middle class. Call-me-Dave expresses anxiety about these children having massive student debt and no one to help them onto the housing ladder. He should be anxious, of course, but what does he think the really poor will do? Keep settling for the scraps? He seems more worried about maintaining those who have already achieved a societal status worthy of his time and interest and lacks the will or capacity to see the poor as equally deserving beings. Labour is concerned about the poor’s prognosis but too panicked by the predicted loss of comfortable voters to speak unapologetically. The fact that the party felt it necessary to publicly proclaim they’d be tougher than the Tories on benefits says it all. If they truly believed in We, the People and in their own governing ability, they would have said, correctly, I believe, that there would be no need to get tough because actually poor people are intelligent enough to know a good opportunity when they see it and would be only too happy to grab it because Labour would have made sure there were plenty of good jobs with livable wages available. But Labour did not say this.
The Middle is sold as a route to independence, freedom, security and autonomy. It is seen as the backbone of a successful, prosperous society but it is being achieved at the cost of our social fabric and on the backs of the poor, the vulnerable and singularly powerless. Keeping up with the Joneses is no way to live. It’s a plastic and passive-aggressive form of petty feudalism that relies on debt and exploitation in the service of continual material growth for short periods of meaningless status upgrade. We can either be socio-economically class-ridden, class-driven and class-riven or we can aim for a genuinely inclusive state in which each citizen is automatically viewed as equal and treated as valuable just because they are a human being. We could start by not giving the special title of Middle Class to what is essentially a comfortable life. And a comfortable life should be a basic standard in the 21st Century: readily accessible and easily achievable.