On The Squeezed Middle


On Tuesday 19th Oct 2010, Radio 4’s, You And Yours, was dedicated to answering the question, What does it mean to be Middle Class in the UK today?

Being middle-class, which I undoubtedly am, is not the same as being part of the privileged ruling elite. Even under a good old-fashioned Marxist analysis, and I’m not a Marxist by the way, everyone who works for someone else is working class because we all work for a living. It is true that some of us have skills that mean we get paid well and as a result live relatively comfortably but we do not own the means of production and to that extent are wage slaves like almost everyone else.

The problem in this country is that Class in the sense of a cultural Caste system is so central to Englishness that we often confuse being middle class in the sense of the bourgeois values of having 2.4 children, eating couscous, playing by the rules, working hard, being polite, going to University, mowing the lawn, having a nice car on the drive and nice holidays, with being members of a particular Class in the economic sense.

In the economic sense there are really only Workers, (the vast majority of us, including all the waged middle class), Petit Bourgeoise (shop owners, small builders etc) and Capitalists, those who own the capital, i.e. the wealth.

In 1977 Barbara Ehrenreich and her husband John defined a further category, that of the Professional & Managerial Class as a distinct part of the working class defined as salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production but are distinguished from the rest of the class by training and education (typically business qualifications and university degrees),[9] with example occupations including academics and teachers, social workers, engineers, managers, nurses, and middle-level administrators.[1 They are also distinguished by their almost complete identification with the cultural and political establishments and the economic interests of the capitalist class.

It is to this group that we mainly refer when we talk of being white collar or middle class and it is this group whom I believe so consistently fail to recognise their true place in the economic system they live under. Indeed, it has always amazed me that this Daily Mail reading, professional and managerialist bourgeoisie so readily identify with the ruling capitalist class and fail to see that they have as much to gain from the Welfare State as anyone else. The fact that they don’t have to pay £350 a month health insurance is why they can afford to go to Corfu in the summer; it is tax money that keeps all the theatres, Operas and ballets open and with tickets at prices they, the middle-class can afford; it is our generally excellent state education sector that means most of the middle class don’t have to pay for their children’s education.

In addition, under the last 30 years of US style neo-con, hyper-capitalism, the culturally defined middle-classes have paid as big a price as any. Their housing costs have gone up just as much as anyone else, managers and executives are working longer and longer hours, stress related illness is endemic in the managing class and they are often put out to pasture at 50 or 55 facing a humiliating end to their careers.

Moreover, for the vast majority of the middle classes both partners now have to work to sustain middle class lifestyles that a single wage earner comfortably sustained a generation ago; i.e. middle class women now have to work for a living just like working class women have always had to.

The median salary in the UK is just over £20,000, (i.e. 50% earn less than you, 50% earn more), the average around £25,000. A salary of £32,000 puts you in the top 25%, £150,000 puts in the top 0.6%. At the same time many traditional working class jobs such as tube drivers at £35,000+ put them in the top 25%. Income is not a defining feature of being middle class because in the Uk it is a cultural, not an economic category. Over 40% of the population identify themselves as middle class and many of those earn modest salaries. My point is that in terms of the economic structures underlying capitalism middle class, or even a professional or managerial class is a meaningless distinction.

Even a manager earning £150,000+ a year is still a wage slave, just like the illegal immigrant who cleans their office, because both of their livelihoods are entirely dependent upon them providing a useful service to the corporation who employ them and at a cost the corporation is willing to pay. The manager’s high wages do not buy him autonomy, just a higher quality of consumer goods. Indeed, one of the reasons why very senior managers (i.e. CEO’s) insist on negotiating such huge pay outs if they get sacked is so that they do in fact have some autonomy, i.e. displeasing their employer will not have financially disastrous consequences for them personally. In turn this is the very reason why the rest of us resent those payouts so much, because it protects these individuals from the rules of the game the rest of us are forced to play by.

Since WWII in the UK the middle class have often been ridiculed for their pretension and vilified for their identification with the capitalist class. The idea behind the ridicule is the traditional British distrust of pomposity and pretension. The idea underlying the vilification is that the establishment and the capitalist class have bought the servility and loyalty of the middle class through the high level of professional and managerial wages; i.e. that the middle class (specifically professionals and managers) have betrayed their fellow workers for 30 pieces of silver…..and a mahogany repro antique table to put them on of course. This view of the middle class tacitly asserts that in structural economic terms the manager on £150,000 is not in a different class from the cleaner (see above) and that the level of wages has merely blinded the manager to his true station in life.

I am not optimistic that the squeezing of the middle class that will undoubtedly result from the Spending Review on 20th October will be painful enough for them to rip off their blind folds but, as David Cameron never tires of disingenuously reminding us, we are all in this together, and the only people who will be inured against the worst effects of the economic crash will be the very wealthy.

Most middle class people are not even wealthy, let alone very wealthy. By this I mean that although some of them have relatively high earnings, they have little or no cash that is not assigned to some aspect of their life, be it school fees, holidays, housing, pensions etc. This is why so many high earners do not feel wealthy, because all their earnings are spent as it is earned or assigned to future spending. Those who earn more obviously have more to spend but those higher earnings do not put the high earners into the capitalist class or allow them to lead to a life of leisured luxury.

Even the owners of small businesses who are sometimes described as a separate category, the Petit Bourgeoisie, because although they are not members of the ruling capitalist elite, they do own their personal means of production, are not free from the domination of capitalism. Even though occasionally, but much more rarely than the free marketeers would have us believe, an individual entrepreneur can rise from a wage earner to be a member of the capitalist class. [And by the way this is one reason why I am not a Communist, because the freedom to start a business and benefit from any success that the business achieves is a significant freedom that I would defend.]

But nonetheless the Petit Bourgeoisie are dependent upon the capitalist class as much as any wage earner, it is true that they may have more autonomy in terms of their day to day decision making, i.e. they are their own boss, but the moment they borrow money they are dependant upon the capitalist system and victim to the workings of capital along with the rest of us; hence the constant complaints from small business owners that the banks are not lending.

This analysis of the system that identifies that almost all of us, including small business owners the highly paid, are, “in it together”, or to put it another way that, “we are all victims of the capitalist system”, leads me to a kind of Socialism that is not about a class war mounted on the middle-class by the working class, but is about a society that is “just” whatever background you come from.

I Am Not A Number

Political and Philosophical Dispatches From An Individual Living In A Society

corporate democracy economics freedom left-wing libertarian managerialism moral philosophy politics radical socialist society

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