The concept of being middle-class remains an important rhetorical tool in modern capitalism. The ideal of the middle class symbolises financial responsibility, to which the majority of citizens are supposed to aspire. Politicians target their speeches at middle-class voters, promising to create the conditions for them to thrive. In conditions of economic instability, the middle-class ‘squeeze’ is cause for great concern.
But what does it actually mean to be or want to be middle-class? What kind of politics and worldviews does the use of the term inspire? In her recent book, We Have Never Been Middle Class: How Social Mobility Misleads Us (Verso, 2019), anthropologist Hadas Weiss explores how the nebulous idea of the middle class functions as ideology, motivating individuals to continually chase investments within a system that increasingly fails to deliver. I spoke to her about some of the themes in the book.
Hadas Weiss is a social anthropologist and academic nomad, currently based at the Madrid Institute for Advanced Study. She studies social aspects of contemporary capitalism and publishes primarily in anthropology journals.
What is it about the way the concept of the middle class is used in politics, the media and elsewhere that makes it ideological?
Hadas Weiss: The middle class is a manifestly inclusive social category as well as a vulnerable one: anyone can, in principle, join its ranks, just as anyone can fall out. Its inclusiveness stems from a notion of social mobility that is driven by each person’s own efforts. The category is used in political and popular discourse to suggest, in this light, that one’s sacrifices and investments, primarily in property and education but also in professional training, retirement savings, insurance policies and social networks, will lead to success and forestall failure; and that by implication, people who do well owe their good fortune to these sacrifices, and that those who do not must have invested poorly or insufficiently.
Experience often affirms this notion with respect to relative advantages. For example, if everyone is jostling to buy real estate in a certain area, its prices rise to the benefit of early buyers, and if good jobs are scarce, those with more expensive credentials have a better shot at them. But in fact, the value of a house, a financial asset or a credential don’t always end up justifying the effort, time or money invested in them, as made clear when property bubbles burst, pension accounts deplete, and academic degrees have no pull in the job market.
Still, indebted homeowners, insecure pension savers and struggling college graduates up the ante by investing more, encouraged by the vague belief in the investment-driven self-determination that being middle class implies. This is the sense in which the category is ideological. It deflects attention from the punishments of an economic system to which everyone is subjected (albeit with different stakes), by engrossing all but the most dispossessed in a race for relative advantages and in a struggle to guard against personal misfortune. All the while, the investments it inspires feed and reproduce the very system that so dominates them.
How does the middle class as a category change how we view the politics of class?
HW: Today’s politics of class is largely implicated in an ideology of middle classness. It is driven by the impulse to help everyone – however disadvantaged – become middle class in the sense of having their investments pay off as they ostensibly had in the past, or as they still seem to for the privileged. It seeks, in other words, to level the playing field and create a true meritocracy. This is attempted, for example, by giving scholarships to promising students, loans to workers with aspirations, and by advocating for a safety net that would allow everyone to recover from misfortune and soldier on. Much of the scholarship that diagnoses a ‘middle class squeeze’ promotes such measures.
This kind of class politics is ultimately ineffective because it is blind to the systemic imperative – enforced by a capitalist dynamic of endless accumulation through competitive for-profit production – for every group of people who have attained an advantage to protect its value by withholding it from the next round of investors. It is equally blind to the systemic imperative for every person to keep investing lest their competitors nullify the value of their prior attainments. And it is blind to the insecure and generally declining value of everyone’s investments.
The ideology of middle classness underlines all of the ways in which we’re divided as competitors over property and human capital, locked in a zero-sum game in which advantages and disadvantages are relative to and at the expense of others. Conversely, it occludes what unites us as people who have to work for a living, namely our common domination by a system that exploits our work and conscripts our relationships for the production of value that escapes us.
In order to fight the system that so exploits and dominates us, we need a politics of class that builds on these unifying features, regardless of differences in how much we earn or own. Such politics would target this system in its most comprehensive and universal manifestations, rather than merely trying to help this or that group do better for themselves within existing constraints.
How would you say the idea of middle-class aspiration has changed in the neoliberal era, compared to the notion of social mobility in the social democracies of the post-war era? Two of the chapters in the book focus on investment in property and human capital (education and personal development) as key elements in middle-class ideology. Would you say these are especially prominent in a neoliberalized concept of the middle class?
HW: For me, the crucial factor of the current age is not neoliberalism per se so much as financialisation, or finance’s increasing dominance in everyday life. Neoliberalism raises the importance of property as something to fall back on, the more precarious, devalued and unprotected work becomes, but with finance there’s a catch. On the one hand, loans, credit, instalments and mortgages become the means by which large swaths of the population can attain property, assets and education. On the other, the value of all of these household possessions is increasingly volatile.
As a result of financialisation, we’re witnessing the seemingly-contradictory rise of a heralded global middle class in parts of the world whose societies are newly caught up in the web of debt and investment; alongside a bemoaned shrinking of the middle class in parts of the world where the attainments of long- propertied and educated households are devalued or destabilised.
As people grow less secure about the value of their possessions, they respond by diversifying their investments, that is, by investing in a range of different assets, insurances, credentials, and networks, in the hopes that something will pay off; as well as by never sitting still (as old propertied elites would have) and ceasing to invest. Finance fuels an ever-widening scramble over favourable positions in an environment in which property bubbles perennially burst, savings accounts are devalued, and credentials are outdated. The main jostle becomes simply to keep up.
You say in the book that, ‘With the backwind of a middle-class ideology, [workers] invest more time, work or resources than they otherwise would, and more than they are immediately rewarded for, with their future in mind.’ How important do you think the ideological element is here for individuals to continue participating in this way, rather than merely being compelled by economic necessity and the apparent lack of alternatives?
HW: I discuss the economic pressures and incentives of a capitalist system from the standpoint of its non-impoverished workers, for example the competition over relative advantages associated with ownership and education. My understanding of what you call ‘economic necessity’ is that, insofar as people are rational, they respond to such pressures and incentives in predictable ways. But I also locate contradictions in this system, which are intensifying in the present moment. They lead, for example, to investments no longer paying off as they often had in an era of greater social protections. This makes economic incentives less seductive, even as pressures still weigh down hard.
Ideology grows out of and reflects a structural exigency, making those who are subject to it reproduce it more efficiently because they’re motivated by something other than external pressure alone. The ideology of middle classness, specifically, is one of investment-driven self-determination. It encourages workers with access to material resources such as loans, to embrace and pursue a range of financial, educational and social investments. Their investments then grease the wheels of capitalist accumulation.
But in growing out of and reflecting a structure, ideology is also susceptible to its contradictions. That’s why there are so many voices today rejecting or criticising the ideology of the middle class from a variety of angles, including the one represented in my book. Alternatives always exist, even if concealed or complicated. An understanding of capitalism and its contradictions helps us identify them and avoid being swayed by false ones.
One aspect of this ideology of investing in the future means, as you say, ‘repressing hedonistic appetites in the service of market-determined self-advancement’. How does this aspect of middle-class ideology balance with the strong demand in neoliberalized societies to not only invest and take responsibility, but also to enjoy excessive consumption?
HW: Indeed, the growing trend towards excessive consumption is evidence of the cracks forming in the ideology of investment. Conspicuous consumption used to be associated, not with the people identified as middle class – who have often shunned consumerism to embrace simplicity, minimalism or frugality – but rather with those of lower classes. So far removed from the levers of upward mobility, scholars explained, this was their only means of signalling relative advantage.
But now, as you state, excessive consumption is growing across the board, especially among younger generations. Their prospects for secure and gainful employment, homeownership or a decent pension may be so dim as to make them favour the pleasure of consumption over its renunciation for the sake of a shadowy future. Still, I think the investment drive is more prevalent than the consumerist one among populations with the means to invest, especially when they settle down and start families of their own. What’s more, I see consumption as an understandable reaction to a given situation, but not as a deliberate strategy of thriving within it and thereby unwittingly affirming it. It is this latter impulse that is the focus of my book.
How does this ideological concept of the middle class affect democracy and how we understand political participation?
HW: If we understand democracy and political participation to be ways of exerting genuine power on society and how it manages its resources, the ideology of the middle class hollows them out. This may seem counterintuitive, seeing as self-identified middle classes are at the frontlines of uprisings and civic activism. But I analyse the failures of their activism as evidence of the self-defeating nature of causes caught up in investment.
To begin with, the alliances these groups are more likely to forge are opportunistic: uniting with others who possess the same things in order to limit popular access that might reduce their value. So, for example, they promote zoning laws that restrict residence in certain areas to ‘good’ neighbours, entry and matriculation standards that protect the quality of schools and credentials, criteria that close up insurance pools to people who embody larger risks, and regulations that withhold public resources from people whose contributions fall short.
Middle-class activism also takes the form of volunteering or attempting to tackle close-to-home issues and improve conditions that are in one’s power to improve, while larger causes are dismissed as naïve and utopian. However meaningful the success of this activism might be in an immediate sense, it also bespeaks social and political helplessness.
Broader protests and uprisings, in turn, are vulnerable to cutbacks and divestments insofar as their ranks are made up of people with some educational or material capital, whose devaluation would be a painful blow. When push comes to shove, these activists look out for their possessions first, if only for the sake of their children, who need them to get ahead in life.
Finally, the value of property, assets and human capital often fluctuates with policies and prospects at the level of the national economy: budgetary balances, gross domestic product growth, stability, sustainability, and appeal to global investors. Whatever protesters’ grievances against their governments, banks or firms, they are implicated in them as partial or potential owners of savings, homes and credentials. They have immediate stakes, then, in the success of these institutions. Social transformation seems distant when losing one’s savings, jobs or pensions are real and concrete threats.
It seems both that the system today is struggling to deliver sufficiently on the promises of responsible investment and that there is no real alternative but to keep participating nonetheless. At the end of the book you state that, ‘Disillusionment with the ideal of self-determination is an opportunity to create the conditions for it to be actually fulfilled.’ Does it seem inevitable that disillusionment will increase within the existing economic structure? What kind of opportunities might arise?
HW: There’s already a great deal of disillusionment among those who have invested in property, assets and education, and don’t see their investments bearing fruit. So far, this disillusionment is growing. But there are two obvious problems with it. One is that it’s not evenly distributed: there are always enough people who are well positioned in this system, people who can pocket some of its windfall, with the political and cultural clout to defang popular disillusionment.
The other problem is that not all disillusionment breeds sentiments and movements that are antagonistic to the system. Some of it culminates in no more than opportunistic or compensatory reactions such as financial speculation that aims to game the system, or hedonistic consumerism that tries to enjoy what can still be enjoyed within it. More perniciously, some of the disillusionment is directed against the weak and marginalised, who become the scapegoats for systemic problems.
Contradictions in the system breed disillusionment, then, which itself is an opportunity to transform it. But seizing this opportunity depends on political desire and power. The key is to act collectively in pressing for system-wide changes, but I will leave it at this wholly unsatisfactory level of abstraction. We Have Never Been Middle Class plays on my strengths as a critical anthropologist in identifying contradictions and their ideological manifestations. Others can surely do better in pointing the way forward.