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. READ MORE