The Middle Class: Ideology, Semantics, Existentia


Science and Ideology: A Problem of Method

None of the words we use in the course of social and political discussions and analyses is ideologically neutral. Outside of ideology entirely, such words lose their meaning. And it is not possible to determine one’s attitude toward them unambiguously, since the content of any expression is shaped by context and semantic structures, a kind of operational system. When we live in a society with an obvious ideology, openly maintained as the dominant one, things are clear enough. 

The significance of words flows directly from the ideological matrix, which is instilled through upbringing, education, and instruction and is supported by the active ideological apparatus of the state. The state forms a language, defines the meaning of discourse, and sets – most often through repressive measures, broadly understood – the limits and moral tint of the basic collection of political and sociological concepts and terms.

If we live in a society in which communist ideology dominates, concepts such as “bourgeoisie”, “fascism”, “capitalism”, “speculation”, etc. acquire not simply a strictly negative content, but also a specific meaning, with which capitalists, fascists, and speculators will categorically disagree. The disagreement concerns not only signs, but the very significance of words. The way a communist sees a fascist or a capitalist seems to the fascist and capitalist themselves to be a caricature, a distortion. And, of course, the other way around: fascism seems natural to the fascist, and communism an evident evil, while he understands and sees himself radically differently than his ideological opponents do.

The same is true of the capitalist. For him, communism and fascism are almost equally evil. The capitalist most often does not think of himself as bourgeois. Speculation is for him a form of the realization of natural economic rights, and the system he defends he usually regards as a free society, an open society. Neither the Marxist analysis of the appropriation of surplus value, nor the fascist critic of the web of interest obligations and payments and the international financial oligarchy, which usurps power over peoples and nations, ever convince him of anything.

Ideologies are similar to religions; hence Carl Schmitt speaks of “political theology”. Each believes sacredly in his own values and ideals, and criticism of or apology for alternative values most often has no effect (except for a few cases of confessional change, which occurs in the history of religion and in the history of political teachings).

Consequently, before speaking seriously about one or another term, it is necessary to determine in which ideological context we will be considering it. Someone will object: science must take a neutral position. That is impossible. In this case, science would pretend to the status of a meta-ideology, i.e. a kind of “true ideology”, of which all other ideologies are relative forms. But nobody will agree with this, even it should come into someone’s head to flaunt such ambitions.

In the religious sphere syncretic teachings periodically arise, claiming that they are the expression of “absolute truth” and that all other historical religions are its relative manifestations. But as a rule such tendencies do not enjoy great popularity, remaining the property of rather small circles and denied by major confessions as “heresies”. Science, likewise, cannot claim the status of a metaideology and remain relevant. But it differs from ordinary ideology by three features:

1. It reflects distinctly upon the structures of the ideological paradigm it considers (ordinary people do not even suspect that what seems to them their “personal opinion” is a secondary or even tertiary product of ideological processing, the mechanisms of which are entirely hidden from them);

2. In the course of analysis of ideological discourse, it uses the techniques of classical logic (Aristotle’s laws and Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason);

3. It is able to build a comparative matrix of the correspondences between diverse ideologies, juxtaposing structures in their foundations and establishing symmetries and oppositions between separate discourses and their elements.

Thus, in considering any concept or term it is possible to proceed in two ways: either to interpret it from the position of one or another ideology, not digging into its foundations and not comparing it with other interpretations (this is the level of propaganda and low-quality applied analysis/journalism), or to attend to the scientific method, which does not free us from adherence to an ideology, but forces us to reason, observing the three above-mentioned rules of the scientific approach (paradigm, logic, comparison).

We propose to consider the concept of the “middle class” in precisely this scientific spirit.

From Caste to Class

The concept of the “middle class” is crucial for the liberal-capitalist ideology. Although it appeared later than the Marxist theory of class struggle and the famous communist doctrine of the two antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the very meaning of the term “middle class” has a much longer history and has its roots in the period of bourgeois revolutions and the rise of the Third Estate, which claimed henceforth a monopoly in political and economic spheres.

Before considering the “middle class”, let’s turn to the concept of “class” as such. Class is a concept of the social organization of modernity. Ancient orders and social-political systems were built on the caste principle. By “caste” we should understood the doctrine that the inner nature of different people differs qualitatively: there are divine souls and earthly (feral, demonic) souls. The caste reflects precisely this nature of the soul, which man is not able to change during his life. The caste is fatal. The normal society, according to this conception, must be built so that those of a divine nature are above (the elite) and those of an earthly (feral, demonic) nature below (the masses). That is how the Indian Varna system is arranged, as were ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other societies.

This caste theory was replaced by a more flexible estate theory. The estate also proposes a difference in people’s natures (the existence of higher and lower), but here the fact of birth in one or another estate is not considered a final and natural factor in the determination of belonging to a certain social status. Estate can be changed if the representative of a lower estate accomplishes a great feat, demonstrates unique spiritual qualities, becomes a member of the priesthood, etc.

Here, alongside the caste principle, the principle of meritocracy, rewards for services, operates, extending also to the descendants of the one who accomplished the feat (ennobling). Estate society was predominant in Christian civilization right to the end of the Middle Ages. In estate society, the highest estates are the priesthood (clergy) and the military (aristocracy), and the lowest is the Third Estate of peasants and craftsmen. Precisely the same way, in a caste society priests and warriors (Brahma and Kshatriya) were highest, and lowest were peasants, artisans, and traders (Vaishya).

Modernity became the era of the overthrow of estate society. Europe’s bourgeois revolutions demanded a replacement of the estate privileges of the higher estates (the clergy and the military aristocracy, the nobility) in favor of the Third Estate. But the bearers of this ideology were not the peasants, connected with traditional society by the specific character of seasonal labour, religious identity, etc., but the more mobile townspeople and burghers (“bourgeois” is formed from the German word “Burg”, “town”). Hence, modernity gave first priority to precisely the townsfolk-citizen-bourgeois as a normative unit.

The bourgeois revolutions abolished the power of the Church (clergy) and aristocracy (nobility, dynasties) and advanced the model of building society on the basis of the domination of the Third Estate, represented by precisely the townsfolk-citizen-bourgeois.

This is capitalism. Capitalism, in its victory, replaces estate distinctions, but preserves material ones. Thus the notion of class arises: class signifies an indicator of the measure of inequality. The bourgeoisie abolish estate inequality, but preserve material inequality. Consequently, precisely modernity’s bourgeois capitalistic society is a class society in the full sense of the word. Previously, in the Middle Ages estate belonging was the main social attribute. In modernity, the entire social stratification was reduced to the attribute of material riches. Class is a phenomenon of modernity.

Antagonistic Classes in Marxism

The class character of bourgeois society, however, was perceived most distinctly not by the ideology of the bourgeoisie, but by Marx. He elaborated his revolutionary teaching on the basis of the concept of class. At its foundation was the main idea that class society and the material inequality characteristic of it, elevated to the highest criterion, exposes the essence of the nature of society, man and history. In Marx’s class picture there are always rich and poor, and the rich always get richer, and the poor, poorer. Consequently, there are two classes, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, and their struggle is the motor and meaning of all social-political and economic history.

All of Marxism is built on this idea: when we speak of classes, we speak of two antagonistic classes, the difference between which is not relative, but absolute, since each embodies in itself two irreconcilable Worlds: the world of Exploitation and the world of honest Labor. There are two classes: the class of Labor (the proletariat) and the class of Exploitation (the bourgeoisie). In the capitalist system, the class of Exploitation dominates. The class of Labor must become conscious of itself, arise, overthrow the class of Exploiters, create at first the Government of Labor (the working class), socialism, and then, when all remnants of bourgeois society will be destroyed, communist society will appear, now fully classless. But this classless society, according to Marx, is possible only after the victory of the proletariat and the radical destruction of the bourgeoisie.

For Marx, a “middle class” simply cannot exist. This concept has no independent semantics in Marxist ideology, since everything that is between the bourgeoisie and proletariat (for instance, the petty bourgeoisie or prosperous peasantry) relates essentially either to the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. For Marxists, the “middle class” is a fiction. It doesn’t exist, and the concept itself is nothing but an instrument of the ideological propaganda of capitalists, trying to fool the proletariat, promising a future integration into the class of the bourgeoisie (which, according to Marx, cannot happen, since the appropriation of surplus value prevents at root the proletariat’s enrichment).

We can draw the following conclusion: the term “middle class” is a fiction for Marxists, an artificial figure of bourgeois ideology, called upon to conceal the real picture of society and the processes occurring in it. At the same time, Marxists admit the fact of a transition from estate society to class society and, consequently, agree with the bourgeoisie that a society of material inequalities (class society) is “more progressive” than a society of estate inequality, but they disagree in that for communists this is not the “end of history”, but only the beginning of a full-fledged revolutionary struggle; while liberals insist that material inequality is entirely moral and justified and maintain that the communists’ striving for material equality is, by contrast, amoral and pathological. For liberals, “the end of history” begins when everyone becomes “middle class”. For communists, it begins when the proletariat fully destroy the bourgeoisie and build a communist society of total equality.

Class as the Middle Class in Liberalism

The concept of a middle class is implicitly present in liberal ideology from the very beginning, but it only receives full implementation in the course of the establishment of sociology, which tried to combine many avant-garde theses of Marxism (in particular, the centrality of the concept of class) and bourgeois conditions, representing a sort of hybrid form, ideologically between communism and liberalism, but accenting as a priority precisely a scientific approach (i.e. the three criteria that distinguish science, even ideological science, from pure ideology). We can distinguish two poles in sociology, the social (the school of Durkheim, the theories of Sorokin, etc.) and the liberal (Weber, the Chicago School in the US, etc.)

In any case, the specific character of the liberal understanding of class is the conviction that in the standard bourgeois society there is only one class, and all differences between the depths and the heights are relative and conditional. If for Marx there are always two classes, and they exist in implacable enmity, for liberals (Adam Smith, for instance) there is always essentially one class, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie nominally embraces the entire capitalist society. The poorest layers of this society are incompletely bourgeois. The richest are supra-bourgeois. But the social nature of all people is qualitatively identical: all are given equal starting opportunities, setting out from which the bourgeois can either reach a certain level of success, or fail to reach it and tumble down into the incompletely bourgeois.

Hence, Adam Smith takes as a standard situation the following classical liberal narrative. The baker hires a worker, who has recently come to the city for work. After working as an assistant to the owner, the hired worker learns to bake bread and observes the organization of processes of interaction with suppliers and customers. After some time, the hired worker borrows credit and opens a bakery. After first working independently, he eventually hires a helper, who has come to the city for work, and the cycle repeats itself.

In this model, we see the following: all of society is thought of as middle class. But there is the already middle class and the not yet middle class. In this picture, the hired worker does not form a peculiar type, but represents the potentially bourgeois, while the ready baker is actually bourgeois, but even he, coming to ruin, can theoretically be in the position of the hired worker (not yet bourgeois). If, according to Marx, the quantity of riches in society is a fixed quantity, and the presence of two classes is based on precisely this (those who have riches will never share them with the poor, since we are talking about a zero-sum game), then for Smith riches constantly increase. As a result, the boundaries of the middle class continuously expand. Capitalism is based on the presumption of the constant growth of riches of all members of society, and ideally all humanity must become middle class, i.e. bourgeoisie.

At the same time, there are two approaches to the middle class in liberal ideology. The first corresponds to left liberals: they insist that the supra-bourgeois, the big bourgeoisie consciously share a certain part of the profits with the middle and petty bourgeoisie, since this will lead to the stability of the system and to an acceleration of the growth of the middle class globally. The second is characteristic of right liberals: they object that the encumbrance of the big bourgeoisie by social projects contradicts the spirit of free enterprise and slows the dynamics of development of the capitalist system, since precisely the big bourgeoisie stimulates the growth of the middle bourgeoisie, which in turn urges on the petty bourgeoisie and the not yet bourgeoisie. Accordingly, the concept of the middle class becomes for left liberals an ideological slogan, a moral value, while for right liberals the growth of the middle class is a natural consequence of the development of the capitalist system and does not demand special attention or elevation to a value.

Class as Social Strata in Sociology

In sociology, this basic ideological attitude of liberalism concerning the primacy of the middle class manifests itself in the relativization of the model of stratification. Sociology divides society into three classes, upper, middle, and lower (to this is sometimes added the underclass of pure marginals and social deviants), but these classes are not identical to Marxist nor to strictly liberal class-concepts (since liberalism knows only one class, the middle class, while the others are thought of as its variations). This division fixes the dimension of individuals along four indicators: material sufficiency, level of fame, position in administrative hierarchy, and level of education. On the basis of strictly qualitative criteria, any person can be related to one of three social strata.

Here the concept of class does not have a direct ideological content, but as a rule it is applied to bourgeois society, where sociology as a science appeared. This sociological classes, identified with social strata, should be distinguishes from Marxist classes and from standard liberal conceptions about the middle class as the universal and single class.

In this case, in a bourgeois framework the struggle for the rights of the under-class or support of the lower class (in a sociological sense) can be thought of as a left continuation of the liberal approach: attention to the lower layer of bourgeois society stipulates striving to facilitate its integration into the middle class, i.e. to pull them up the level of the bourgeois. For right liberals such an effort is “amoral”, since it contradicts the main principle of social freedom: self-help and honest competition (the strong win, the weak lose, but such are the rules of the game; all should endeavour to become strong). The extreme version of right or even far-right liberalism is the objectivism of Ayn Rand.

The Middle Class from a Nationalistic Perspective

It remains to consider the last ideological system of modernity, nationalism. Nationalism is a variation of bourgeois ideology, which insists that the standard horizon of bourgeois society should be not humanity (the open cosmopolitanism of classical liberals, globalism), but society in the borders of a nation-state. The nation is taken as the maximal unit of integration. The market is open within the boundaries of the nation. But in the inter-state system, economic activity transitions to the level of the state, not private actors. From here there arises the legitimization of such instruments as tariffs, protectionism, etc.

Nationalism thinks of the middle class not abstractly, but concretely, as the middle class of a given national formation, the state. Nationalism also, like liberalism, accepts as a standard figure of society the townsperson-citizen-bourgeois, but puts the accent precisely on citizen, and what’s more, the citizen of a given national state.

The nation as a political formation becomes a synonym of bourgeois society. For nationalists, beyond this society there exists only zone of national and social risk. The nation is thought of here as a community of the middle class. And the task consists in integrating the lower layers in the national whole, including with the help of socialist measures. That is why nationalism can possess numerous socialist features, though the ideological basis here is different: pulling the economically weak to the level of the middle class is a task of national integration, not a consequence of orientation towards justice and material equality. Something similar obtains with left liberals, who consider help in integrating the under-class a condition for the stability of the development of the capitalist system.

Nationalism as a rule relates negatively to national minorities and especially to immigrants. This is connected with the fact that in the eyes of nationalists these elements disturb the homogeneity of the national middle class. Moreover, some national minorities are blamed for concentrating in their hands too much material wealth (a challenge to the national middle class “from above”; an example of this is antagonism towards oligarchs and historical examples of “economic anti-semitism”, not foreign to Marx himself), while others are blamed for increasing the numbers of the lower strata and underclass, the integration of which is complicated by national differences (complaints are most often made against immigrants); a variant of anti-immigrant nationalism consists in the charge that the increase of cheap labor slows the process of enriching the “native” population and the “harmonious” (for nationalists) growth of the middle class.

 Translated by Michael Millerman.