The Middle Class Myth: How Social Class Actually Works, Explained Simply
Alongside the classic jingles and fuzzwords like “freedom” and “hardworking Americans,” US politicians love the term “middle class,” which is smart politics in a nation where about 60% believes they are middle class. The middle of a group, however, is defined (in statistics, at least) as a section with equal numbers on both sides and — since another 38% identify as working or lower class — logically, most folks must be wrong about their middle-position. And besides — class isn’t determined by any particular position, such as lower, middle, and upper, nor by relative income. In fact, what this poll really shows is that the US could benefit by investing more in its math and sociology classes.
What is the Middle Class & Does It Exist?
The middle class is an attractive idea — its clean, simple, and seemingly self-explanatory. Too bad it’s a big, fat pile of nonsense. Politicians like to go on and on about it — middle class this and middle class that — but they never breathe a word about a lower class or a higher class and for good reason. “Lower class” is usually taken as insulting and using the term is far too likely to make everyone wonder why people living in the richest nation in history are still deprived of adequate food, housing, and healthcare. And “upper class,” of course, is a difficult term for politicians to use because no one likes people who talk about themselves in the third-person (it sounds snooty).
Language is useful if it means something and — with no sense of what the middle class is in the middle of — this phrase is political gibberish. As it is used, ‘middle class’ refers to a vague mass containing an unknown number of people with no defining characteristic that is neither located in the middle of any particular thing nor described by traditional definitions of “class.”
How Social Class Works
Economic measurements like net-worth or income level can be visualized in terms of lower, middle, and upper by lining up everybody from lowest-paid to highest-paid or from least-wealthy to most. These categories are a lot less helpful for understanding class because class is about the different kinds of relationships shared by groups of people and the economic parts of their society.
Class is a measurement of quality, not quantity.
Social class (also called socio-economic class) describes how different groups relate to the means of production, which is just whatever society uses to make stuff — land, resources, tools, factories, labs, and so on. If a group of people shares the same relationship to the means of production, they are considered a class. In capitalist society, there are two major social classes — the working class and capitalist class (often called the proletariat and bourgeoisie). Members of the capitalist class own the means of production and members of the working class do not own them — these are legally-defined relations that are shared by everyone.
How Class Affects Economic & Social Roles
Each type of shared relationships — that is, each class — has its own unique qualities that influence its members’ lives, including everything from income and education to profession, social status, and more. Members of the working class, for example, often must participate in wage-labor because they lack any means to work on their own and so they must rent themselves to people who own the means. The capitalist class, on the other hand, is mostly free from the obligation to work because they are able to pay workers to produce valuable stuff using their private means, allowing capitalists to pay themselves and employees with the profit.
Because of these class-characteristics, capitalists tend to fulfill administrative and managerial roles (CEO, investor, entrepreneur, etc.) and workers tend to be found in difficult and time-consuming roles (laborer, sales clerk, iron worker, etc.). Income and job opportunities are deeply interwoven with questions of class, of course — but neither jobs nor income cause a person to be in a class. It is the other way around.
Why the Myth of the Middle Class Is Harmful
“You think you’re so clever and classless and free but you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see”
— John Lennon
Like racism and nativism, the incorrect idea that a middle class exists is a deceptive myth used by the 1% as a tool to divide the 99% against itself — color versus color, native versus foreign-born, and poor workers versus less-poor workers. The difference is clearest at the extremes and there are certain groups that sometimes seem to possess characteristics of both classes. The so-called small-business owner, for instance, may technically own the means to produce some shred of private wealth but — in many cases, at least — their material conditions are just like the workers’ and they too find themselves working day-after-day just to stay in place.
And therein lies the harm that the middle class myth inflicts — it conjures illusions of division where there are none in reality. The belief — the fantasy — that a person is a part of a middle class leads less-poor workers to think their interests differ from the class-interests of the working class at large and ultimately to act against their own interests. Believing they are “middle class” leads the less-poor to imagine there is some fundamental difference between themselves and folks who cannot feed their families without government benefits. There isn’t. There are two classes — one of them is big and the other is small. One needs to toil daily for food, housing, and other necessities and the other does not. One must work and the other is why.
In the end, it is the divisions gouged by the material fact of class society itself — and the material facts of racism and sexism — that limit the fullest development of our humanity. One too many classes exist already and it’d be best not to complicate matters with imaginary ones…