It is, perhaps, the most vague and ill-defined term in sociopolitical discourse. At the same time, it’s one of the most commonly used. It can be everything from a badge of honour to the most callous insult. Something which defines your economic status or destroys your street cred.
The term I’m talking about is “middle class.”
It is a term mired in contradictions. For example, the socially conservative and highly xenophobic Daily Mail styles itself as the voice of “Middle England,” whilst many people consider the stereotype of the Guardian reading left-liberal student, usually from a fairly well off family, to be the epitome of the class. The lowest-paid office intern, because they do a white-collar job, may be seen as middle class whilst a construction foreman, earning the same salary as an office manager, remains working class.
The middle class is not usually defined economically. Rather, it is holding “middle class values” or being in a “middle class job” that gives you your status. But few can agree on what those values or those jobs are supposed to be. Not to mention that what class people self-identify as is often at odds with how others see them.
The relevance of the term
So why does this matter at all? There are several reasons, some more pressing than others.
In the first instance, the “middle class” as a demographic, shapes political discourse. It is their vote that the politicians clamour for at election time. It is their interests and concerns they cite when enacting policy which in fact favours the ruling class. It is they who dominate a considerable number of political movements.
At the same time, the lack of definition around the term serves to compound the misunderstandings about the class system that many people have. Obviously, this makes it harder to put forward the argument for any philosophy – such as anarcho-syndicalism – based on class antagonism.
There is also the fact that, within the anarchist movement, “middle class” has become extremely common as an insult and a term of abuse. I confess that I am as guilty of this as anyone, at least when talking about the broader left and working class disillusionment with them. However, certain anarchists are often found flinging it at one another in a way akin to the People’s Front of Judea yelling “splitter” at the Judean People’s Front.
This serves only to reinforce the stereotype of anarchists as nutters screaming from the sidelines and to detract from ideas which, offered without this kind of sectarian and childish baggage, often find a sympathetic ear.
Not to mention that, from an anarchist class analysis, such sniping makes no sense whatsoever.
An anarchist perspective on social class
The class system defines the way our society is organised. It is at the root of all injustice and inequality, and it informs every different flavour of socialist and communist ideology.
However, conventional class analyses divide society into different tiers or strata – Marxists based on the relation to capital, other economists according to income levels and social standing. Thus, we can divide people easily into any number of strictly defined classes. Although these perspectives may, to some degree, reflect reality, they obscure the central class relation in society. That is, between those who have capital and those who do not.
In the pamphlet A participatory society or libertarian communism? (PDF) Joseph Kay offers an incisive explanation of the anarchist perspective on this;
Firstly, to recap on what capital is, as briefly as possible: money making more money. But this doesn’t happen by alchemy, but by human labour, which has the capacity to produce more than is needed to sustain it, a surplus which is appropriated to expand the original capital advanced. This establishes two poles of a spectrum. At the one end, those with nothing to sell but their capacity to work and nothing to lose but their chains. At the other, those with the capital to hire workers to expand their capital. Thus capital isn’t just money in motion, but a social relation between classes. It is dead labour, which vampire-like sucks the life out of the living.
In order to accumulate capital, the capitalist must compete in the market with other capitalists. They cannot afford to ignore market forces, or they will lose ground to their rivals, lose money, and ultimately cease to be a capitalist. Therefore capitalists are not really in control of capitalism, capital itself is. Thus both poles of the social relation are alienated, but in a qualitatively different way. While at the workers end alienation is experienced through the impositions of the boss, at the other it is experienced through impersonal market forces. The fancy name for this process by which inanimate objects come to dominate actual living subjects is an ‘ontological inversion.’ It is on account of this inversion that we can talk about capital as if it has agency, and as we shall see this is more precise than talking about capitalists.
Now it is true that on this spectrum, there are those who are hired by capitalists to manage their capital, but own no capital themselves … What matters for the time being is that they are on this bipolar spectrum. Knowledge is certainly a part of these individuals’ power, but it is a power exercised within the bipolar social relation. For what it’s worth, knowledge as a source of power within class society is not in itself a new insight – it was theorised over a century ago how the development of automation and factory production was driven by the need to undermine the power of the craft workers guilds, which was largely based on the knowledge essential to production which they jealously guarded.
There are also still peasants and aristocrats in the world. The important thing once more is that these classes too increasingly become arrayed along this bipolar spectrum. Peasants are dispossessed and become landless agricultural workers, or migrate to the cities. Aristocrats become real estate capitalists, or watch their estates fall into disrepair and cease to be aristocrats altogether. Capital – this vampire-like, bipolar social relation implied [in] the simple notion of money making more money – comes to dominate and restructure social life in its interests.
Within this “bi-polar spectrum,” the middle class as a distinct grouping does not exist. The spectrum pays no heed to political opinions, “values,” or cultural habits. Those who work for the government or in offices, “white-collar” workers, are still selling their labour in order to survive.
What, then, constitutes a “middle class” for anarchists? In short, it is the workers who do the dirty work for the bosses. Those who “are compelled to act in the interests of capital by their structural position within the bipolar capital relation.” Such people “could have a background as salt of the earth as they come, but still become the personification of capital due to their structural role in capitalist society.”
One percent of the nation owns a third of the wealth. The rest of the wealth is distributed in such a way as to turn those in the 99 percent against one another: small property owners against the propertyless, black against white, native-born against foreign-born, intellectuals and professionals against the uneducated and unskilled. These groups have resented one another and warred against one another with such vehemence and violence as to obscure their common position as sharers of leftovers in a very wealthy country.
For Zinn, amidst these fractal class relations, “the Establishment cannot survive without the obedience and loyalty of millions of people who are given small rewards to keep the system going.” They are “the employed, the somewhat privileged” who make up the middle class. “They become the guards of the system, buffers between the upper and lower classes.”
The prison guards and the vanguard
Zinn’s “guards of the system” are also, often, the same class of people as those who – if of a socialist leaning, declare themselves to be the “vanguard of the proletariat.” Or, put less archaically, the “revolutionary leadership” of the working class.
Upon this leadership, falls the task of educating the workers and instilling them with class consciousness. As Vladimir Lenin put it in What is to be done, their “task is not to champion the degrading of the revolutionary to the level of an amateur, but to raise the amateurs to the level of revolutionaries.” Ordinary workers are crude amateurs, and they need to be taught and raised up by the class of people with the capability to lead them.
It is no coincidence that those who place themselves in this position today are, more often than not, from the social strata who Zinn described as “drawn into alliance with the elite.” He observed that, as social conditions change, “less and less possible for the guards of the system … to remain immune from the violence” that system perpetuates.”
With “growing dissatisfaction among the guards,” we find that “alienation has spread upward into families above the poverty line.” Hence, more people from the middle class find themselves drawn to radical and revolutionary movements.
As the Class War Federation acknowledge in Unfinished Business, this isn’t always a bad thing. “Their class has a history of producing courageous fighters against oppression that they can be well proud of.” So, “while there is much that is distasteful about the activities of the middle class as a whole we recognise the fact that before and during a revolution the middle class will split and part of it will side with our class.”
However, too often these “distasteful” tendencies still linger and those who “side with our class” do so in a distinctly vanguardist manner. This ideology, as I wrote in Communism and the state, makes the authoritarian “communism” of the Soviet Union and the decline to Stalinism almost inevitable. Instead of “leading” us ill-educated workers to the glory of communism, they merely install themselves as the new ruling class.
This should come as no surprise even to them, given that Marxist analysis places the present ruling class – the bourgeois – as the former middle class, being “that possessing class which is differentiated from the so-called aristocracy.” This earlier middle class also offered “revolutionary leadership” to those at the bottom. As with the case of the USSR, China, Cuba, and North Korea, they took power for themselves whilst those at the bottom of the social scale remained where they were. The only difference is that one middle class was self-declared “communist,” the other capitalist.
Thus, Zinn is right to say that “If [the middle class] stop obeying, the system falls.” However, if that same class take the lead in rebellion, then it falls only to be replaced by a similar system wherein the earlier middle class are now the ruling class. Genuine change, and truly free and equal society, must be organised from below with no heed to any self-styled “revolutionary leadership.”
However, as Class War point out, the middle class and this tendency is “just another obstacle on the road to revolution.”
Middle class as an insult
At the same time, “just promoting hatred for the middle classes obscures the real target of our anger – the ruling class.” Which is why the pastime of some anarchists, to hurl “middle class” at each other as an insult is, at best, a tiresome distraction from serious activism.
There are times when it may be right to call somebody “middle class,” including in a pejorative sense. For example, I would defend my description of the Socialist Workers’ Party as having an ““activist” base of students who like to hide behind the newspapers they’re flogging, and little connection to actual workers in struggle.”
I did clarify that “I do actually know people within the SWP who are sincere and amiable people” and I “have nothing against students or the middle class, especially those who realise their shared lot with the rest of the working class and want to get involved.” However, it remains true that “that is the stereotype they convey to the working people their party wishes to be the vanguard of, and it is a stereotype that too many of them fit.”
But, at the same time, it can get very silly.
As a case in point, take this blog which argues (extremely incoherently) that “the likes of AFED [the Anarchist Federation] and The Far Left, all are anti Working/Underclass Scum;”
Those who know about Anarchism will understand this is how they act, and I have been attacked not only by words and repeating of lies told them by others but assaulted by members of AFED in Sheffield, then when you come to have an open debate with them they are not better then the far left, both are anti working class in there own right, and what we see here is another attack on the working class from New Labour and will the likes of AFED and The Left speak out of course not, but they condone you when you point out facts like ‘Islam4UK’ are a far-right Muslim group, then attack the working/underclass for looking and seeing the likes of the other far-right scum the BNP might hold some appeal, you can see why when all we have is the likes of AFED and The Far Left, all are anti working/underclass scum.
The same blogger responded to the Liverpool Solidarity Federation’s call for a radical workers’ bloc protesting the Liberal Democrat party conference with this polemic on “the true spirit of anarchy;”
We couldn’t give toss about the British Film Council for starters. All so remember, this campaign against cuts will defend six-figure salaries for doctors, head teachers, top coppers, the privatising klepto-bureaucrat class and all the other tossers directly responsible for dominating our lives.
Presumably once we’ve successfully “defended” these tossers they’re get on with the job of fucking up our lifes again?
Defending services and the money that go direct to the working class makes some sense. a wholesale campaign to defend the state is bollocks and just sows the seeds of our continuing oppression.
The true spirit of Anarchy has lost ground to people who are actually just lefties in libertarian clothing. We was wrong to think that the old-school Anarchists could drop their sectarianism and work to promote the beautiful idea. It’s time for something completely new.
This one poster is known for trolling various sites, from Indymedia to Ian Bone’s blog, and copy-and-pasting the same comments over and over. Usually in a confrontational and less than constructive manner. Nonetheless, he is not the only anarchist to take on a “prolier than thou” attitude to others who either have a (slightly) differing perspective or belong to a different group.
It is destructive, to say the least.
Yes, class struggle is at the heart of anarchism. The whole point is working class self-organisation, and it is important to keep emphasising that. Especially when the mainstream and other political currents seek to marginalise or deny altogether the class antagonism that defines our society. But this has to be done by arguing, coherently, for class struggle and a society in which the class system and other forms of hierarchy and oppression no longer exist.
Having enormous, and pointless, slanging matches about who is “more” working class, on the other hand, just makes anarchists appear to be a joke. It is all part of the trend of self-marginalisation that I wrote about on Truth, Reason & Liberty. No better than Trotskyists hurling around accusations of “sectarianism” at the slightest ideological disagreement.
This shouldn’t be happening. To repeat, “just promoting hatred for the middle classes obscures the real target of our anger – the ruling class.”