Social Class III: Stuck In The Middle With You

If the first post in this series was, vaguely about the working class and the second about the elite, then this is the post about the middle class. Probably the hardest to analyse, since I'm from some sort of middle class background myself.

But then, who isn't? In a discussion with blogger tray here, there was a discussion about two posters, one supposedly elitist and the other one supposedly working class. Yet I can pretty much bet you that both posters were made by people who consider themselves middle class. And yes, certainly, as Gavin points out here, so do many party oriented rappers, Lil Jon among them. Or David Banner, who's got a masters degree in business administration. Isn't he middle class? Obviously what's middle-class varies from caricature to caricature, just as the term hipster does.

A university, for one, is a largely middle-class environment (having free universities like in Sweden barely changes that). Yet on any campus you're going to find vastly different attitudes - from the small town kid there to receive some sort of professional training and to party, to the utterly pretentious wannabe academic pursuing a Bildungsideal. The square and the hipster and the nerd coexist, all middle-class. Hardcore punk? Middle class. Easy listening? Middle Class.

The middle-class, quite simply, diverges. According to Neo-marxist Nicos Poulantzas (link in Swedish) it's because they have a choice. Unlike the upper class, who are bound for leadership positions, or the working class, who are bound for subservient manual labour, the middle class can go one of several ways. They can become "intellectual workers" (not, says Poulantzas disdainfully, intellectuals) who occupy a position similar to the working class when seen from above, low-level white-collar workers. Or they can be close to the high bourgeoisie in various management positions. This choice is made as early as middle-school, by selecting out some students over others. I can see this in my own family, where I'm the intellectual kid who's gone on to adopt (like it or not) bourgeois values to some extent, whereas my three older siblings have had a very different attitude. My sister went to college for four years and she's a naprapath, but she's certainly not the kind of middle-class person who'd be invoking neo-marxists in a blog discussion. She's not part of any silly Habermasian bourgeois public sphere.

Still, there's something about the choice idea that rings hollow. I certainly felt expectations from my upper-middle-class parents to go to university for my personal development mostly, and I'm not sure the white-collar worker's kids look at it the same way. Maybe the biggest distinction between the fractions of the middle class is not strictly economical but a divide between different attitudes? Or to put it another way: I can well conceive of Lil Jon's parents being doctors. But I could never, ever conceive of them being artists. Or sociologists.

There's a complex system of attitudes in the middle class, dividing up people into different groupings. Liberal social worker? Read the Guardian, shop at second hand stores, listen to Michael Franti. And so on. Actually, supposedly taste in music is a great sociological predictor for the other attitudes - and the recently publicised study on the subject is entirely missing the point. It's not your personality determining your taste in music - it's your role in society that determines both how you're supposed to act and what music you're supposed listen to.

Maybe intellectual parents who are worried about their kids underperforming in school should make them become fans of progressive house or something, and everything will be all right...


Gavin said...

There's slippage here between two different (and occasionally contradictory) definitions of class. You'll notice that Marx never talks about the middle class -- his definition of class is determined by whether or not one owns the means of production or has to sell one's labor in order to survive. So regardless of your income, you could still be working class if you don't own stocks (which most people don't). In the U.S. as many as 60-70% could be considered working class, with around 15% as the ownership class and 15-20% as the lumpenproletariat -- unemployed, disabled, criminal, etc. We could, and should, modify Marx's class structure to deal with a new economic environment, but I think it needs to be tied to material conditions of wealth production and ownership.

Then there's the income-level version which for most people has completely elided the Marxist version. This winds up as consumerist model -- your class level is determined by what you can buy and where you shop. Which of course makes the whole notion blurry, especially when people who are "upper-middle-class" are going broke and losing their homes. This version of class is much more tied to fantasy and desire than actual material conditions -- this is why music (also tied to fantasy and desire) is a poor predictor of class, though I think it works better as a means of social distinction (and why music is so intrinsic to hipsterism) - I'm sure you've read Bourdieu on this.

One example: I taught Cultural Diversity -- my school is mostly working class students from the city of Chicago: many are working dead-end service sector jobs, many are the first in their families to go to college. Yet even after discussing what working class meant, and going over how the media has stigmatized it, even after I pointed out that if 65% of America recognized its class interests as shared, they have the numbers to make changes, few students were willing to identify as working class (I put an open-ended question about it on the final exam), even ones who live in rough neighborhoods and had been on various forms of public assistance. For most of them, college is explicitly a way to enter the middle class by way of getting a job (I teach at a career-focused college). They already declare themselves of a middle class mindset (consciousness) even if they don't have the income.

Side note: although there are lots of fashion design and graphic design majors at my school, there are very very few students who stand out as stereotypical "hipsters." There are many more down the street at the School for the Art Institute, which has higher tuition (and far fewer people of color).

Birdseed said...

The side note especially I think is interesting, in light of the rest of the discussion: obviously income differences still make enough of a difference in this case. It's a balance in discussing this sort of thing, because on one hand you've got these groups of people with different attitudes irrespective of income, yet there's still a broader trend to be detected in their "normal" economic distribution.

Even back in the day of Marx there would have been penniless aristocrats or haute bourgeoisie deviating from the pattern, yet who still occupied the same ideological space as their brethren - I'm not versed enough in Marxist theory to know how he dealt with these. But I think it's true of the middle class as well - they occupy a different place in the ideology than the working class, often propagating its myths. (I translated "new petty bourgeoisie" as middle class from the neo-marxist text. In clumsy terminology that's what he means anyway.)

The truism that the working class these days can make more money than the middle class always rings a bit hollow. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law work in industry, and make vastly more money than me, it's true - but ultimately they've got no career prospects, they're aging faster than me, they're stuck with stressful jobs they hate. Their apartments and flat screen TVs act as a consumerist trap, keeping them in their hopeless jobs forever with no rich parents to lean back on. So I think we need to be careful before dismissing the economically-based classes completely - aren't your working class background student slated for more income and better health in the end?