On Being Middle-Class

By almost any measure, I’m painfully middle class. I don’t just mean in terms of economic or social facts (occupation, family, manners, education, etc.) but also, and more interestingly, in terms of temperament: the way I approach things, including political issues, is marked by a mentality that I think has a certain association with ‘the middle classes’ – in particular by being, as I will discuss, non-judgmental, individualistic, and ‘xenophilic’.

Now, the relationship between the middle classes and the left is one that’s often brought up, but regarding which sober analysis is often obscured by a dialogue of accusation and defense – both outside the left, which is castigated as a whole for being supposedly full of ‘idealistic’ and ‘naïve’ middle-class intellectuals and ‘champagne socialists’, and within the left, where one group denounces another for its ‘middle-class’ orientation/membership/methodology (also sometimes called ‘petit-bourgeois’) and counter-poses the genuine working class nature that the left is supposed to have. What exactly is involved in middle-classness politically is sometimes unclear.

This is not a post about my guilt, privilege, or anything like that. What I’m going to try to do is cash out more precisely the respects in which I recognise myself as conforming to a certain ‘type’ of the middle-class lefty, and what implications this has.

This ‘type’ is of course one which is  neither shared by all of the middle classes, all of the left, or all of the middle-class left, nor exclusive to them. There may well be other middle-class ‘types’, including some quite opposed to this one, but it seemed an interesting and worthwhile topic to consider nonetheless.

Note also, these are not positions or beliefs, but features of temperament – which will be one influence among others in deciding between positions.

So firstly, I’m anti-judgmental, uncomfortable with punishment, and ‘soft on crime’. My instinct is not generally to favour harsh punishments, or to prioritise catching and disciplining ‘offenders’. I tend to refrain from judging harshly, and focus more on structural causes than individual causes.

Don’t think I’m trying to flatter myself here – this isn’t necessarily a virtue, if it leads to ineffective and counterproductive responses to antisocial behaviour, but it’s a bias in one direction and not in the other.

The sorts of ‘condemnations’ that do come easily to me are usually of authority figures, presidents and various people with power – what are, in a sense, ‘safe’ condemnations. They’re not safe in every sense (in many countries/social circles, there are big social costs to issuing them) but they’re safe from a certain particular risk, namely the risk that as a result of a too harsh judgement, someone will be excessively punished. I can call George Bush a war criminal as many times as I want, without much chance of him getting killed for it (though when the revolution comes…)

Secondly, I’m individualistic in my sense of identity. ‘Individualism’, of course, has a hundred different definitions, but in this case what I mean is that my sense of who I am puts almost no weight on where I was born, what race I belong to, what nationality I have, or any other unchosen group-membership. It’s primarily about individual features of me, my choices and interests, and when it does involve identification with a group, it’s usually one with voluntary membership based on some judgement (e.g. a political or intellectual tradition).

Politically this means that not only do I disagree with nationalism, racism, patriotism, etc., but I find them baffling – it takes a great effort of imagination to get myself to the point where it can even make sense to feel pride in such things, where they seem like solid realities and not collective fictions.

It also means that a certain sort of world – a borderless global society where individuals don’t feel strongly bound to any particular place and move from one continent to another with fairly little anxiety – seems to me not only quite attractive but almost common sense, while to others it might seem like a nihilistic dystopia.

This links it to the third feature – I am markedly xenophilic, interested in and attracted to what’s foreign. I like learning about the customs, histories, beliefs, etc. of foreign groups of humans, as well as about other species, others, lifestyles, other subcultures, etc. By contrast, what’s most familiar and most close-by sometimes seems boring. The contrasting attitude, ‘xeno-phobia’ (put in quotes to differentiate it from the stronger political sense of xenophobia) would feel, if not hostility, at least anxiety around the great sweep of the unfamiliar, a certain desire to dismiss or ignore it, and to focus in on the familiar and close-by as the normal, natural, and sensible.

In political terms, again, this makes me quite happy with the idea of ‘diversity’ – and I can see how such a tendency might in other people incline them towards the various idiocies of cultural relativism, of essentialising ‘other cultures’ and exempting them from criticism.

It also makes me happy to extend my political interests to foreign matters, to watch in rapt attention as the Iranians demonstrate in the streets and the Honduran elite depose their president – rather than focusing exclusively on ‘local’ issues here in the UK.

Now, if you put these features together, and compare them with an opposed sort of mentality, what emerges is not simply different sorts of opinions within politics, but different reasons for being involved in politics, different sense of what ‘politics’ is about.

Observe firstly that part of what defines politics is conflict: the political sphere is where great social disagreements and disputes and antagonisms appear explicitly and work themselves out, as opposed to any purely scientific, purely technical discipline.

Now, the sort of ‘middle-class lefty’ temperament I’ve outlined here fits very much with a style of politics where political consciousness and engagement is voluntary, rather than forced by a political issue directly involving you, and where it starts from a position which is confident of itself but without much real emotional charge. It’s politics not so much as something prompted by fear, misery, or anger, but more by a personal desire to ‘reach out’ and find something interesting, engaging, and exciting.

Such a style of politics would have neither the anger that would generate harsh judgements and desire to punish, nor the insecurity and fear that would prompt defensive identification with a group, scapegoating of other groups, or displacement of fear onto foreign things and people. It would be very interested in global events, in following stories halfway around the world, and not so interested in everyday ‘bread-and-butter’ issues.

The link with ‘the middle classes’ should be obvious – this is exactly the sort of mentality you’d expect to preponderate among people who, though conscious of antagonisms and conflicts in the world, were in their personal lives fairly uninvolved in such things, people who in their personal lives are able to ‘stand aloof’ to a certain extent from class struggle. This is obviously something that applies to many members of ‘the middle classes’, who are compelled neither to struggle to get by (note that ‘getting by’ is defined relatively), nor to struggle to ‘keep order’ among their workers. In particular, of course, it applies to students – not absolutely, but compared to most of the rest of society. Which somewhat accounts for the stereotypes surrounding student politics.

Now, having laid out the analysis, there remains the task of evaluation. I have no interest in beating myself up for being middle class, either by temperament or by background, but at the same time one could only be ‘neutral’ about which temperaments or attitudes were better or worse by being neutral about classes themselves, which I’m not.

Two notable points jump out at me. One is that insofar as a position that is to some extent removed from class struggle is most similar to a position in a society without class struggle, the ‘middle class’ position is in some ways the closest analogue we have to what communism will be like, and the mentality typical of middle-class people may be the best guide to the culturally dominant mentality under communism (this will be false, of course, to the extent that the middle-class person is affected by and reflects their position in a class society).

The other is of course that if, as is conventionally supposed, the proletariat is the main site of the potential overthrowing of capitalism and introduction of communism, then politics in the middle-class style is not actually the best ultimate means to its own goals – if, that is, we oppose ‘middle class’ with ‘proletariat’, which is not entirely correct but I think has some validity to it, especially for non-working students.

And this makes a certain amount of sense – anger and fear may not be nice or desirable emotions but they are probably better motivators of risk-taking and decisive action than a mere wish for a better world; a tendency to focus on novel or foreign issues is not all that conducive to producing long-term changes in your immediate surroundings; and a distrust of collective identifications may not be the quickest route towards collective strength and victory in collective conflicts.
If this is true, we might express it by saying that, in broad statistical generalisations, while workers have potentially revolutionary consciousness, middle-class layabouts and students have potentially communist consciousness.

The further implications of this are left hanging for now, but will hopefully be returned to in coming posts.

7 Responses to “On Being Middle-Class”

  1. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    I think there is a danger in the line of thinking you’re following here, of associating the good things about what you think with your social class. The danger is that you take what are in fact universal or at least cross-class social values and because all the people you know who share these values are from your class, you assume that they’re a property of that class. It would be interesting to see if the values you describe really are correlated with social class in the way you think.

    In particular, it definitely seems like a mistake to me to think of the middle classes as being in some way dissociated with class conflict. They don’t engage it so directly as some, but their considerable wealth and influence play a huge role. Most ‘professionals’, educators, civil servants, etc. come from the middle classes, and they all play an essential role in maintaining society as it is. As people working at elite educational institutions as I think you and I both are, it’s important that we be particularly clear about the politically conservative role we play institutionally.

    Not that I’m suggesting we beat ourselves up about being middle class. As you say, that’s pretty pointless. But, we should think about how our institutional roles that we may think of as being separate from class struggle are actually part of it.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Certainly there are dangers, and it’s possible to go too far – I tried to hedge my comments with get-outs and qualifications, since obviously these sorts of qualities are found in all classes. But I think there’s a fact here that shouldn’t be ignored.

    But I think background is quite important here. The background to this post is reading a variety of posts elsewhere criticising ‘the left’ for precisely these sorts of things – being unconcerned with crime, being unthinkingly cosmopolitan, chasing after exciting foreign causes (like the endlessly debated ‘middle east conflict’). Those criticisms explicitly linked these to the left being, on the one hand, largely active among middle-class students, and on the other hand, having very little base among ‘the working class’, and often turning them off with ‘middle-class’ priorities and slogans.

    I think it’s interesting that you read me as ‘associating the good things about what I think’ with my class, while I intended to present in a neutral light facts that had previously been the basis of criticism.

    And of course, there are a lot of ways that the middle classes are involved in the class system, but I think there is a certain degree of ‘remoteness’ there, even if it’s more psychological than real – since psychology is what we’re talking about here.

  3. Colm O'Connor Says:

    I think the middle class of one country probably shows more interest in the middle classes of another than it does those of a different class in the same or different country.

    People seemed to give more of a damn about Iran “twittering the revolution” (even though arguably it was a small minority involved in the protests and much of the rest of Iran wanted them gone as much as the govt. did) than they did, for example, Darfur.

    That is, being “unthinkably cosmopolitan” might simply be having a greater interest in people who are “just like us” who happen to live far away in different cultures (but who still use twitter), than we are interested in, for instance, those people who live on a council estate in Croydon (the UK middle class in particular has a remarkable distaste for many of the working classes – calling them ‘chavs’, etc.).

    Agree on the racism, nationalism and patriotism 100% though. I think they’re anathema to living a civilized existence. Though I can understand why people resort to them – people who feel threatened become far more assertively tribal in their behaviour, and those qualities are extremely tribal in their nature.

  4. Dan | thesamovar Says:

    There is a problem with the middle class left being out of touch with the working classes, but I’m not sure that the problems are that there’s a gulf in the values. Put it this way, suppose you’re working class and are considering getting involved in a political organisation of some sort. If the organisation is largely middle class, comfortably well off, used to mixing with other people who are well off and who manage the way society is run, would you think this would be a good group to join? No, it would look like exchanging one set of patronising masters telling you what to do and how to think for another. It seems to me that this is more the problem for the middle class left, and not the ideas. I think criticising the ideas because they’re out of touch is misguided – if our ideas don’t resonate then so be it. If we think they’re right we should stick to them even so (although of course being reflective about why we think them, and open to criticism, yadda yadda). But if its our manner, and our way of organising ourselves that institutionally excludes people from the working class, then that’s something we can do something about.

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Colm: you’re certainly right that people who we can relate to tend to be more interesting to us. But surely that would suggest that everyone should be ‘cosmopolitan’, attending to those in other countries most like them. But clearly some people aren’t, so I don’t think it can be the full story.

    Also, I find your choice of examples interesting. Apart from disagreeing over analyses of the Iranian events, I’d always thought of Darfur as an over-focused-on place, a set of events no more serious or horrific than a number of similar contemporary cases, but which had turned into a media sensation because of certain traits of presentation, story-telling, media patterns, etc.

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well, for a start that still leaves the question of why organisations of a certain sort are dominated by certain sorts of people to begin with.

    But also, I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘if we think our ideas are right we should stick to them’ – the content of ideas is probably not more important than the prioritisation of issues, the emphasis, what’s on the front page and what gets put at the back, etc. E.g. when reporting a crime, and needing to fit some sort of political comment into the last two sentences, do you decide to say that crime is a product of poverty and will become a tiny problem ‘after the revolution’, or do you put blame on people for their antisocial choices and talk about ways to tackle crime and criminals?

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