We Are (Almost) All Workers Now

Almost everyone still employs, apparently without any real thought, the tripartite class model popularised by Marx, of an aristocracy, a middle class and a working class. If one is going to have three classes ranked on top of one another, it is inevitable that one of them will be a middle class, and the people on the top might as well be called an aristocracy as anything else; but from there on the terminology ceases to be sensible.

Does no one ever pause to reflect that what we now call “the middle classes” in Western countries also work for a living? The work they do may be different, although decreasingly so; some of the classic distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar, such as the daily and entirely literal “wage packet” (of transparent paper) contra the monthly direct transfer to the bank account, are now wholly obsolete. In terms of ever-increasing hours, moreover, white-collar workers may now have fewer rights than labourers and industrial artisans. And most of the middle classes work for an employer, just like the working classes, and generally for the same employer too. It makes no sense at all to call an assembly-line fitter a “worker” but to call a cube-rat in the very same company something else, as if the latter is not also supposed to “work”. If teaching, priesting, selling shares and so forth is validly called “work”, why then does “workman” mean something quite different?

In Marx’ day, however, the terminology did make sense, because the two upper classes did not “work”, in the sense of selling their labour to others and seeing its value appropriated. The traditional aristocracy lived passively on the income from land, or at least pretended that it did; the middle classes were generally rentiers, that is, they lived passively on the income from industry. All the actual work was done, on the land, by serfs and other peasants (the yeoman never fit the schema very well) and, in the cities, guess what, by the workers. There was very little scope for debating whether a given individual was working class or middle class.

To Marx, the “middle classes” meant primarily the people who owned industrial and commercial enterprises, plus, by courtesy, the free professionals. In his day, the non-noble great merchants, captains of industry and self-made businessmen had not finished clambering to the top of the tree. Consequently the landed aristocracy was still more or less in charge politically, and dealt with its rich inferiors by co-opting them with titles. Capitalism, a term he invented, was then the system and ideology of this aspiring class, whereas now we think of it as the creed of the people at the top. We might therefore ask what has become of the ideology of the old landed aristocracy, but that is a story for another day.

Most of the people whom we today call “middle-class” would have been considered, in the 19th century, as a kind of clerk or lackey. They were working class, but without the benefit of any of the class-consciousness, solidarity and revolutionary idealism that the proletariat was imagined to possess, and sometimes really did. Our cube-rats are the equivalent of Bob Cratchit, and no Victorian in his right mind would have called Bob Cratchit “middle class”. It was his master, Ebenezer Scrooge, who was middle-class.

And so also for the “bourgeoisie”, which modern suburban employees fondly imagine is merely French for themselves. For Marx the “bourgeoisie” were the employers, who lived on profits, dividends, rents, annuities and so forth. Somebody in the employ of a private person could not possibly be “middle class”, which is precisely why the free professionals employed such a fancy terminology for their incomes. Not at the beck and call of any employer but owning very little, these were something uncomfortably in-between classes, and so expressed their discomfort with strange terminologies (“emoluments”, “consideration”, “fees” etc.) and rituals regarding money. Within living memory, for example, you left the doctor’s dignified “fee” in an envelope behind the clock on the mantelpiece, so that he did not lose caste by receiving something as disgraceful as “money” from your hand when he made home visits. Military officers, civil servants and clergy were all honorary middle-class or honorary gentlemen, and all practised similar terminologies and rituals. The lower end of what Marx called the middle class, the “petit-bourgeois”, was the shopkeeper or independent artisan. He was in fact a businessman, although a very small one; he was nevertheless an employer of labour (if only of the rest of his family) rather than an employee.

At some time between Marx’ day and ours, therefore, the term “middle class” became divorced from his sense of relationship to the means of production and became attached to a great wodge of society that was plainly neither at the top nor at the bottom. This was probably because, the landed aristocracy having become economically irrelevant, and Marx’ middle classes being in charge politically (a.k.a. the bourgeois revolution), the latter had moved up and left vacant a slot in the threefold division that seems to come naturally to us. The medievals had also made a threefold division, between those who worked, those who fought and those who prayed; and the Hindu caste system runs along the same lines.

The boundary between the working individuals who were henceforth called middle class and the working individuals who were henceforth called working class was drawn, albeit incoherently, along lines of education, culture and manners. And so a teacher on a miserable little salary is still considered middle-class, whereas a wealthy self-employed building contractor is still considered working-class, at least in the UK (and especially if you can see his posterior cleavage). The English class distinctions were exhaustively analysed by Jilly Cooper and, a generation later, by Kate Fox; but such “social” differences, like how people furnish their houses and how they refer to furniture, meals and bodily functions, are nothing to do with whether they work or not. Hence the invention of terms like “the salariat”, a deliberate ironic echo of “proletariat”; but this term never really caught on in Privet Drive itself.

This shift in the meaning of “middle class”, from owners of the economy to toilers in the economy but with pretensions to gentility, was a means of securing the political allegiance of the more deluded portion of the working population. When the Telegraph-reading classes came home from the office, they seemed to forget that they had been to work that day, and so spent much of their home time expostulating over the idleness of “the workers”, for all the world like a Victorian rentier grumbling over the insolence of the servant class. As well being allocated a label once borne by those who employed them, they were later granted a few shares in former state utilities sold cheap to the government’s cronies, so that they could imagine themselves “owners” and thereby in the same social class as the captains of industry who employed them.

Posted on April 29, 2012 at 10:32 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Lackey Society

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