The History and Meaning of the Middle Class
Science and Ideology: A Problem of Method
None of the words we use in the course of social and political discussions and analyses is ideologically neutral. Outside of ideology entirely, such words lose their meaning. And it is not possible to determine one’s attitude toward them unambiguously, since the content of any expression is shaped by context and semantic structures, a kind of operational system. When we live in a society with an obvious ideology, openly maintained as the dominant one, things are clear enough.
The significance of words flows directly from the ideological matrix, which is instilled through upbringing, education, and instruction and is supported by the active ideological apparatus of the state. The state forms a language, defines the meaning of discourse, and sets—most often through repressive measures, broadly understood—the limits and moral tint of the basic collection of political and sociological concepts and terms.
If we lived in a society in which communist ideology dominates, concepts such as “bourgeoisie,” “fascism,” “capitalism,” “speculation,” etc. acquire not only strictly negative connotations but specific meanings, with which capitalists, fascists, and speculators would categorically disagree. The disagreement concerns not only signs, but the very significance of words. The way a communist sees a fascist, or a capitalist seems to the fascist, might seem to a different party to be little more than a caricature or a distortion. And this, of course, works the other way around: fascism seems natural to the fascist, and communism, utterly evil.
For a capitalist, communism and fascism are equally evil. The capitalist most often does not think of himself as bourgeois. Speculation is for him a form of the realization of natural economic rights, and the system he defends he usually regards as a “free” society, an “open” society. Neither the Marxist analysis of the appropriation of surplus value, nor the fascist critique of the web of interest obligations and payments, and the international financial oligarchy, which usurps power over peoples and nations, ever convince him of anything.
Ideologies are similar to religions; hence Carl Schmitt speaks of “political theology.” Each believes sacredly in his own values and ideals, and criticism of or apology for alternative values most often has no effect (except for a few cases of confessional change, which occurs in the history of religion and in the history of political teachings).
Consequently, before speaking seriously about one or another term, it is necessary to determine in which ideological context we will be considering it. Someone will surely object: science must take a neutral position. That is impossible. In this case, science would pretend to the status of a meta-ideology, i.e. a kind of “true ideology,” of which all other ideologies are relative forms. But nobody will agree with this, even it should come into someone’s head to flaunt such ambitions.
In the religious sphere, syncretic teachings periodically arise, claiming that they are the expression of “absolute truth” and that all other historical religions are its relative manifestations. But as a rule, such tendencies do not enjoy great popularity, remaining the property of rather small circles and denied by major confessions as “heresies.” Science, likewise, cannot claim the status of a meta-ideology and remain relevant. But it differs from ordinary ideology by three features:
- It reflects distinctly upon the structures of the ideological paradigm it considers. (Ordinary people do not even suspect that what seems to them their “personal opinion” is a secondary or even tertiary product of ideological processing, the mechanisms of which are entirely hidden from them.)
- In the course of analysis of ideological discourse, it uses the techniques of classical logic (Aristotle’s laws and Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason).
- It is able to build a comparative matrix of the correspondences between diverse ideologies, juxtaposing structures in their foundations and establishing symmetries and oppositions between separate discourses and their elements.
Thus, in considering any concept or term, it is possible to proceed in two ways: either to interpret it from the position of one or another ideology, not digging into its foundations and not comparing it with other interpretations (this is the level of propaganda and low-quality applied analysis/journalism), or to attend to the scientific method, which does not free us from adherence to an ideology, but forces us to reason, observing the three above-mentioned rules of the scientific approach (paradigm, logic, comparison).
We propose to consider the concept of the “middle class” in precisely this scientific spirit.
From Caste to Class
The concept of the “middle class” is crucial for the liberal-capitalist ideology. Although it appeared later than the Marxist theory of class struggle and the famous communist doctrine of the two antagonistic classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the very meaning of the term “middle class” has a much longer history and has its roots in the period of bourgeois revolutions and the rise of the Third Estate, which claimed henceforth a monopoly in political and economic spheres.
Before considering the “middle class,” let’s turn to the concept of “class” as such. Class is a concept of the social organization of modernity. Ancient orders and social-political systems were built on the caste principle. “Caste” should be understood as the doctrine that the inner nature of different people differs qualitatively: there are divine souls and earthly (feral, demonic) souls. The caste reflects precisely this nature of the soul, which man is not able to change during his life. The caste is fatal. The normal society, according to this conception, must be built so that those of a divine nature (the elite) are above, and those of an earthly (feral, demonic) nature remain below (the masses). That is how the Indian Varna system is arranged, as were ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other societies.
This caste theory was replaced by a more flexible estate theory. The estate also proposes a difference in people’s natures (the existence of higher and lower), but here the fact of birth in one or another estate is not considered a final and natural factor in the determination of belonging to a certain social status. Estate can be changed if the representative of a lower estate accomplishes a great feat, demonstrates unique spiritual qualities, becomes a member of the priesthood, etc.
Here, alongside the caste principle, is the principle of meritocracy, that is, rewards for services. The meritocratic principle extends also to the descendants of the one who accomplished the feat (ennobling). Estate society was predominant in Christian civilization right to the end of the Middle Ages. In estate society, the highest estates are the priesthood (clergy) and the military (aristocracy), and the lowest is the Third Estate of peasants and craftsmen. Precisely the same way, in a caste society, priests and warriors (Brahma and Kshatriya) were highest, and lowest were peasants, artisans, and traders (Vaishya).
Modernity became the era of the overthrow of estate society. Europe’s bourgeois revolutions demanded a replacement of the estate privileges of the higher estates (the clergy and the military aristocracy, the nobility) in favor of the Third Estate. But the bearers of this ideology were not the peasants, who were connected with traditional society by the specific character of seasonal labour, religious identity, etc., but the more mobile townspeople and burghers. “Bourgeois” is itself formed from the German word “Burg” meaning “town.” Hence, modernity gave first priority to precisely the townsfolk-citizen-bourgeois as a normative unit.
The bourgeois revolutions abolished the power of the Church (clergy) and aristocracy (nobility, dynasties) and advanced the model of building society on the basis of the domination of the Third Estate, represented by the townsfolk-citizen-bourgeois. This is, essentially, capitalism. Capitalism, in its victory, replaces estate distinctions, but preserves material ones. Thus, the notion of class arises: class signifies an indicator of the measure of inequality. The bourgeoisie abolish estate inequality, but preserve material inequality. Consequently, precisely modernity’s bourgeois capitalistic society is a class society in the full sense of the word. Previously, in the Middle Ages, belonging to an estate was one’s primary social attribute. In modernity, the entire social stratification was reduced to the attribute of material riches. Class is thus a phenomenon of modernity.
The class character of bourgeois society, however, was perceived most distinctly not by the ideology of the bourgeoisie, but by Marx. He elaborated his revolutionary teaching on the basis of the concept of class. At its foundation was the idea that class society and the material inequality characteristic of it, elevated to the highest criterion, exposes the essence of the nature of society, man, and history. In Marx’s class picture, there are always rich and poor, and the rich always get richer, and the poor, poorer. Consequently, there are two classes, the bourgeoisie and proletariat, and their struggle is the motor and meaning of history.
All of Marxism is built on this idea: when we speak of classes, we speak of two antagonistic classes, the difference between which is not relative but absolute, since each embodies in itself two irreconcilable worlds: the world of Exploitation and the world of (honest) Labor. There are two classes: the class of Labor (the proletariat) and the class of Exploitation (the bourgeoisie). In the capitalist system, the class of Exploitation dominates. The class of Labor must become conscious of itself, arise, and overthrow the class of Exploiters. They must create, at first, the Government of Labor—socialism. Then, after the last remnants of bourgeois society have been destroyed, communist society will appear, now fully classless. According to Marx, a classlessness is possible only after the victory of the proletariat and the radical destruction of the bourgeoisie.
For Marx, a “middle class” simply cannot exist. This concept has no independent semantics in Marxist ideology, since everything that is between the bourgeoisie and proletariat (for instance, the petty bourgeoisie or prosperous peasantry) relates essentially either to the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. For Marxists, the “middle class” is a fiction. It doesn’t exist, and the concept itself is nothing but an instrument of the ideological propaganda of capitalists, trying to fool the proletariat, promising a future integration into the class of the bourgeoisie (which, according to Marx, cannot happen, since the appropriation of surplus value prevents the proletariat’s enrichment).
We can draw the following conclusion: the term “middle class” is a fiction for Marxists, an artificial figure of bourgeois ideology, called upon to conceal the real picture of society and the processes occurring in it. At the same time, Marxists admit the fact of a transition from estate society to class society and, consequently, agree with the bourgeoisie that a society of material inequalities (class society) is “more progressive” than a society of estate inequality; they disagree with the bourgeoisie in that, for communists, this is not the “end of history,” but only the beginning of a full-fledged revolutionary struggle. Liberals, on the other hand, insist that material inequality is entirely moral and justified and maintain that the communists’ striving for material equality is, by contrast, amoral and pathological. For liberals, “the end of history” begins when everyone becomes “middle class.” For communists, it begins when the proletariat finally destroy the bourgeoisie and build a communist society of total equality.
The Middle Class within Liberalism
The concept of a middle class is implicitly present in liberal ideology from the very beginning. That said, it only receives full implementation in the course of the establishment of sociology, which endeavors to combine many avant-garde theses of Marxism (in particular, the centrality of the concept of class) and bourgeois conditions. Sociology is thus a hybrid form: ideologically, it is between communism and liberalism; methodologically, it emphasizes a scientific, analytic approach. We can distinguish two poles in sociology, the social (the school of Durkheim, the theories of Sorokin, etc.) and the liberal (Weber, the Chicago and “Austrian” Schools in the United States, etc.)
In any case, the specific character of the liberal understanding of class is the conviction that, in the standard bourgeois society, there is only one class, and all differences between the depths and the heights are relative and conditional. If, for Marx, there are always two classes, and they exist in implacable enmity, for liberals (Adam Smith, for instance) there is always ultimately one class—the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie nominally embraces the entire capitalist society. The poorest layers of this society are, as it were, incompletely bourgeois. The richest, on the other hand, area super-bourgeois. But the social nature of all people is qualitatively identical: all are given equal starting opportunities, setting out from which the bourgeois can either reach a certain level of success, or fail to reach it and tumble down into the incompletely bourgeois.
Hence, Adam Smith takes as a standard situation the following classical liberal narrative:
The baker hires a worker, who has recently come to the city for work. After working as an assistant to the owner, the hired worker learns to bake bread and observes the organization of processes of interaction with suppliers and customers. After some time, the hired worker borrows credit and opens a bakery. After first working independently, he eventually hires a helper, who has come to the city for work, and the cycle repeats itself.
In this model, we see the following. Not only is society thought of as middle class, but there exists the already-middle-class and the not-yet-middle-class. In this picture, the hired worker does not form a peculiar type, but represents the potentially bourgeois, while the ready baker is actually bourgeois (though even he, coming to ruin, can theoretically be in the position again of the hired worker, the not-yet-bourgeois).
According to Marx, the quantity of riches in society is a fixed quantity, and the presence of two classes is based on precisely this: those who have riches will never share them with the poor, since life in capitalist society is a zero-sum game. For Smith, on the other hand, riches constantly increase. As a result, the boundaries of the middle class continuously expand. Capitalism is based on the presumption of the constant growth of riches for all members of society; ideally, all humanity must become middle class.
At the same time, there are two approaches to the middle class in liberal ideology. The first corresponds to left liberals: they demand that the super-bourgeois (the big capitalists) consciously share a part of the profits with the middle class and petty bourgeoisie, since this will lead to the stability of the system and to an acceleration of the growth of the middle class globally.
The second approach is characteristic of right liberals: they object to the burden placed on the super-bourgeoisie by taxation and welfare projects; they believe these contradicts the spirit of “free enterprise” and slows the dynamics of the development of the capitalist system, since the super-bourgeoisie stimulates the growth of the middle-bourgeoisie, which, in turn, urges on the petty bourgeoisie and the not-yet-bourgeoisie.
Accordingly, the concept of the middle class becomes, for left liberals, a moral value and ideological slogan (as in, “We must build a stronger middle class!”). For right liberals, on the other hand, the growth of the middle class is a natural consequence of the development of the capitalist system and does not demand special attention or elevation to a value.
Class as Social Strata in Sociology
In sociology, this basic ideological attitude of liberalism concerning the primacy of the middle class manifests itself in the relativization of the model of stratification. Sociology divides society into three classes: upper, middle, and lower (to this is sometimes added the underclass of pure marginals and social deviants). These classes are not identical to Marxist, nor to strictly liberal class concepts (since liberalism knows only one class, the middle class, while the others are thought of as its variations). This division fixes the dimension of individuals along four indicators: material sufficiency, level of fame, position in administrative hierarchy, and level of education. On the basis of strictly qualitative criteria, any person can be related to one of three social strata.
Here, the concept of class does not have a direct ideological content, but, as a rule, it is applied to bourgeois society, where sociology as a science appeared. This sociological classes, identified with social strata, should be distinguished from Marxist classes and from standard liberal conceptions about the middle class as the universal and single class.
In this case, in a bourgeois framework, the struggle for the rights of the underclass or support of the lower class (in a sociological sense) can be thought of as a left continuation of the liberal approach: attention to the lower layer of bourgeois society stipulates striving to facilitate its integration into the middle class, i.e. to pull them up the level of the bourgeois. For right liberals, such an effort is “amoral,” since it contradicts the main principle of social freedom: initiative and honest competition (the strong win, the weak lose, but such are the rules of the game; all should endeavor to become strong). The extreme version of right or even far-right liberalism is the “objectivism” of Ayn Rand.
The Middle Class and Nationalism
There is one other ideological system of modernity, which we have yet to consider—nationalism. Nationalism is a variation of bourgeois ideology, which insists that the standard horizon of bourgeois society should not be humanity (the “cosmopolitanism” and “globalism” of classical liberals) but society as defined by the borders of a nation-state. The nation or people is taken as the maximal unit of integration. The market is open within the boundaries of the nation. But in the inter-state system, economic activity transitions to the level of the state, not private actors. From here, there arises the legitimization of such instruments as tariffs, protectionism, etc.
Nationalism thinks of the middle class not abstractly but concretely, as the middle class of a given national formation of the state. Nationalism also, like liberalism, accepts as a standard figure of society the townsperson-citizen-bourgeois, but puts the accent precisely on citizen, and what’s more, the citizen of a given national state.
The “nation” as a political formation becomes a synonym of bourgeois society. For nationalists, beyond this society, there exists only a zone of national and social risk. The nation is thought of here as a community of the middle class. And the task consists in integrating the lower layers into the national whole, often with the help of welfare measures. That is why nationalism can possess numerous socialist features, though the ideological basis here is different: pulling the economically weak to the level of the middle class is a task of national integration, not a consequence of orientation towards justice and material equality. We see something similar with left liberals, who consider integrating the under-class into broader society as a condition for the stability of the development of the capitalist system.
Nationalism, as a rule, relates negatively to national minorities and especially to immigrants. This is connected with the fact that in the eyes of nationalists, these elements disturb the homogeneity of the national middle class. Moreover, some national minorities are blamed for concentrating in their hands too much material wealth, in other words, those who challenge the national middle class “from above.” Nationalist feelings of injustice are expressed in antagonism towards “oligarchs” and, often times, as “economic anti-semitism,” a sentiment that was not foreign to Marx himself. In turn, other non-nationals (usually immigrants) are blamed for increasing the numbers of the lower strata and underclass, the integration of which is complicated by national differences. A variant of anti-immigrant nationalism consists in the charge that the increase of cheap labor slows the process of enriching the “native” population and the “harmonious” (for nationalists) growth of the middle class.
The Problem of the Middle Class in Contemporary Russia
After making these necessary methodological refinements, we can finally raise the question: what is the middle class for Russia? What are its prospects? Is it important for us or, on the contrary, are discussions about it optional and secondary?
It is impossible to answer this without turning to one of the three classical ideologies (including the versions contained in each through the polarities of left and right).
If we take the position of right liberalism, the answer is this: we should not pay attention to the middle class; the most important thing is to secure maximum economic freedom (that is, complete removal of government from business, taxes approximating zero, etc.), and everything will fall into place. Right liberals and consistent globalists are convinced that the growth of the middle class in Russia is not the goal; it is a consequence of the nation’s integration into the global economy, the opening of internal markets for external competition, and the prompt dismantling of an overbearing state.
If we take the position of left liberalism, then our attitude changes substantially. The broadening of the middle class is the number one task for our society, since the successful establishment of capitalism in Russia depends on precisely this, as does its integration into the international community. A small and weak middle class facilitates the degradation of society into “lumpens" and “oligarchs” and indirectly helps nationalistic and socialistic anti-liberal tendencies capture the minds of the population. Social injustice and inequality, the volume of the underclass, and the slow growth of the middle class demand special attention and the execution of goal-directed policies, since the fate of capitalism in Russia is at stake. Again, the struggle for the middle class is a slogan of left liberals. And they are the ones who would most likely focus this topic, since it is the core of their ideological positions.
If we are contemporary Marxists by inertia or conscious choice, then any mention of a middle class must evoke our rage, since this is the ideological platform of the sworn enemies of communism—bourgeois liberals. For communists, the following is correct: the narrower the middle class, the sharper the social contradictions and the more acute the imperative of the class struggle of proletariat against bourgeoisie. Thus, the communist perceives a large lower social strata and underclass against the background of prospering oligarchs as the ideal social picture. For communists, the middle class is a lie, an evil, and its absence or underdevelopment is a chance and window of opportunity for revolution. If some “communist” thinks otherwise, then he is not a communist, but a revisionist and compromiser with the bourgeoisie.
If we are nationalists, then the middle class acquires for us an additional dimension. It is thought of as the skeleton of national society in opposition to the “immigrant underclass” and “foreign-born oligarchy.” This is the peculiar notion of the middle class in the nationalist framework. And the cutting edges of this conception of the middle class are directed against oligarchs (the upper class) and immigrants (the lower class and underclass); the middle class itself is regarded as the national class, i.e. as the Russian class, which includes Russian entrepreneurs, Russian proprietors, the Russian bourgeoisie, etc.
It is impossible to speak of the middle class as such, without adhering (consciously or not) to an ideological position. But since in Russia, according to the constitution, there is no state ideology, theoretically we can interpret the middle class however we want. The fact that this concept has become the center of discussions attests to the fact that in contemporary Russia, by the inertia of the ‘90s and early 2000s, a liberal paradigm prevails. In the absence of a state ideology, liberals nevertheless strive to impose on us their paradigm as dominant.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment: a discussion about the middle class is taking place in a socially significant platform, for instance on one of Russia’s major television stations. Representatives of all possible ideologies of modernity are participating: Russian liberals, Russian communists, and Russian nationalists.
The first, a Russian liberals, would say:
The growth of the middle class and elevation of the level of wealth for the citizens of Russia is the main task of our society and government.
The second, a Russian communist:
Illegal privatization in the ‘90s put national property in the hands of oligarchs; look how our people live in the provinces in poverty and squalor!
The third, aRussian nationalists:
Illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Russians, and they’re all led by Jewish and Caucasian oligarchs. That is a catastrophe for the Russian middle class!
Despite the fact that the viewers might like all three positions, the jury and “respected experts” will, undoubtedly, grant victory to the liberals. For ultimately, we still find ourselves in the condition of the ideological dictatorship of liberalism. This would happen despite the fact that society, recognizing the right of liberal discourse, fully and persistently denies its supremacy and absolute right. (In contrast, for the political elite, liberal dogmas remain sacred and unshakeable.)
From this, we can draw a conclusion: the middle class and discussion about it reflect the ideological order of liberals among Russia’s political and economic elite. If we do not share liberal axioms, then we might not consider this topic at all, or else offer an interpretation (Marxist, nationalistic, etc.) that liberals will vigorously reject.
The Fourth Political Theory: Beyond Class
In conclusion, we can conduct an analysis of the middle class in the context of the Fourth Political Theory. This theory is built on the imperative of overcoming modernity and all three political ideologies in order (the order has tremendous significance): (1) liberalism, (2) communism, (3) nationalism (fascism). The subject of this theory, in its simple version, is the concept “narod,”roughly, “Volk” or “people,” in the sense of “peoplehood” and “peoples,” not “masses.”
In its complex version, the subject of this theory is Heidegger’s category of Dasein. We can say, as an approximation, that narod must be thought of existentially, as the living, organic, historical presence of Russians in a qualitative spatial landscape, in the expanses of Great Russia. But if the subject is the narod and not the individual (as in liberalism), not two antagonistic classes (as in Marxism), and not the political nation (as in nationalism), then all the obligatory elements of the modern picture of the world change. There is no longer materialism, economism, recognition of the fatefulness and universality of the bourgeois revolutions, linear time, Western civilization as a universal standard, secularism, human rights, civil society, democracy, the market, or any other axioms and buzzwords of modernity. The Fourth Political Theory proposes solutions and horizons knowingly excluded by liberalism, communism, and nationalism. (More on this is found in my book The Fourth Political Theory and my new book The Fourth Way.)
On the whole, The Fourth Political Theory, when applied to the problem of the “middle class” says the following:
The transition from caste to estate and from estate to class is not a universal law. This process can occur as it did in modern Western Europe, or it can fail to occur or occur partially, as is happening today in non-Western societies. Hence, the very concept of class as applied to society has a limited applicability. Class and classes can be identified in modern Western European societies, but whether they can replace the caste inequality of the soul and human nature is not at all obvious. Western societies themselves are confident that classes do so. But an existential approach to this problematic can call this into question.
The most important thing is how the human relates to death. There are those who can look it in the face, and those who always have their backs turned to it. But the origins of the social hierarchy, the fundamental distinction between people and the superiority of some to others consists in precisely this. Material conditions are not decisive here. Hegel’s interpretation of Master and Slave is based on this criterion. Hegel thinks that the Master is the one who challenges death, who steps out to encounter it. Acting in this way, he does not acquire immortality, but he acquires a Slave, one who runs from death, lacking the courage to look it in the eye. The Master rules in societies where death stands at the center of attention. The Slave acquires political rights only where death is bracketed and removed to the periphery. So long as death remains in society’s field of vision, we are dealing with rule by the wise and heroic, philosophers and warriors. This is caste society or estate society. But not class society. Where class begins, life ends, and the alienated strategies of reification, objectivation, and mediation prevail.
Hence, the Fourth Political Theory thinks that the construction of society on the basis of the criterion of property is a pathology. The fate of man and narod is history and geography—but in no way economics, the market, or competition.
The Fourth Political Theory rejects class as a concept and denies its relevance for the creation of a political system based on the existential understanding of the narod. Even more so does it reject the concept of the “middle class,” which reflects the very essence of the class approach. The middle class, like the middle (that is, average) person, is a social figure situated at the point of maximal social illusion, at the epicenter of slumber. The representative of the middle class corresponds to Heidegger’s figure of das Man, the generalized bearer of “common sense,” which is subject to no verification or examination. (Das Man is often translated into English as “The They,” in the sense of “They say so-and-so will win the election this year…) Das Man is the greatest of illusions.
The middle, average person is not at all the same as the normal person. “Norm” is a synonym for “ideal,” that to which one should strive, that which one should become. The middle person is a person in the least degree, the most ex-individual of individuals, the most null and barren quality. The middle person isn’t a person at all; he is a parody of a person. He is Nietzsche’s “Last Man.” And he is deeply abnormal, since for a normal person, it is natural to experience horror, to think about death, to acutely experience the finitude of being, to call into question—sometimes tragically insoluble—the external world, society, and relations to another.
The middle class doesn’t think; it consumes. It doesn’t live; it seeks security and comfort. It doesn’t die, it blows out like a car tire (it emits its spirit, as Baudrillard wrote in Symbolic Exchange and Death). The middle class is the most stupid, submissive, predictable, cowardly, and pathetic of all classes. It is equally far from the blazing elements of poverty and the perverted poison of incalculable wealth, which is even closer to hell than extreme poverty. The middle class has no ontological foundation for existing at all, and if it does, then only somewhere far below, beneath the rule of the philosopher-kings and warrior-heroes. It is the Third Estate, imagining about itself that it is the one and only. This is an unwarranted pretension. Modernity and capitalism (in the sense of the universality of the middle class) is nothing more than a temporary aberration. The time of this historical misunderstanding is coming to an end.
Thus, today, when the agony of this worst of possible social arrangements still continues, you must look beyond capitalism. At the same time, we must value and take interest in both what preceded it, the Middle Ages, and in that which will come after it and that which we must create—a New Middle Ages.
Translated by Michael Millerman