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The middle class (or middle classes) comprises a social group once defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry. In early industrial capitalism the middle class was defined by exclusion of all remaining semi-feudal nobles, all remaining semi-feudal peasants, and the emerging working class. Since the working classes constituted the vast majority of the population, the middle classes actually lay near the top of the social pyramid.
Some of modern theories of political economy consider a large middle class to be a beneficial, stabilizing influence on society, because it has neither the posited explosive revolutionary tendencies of the lower class, nor the stultifying greedy tendencies of the upper class.
In an everyday context, those who reside in the Middle Classes tend to be Businessmen or those who hold professional jobs, such as lawyers, doctors or clergymen.
Sociological debates concerning definition
The middle class is colloquially used in English to refer to highly paid white collar workers and their families - and this often means those with a professional qualification. These workers usually have a tertiary education. They possess jobs which are perceived to be "secure ". This colloquial middle class has historically low rates of union membership, high rates of house or long-term lease ownership, and is perceived to believe in bourgeois values.
Most sociological definitions of middle class follow Max Weber. Here the middle class is defined by a similar income level as semi-professionals, or business owners; by a shared culture of domesticity and sub-urbanity; and, by a level of relative security against social crisis in the form of socially desired skill or wealth.
The size of the middle class depends on how it is defined. By education, money or wealth, environment of upbringing, birth (genetic relationships), social network, etc. These are all related, though far from deterministically dependent.
The middle class of the First World
As the swollen middle class in the first world lost its distinctive usefulness as a label, observers invented sub-labels: we often detect in contemporary societies an "upper middle class" and a "lower middle class ". However, some have argued that the "lower-middle" class merely represents a materially privileged (by global standards) but positionally disadvantaged working class. Sociologists have argued that such people are not a part of the middle class at all. On the other hand, one could regard the western countries as having outsourced the labour requirements previously fulfilled by the working classes to less affluent countries. Clearly industrialisation has reduced those requirements in some ways, but given that the richest countries buy goods from the poorest in quantities they could not produce themselves, it does not seem to have removed them.
The middle class of the United States
While 95 percent of Americans identify themselves as middle-class, using the measures of sociology the reality seems different: Some of these individuals are (in those terms) lower or upper class. The expansion of the phrase in the United States appears to have been predicated in the 1970s by the decline of labor unions, the entrance of formerly domestic women into the public adult work force, and the naming and blaming of the underclass in the slums.
Around 1980, when asked what level of personal income would qualify as middle-class, George H. W. Bush replied: $50,000. In fact, only 5 percent of the U.S. population was making that level of income at the time.
Though net worth usually determines social class, incomes between $20,000 and $75,000 are generally considered middle class. Most economists define "middle class" citizens as those with net worths of between $25,000 (low-middle class) to $250,000. However, net worths slightly over $250,000 generally are not considered to be wealthy, yet rather, upper-middle-class. Those with net worths between $250,000 and $500,000 typically are categorized as upper-middle-class.
Threats to the US middle class
In the 1990s and 2000s, many feared that the spreading of a perceived wealth gap would lead to a "collapse of the middle" in American society. Political theories are in conflict on both the effect of an actual increased wealth gap, as well as a decreased wealth gap, and the perception of each respectively. It is worth noting that research, such as Diener's and Suh's Culture and Subjective Well-Being, MIT Press, indicates that there is more subjective well being when there is greater inequality, and less subjective well being with greater equality. Factors often identified by Leftist economists as threats to the middle class are downsizing in many sectors of the American economy, and the systematic elimination of unionized labor. Other economists disagree, however, and believe that downsizing is simply the constant churn of the economy reacting to changing market conditions to achieve maximum efficiency, and that unions, while increasing wages and jobs for union members, decreases wages and eliminates jobs for all non-union workers, especially in the non-skilled and semi-skilled professions. Indeed, many economists and financial experts believe that the only "threat" to the middle-class is economic stagnation, overtaxation and overregulation.
The middle class of the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, social status was less directly linked to wealth than in the United States, and was also judged by pointers such as accent, manners, place and extent of education and the class of a person's circle of friends and acquaintances, which did not always correspond to the subject's wealth or professional position.
The upper class of the United Kingdom was generally associated with the families of the titled aristocracy and the landed gentry, and the middle class comprised those who were neither upper class (on this definition) nor working class. But in the first half of the twentieth century the landed gentry declined in wealth, in numbers and in influence, because of the effects of agricultural depression and taxation. Meanwhile, and throughout the twentieth century, the titled aristocracy became less homogenous (because of the increasingly eclectic background of new creations, most of which were politically driven and which reflected, therefore, the increasing democratisation of British politics in the twentieth century) and, so far as the hereditary element was concerned, less numerous (because of the near-cessation of new hereditary creations after the Life Peerages Act 1958, coupled with the natural rate of extinction of existing hereditary titles) as well as less influential (because of the declining power of the House of Lords relative to the House of Commons after the Parliament Act 1911, and the near-abolition of the hereditary element of the House of Lords at the end of the twentieth century).
The result has been the effective extinction of the upper class in the United Kingdom, both in numbers and in influence, leaving the middle class as the dominant economic and political class.
At the same time, the numbers of people considering themselves working class have declined in the United Kingdom, due to a reduction of those earning their living by manual labour, or in unskilled occupations; to the decline of manufacturing industry, and to rising levels of education (including a very large expansion of the numbers attending universities). This has further consolidated the political importance of the middle class. By the end of the twentieth century, more people identified themselves as middle class than as working class, with statistically insignificant numbers identifying themselves as upper class. Hence, even the British Labour Party, which grew out of the organised labour movement and originally drew almost all its support from the working class, re-invented itself under Tony Blair as 'New Labour', a party competing with the Conservative Party for the votes of the middle class as well as the working class.
Politics of the US and UK middle class
In the United States, and in the United Kingdom, politicians typically target the votes of the middle classes. The middle class is perceived to include many swing voters. This is attempted (and apparently achieved) by pandering to their tastes, as party researchers and marketers see them.
Marxism and the middle class
Marxism does not necessarily see the groups described above as the middle class.
Marxism postulates that social classes have a specific relationship with means of production. A noble owns land. A capitalist owns capital. A worker owns their ability to work. However, between the rulers and the ruled there is most often a group of people, often called a middle class which lacks a specific relationship. Historically, during feudalism, the bourgeoisie were that middle class. People often describe the contemporary bourgeoisie, incorrectly, as a middle class.
The exact composition of the middle class under capitalism is vigourously debated by Marxists. Some describe a "coordinating class" which implements capitalism, composed of the petit bourgeoisie, professionals and managers. Others dispute this, freely using the term middle class to refer to affluent white collar workers as described above. Still others, (Council communists) allege that there is a class comprising intellectuals, technocrats and managers which seeks power in its own right. This last group of communists allege that such technocratic middle classes seized power and government for themselves in the Soviet-style societies.
The middle class is not a fixed category within Marxism, and debate continues as to the content of this social group.
For Marxist views on this class, compare bourgeoisie. Note that this is not the same thing as middle class.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04