I’ve noticed a lot of confusion over the concept of the middle class – both its definition and political role. Even Marxists tend to get bogged in the fact that no one in the middle class owns any means of production. I believe there is a much clearer way, guided by Marxist analysis, to understand both the boundaries and the role of the middle class. To do this, I would like to trace back to the historical roots of the division of labour and the creation of a surplus as a way of defining the middle class and better understanding its economic and political role.
Anthropologists trace the origins of social stratification and hierarchies based on labour back to around the time of the Agricultural Revolution. Before that, in hunter-gatherer societies, everyone more or less provided an equal amount of labour and was directly involved in the production and distribution of the food necessary for social survival. Marx called this “primitive communism.” Then came the Agricultural Revolution, which allowed us to produce much more food and, as a result, we started to create divisions of labour. These divisions hinged on one important fact: there was now a significant surplus of food. Food was available beyond the needs of immediate consumption and one person could produce enough food for themselves and for others. In other words, not everyone had to work to produce the food necessary for survival as they did in hunter-gatherer societies. In summary, one group of people produced enough food for themselves as well as a surplus, while the other group lived off of that surplus. It is not surprising that we can trace the origins of slavery back to around this time.
When Aristotle pondered the role of slavery in ancient Greece, he saw it as a necessary fact of life. He went to great lengths to try and justify this by saying that some people were born natural slaves. For Aristotle, the ends justified the means, since he saw it as a good thing that some people were freed from having to produce their own food. Without slaves, there could be no philosophers. If everyone had to spend their days working to produce food, then no one would have time to do much else. The food surplus could sustain new classes of people who were freed from the production of this surplus, even though these surplus-consuming classes could have – and certainly did have – different levels of stratification among them (for example, both kings and craftsmen were surplus-consumers).
Although we are far from Aristotle’s time, I would argue that our society is still structured along the basic principles that Aristotle observed in Ancient Greece. For Aristotle, surplus-producing slaves were necessary in order to support the likes of philosophers, government workers, teachers, soldiers, and other such surplus-consuming roles. Today, the surplus-producing working class is necessary in order to support both the middle class, or petty bourgeoisie, and the capitalist ruling class.
A lot of modern Marxists like to define the middle class/petty bourgeoisie as small business owners, which attempts to transpose Marx’s 19th century definition to the 21st century. I feel that this definition is too simplistic and that we should instead think more dialectically about how this class relates to the means of production today. For this reason, I believe that tracing this class back to the surplus of food and division of labour in the Agricultural Revolution is helpful, as it provides a more clear picture of its position within the relations of production.
Today, we certainly do have a surplus of food, but, more generally, we have a surplus of things (with some of those things – food, clothing, energy, and so on – being essential). We have those who are directly involved in the production and distribution of these things and those who are freed from that production and distribution and are allowed to be philosophers, government workers, teachers, marketers, administrators, DJs, social workers, wedding planners, police, artists, consultants, and so on. In other words, there is a group of people who work to produce this surplus and other groups who siphon off of it. And just like in Ancient Greece there are definitely different levels of stratification among these surplus-consumers, but I believe that this is the clearest way to make the distinction between the working class and the middle class.
Very importantly, the surplus we speak of here is not a surplus of finance capital or investment capital (as Marx would say: fictitious capital) or things like land rent, monopoly rent, and interest charges (as classical economists would say: unearned income). Neither is it the traditional Marxist surplus value, which comes from any number of profit producing activities. The surplus we speak of is instead one of actual tangible goods or material wealth, especially the things that sustain us (food, water and energy distribution, housing, etc). This is a surplus of use-value produced by the means of production, the labour needed to run those means, and the capital needed to animate the whole process (as Marx would say: real capital). While productive labour under the capitalist mode of production is anything that produces surplus value, the definition of surplus here is specifically that of surplus use-value, which more-so represents socialistic rather than capitalistic production. This is also an important distinction because focusing on surplus use-value does not mean that middle class workers are not exploited under capitalism – since many produce surplus value under capitalism, they are, by the Marxist definitions, both productive and exploited.
Using the three-sector model, we can say that the primary and secondary industries sustain the tertiary industry. Or, in pandemic terms, we can say that the essential workers sustain the work-from-home class (although this distinction can get a bit muddy with healthcare professionals being both surplus-consuming and essential). Simply put: the middle class, like the capitalist class, is supported by the surplus-producing/distributing working class. Just because in the West we’ve shipped off or sold off most of our means of production and live on a cloud of surplus and fictitious capital doesn’t mean that we aren’t being supported by a complex supply chain of goods-production/distribution that gets more and more exploitative the further down you get to the raw materials.
In developed capitalist countries this can get a bit confusing as we look around and see what appears to be an endless sea of middle class workers, but this is largely due to the fact that we have developed an international division of labour in our globalized capitalist economy. The production of the surplus this Western middle class lives off of has been mostly shipped overseas. There remain a few vestiges of this industrial base, who through years of collective bargaining have secured for themselves a replica of middle class standards of living, but they are few and dwindling (not in any small part thanks to their favourable wages and benefits). What we see instead in the West is the tail end of the distribution side of the working class – from the Amazon warehouse workers to those who work the ports and drive the trucks. With some overlap, there are also those in the service side of the working class who are not necessarily directly involved in distribution, but act more as servants to the middle and capitalist classes – for example, the growing mass of gig workers and last mile drivers fall somewhere between service and distribution, as do workers like baristas, waiters, and so on.
Here is a crudely drawn and overly simplistic visual representation of this dynamic:
Making clear distinctions between the working class and middle class is not to say that all middle class jobs are pointless (although as we produce a glut of degree-holders, these “careers” tend to get more and more dubious). I think that any human society should want philosophers and artists and doctors and firefighters and so on. I don’t want to get bogged down arguing the value of any middle class job, I concede that many are valuable. I also don’t want to make a claim that members of this middle class aren’t struggling under capitalism – many are, and many tend to find themselves toeing the line between middle class and service industry or distribution-side working class. I instead want to analyze the relationship between middle class workers, the division of labour, the production/distribution of surplus, and trace that to a larger political tendency of the middle class – a tendency which, I will argue, is not universally emancipatory and often puts further pressure on the surplus-producing/distributing working class.
Middle class workers who have been promised a sort of “elite-lite” lifestyle in exchange for getting university degrees make demands that help them realize this lifestyle. New jobs and careers are created (many falling into David Graeber’s category of “bullshit jobs”), all of which must be supported by surplus-producers/distributers. Just as Aristotle could not be a philosopher without slaves, a middle class worker cannot be an HR manager, teacher, or diversity consultant without the surplus-producing/distributing working class. When the surplus-consuming middle class makes demands for a higher standard of living, it naturally puts pressure on the surplus-producing/distributing working class that holds them up. If we think about these demands for better standards of living in terms of surplus, we can see that this political demand would cause either more surplus to be produced or the current surplus to be produced under increased exploitation. At best, it would cause some of the surplus that goes to the capitalist class to be redirected to the middle class, but this is rarely the deal that’s made. I say “deal” here because these demands have to be given to the middle class by the ruling class in order to keep the middle class standards of living tolerable, lest they change alliances and side with the surplus-producing/distributing working class.
And, to be clear and not sound conspiratorial, by ruling class I mean the large capitalists and their politicians, those who subsist off of rents and dividends, those who sit on boards of directors both of private corporations and large NGOs, those who control mass production and distribution, and anyone else who has an undemocratic say in what the structure of the world’s economic and political system will be. This ruling class, while being despised by a good number of the middle class, is the lifeblood of the middle class. It is with them that the middle class must work with in order to be saved from the horrors of working class life. And it is with them that the middle class must break in order to become revolutionary.