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Cooking the Books 1: Muddle Class

“‘Triple crunch’ will see lower middle classes £720 a year worse off” read the headline in the Guardian (25 November) reporting on a study about the prospects over the next few years of those currently earning between £12,000 and £30,000 a year. Economics Editor Larry Elliott commented “once upon a time this group would have been dubbed lower middle class”. No, it wouldn’t. They’d have been called “working class” and most of them today would still regard themselves as this.

You can of course define class in any way you like, and sociologists have come up with all sorts of ways – by occupation, by income, by leisure activities, by dress, by accent. George Orwell once described his family of origin as “lower-upper middle class”.  The term “middle class” is in everyday use but generally to refer to occupation rather than, as in the Guardian report, income. Even we socialists sometimes use it in this way in conversation, but the correct Marxian position is that classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production.

If you don’t own any means of production yourself you are working class because you are dependent for a living on going out onto the labour market and trying to find an employer to buy your working skills. This, whatever your occupation or income (so the working class is not confined to manual workers in industry, as some leftwing political groups mistakenly think). In a country like Britain that’s the vast majority of the population. If you own enough means of production to employ others without having to work yourself (even if you choose to) you are a member of the capitalist class.

So what about the middle class? Who are they? Or, rather, who were they? Historically, in Britain, they were rich people who were not landed aristocrats and whose income derived from the profits of industry and trade rather than the rent of land. In the 19th century they were a group that was conscious of their class interest and waged a class struggle against the landed aristocracy to further it, achieving success with 1832 Reform Act which gave them more political power and the Repeal of the Corn Laws from 1848.

When Marx was examining capitalism there really were three distinct classes defined by their relationship to the means of production: the big landowners (the “upper” class), pure parasites whose income was derived from being in a position to extort a payment from land-users; the capitalist class (the “middle” class) who invested in production for profit; and the working class (the “lower” class), who produced the wealth on which the other two classes lived .

In other words, the middle class was the capitalist class as the class between the upper, landowning class and the lower, working class.

Since Marx’s time the “upper” class and the “middle” class have merged into a single, capitalist class. So, far from us being “all middle class now”, there is no longer any middle class (the middle class of yesteryear having become the upper class). It’s rather the case that “we are all working class now” – including most doctors, lawyers and scientists. As Marx and Engels pointed out already in 1848:

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with revered awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-labourers”. (Communist Manifesto)