1950s >> 1954 >> no-600-august-1954

The Middle Class

“What sort of person was Mr. Weare?”
“He was always a respectable person.”
“What do you mean by respectable?”
“He kept a gig.”

(Murder Trial, 1823).

Three thousand pounds is a lot of money. By itself, it should provide a good-sized house or a small-sized business; as an annual income, it would give most people the same feeling it gave to Shaw’s displaced dustman. Sixty pounds a week put him among the well-to-do—“shoved him into the middle class” and forced strange manners and morals on him. And the curious thing is that the middle class, from which there is no escape with three thousand a year, is the fortress too of the curates and the come-down gentlefolk who have all the morals and all the manners and not even a dustman’s income.

The middle class is a myth. Every age has its myths and fictions. Sometimes a social assumption is at variance with reality, and everybody knows it to be so — for example, the doctrine in Britain that the sovereign rules and makes laws; that sort of doctrine is called a fiction. On the other hand, a belief may be at variance with reality and still generally accepted as true; that is the nature of a myth. A good deal of everyday religious belief is mythology. So, too, is the middle-class belief, which usually takes the form not of “I believe in it” but of “I belong to it.”

Like many myths, this one began as reality. There was a middle class, and it became the capitalist class. That is a different thing, however, from what they mean nowadays. The middle-class person sees himself as the genus of a flowery dell between the working-class cabbage patch and the upper-class orchid house. He regards himself as the type of most value to the community (“the backbone of the nation”); “the British way of life” is his way of life. The latter, incidentally, is true. Itself a myth, “the British way of life” is really the sum of the traditional desiderata for the middle class; semi-detached houses, cricket on the green, Old Boys’ dinners and all the rest. A sketch —it would have to be an imaginative one—of a middle-class man would simply portray life in Britain as it is imagined by sympathetic foreigners, and a good many British, too.

The authors of books about the middle class always acknowledge the impossibility of defining it. It would seem like being in love—unexplainable, indefinable, but you know it when you’re there—except that a classification needs to be based on reason to be valid. What, then, are the reasons for classifying people as middle class? Not income, because that would exclude the curates and the impoverished gentlefolk. On the other hand, not education, because that would rule out Alfred Doolittle and a good many local Aldermen.

Numbers of people consider themselves middle-class on the score of occupation. Probably most “black-coated” workers would say so if they were asked, on the grounds that they keep clean and are non-industrial. So is a lavatory attendant; and doctors and nurses have routine tasks which would be exceptionable to a self-respecting paperhanger. Then there are managers, but it is difficult to see them as anything other than well-paid employees. And, of course, the doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy—in fact, professional people generally. Most of them come from comparatively well-off homes—almost a necessity for a long course of professional training. Their “middle-class” status is the cause, not the result of their being in the professions.

Certainly the middle class are not only conscious but very jealous, of the unfathomable dividing line between them and the working class. (The tea shoppe and the strangled vowel are its monuments.) Since the war middle-class people have complained continually of impoverishment, of being no better off than manual workers: Poverty can be a relative term. In a recent Manchester Guardian correspondence, people whose incomes range from two hundred and fifty to three thousand pounds a. year told of their difficulties in making ends meet. Obviously there is a difference, and the people with large incomes are not poor in the sense that people with a fiver a week are; all the same, they are telling the truth. If you are the manager of a large firm, you have to live like the manager of a large firm. Recently a teacher wrote to one of the papers and complained that he could not afford a holiday. What he really meant was that he could not afford his sort of holiday, not a cheap week in a cheap guest house at a cheap resort.

Is there really a class of people, even a small one, that stands half-way between the working class and the capitalists? The simplest way to answer is to discover and place those two classes and then see what, if anything, is left. A capitalist is a person who lives by owning something of the means of production or distribution. If he has a small ownership and gets along only by working at it himself, then he isn’t a capitalist because he is living by his labour and not by his ownership; a capitalist can live without working. A worker has no facilities for doing so, no ownership of the means of life. He has to sell his ability to work—brawn, brains, or whatever comprises it: the price is his wage, and he is wholly dependent on it.

There are no people in capitalist society whose living comes in any other way. Clerks, managers, teachers, parsons, dentists, lawyers—they are all dependent on their wages, salaries, stipends, fees, what they are paid for their labour-power. They work for their livings, have to find and hold jobs. They belong, in fact, to the working class.

There is no middle class. Our world is a two- class world of workers and capitalists. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the growing capitalist class was a middle class itself, a third element in the society where landowners ruled and tenants worked. The cloth manufacturers, the merchant adventurers and bankers, struggled to throw off the incubus of feudalism. The Civil war and the political revolution of the mid-seventeenth century were part of this struggle; it was expressed in Milton’s prose as well as in the new economic doctrines. And when the manufacturers and the others became the ruling class, the existence of it middle class ended.

A large number of those who call themselves middle class are much better paid than most workers. It is worth considering why, because the reason will explain also why they are not sitting as pretty as might be expected. Labour-power is bought and sold in a market; it is a commodity, like boots or biscuits, Everything has its price, and the price is the expression in money of its value; there may be fluctuations because of supply and demand, but they are fluctuations round this point of value. And the value of any commodity—biscuits, boots or labour-power—is determined by the amount of labour that went to make it. That is why mass-produced boots are cheap and handmade shoes are dear; it is also why a bank manager is well paid and a builder’s labourer poorly paid.

Little training is needed to pull down ceilings, carry buckets and mix cement; no instructional books, no theoretical lectures. Nobody requires a builder’s labourer to speak well, display refinement or know much (he would probably be thought to be putting on side if he did so). But a bank manager does need training and the other things. He must know banking, which is not a simple subject; he must speak well, organize well, and have a good deal of what is called “madam.” His labour-power, in short, embodies a lot of labour from other sources, so its price is comparatively a high one.

That is not the whole story, however. The wages of these two have to maintain them, not as human beings, but as a labourer and a bank manager. The labourer’s address does not matter; the bank manager’s does. Some “middle-class” people pay more for their childrens’ education than a labourer earns—not just because it is expected of them, but_because we all reproduce our kind, and their kind needs to be well educated. It may sound ridiculous to use the word “subsistence” for wages of two or three thousand pounds a year, but in fact that is the position. All wages provide subsistence on different levels. For some it is food, clothing and shelter and the instalments on the television; for others, it includes the appearance and necessities of “middle-class” life.

In the last few years, numbers of the “middle class” have unconsciously acknowledged this by organizing to protect their standards of living. Civil Servants and Local Government workers have pressed continually for more pay, and the teachers’ unions have shown less interest in education than in salaries. The truth is that, whatever groups may be distinguished on the grounds of income, culture and so on, they are distinguished within, and not from, the working class.

Of all the factors which tend to obscure the class position in capitalist society, the middle-class myth is perhaps the strongest. “Class-consciousness” is often used to denote middle-class snobbery, but it has a wider, more vital meaning. In its true sense, it is the most important thing that can be learned by working men and women.

R. COSTER

Leave a Reply