The roots of the middle class date back to the 19th century and the liberal revolutions that first affected the privileged positions of nobles and landowners. These revolutions gave rise to a modern society characterized by the existence of two antagonistic social classes in terms of their economic conditions and interests: the bourgeoisie and the working class. At the same time, however, this polarization, arising from the growing concentration of wealth in the bourgeoisie and high levels of poverty or pauperization among workers (Engels and Marx, 2020), is what explains the proletarian uprisings that turned into social revolutions.
For most of the 19th century, increases in the cost of living outpaced the growth of wages, leading to the impoverishment of the working class. Yet the bourgeoisie cared only about accumulating large amounts of capital, resulting in the maintenance of very low wages and appalling working conditions for workers. The workday was long and exhausting, often more than 12 or 15 hours a day. Wages were so low they enabled little more than subsistence (Hammond, 1930; Engels, 1945).
Against this backdrop, socialist and communist ideologies, which were spreading at the time, fueled and provided the basis for the revolutions carried out by the working class in various parts of the world in the 20th century, such as the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Marxism, it should be recalled, held that the working classes had to unite and organize in order to take power and implement the socialization of private property, achieve the eradication of capitalist society, and establish a classless society in its stead. That core idea served to justify those revolutions.
Yet the influence of these ideologies failed to triumph in Western Europe and the United States. In Western Europe, the implementation of the welfare state model after World War II increased the standard of living of the region’s peoples, lifting a large share of the population into the so-called middle class social stratum. This model promoted significant growth in real wages, after years of hardship during the wars, allowing the European countries that implemented it to expand their domestic markets and freeing up vast resources for consumption. Real wages in 15 European countries increased significantly, and their share of income rose from 1950 to 1973. The 4.1% increase in productivity after World War II enabled wages to rise by 4.5% and corporate profits by 4.0%. These profits, in turn, provided a strong 4.5% boost to fixed investment and spurred a 4.8% increase in private consumption (Palazuelos, 2013). Consequently, in a context of economic prosperity, consumption in the welfare state emerged as one of the complementary features of a model of society that prevented the working class from imposing the dictatorship of the proletariat proposed by Engels and Marx (2020).
Meanwhile, the United States implemented the New Deal between 1933 and 1937. The program sought to revitalize and reform the U.S. economy after the Great Depression of 1929, using state intervention and regulation of industrial activity to reduce the unemployment caused by the crisis and increase the purchasing power of the U.S. population. For the U.S. government, it was important to bring down unemployment, which had soared from 1.5 million people in 1929 to 14.5 million in 1933 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, http://www.bea.gov). To this end, it decided to increase public spending, which had a multiplier effect that led to an increase in GDP, as it climbed from a share of 9.18% in 1929 to 39.43% in 1942 (Bureau of Economic Analysis, http://www.bea.gov).
The key aspect to highlight in both cases is that, in Europe, the welfare state model placed greater emphasis on equality of results when establishing wealth distribution mechanisms, such as the social security system. This translated to a higher share of GDP in terms of social benefits and, thus, higher taxes, which were accepted because they generated economic prosperity in the 1950s. In contrast, with the New Deal, the United States managed to increase the population’s purchasing power, ushering in a new American way of life characterized by a high level of consumption and greater economic well-being in that same decade.
As a result of these new circumstances, the idea of expanding the middle class gained currency around the world. It was viewed as a way to avoid situations of poverty and economic marginalization that would lead to serious social conflict. It thus strikes me as essential to clarify what is meant by the concept of “middle class” and to understand why the class system that arose from capitalism is justified and accepted as the most suitable one for helping people improve their living conditions and, thus, for avoiding the revolutions of the past that resulted in authoritarian regimes that never did implement a communist system as proposed by Marx. For, it is worth recalling, according to Marx, a communist system should be characterized by the elimination of the state, something that did not happen in the Soviet Union and has not happened in China or Cuba either.
To begin with, today’s societies are characterized by the existence of an unequal distribution of resources, both material and symbolic, and by the implementation of a system of social stratification that, to some extent, justifies economic and material inequality. Historically, for example, preindustrial and traditional societies accepted that human beings are born unequal; the ideological arguments underpinning this idea were based on divine or natural causes. This sheds some light onto why these societies accepted inequality as something “natural.” Witness the existence of free men and slaves in ancient Greece. At the same time, however, this divinity-based acceptance helped to justify that inequality. The Hindu caste system is a clear example. Originating in classical India, it is based on a religious component that justifies people’s assignment to a higher or lower caste according to birth or kinship. As Dahrendorf (1969) points out, the material inequality that existed in these traditional societies was always associated with ascribed or supposedly natural traits.
In contrast, the emergence of modern societies gave way to the industrial development of capitalism, characterized by the existence of two antagonistic classes in terms of their interests. This antagonism led to polarization between the two classes and a strong emphasis on the rationality and justification of the social order generated by the capitalist production system. Both aspects – rationality and ideological justification – offer insight into why the concept of class took on such sociological importance. This is when the class stratification system and concept of class began to be used to explain and understand the existence of the economic inequality that occurs in modern capitalist societies and is ideologically defended by those social groups with greater access to resources, particularly economic ones, which, in turn, affords them greater economic and political power.
This prompts the question: where does this interest in the class system come from? To answer it, we must begin with the notion of equality. First, we must understand that, from a natural point of view, equality does not exist, as in nature no two beings are completely equal. Each individual has his or her own physical and mental constitution. Yet sociologists propose two ways of understanding equality in the social class stratification system. The first posits that people are socially stratified or grouped according to their income and assets, which they depend on to meet their material needs. But social stratification obviously makes it difficult to apply the concept of equality, since it does not necessarily lead to economic equality, but rather delimits people’s social position according to their income. Nevertheless, it is emphasized that people have the possibility of moving up through effort and the pursuit of education. The second states that equality should be understood from a normative point of view. This view implies that all people are equal and thus should be treated equally. Therefore, the two perspectives are linked given that, notwithstanding human diversity, minimum living conditions and equal value must be given to all people as human beings (Crompton, 2008). This idea gives rise to two fundamental questions: How can we explain and justify the existing inequalities in our societies if we accept this premise? And if we do accept that equality is a “natural” right, why do some people dominate and have easier access to resources than others?
With regard to the first question, it must be understood that the social class system is the organizational structure for most modern societies, since the production system is based on capitalism, which is characterized by economic inequality between its component social classes. In fact, this inequality is considered reasonable as some people do jobs requiring greater knowledge and skills, and entailing greater responsibility, than others. This provides a rationale for the existence of the aforementioned economic inequality, since from this perspective it would be unacceptable to pay all people the same wages, as that could lead to a loss of motivation in the individuals who do the jobs requiring “greater knowledge and skills.” Yet this justification should not prevent the large number of people living in precarious, low-wage situations from being offered access to the minimum resources needed to live a dignified life. According to the ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends 2019 report (International Labour Organization, 2019), a majority of the 3.3 billion people employed around the world do not have sufficient economic security, material well-being or equal opportunities. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, the share of adults living in middle-class households in the U.S. fell from 61% in 1971 to 50% in 2021, i.e., this share has declined 11% over the last 50 years versus a 7% increase in the highest income tiers (Kochhar and Sechopoulos, 2022).
The problem is that we have not yet managed to establish a social system that affords access to resources that, while not entailing economic equality in a literal sense, nevertheless is not exaggeratedly unequal and does not cause the economic disparities we see in our societies today. In my view, this is key, as those who advocate economic globalization insist that living conditions have improved for the citizens of the countries that have embraced this process. Yet as the following chart from World Inequality Lab’s World Inequality Report 2020 shows, while the share of global income going to the 50% of the world’s population with the lowest incomes has generally held steady at around 10% since 1820, the 10% of the population with the highest incomes continues to receive a share of more than 50%.
At the same time, though, we could assume, as Rosemary Crompton does (2008), that inequalities should not be viewed as something negative. This idea is supported by the proponents of neoliberalism, who consider it helpful to distinguish between legal or formal equality and equality of results. For them, we are all equal before the law and the existence of “equal opportunities” allows us to improve our social position and well-being, thereby reducing inequality in terms of results. Only the market economy model on which the capitalist production system is based does not result in the least unequal distribution possible of the benefits produced, which calls the existence of equal opportunities into question. Indeed, as can be seen in the chart below, also from the World Inequality Lab’s World Inequality Report, in 2021, just 10% of the world’s population owned 76% of the world’s wealth.
Still, neoliberals argue that inequality can be beneficial because the motivation of individuals in capitalist societies to improve their economic and social lots promotes innovation, technological progress, and self-improvement. Hence, it is accepted that capitalism must be unequal, as it would otherwise lead to losses in motivation, the emergence of innovative ideas, and the aforementioned self-improvement. Furthermore, it is thought that the pursuit of material equality can negatively impact society’s material standards. These arguments overlap with those of the advocates of social stratification based on the social classes of the functionalist approach, such as Davis and Moore (1945), insofar as they consider social inequality to be a mechanism through which society ensures that the most important positions in society are held by the most qualified people, who will perform them responsibly and should be rewarded for it. They even insist that a society that provides equal opportunities makes it easier for this mechanism to operate effectively. However, this does not necessarily mean that a society can be fair, as equal opportunities may be a necessary but not sufficient condition to make a social system fair.
In fact, the implementation of wealth distribution mechanisms, such as those put into place in welfare states, shows that the class system and capitalism, championed by neoliberals, have failed to make the social system fair in terms of equal opportunities. This leads to the consideration that the idea of meritocracy used in the ideological discourse justifying the social class system does not always reflect what happens in real life. If the idea of meritocracy, as Sandel (2020) points out, means granting wealth, duties, rights, power, opportunities, and positions in accordance with each person’s merit, how is it that after the financial crisis of 2008, the U.S. government had to provide financial resources to save the banks from widespread bankruptcy, when they had proven incapable of adequately managing the situation?
Let us not forget that the credit rating agencies gave high ratings to mortgage securities and products whose underlying assets were subprime mortgages, one of the most salient features of which was the high risk of default, as indeed happened in 2008. The asymmetric information among financial players thus played a fundamental role in the origin of the crisis, but also prompts us to question whether merit is properly applied in the social class system of a market economy, as in the case of the U.S. banks.
I believe that one of the problems is that the people who decide on this merit-based distribution and who set the rules for it do not necessarily enforce them or end up being implicitly complicit in situations such as the one that occurred in the 2008 financial crisis.
In this regard, given both how complicated it is to establish economic equality in a class system and the doubt cast on equal opportunities and merit in some situations such as the one described above, it is necessary to ask two questions. First, who makes up the middle class in the world in general? Second, how important of a role do they play in the capitalist economic system? Traditionally, sociologists tend to consider professional status and prestige as factors delimiting the middle class from other social strata. Economists, on the other hand, tend to prioritize income. In reality, though, the middle class is characterized by the great diversity of its components, its variation over time, and the fact that at times of economic crisis, it ends up being split into an upper middle class, which can aspire to social ascent, and a lower middle class, which seems destined to descend (Atkinson and Brandolini, 2013). Hence, the debate over the meaning of “middle class,” i.e., whether it refers to a scientific notion or is simply an ideological component of the capitalist system that can be considered a mere political slogan (Sick, 1993). Some even understand the concept as a social group representing moderation that prevents the establishment of a social imbalance represented by rich and poor (Adamovsky, 2020). But this latter perspective does not solve the problem of the need for clear criteria or components to make it easier to determine whether a person belongs to the “middle class.”
The truth is that, historically, there have been attempts to establish objective definitions of the concept of middle class that have sought to rely on traits that give it consistency. But due to the great heterogeneity of occupational categories, it has been difficult to achieve a clear definition of the concept. As Adamovsky (2020) points out, what traits can be shared by occupations as unalike as retailers, small producers, white-collar employees, and independent professionals? We could even include the dimensions of gender and race, since empirical evidence shows that membership in a “middle class” occupational category and the opportunities that it affords are not the same for everyone, if ethnicity, race or gender are taken into account (Crompton, 2008). The possibilities of climbing the ladder from a white-collar job, for instance, turn out to be lower for women than for men. Therefore, proof of the historical existence of a “middle class” is considered to depend on an a priori grouping of a series of occupational categories that do not clearly demonstrate the shared elements differentiating them from other social sectors. This ambiguity is exploited in political discourses when there is talk of improving the lives of the middle class or claims that such an improvement in their situation redounds to the benefit of societal well-being as a whole.
We are thus faced with the challenge of conceptualizing an extreme variety of occupations as a class. This means defining traits that are general enough to encompass this variety of categories yet specific enough to distinguish the “middle class” from other classes. As Adamovsky (2020) explains, studies on this subject have thus taken two paths. On the one hand, there are studies that focus on emphasizing that the “middle class” is simply a discursive invention that has arisen from political discourses but does not offer a space to explore the social history of the sectors encompassed by this category (Wahrman, 1995). On the other, there are studies that analyze the link between the structural determinants of society and the experience of social groups in specific historical situations without neglecting the constructions of the discourses that motivate them to come together as a “middle class” (Parker, 1998). In this regard, this type of study makes sense, since a process of identity construction would be incomprehensible without analyzing the context and conditions of receptivity of the discourses about this class. This matters because it is important to demonstrate empirically that, in a given place or society and at a given time, part of the population falls between those considered upper class and those considered lower class.
All of this takes on great importance if we consider that the aim is to build fairer and more egalitarian societies, which involves giving an important role to the state and to all social actors to establish policies that improve the population’s working conditions and wages in order to prevent unemployment and the strong precariousness we are witnessing today. For example, one characteristic of the new middle classes emerging in developing countries, as in the case of Latin America, is their heterogeneity in terms of their economic situation, as well as a certain economic instability due to the high rate of precarious or informal employment (Birdsall et al., 2014; Castellani et al., 2014). It is thus essential to have a clear definition of what “middle class” should be in order to establish policies that actually improve the lives of the people at the bottom. This is crucial, since a democratic system means establishing a social structure in which social groups can participate in collective decision-making in order to put the principle of equality into practice in terms of participation and the establishment of policies to improve working and living conditions. I am referring to participation by all in order to reduce the inequalities that often cause social tension and, thus, conflict between social groups. Therein lies the importance of the existence of the middle class.
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