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The demonisation of the middle classes If we conflate the middle classes and the elites, we lose sight of what's really to blame for the West's increasing polarisation

November 6, 2019   5 mins

Who’d be middle class today? They don’t deserve all they have, and that’s the truth. Entitled bastards. Increasingly both Left and Right portray the middle classes as responsible for the growing gap between rich and poor, even though ‘middle’ has to mean, well, middle.

Middle-class used to be about having some disposable income after you had paid basic bills, including rent and food. But in the current circumstances, the term is so heavily blurred by the many and varied attacks on its members that it can mean any group that the writer dislikes. Here is an example of the kind of attack to which I refer. It happens to come from The Daily Telegraph:

“They [Remain supporters] are discombobulated by the fact that those who make £30,000 a year selling double glazing technically belong to the same sect as those who make £30,000 editing poetry books; and that Oxford graduates are theoretically condemned to the same social strata as those brandishing a degree from Oxford Brookes.”

The fundamental argument is that only snobbery can lead to a different political decision regarding membership of the EU. We also learn that “Many voted Brexit precisely to disorientate and dislodge the old elites and to allow ordinary people a greater democratic say and real democratic clout.”

If I were to ask the writer who the old elites are, I would probably sound like one of them; indeed, Remain insistence on detailed reasons to Leave has become itself a sign of entitlement, as has any wish to stage a debate. Such friendly non-elite folk as the TV historian David Starkey lambast ‘the Establishment’ — of which he is not a member, apparently — as treasonous for negotiating on behalf of the EU.

And it’s not just the Right. On the Left, The Canary is home to thousands of attacks on the elitism, centrism and middlingness of the BBC, like this one:

“During BBC Question Time on 12 September, host Fiona Bruce’s mask slipped for one revealing moment… it demonstrated a light-hearted, good-natured playfulness between the BBC host and her Conservative minister panellist.”

They are all in it together. Like many articles on the Canary site, the piece is mostly composed of tweets by Labour politicians and Labour Party members. The Right dislike the BBC too, and for the same reason:

“Andrew Neil… has complained that the corporation’s comedy output is too left wing… self satisfied, self adulatory, unchallenged left-wing propaganda.”

Many who have attempted to analyse the reason for the divisions in developed economies have blamed the middle classes. For instance, David Goodhart’s analysis of the Brexit vote as a conflict between the somewheres and the anywheres insists that the anywheres are part of a techno-elite equally happy in any city — rather like the urban elite defined by Christophe Guilluy in his analysis of the gilets jaunes. Guilluy writes that “a new bourgeoisie, secure in its gentrified redoubts” has left behind the ordinary citizen. He also uses the term bobo — bohemian bourgeois — coined by David Brooks in 2000.

Among synonyms for bobo, Wikipedia lists champagne socialist, hipster, liberal elite, and metropolitan elite. All are terms of abuse rather than analysis, so it is unclear who Guilluy means. And then comes the slippage: Guilluy uses the phrase “the upper class” as though it meant the same as the bobo class and the new bourgeoisie, since all of them, according to him, see globalisation as an opportunity; then in another paragraph, these individuals have become “executives” and then “the corporate upper-class”, growing richer at the expense of an unidentified majority. They are “the wealthiest”.

It is this slippage – from bourgeois to elite to establishment to globalisation – that has become fundamental to the populist policies of the Trump and Johnson regimes, and also of their opponents on the far left. But the whole structure relies on the unexamined conflation of the CEO of, say, Uber (who makes $6.4 million a year) with a head teacher or a systems analyst. While the former could be understood in good old-fashioned Marxist terms as taking more than a fair share, the others are just as dependent on a salary of dwindling value as any policeman or ambulance driver. Hollowing out the middle as a repeated rhetorical move is the reason that the politics of both Left and Right are becoming ever more extreme, and ever more resistant to even the suggestion of compromise. Compromise is now repeatedly represented as betrayal; differences of opinion are figured as treachery.

The many are now committed to the removal of the institutions that promote the cause of “the elite”. Such institutions are resisting the will of the people, resisting their rights. It follows that “the people” is a category that excludes members of “the elite”; judges, civil servants, students, parliamentarians, and academics are not “the people” and nor are they part of “the many”. Instead, they are part of the few. This group of non-persons may now include in some contexts doctors, lawyers, and anybody in the arts.

It is worth reminding ourselves that at least these groups are not actually disappearing, or not yet, but they did disappear in Ukraine in the 1920s, in Poland in late 1939, in Chile in the 1980s. But that literal disappearance was preceded by a figurative blanking, a series of routine attacks on the prestige and credibility of the organisations they represented.

Unfortunate, too, is the assumption that working for a globalised company makes you an enthusiast for globalisation and therefore non-aligned to a country or land. Ironically, Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentary general Henry Ireton argued exactly that about everybody who was not rich enough for the then strenuous franchise test for the House of Commons: that they did not have a stake in the country and could move abroad if the laws became displeasing or disadvantageous.

Obviously, this is conceptually completely cracked when contemplating Cromwell and Ireton’s agricultural labourer contemporaries. But it is really just as ridiculous when contemplating the average lawyer — or teacher or doctor for that matter.

Historians usually say, glibly, that liberal democracy requires the middle classes to survive, and it is well understood that their economic destruction through the hyperinflation experienced in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s was one of the reasons for the rise of fascism. In Britain, the middle classes have not had to face this level of economic woe – yet; the collapsing pound and stalling of the property market are not the brightest of signs.

There has, however, been an equal loss of cultural capital, and soft power. The populist consensus across the Conservative party relies heavily on the fact that nobody thinks of themselves as an oligarch, and everybody can be relied on to see themselves as clinging on precariously. One reason for that, of course, is the tireless efforts of the press to stir dread, including fear of weather events and of rising knife crime. One of the deepest ironies of the referendum campaign was these same newspapers use of the phrase “project fear” to describe the political tactics of their opponents.

In exactly these ways, the many genuine threats to middle-class well-being and security can be further deployed against them. One characteristic form of this is the ironic pity piece in which some unfortunate professional working couple are lured into describing how difficult it is to live on £120,000 a year, so that they can be jeered at by those struggling on far less. It’s a modern pillory.

Successive attacks on the middle classes are attacks on representative democracy itself. The current government stance on Parliament and politicians is not very different from Jeremy Corbyn’s contempt for Blairites. Judges are traitors. Lawyers are liars. Scientists fake results. Academics have all caved cravenly to social justice warriors. Objectivity is so impossible to imagine that one of the words we use to describe it — disinterested — has all but disappeared except as a synonym for boredom. These circumstances have created the opportunity for the political chaos we have now seen. If we want to survive it, we need to make sure that the centre can hold.

I propose an alternative definition of middle-class that should prevent the misuses and disavowals we see in the public sphere: those who pay income tax. Fewer than three-fifths of the adult population have high enough incomes to pay any income tax at all. I also propose an alternative definition of upper-middle-class: those who pay higher rate tax, around 15% in 2017. I propose this because it’s free from ideological freight.

If we can keep a more clear-sighted view of the income of the groups under discussion, then perhaps we have a chance of inoculating ourselves against the more specious claims and counter-claims of our modern populists.

Diane Purkiss is a professor at Oxford University. Her book, The English Civil War: A People’s History, was published by HarperCollins.

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