Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Who Are The Middle Classes?

I was watching the BBC's “Daily Politics” yesterday where Tory spin doctor, and Times columnist, Danny Finkelstein, was being interviewed by Andrew Neil about the Tories decision to scrap Child Benefit for those on the higher rate of Income Tax. Neil referred to “The Middle Class”, to which Finkelstein retorted indignantly that people earning £44,000 a year were not Middle Class, people earning more than £51,000 a year, he said, are in the top 10% of income earners. That is bunk. If they are not Middle Class then what are they? Such a lowly income hardly makes you a Capitalist. Within that top 10%, there are also all those bankers earning millions of pounds a year, and CEO's of companies often making similar amounts. In what way does it make sense to put someone earning millions of pounds a year in the same group as someone earning £51,000 a year. But, it does beg the question, who are the middle classes?

Marxists do have a problem when it comes to such questions, because although we talk about class analysis, and class struggle, and class politics as central, there is no precise Marxist definition of class. Marx began writing such a definition in Capital, but found that it led him round in circles, and so he abandoned the task leaving just a fragment of that work to appear. In reality, the very basis of the Marxist method means that no such definition of class is possible, because that method is based upon historical specificity. Marx's analysis of class cannot be summed up as “You are working class if X, you are Middle Class if Y,” and so on. Engels sums up the Marxist approach to class in his Letter to Bloch, where he writes,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase...

In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life...

I would furthermore ask you to study this theory from its original sources and not at second-hand; it is really much easier. Marx hardly wrote anything in which it did not play a part. But especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a most excellent example of its application. There are also many allusions to it in Capital. Then may I also direct you to my writings: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in which I have given the most detailed account of historical materialism which, as far as I know, exists. [The German Ideology was not published in Marx or Engels lifetime]
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible.”

In other words, Marx's analysis of class was always concrete, it looked at the actual relationship of forces in each particular case as it occurred in history. As with any theory it is possible to give a summary answer such as that which can be found in the Communist Manifesto, where the matter is essentially reduced to the idea that society is dividing into two great classes – the Proletariat, which is defined by being completely divorced from ownership of the means of production, and the Bourgeoisie defined as having a monopoly of the means of production. But, such a definition is more akin to the Weberian “Ideal Type” than the Marxist definition. It is mirrored in the Grundrisse where Marx sets out precisely this Pure definition of Labour and Capital. He defines Labour as “Not Capital” i.e. totally excluded from ownership of the means of production, and Capital as “Not Labour”. But, it is precisely in specifying this total exclusion of one from the other that he is then able to posit how both are transcended through Co-operative production.

" … if the worker’s savings are not to remain merely the product of circulation - saved up money , which can be realised only by being converted sooner or later into the substantial content of wealth, pleasures etc. – then the saved up money would itself have to become capital, i.e. buy labour, relate to labour as use-value. It thus pre-supposes labour which is not capital, and presupposes that labour has become its opposite – not labour. In order to become capital, it itself presupposes labour as not-capital as against Capital; hence it presupposes the establishment at another point of the contradiction it is supposed to overcome. If, then, in the original relation itself, the object and the product of the worker’s exchange – as product of mere exchange, it can be no other – were not use value, subsistence, satisfaction of direct needs, withdrawal from circulation of the equivalent put into it in order to be destroyed by consumption – then labour would confront capital not as labour, not as not-capital, but as capital. But capital, too, cannot confront capital if capital does not confront labour, since capital is only capital as not-labour; in this contradictory relation. Thus the concept and the relation of capital itself would be destroyed.”

Grundrisse p206

In reality, such a duality has never existed as a description of the whole of society. In Britain, until the beginning of the 19th Century the majority of workers retained some link to the land, for instance, and were able to supplement their wages with the ability to provide some of their needs directly for themselves. All industrial revolutions are marked in their initial stages by relatively high levels of social mobility. In Capital, Marx describes some of the initial industrial Capitalists, who began themselves as workers. In Europe, the link with the land, in places like Germany, remained well into the 20th Century. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx himself refers to the intermediate classes, but these are presented as being only temporary as a few workers rise up, whilst some Capitalists are cast down. Its only in Capital that we begin to get the kind of economic analysis of the likely trajectory of Capitalist Production, in which Marx begins to identify the growth of a more permanent middle strata of officials and functionaries who arise due to the increasing removal of the Capitalist from an active role in production, and the passing of that role to professional managers, and with increasingly technological production the need for an increasing group of technical experts and administrators.
Given the social position of the few people who occupied such jobs in Marx's day, it is no wonder that he would define such people as forming a Middle Class. But, today, we would not define many such people that way. That is precisely the point about the Marxist method – it does not lead us to see categories as fixed for all time, but as being fluid, and only definable in relation to each specific case. But, if we take Engels statement to Bloch as our basis, we may also not want to commit the other mistake that many Marxists have fallen into of having a purely Economic Determinist analysis that also fits with a need to define the working class as broadly as possible out of a misplaced desire to verify the prediction of the Manifesto, and also out of a tendency on the Left to disdain the idea that Marxists should also set out to win the Middle Class. If we define as Working-Class everyone who does not own their means of production, or who is unable to live to a reasonable standard solely from their Capital, then everyone other than a few thousand families in Britain would be working class. There are many people for whom that is true, and who occupy those kinds of function described by Marx above, but whose standard of living, the nature of their work, etc. more closely resembles that of the ordinary worker. But, there are also many who, whilst not owning their means of production, and so on, have a standard of living that is substantially better than that of the ordinary worker, whose other life experiences – for example their education, the social relations they have, the aspirations they have, and the nature of their work – separates them from the mass of ordinary workers. They are not Capitalists, but nor are they simple proletarians. If we do not adequately theorise this then it is impossible to develop strategies that are capable of winning over such strata. In the main, the post-war Left has not felt that such a strategy is necessary. On the contrary, the middle class has largely been written off. In fact, the more the Left has abandoned the idea of a strategy based on regaining ownership of the means of production, and instead simply adopted the redistributionist and Economistic solutions of the Fabians the more it has seen the Middle Class as merely a source of Tax Revenue, in order to carry through such a policy. Its no wonder then that this large section of society has been driven towards the Tories, and is only driven away from them when the Tories themselves fail to deliver the goods.

It was not always that way. The Communist League for whom Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, for example, was made up almost exclusively of Artisans and small trades people. The Craft workers of the 19th Century who created the Trades Unions were more akin to today's professionals than today's ordinary workers in many ways. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Socialist Parties like the German SPD went out of their way to win over the middle class and petit-bourgeois, and of course, Lenin himself was the classic analyst and strategist for winning over that most traditional middle class – the peasantry.

You do not, therefore, have to be an advocate of New Labour to believe that a socialist strategy should be designed so as at least not to alienate, if not to win over the middle class. That does not mean that strategy has to be subordinated to such a goal, the primary task is to strengthen the economic and social position of the working class. But, that goal is entirely compatible with also drawing in behind it large sections of the middle class. The problem is that the Left, feeling unable to actually deal with the power of Capital has settled for second best, for attacking that section of society most apparent to it. The policy of redistributionism has not been a policy of redistribution from Capital, but from the Middle Class, and, as the size of the State expanded, and that tax base was not enough, to the better paid workers. Is it any wonder that the votes of Social Democratic Parties like Labour have been declining since WWII, and that the Left beyond it, which is marked only by a more aggressive and less intelligent Economism, has failed to generate any enthusiasm for its policies?

Returning to the question of the Tories attack on the “Middle Class” people earning £44,000, then a look at the kinds of people this includes shows how absurd Finkelstein's objection is. One commentator from the Wall Street Journal on last night's “Newsnight”, said it showed just how remote the Tories are from that middle ground. A few years ago one of my son's was looking to be a train driver. The information he received talked about a starting salary of almost £30,000 rising to over £40,000. But, does a train driver fit the traditional conception of the middle class or the traditional working class? In the 19th century, when Marx was writing, professionals such teachers would have been considered Middle Class, but today we would probably consider most teachers to be a part of the white collar working class. We might consider Head Teachers as Middle Class along with better paid Lecturers. But, we certainly, even those earning more than that £51,000 a year, would not consider them to be Capitalists.

As this BBC report shows looking at the income of the top 10% of incomes is pretty meaningless. It shows that whilst the average for this group was almost £50,000, the average for the top 1% was three times that amount. Obviously then the average for the lowest 1% of that top 10%, would be considerably less than the £50,000 average. And, if we look at the top 0.1% we find that the average for this group is £780,000 p.a. Or more than 5 times the average for the top 1%. But, if we look at even that figure we would find that it understates just how concentrated high incomes are, let alone how concentrated wealth is.

Take someone with £1 million of disposable wealth. If they only put this money into some fairly safe savings account returning 2.5% then they would make £25,000 a year, or around the average wage. But, today £1 million is not what it was. Around a third of the population are estimated to have a net worth of at least half that mount. To be considered rich today means normally having at least £10 million. That would produce on the same basis a return of £250,000. But, compared with the truly rich that is chicken feed. If we take the wealth of Lakshmi Mittal, for instance quoted in that report at approximately £20 Billion then on that same basis this would equate to an income of £500 million!!! That is 20,000 times the average wage, and even 60 times more than the average figure for that top 1%. It is 10,000 times more than the average for the top 10%. But, of course, people like Lakshmi Mittal, or Sir Phillip Green or any of those other Billionaires listed, along with those whose wealth runs into hundreds of millions, will not be only making 2.5% return on their wealth. Much of that wealth will be in the form of shares in companies returning dividends of double that, and more, as well as the Capital Gains to be made on those shares. They will occupy positions on the Boards of Companies, which will pay them salaries and bonuses running into six and seven figure sums.
And, of course, unlike those Middle Class people now being attacked by the Tories these truly rich people, the few thousand families that make up the ruling class of Britain, are able to shelter much of that wealth and income from any taxes imposed by UK Governments. They have that income paid into overseas accounts in tax havens. The Middle classes being attacked by the Tories have nothing in common with such people. We should take that into account in drawing up our own strategy.

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