The Middle Class as a consumer class

Historically, the middle class was comprised of small-scale capitalists and white collar professionals. But as inequality continues to grow, the middle class has stratified itself as a cultural pseudo-class.

Christian Patterson
2019-10-10
Underground Mall

One of Andrew Breitbart’s go-to catchphrases was “politics is downstream from culture,” a claim that has reverberated through right-wing thought throughout history, and has been adapted by the alt-right and the larger, growing far-right ethos. This political perspective can be seen as an inversion of the Marxist idea that the base (the relations of production, and the division of labor) informs the superstructure (culture) primarily. Similarly in 2017, Gavin McInnes on Joe Rogan’s podcast described the dynamic between Antifa and the Proud Boys as the same dynamic as the mods and rockers. This is an even more infantile formulation of the same idea.

Whether culture informs political economies more, or political economies inform culture more, can be seen as a splitting point between the left and the right. But, the belief that politics is downstream from culture is not only openly embraced by the right-wing, it’s more broadly accepted as part of the general middle class worldview. This is not a coincidence, because the far-right project is, in fact, a project in radicalizing the ethos of the middle class.

The middle class is being stratified into the consumer class

From a Marxist understanding of class, the middle class doesn’t exist. The middle class has no defined relation to the means of production. For the most part, it’s a subset of the working class, usually those workers who are managerial, salaried, and/or white collar. But it also can include small business owners.

Traditionally, the middle class indicated relative income, usually the middle 60% of income earners. However, the middle class has become ubiquitous, carrying much more social implications than actual class implications. It’s a social class that’s constantly provoked, and yet, says almost nothing about people’s actual class status. People aren’t identified, or identify themselves as middle class, to indicate something about the relations of production.

Wealthy people will often say “I grew up upper-middle class.” Even more often, the working poor will consider themselves middle class. This is because, the common conception of class has shifted away from economic positioning and towards cultural and social positioning. It can only be treated as ubiquitous when it’s reduced to a cultural identity.

The American middle class is the consumer class. The middle class is an extension of the endangered petty bourgeois class, which is now conceived as a small part of the wider middle class. The middle class, however, usually has no stake in the means of production. What the American middle class signifies most is that someone partakes in the consumerist commodity culture.

Salaried office workers and professional managerial workers are the foundation of the middle class. This means the middle class as a whole has less invested in the means of production than the classes that preceded it, like the petty bourgeois. The middle class also has less at stake in the means of production than the other classes of our time. The working class has everything to gain, and the capitalist class has everything to lose. The middle class depends on the capitalist class to sustain their lifestyle, and so the middle class mentality is rife with contradictions about their class interest.

Bela Kun writes in “Marx and the Middle Classes”:

“The lower middle-class is not fit to wield power, and a long government by it is unthinkable. This, first and foremost, for economic reasons: the small shopkeeper is the debtor of the great capitalist, and must remain in dependence on him as long as there exists the system of credit — which cannot be destroyed while the domination of private property continues.”

This dependency on the capitalist class helps lubricate the consumerist, cultural, and identitarian political motives of the American middle class. Since the mechanisms of economic distribution are obscured, and feel distant to us, people “identify” as middle class, because their economic status isn’t clear to them. The only thing that’s clear is that they engage with the economy as consumers.

One of the most useful tools used by the capitalist class to reify their position is the designation of “managers”. Being a manager has always been a signifier of middle class, even if you manage something like a Rite Aid or movie theater. However, capital has become concentrated to a smaller amount of capitalists. The capitalist class has an increasing need to “outsource” managerial duties, to increasingly poorer and poorer people. With increasing income inequality, that means a manager often makes only $2 or $3 more than “their” employees. The managers do the same labor, plus more, and yet, they feel much more socially aligned with the capitalist class. This is a far cry from the capitalism of Marx’s time, where the capitalist class mostly overlapped with the managers, and were on the factory floors, barking orders.

The middle class depends on consumerism for this social orientation. This means that, in choosing to identify as middle class, that person negates their status as a wage worker. Of course, middle and working class overlap immensely, but people choose how to identify, often switching back and forth between these pseudo-class roles. But the middle class carries strong consumer implications, that they rarely drop, even at work, or the working class rarely adopts, even when consuming.

The working poor facilitates the middle class to roleplay as pseudo-Feudal, suburban vassals. When a working class person engages with other workers, they’re treated as peers. When a middle class person engages with other workers, they’re seen as temporary servants at coffee shops, restaurants, stores, and bars. The middle class has no way of expressing their ill-defined class identity, except posturing as a superior consumer, and flagging that status with commodities.

When this middle class consumerist mentality is applied to politics, the personal disdain for workers becomes political disdain. Their attachment to consumer goods becomes a political attachment to “culture”. The middle class presents itself with commodities to indicate a higher class status. This presentation is to help cement a politics of cultural difference from the “lower” working class. The irony being, of course, flaunting your wealth through consumerism is the most essential middle class trait.

This is why, on the occasion Democrats talk about class, it’s in social terms, not economic terms. Democrats purport to represent the middle class (however vaguely untrue that is), which helps breed the liberal middle class ideology. So even when Democrats pander along class lines, it’s really to bolster consumer confidence. The middle class morphs and touches every class interaction. It’s a class that embodies the social implications of consumerism.

Big Bob Pataki is the American middle class

One of the best representations of the middle class comes from the show Hey Arnold!. In the show, Arnold’s classmate Helga’s dad, Big Bob Pataki, exemplifies my construction of the middle class:

Big Bob owns a beeper store. He not only owns it but he’s the Beeper King. He wants to bulldoze the community’s oldest tree to build a new beeper emporium. He funds a kid’s parade float, only to turn it into a giant advertisement.

Big Bob drives a Lincoln Continental and a Hummer. He wears khakis and polo shirts. He watches Wheel of Fortune every night. When he goes camping, he has to bring state-of-the-art “survival” gear.

Big Bob gushes praise to his successful, attractive daughter and neglects is homely daughter. He no longer cares about his wife. When he learns his daughter mistakenly gets a poor grade on an aptitude test, he responds by asking if it’ll cost him anything. The closest thing he has to a friend is Nick Vermicelli, his sleazy business partner.

Big Bob bribes a kid to throw a spelling bee. He gambles on sports. He goes into the woods wearing military gear, although it’s unclear if he was actually in the military. He hurts his back at work, and quickly becomes addicted to soap operas during his time off. He becomes hyper-competitive for the student-parent activity weekend. He tries to train a parrot to say “All hail the Beeper King.” He gets in a car accident, then determines who will pay the damage in a golfing competition.

Big Bob is a great example of the middle class, because he’s a small business owner, profiting off of a brief trend with high-profit margins (beepers). He has the mentality one could expect from someone in this position: he’s self-obsessed, has little to no values outside of making money, and views others as a means to an end. He kowtows to capitalist interest, because he benefits from his superior capitalists retaining power, even though he doesn’t belong to the class exactly himself.

The American Middle Class signifies a cultural lifestyle, where people emulate the perceived lifestyle of the corporate capitalists, because of their relative proximity to capital, and yet don’t have the resources for the lifestyle of the rich and famous, so they perform a budget imitation of it.

Democratic elites bolsters the political consumer class

The democratic party elites are well-aware what they’re doing when they evoke the middle-class. They fold the working class into the middle class identity, and then obfuscate the working class with high-falutin, political-cultural identities. People are no longer workers, they’re voters and taxpayers. Democrats, however, are too short-sighted to see that this is sowing the political context that’s ripe for the far-right.

Rahm Emanuel, who devoted his political career to getting as many right-wing democrats elected as possible, now works for The Atlantic. He wrote a piece in May 2019 with the subheader “If Democrats want to address simmering middle-class anger, they need to deliver justice.” Rahm writes:

“America endured a war sold on false premises, a bailout of bankers issuing entirely toxic debt, and a massive public effort to prop up auto executives who were building cars that weren’t selling. Is it any wonder so many middle-class taxpayers resent the elites? The middle class has been forced to bail them out from their own mistakes time and time again—and yet the beneficiaries of that goodwill haven’t apologized, let alone taken responsibility.”

Here, Emanuel is manipulating the nature of economic production, and carving up the working class to focus on the elusive “middle class”. To Emanuel, the fact that the US government enforces an economic system that depends on exploiting working class labor doesn’t matter. Forget you work 40 hours a week! What really matters is that your tax money is bailing out banks – not that the banks exist to leech value to begin with. Forget that you’re coerced to prop up this system from the bottom up – the government using your tax dollars to save that system is the real issue.

The point is to make people angry as a middle-class member, which is antithetical to working class interests. This entails cultural outrage and “how dare you sir”s fused with civility politics.The unspoken point is to diffuse any working class, economic-based outrage into the social and cultural realm.

Emanuel shows his hand even more blatantly by the conclusion of the article:

“Every time Democrats look at a problem, they think of a program. And while those programs often point the way forward, Democrats need to focus their energy on convincing the middle class that they share their values more than just their economic interests. There is more to voters than their wallets. To do that, Democrats need to prove to them that they know the difference between right and wrong, and that begins with owning the terms accountability and responsibility. Democrats need to be the ones demanding that those who fall short, no matter how privileged, be made to answer for their own decisions. Every one of us should have to live by the same moral and ethical codes. The nation’s elite shouldn’t have any special license to take the easy way out.”

Here, we see Emanuel explicitly asking Democrats to not focus on economic issues, and instead that, actually, Democrats are simply good people with good values! Democrats know what’s right and wrong! This type of moralism is the quintessential appeal to the middle class. The Democrats want us to forget that we have a job that exists within an economic system of exploitation, and remember we can say “how dare you sir” instead.

“Moral and ethical code” is culturally and historically dependent. There’s no moral and ethical code outside of society, and the dominant class has paramount control over those codes.

Lenin writes in “The Tasks of the Youth Leagues”:

“In what sense do we reject ethics, reject morality?

In the sense given to it by the bourgeoisie, […] we know perfectly well that the clergy, the landowners and the bourgeoisie invoked the name of God so as to further their own interests as exploiters. Or, instead of basing ethics on the commandments of morality, on the commandments of God, they based it on idealist or semi-idealist phrases, which always amounted to something very similar to God’s commandments.

We reject any morality based on extra-human and extra-class concepts. We say that this is deception, dupery, stultification of the workers and peasants in the interests of the landowners and capitalists.

We say that our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the proletariat’s class struggle. Our morality stems from the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat.”

The middle class is making us all nerds (in the bad way) and/or assholes

The middle class means having provincial suburban mcmansions. It’s having a big truck, where you’re the boss. There’s no rails, you can drive anywhere, and no one can tell you what to do. The middle class means making passive-aggressive remarks to sales clerks when they don’t greet you. It means going to Applebee’s and taking money off your tip if they get the order wrong. The middle class is being up-to-date on trends. It’s making noise complaints to the police. It’s going on vacation to old-fashioned tourist towns on coasts or in mountains.

We see numerous social manifestations of the middle class ideology. There’s the “Health and Wellness” middle class, which turns buying pseudo-scientific, diet, and health commodities into a virtue. There’s the “man cave” middle class, constantly flagging their desire for authority as a patriarch through commodities. There’s the middle class, convinced that their commodity consumption is a political act, who say their name is “Trump” at Starbucks and burn their Nikes because Football Man kneeled.

However, maybe the most visible way to see the politicization of the middle class is through nerd culture. No other subculture is so tied to commodity consumption. It’s a subculture that wouldn’t exist without constant consumer good consumption.

Since the 2000s, people have said “everyone is a nerd now.” This could be viewed as “everyone watches Game of Thrones and plays video games now”. Yes, everyone is a nerd now, but it’s not like we all became 80s movie Poindexters. Instead, people assumed the societal form of relating to themselves, others, and the world, in the way nerds do, through consumer commodities. People don’t necessarily do this with “nerdy” commodities, but rather, everyone now relates to their chosen commodities the way nerds relate to theirs. Relating socially through commodities is a common characteristic of capitalism in general. But now, like the nerds of the 80s, everyone’s social interactions aren’t only informed by commodities, but also our character and personalities.

Things that aren’t “nerdy”, like beauty products, coffee, beer, and travelling, can now be nerdy, if someone consumes, and socially positions themselves to, them in a fanatical and obsessive way. If someone follows trends in makeup, has strong opinions on what’s good and bad makeup, relate to people by talking about makeup, and present themselves to the world with makeup, they’re a makeup nerd.

Remember how Gavin McInnes compared Antifa and the Proud Boys to the mods and rockers? This is a way of conceiving politics as a consequence of commodity-based subcultures. The mods bought scooters and suits, the rockers bought motorcycles and leather jackets! The stereotype was that mods were rich and rockers were poor. But for the most part, their cliques said little about class. By mobilizing themselves behind a commodity-based subculture, they siphoned their working class potential into middle class bickering. Of course, McInnes is correct that Antifa and Proud Boys are relatively small social subcultures, but they’re still primarily political organizations, and they signify class conflict more than commodity consumption. Although, it’s quite telling that the Proud Boys, and not Antifa, are obsessive about branding and consumer culture (ie, Fred Perry shirts), because they represent the reactionary middle consumer class, whereas Antifa doesn’t.

The push for the middle class to become a consumer identity has atomized working class interest. In olden times, people would buy necessities with their income. Consumerism, as we know it, is remarkably new. Because of the consumer-based identity, people relate to their peers socially through the shared commodities they consume. Not only that, but communication about these commodities is mediated through other commodities. We not only relate to others based on commodities we like, but we use commodities to make these relations.

Consumers depend on the capitalist class to sustain their identity

But how, tangibly, does this middle-class, consumerist-oriented subculture mentality lend itself so well to right-wing politics?

Since we’re talking about nerd culture, I’ll use the video game industry to illustrate the middle class political identity. In the past year or two, there were at least three large-scale layoffs in the industry. The three I have in mind are from Activision Blizzard, EA, and Telltale Games (which closed door with no notice, laying off all their staff except a skeleton crew). Obviously, it’s a tragedy that multi-billion dollar companies, in a continually growing industry, are purging labor for narrower and narrower rates of profit growth.

However, a subset of nerds saw it differently. They, if not sided with, at least had sympathy for, the company. The reason is, they recognize that capital is the economic engine at the center of their metaphorical machine that pumps out games. They know that the most efficient way to increase profits, and continue the capitalist production process, is to preserve capitalist structures.

But why do video game nerds want to maximize profits for corporations? Because they think they get more video games if the corporate masters get more profit. And why do they want more video games? Because video games are the objects through which their social life emerges.

Remember, the middle class identity is a historical extension of the petty bourgeois. As the petty bourgeois class shrank and gave way to a broader, waged middle class, the petty bourgeois defense of capitalism remained. The middle class needs to defend capitalism because they benefit from it. Whereas the petty bourgeois needs to defend capitalism because they have stakes in capital, the middle class needs to defend capitalism because it enables their consumer culture. Without capitalism, the middle class as we know it would become a husk, until people could learn to relate socially outside of hyperconsumerism. All of our social interactions, cultural touchstones, and interests depend on a deeply interconnected consumerist cultures.

Reactionary culture war politics is the logical conclusion of our failing system

The capitalist class has been radicalized long ago, starting with the French Revolution. Although the capitalist class is no longer “radical”, they had to be historically, to initially obtain political economic power. And, as we know, the radicalization of the working class would entail overthrowing the capitalist class to obtain political economic power.

The “radicalization” of the middle class, is itself a misnomer, because the middle class has no capability for radical political economic change. It would be more accurate to just say the “politicization” of the middle class ideology.

This politicization of the middle class entails exclusionary societal cliquishness, resentment of the poor, oppressed, and disabled, and defensiveness about the rich. It entails turning politics into hoity-toity, provincial HOA, PTA, and neighborhood watch committees. It entails normalizing domesticity and familial relations, and imposing that on society. It entails cementing middle class “morals”, and policy to enforce those morals.

The politicization of the middle class emphasizes, and sides with, the dominant culture. The capitalist class has less interest in preserving culture. The capitalist project revolves around reducing cultural, and functional, objects into capital, ie, reducing cultural objects (things with qualitative value) simply to a number. However, the middle class project revolves around reifying the dominant capitalist cultural hegemony.

In other words, the middle class traditionally signifies a nebulous economic status. Over time, the nebulousness of this class signification has become increasingly vague. But, it’s still frequently alluded to, so it still means something. Due to diffusing the economic meaning of the middle class, it has increasingly been seen as a cultural class. And a class, or pseudo-class, rooted in culture, will inevitably become reactionary, once that pseudo-class’s interest are graphed onto politics.

Bela Kun writes in “Marx and the Middle Classes“:

“Within the framework of capitalist society, the lower middle-class is immortal. Not only do small traders and small producers, worshippers of the principle of private property and credit, inevitably ensure the existence of parasites on the social organism, as being causes of the dissipation and waste of social labour; but also from out of their midst there appear the bearers of a special philosophy, directed for the purpose of restraining the proletarian revolution.”

We can think of the economy reductively, as having three components and three classes: the three components are 1. production – the labor performed to create things, 2. consumerism – the consumption of things created, and 3. accumulation – the leaching of value during the process. The three classes that correspond with these are the working class, middle class, and capitalist class.

Of course, most “members” of the middle class are also working class. However, the middle class is informed more by social positioning than economic positioning. The middle class perpetuates its existence by expanding its consumer-elitist boundaries into what is working class territory.

So, when we’re talking about classes radicalizing we’re left with a predicament. The conflict imposed on us, between working and middle class, by the capitalist class, is so dominant that it facilitates a need for us to pick sides. Many people can identify themselves as middle class, or working class, with the same job and income, and no one would blink or question it. This means that, even though class isn’t an identity in any regular sense, it is made into something we choose.

We either choose to identify, based on our consumerist impulses, as a member of the middle class, or we choose to identify, based on our performance of labor, as a member of our actual class.

Conclusion

Ultimately the question is “what’s the impact of this?” and “what should we do about it?”

Eugene V. Debs said in his speech “Three Classes, Three Parties“:

” The contest today is for the control of government by three separate classes, with conflicting interests, into which modern society has been mainly divided in the development of the competitive system. The dominant capitalist class is represented by the Republican Party. The middle class is represented by the Democratic Party. The working class is represented by the Social Democratic Party, and each of these parties is committed to the economic interests of the class it represents. […] The Democratic Party is the wailing cry of the perishing middle class; calamity without end. […] Parties, like individuals, act from motives of self-interest. The platform of a party is simply the political expression of the economic interests of the class it represents.”

This is true, but things have shifted since Debs’ time. Without the “threat” of global communism, the Democratic and Republican Party only depend on economic policy to frame the cultural lifestyles they’re actually selling.

The impact is that the Democratic Party is ideologically committed to neoliberalism. Their view is that neoliberalism is an economic system to help the middle class. Of course, it’s not true that neoliberalism helps the middle class, if you perceive the middle class to be an economic class. However, if you perceive the middle class as a cultural class, the Democratic Party line makes perfect sense.

The Democratic Party is selling a middle class cultural lifestyle. They rarely explicitly argue in favor of their neoliberal policy, but it’s always lurking, implicit in the background, as the supposed basis for that middle class cultural lifestyle.

The big issue is that, when you take the consumerist middle class ideology that the Democrats cultivate to its logical conclusion, it becomes a reactionary ideology.

The cultural middle class is authoritarian. Democrats want Latinos in government and upper management, but only if they’re anti-Maduro, anti-Castro, and are fluent in English. Democrats like Muslims when they’re advocating the secular Democratic lifestyle, but not when they’re worshiping publicly. Democrats like homeless people when they can be used for clout, but not when they sleep in parks.

When you believe these contradictory, anti-economic perspectives on politics, you inevitably have to shift your beliefs to something more ideologically coherent. You have to align your economic perspective with your social perspective, because neoliberalism doesn’t align with venerating the oppressed.

If you’re in this position of political dissonance and you’re in the working class, the logical conclusion is moving leftward economically. However, if you’re in this position, and you identify yourself as middle class, independent of your actual class position, the logical conclusion is moving rightward socially.

If I’m to buy that neoliberalism enables my consumerist middle class lifestyle, and that economic system depends on increasing exploitation, marginalization, oppression, etc, then why wouldn’t my social politics follow my economic politics? Meanwhile, the Republicans, with Trump, realize this dissidence created in the “middle class”, and are moving more and more rightward, economically and socially, in a way that’s more logically coherent than the ideological hodgepodge offered by the Democrats.

In this way, I do think Democrats fundamentally enable the fascistic shift in the US. Of course, we see millionaire democrats on tv threatening to vote for Trump if Sanders is the nominee. But we don’t talk about how Republicans are not only moving rightward, but the Democrats are greasing the cogs for this to happen, from the outset.

So what can be done? For one, I don’t think the common “middle class” person will be particularly endeared by my argument here. Middle class people are very defensive when their class is questioned – which, in my opinion, reaffirms the idea that it’s more of a cultural class than an economic class. Instead, we should do our best to reorient the Democratic party to be focused on working class economic issues, rather than “middle class” issues – which in itself is an ill-defined and slippery concept.

But trying to force working class politics into the Democratic party won’t result in revolution, it won’t radically change the economy, and it won’t be the basis for a long-term socialist movement. All it is is damage mitigation, to reduce the number of centrists, Democrats, and independents, from sliding closer to the far-right.

What we can actively do to stop the politicization of the middle class is to clearly delineate in discourse when something is an economic (political) issue, and when it’s a culture war issue. The Gavin McInneses of the world, want all of politics to be flattened to a culture war issue. And while a lot of these culture wars have political implications, many people veer rightward because they think the culture war is all politics are. This cultural realm is the bread and butter of politicizing middle class issues.

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