Taking Our Place: A Draft Middle-Class Liberation Policy


A liberation policy is an overview of a group’s oppression, including steps or directions for achieving its liberation. This draft middle-class liberation policy describes the oppression of middle-class people, how we come to be positioned as both oppressed and oppressors, how our oppression gets internalised, and steps towards our liberation. Ending middle-class oppression is an essential part of ending class oppression generally.

The middle class is large and not a homogeneous group. It includes many diverse subgroups based on skin colour, gender, religion, nationality, country lived in, exact position in the class system, and so on. No single description or theory encompasses middle-class experience, oppression, and liberation, although some core elements are found in all the sub-groups. This draft describes these core elements and other elements pertaining to particular groups. Inevitably what is here will not cover every experience of being middle-class.

Also those who wrote this draft, based on experience of leading middle-class liberation work, come from Western industrialised countries, and our generalisations will, to some extent, reflect that limited perspective.


Class societies operate by transferring wealth produced by the vast bulk of people, the “working class,” to a small group that owns and controls the means of producing wealth (the “owning class”). This owning class lives off the surplus produced by the working class, who sell their labour in return for a small portion of the value they produce, thus creating a system of economic exploitation. A small portion of wealth is owned by middle-class investors (through ownership of stocks and shares, or through savings accounts or pension funds), who have little individual control over it. In order to maintain the unequal distribution of wealth and power, it is necessary that the much larger working class is kept divided and thus weakened. One way to do thisis to install and encourage divisions based on other oppressions, such as sexism, racism, and ageism. Class oppression can be thought of as the “root” oppression, with other forms of oppression keeping people divided and thus less likely to organise for change. (To suggest that class is the root oppression, however, does not mean that other forms of oppression are less significant or that liberation from them is subsidiary. The struggle for liberation has to proceed on all fronts.)

An effective way to divide the working class is to get one group of workers, namely the so-called “middle class,” to see ourselves as different from other workers, with no interests in common. In this process, middle-class people, who are actually working class in that they work for a living, become both oppressed and oppressors.


There is no one simple definition of the middle class. The following definitions offer perspectives on who is a member.* From a counselling point of view each description is, in its own way, valid and important for discharge and for thinking about liberation. (We identify individual class background so that we can examine and counsel about the effects of this background on how we think, act, and feel and about its effects on our relationships with people of our own and other class backgrounds.)

1. Fundamentally, the middle class is a section of the working class that has become artificially separated from the rest of the working class and that is conditioned and encouraged to see its interests as different from those of the rest of the working class.

2. Alternatively, the middle class can be defined in terms of occupation. It is that group who do not work directly in the production of goods and (non-professional) services, but as managers, organisers, trainers, health workers, educators, and coordinators, and in other professional jobs, as well as in religious and military leadership. The basic role is to facilitate the efficient operation of the current economic system and to keep the workforce compliant, efficient, and productive.

3. The middle class can also be defined in terms of culture. Because of the separation between class groups, and their different life chances, people who were raised poor, working-class, middle-class and owning-class have developed different cultures. These are reflected in different values, priorities, and lifestyles. The middle class is that group of people who were raised, or currently live, without significant worry about scarcity, and who have internalised a range of values including a preoccupation with material comfort and financial security, career advancement, behaving “properly,” and “fitting in.” They often derive their self-esteem and sense of worth from the quality of their lifestyle and consumption patterns.

People who find themselves in different class positions from their parents have a mixed-class identity. For example, someone who was raised working-class or poor may currently have a middle-class job, lifestyle, or values. For people of mixed-class backgrounds, deciding to claim and work on the middle-class identity does not mean giving up a working-class, owning-class, or raised-poor identity. All identities need to be claimed and worked on.

There is value, however, in explicitly claiming a middle-class identity to the extent we have one. Being honest about our feelings, thoughts, and behaviour provides a contradiction that may not be available if we try to do this work from within another class identity.


The size and composition of the middle class vary in different times and places. As capitalism extends its influence in developing countries and as transnational corporations move traditional manufacturing and other jobs to these low-pay economies, numbers of middle-class people also increase in these same economies. Members of this new middle class are exposed to all the incentives and conditioning processes we have described, and are set up to act as agents of class oppression.

In Europe, the United States, and other rich countries some recent changes have blurred the boundaries between working class and middle class. (1) The notion of “jobs for life” is being replaced by the idea of “life-long learning” and the message that success in life requires individuals to “re-invent” themselves repeatedly as their jobs disappear. (The emphasis is on changing individuals rather than economic structures.) As a result, the middle-class values of individualism and competitiveness are increasingly accepted by workers who, in economic terms, are working-class. (2) With globalisation, working-class jobs traditional to manufacturing industry are being replaced with lower-paid jobs in the services sector, such as call centre staff or bank workers with restricted prospects. These workers often think of themselves as middle-class, even when they come from working-class families and are still working-class in terms of pay and control over their working conditions. However, to the extent that they feel “better than” others, they do take on a middle-class identity. (3) Although in these ways the middle class is increasing in numbers, the overall influence of its members over their conditions of work is diminishing. Installed values of competitiveness, greed, and individualism make it hard to organise middle-class people to improve their work situation. Thus, while a small number of professional organisations and trade unions have become more militant in response to workplace changes, in general, poorly organised middle-class workers and a less powerful trade union movement are superseding the previously well-organised working class. In addition, professional workers who used to have considerable autonomy are increasingly constrained and under surveillance, as traditional working-class people have always been. This is part of a more general movement to deskill and routinise many traditional middle-class jobs.

As middle-class values spread beyond the groups of the more privileged workers, and as this privilege is increasingly precarious, middle-class liberation work is now relevant to all sorts of people, including many who don’t identify as middle class. On a global scale, many working-class people in richer countries are less like working-class people in poorer countries and more like middle-class people in their own countries—in lifestyle, values, and consumption patterns. In the same way, many middle-class people in poorer countries may resemble working-class people in richer countries.


In Re-evaluation Counseling, we make a distinction between what is true of humans inherently and the distress patterns they have accumulated as the result of accident, mistreatment, and oppression. Like people of all class backgrounds, middle-class people are inherently and completely good, inherently and completely significant, courageous, caring, reliable, intelligent, fun, cooperative, and loving. We are lively, boisterous, emotional, and strong. We have a deep sense of connection to all other humans.


It is useful, in and out of counselling sessions, to take pride in being middle-class. Middle-class people have contributed to education, the arts, culture, the law, religion, science, government, business, social change, and health care. Within oppressive institutions, there are individual members and sections of those institutions that are benign and pro-human.

Many middle-class people have been very clear about injustice and taken bold and courageous steps to overcome oppression. Middle- class people have led liberation movements against imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, Gay and Lesbian oppression, and anti-Jewish oppression, as well as other forms of national, social, cultural, political, and economic coercion.


We middle-class people are oppressed as workers within the economic system of capitalism. We also play an oppressor role in helping to maintain that system. We collude by making sure that other working-class people produce wealth as efficiently and profitably as possible. In some cases, it is part of our job to ensure that others conform to, accept, and do not challenge the existing system.

The middle class manages, maintains, legitimises, and reinforces the oppressive structures of society. Managers ensure orderly production that brings profits for the owning class. The operation of the education system makes it likely that the work of teachers and lecturers will help to reproduce the class system. With slender resources, social workers manage the failures of the system, while the “mental health” system uses drugs to chemically impose “normal functioning.” Journalists in major news organisations tend to misrepresent class societies as inevitable, just, or desirable. Policy makers may produce unjust policies supposedly justified by the requirements of the market or by the alleged inadequacies of working- class, poor, and minority groups. In many cases, middle-class rather than owning-class people are the immediate, visible agents of class oppression.

In many jobs, middle-class people have authority over working-class people, who often experience the relationships as oppressive. Even when middle-class people are not in positions of authority, working-class or raised-poor people may experience us as oppressive if we act toward them on the basis of negative attitudes, unawareness, or stereotypes—if we act superior, keep our distance, monopolise conversations, impose our ideas, don’t show how we are feeling, hide where we struggle in the relationship, and remain quiet or overly polite instead of making a genuine connection. We can be “helpful” or controlling in a way that undermines working-class leadership. Often trained to be articulate speakers and writers, we silence working-class people when we unawarely take up too much of the time or space available for communication. Conditioned to underestimate the intelligence and competence of working-class people, we may bring this pattern into relationships. If we are somewhat aware and try to behave well, we may succeed only in behaving strangely—avoiding working-class people, or presenting a cheerful, helpful face while hiding our real struggles.

As the visible agents of the oppression of working-class people, we can be a group that working-class people both aspire to and despise.


As a section of the working class that has been artificially separated from our fellow workers, we share the same basic oppression as workers. We receive back a small portion of the value we produce. Even though most of us receive more than most working-class people, it is still much less than is produced. (Some of us are also paid less than many working-class people.) Our jobs exist to the extent that they are necessary to keep things running smoothly. When it is possible to do without them, they are eliminated. In times of recession, we may be as vulnerable as other working-class people. In the context of sophisticated technology and “human resource management” strategies, middle-management jobs are sometimes the first to go. Our sometimes higher salaries cannot cushion us for long once we become unemployed.

Some specific forms of oppression of middle-class workers are made possible by our separation from the rest of the working class. We are expected to identify with our work, to put our personalities at its service, and to give up any clear boundary to the working day and working week in order to meet the goals of the organisation. We are generally not paid overtime. Many of us work long hours and endure high levels of stress, which endanger our health and make it hard to have well-balanced lives. We may be expected to move to where the work is, which compounds isolation and rootlessness. Structures of work encourage competition and isolation from other workers, which hinder our organising collectively to bring about change.

Our “perfectionist” tendencies are exploited in high-pressure jobs. Managerial positions can isolate us from other workers. Much work of white-collar workers has little real value, or actual negative value, in human terms.

Because many of us desire to make things right, we enter middle-class jobs (teaching, law, social work, medicine, politics, management in general) with hopes and dreams of using the knowledge and resources of those positions to make the world better, to correct injustice, to empower people. Throughout our training, however, we are told that we must fit those hopes and visions into the constraints of an oppressive economic system or give them up entirely.

Although we are oppressed as workers, much of our oppression consists of damage we suffer on a human level as part of our conditioning, from childhood,to conform to and support an oppressive economic system. The mechanisms by which this is achieved are described in the next section.


For the class system to operate, it is necessary that middle-class people not identify our interests with the rest of the working class. In essence, this separation is accomplished by a combination of bribes, threats, separation, misinformation, and denial of reality.


The middle class are offered inducements to maintain the status quo. The most common are higher pay and status, greater security, better working conditions, greater material comfort, opportunities to “climb the ladder,” and greater control and decision-making power. Another is the chance to do interesting, responsible, and creative work. Managers may be offered bonuses and stock options to tie our interests to those of the owning class.

These bribes work because we are persuaded to value comfort and material well-being as the focus of a fulfilling life. The more we consume or accumulate, the better we feel about ourselves. We are vulnerable here because when we are young, we lose our deep, inherent sense of our worth and goodness. Middle-class children are offered privileges and rewards (most importantly, parental approval and attention) for “good behaviour.” This generally involves staying quiet, being successful, and conforming to the expectations of adults. As we grow up, our feeling that our worth is conditional is reinforced, leaving us susceptible to bribes from those “above us.”

The class system (through the media and advertising, through the education system, and through the mainstream political system) encourages individual workers to seek relief from their oppression not by changing the system, but by climbing out of the working class into the middle class and, if possible, the owning class—by accruing more wealth and material possessions and by taking on the speech, behaviour, lifestyles, and values of “higher” classes.

No reward offered can ever compensate for the disconnection from our humanity caused by this process. The current economic system offers us few humanly fulfilling roles, few roles that we really want. It has no good offer to make us as middle-class people.


Bribes are reinforced by threats of punishment or the withdrawal of approval if we do not conform and co-operate. Many of us have a frozen need for approval. As we get older, we are reminded how much our future depends on fitting in and doing well. Our early fear: “Mum/Dad will stop loving you unless you behave properly.” Our adult fear: “You will lose status, approval, or material comforts unless you do what is expected of you.”

The school system plays a large part in reinforcing this conditioning. In spite of the efforts of individual teachers, our education is often simply a preparation for middle-class roles. Streaming (that is, grouping students by academic ability) mimics, and prepares us for, a class hierarchy. Schools pressure us to do well and warn that if we do not study hard and get good exam results, we will not get “a good job”—that is, be successful. Teachers and parents worry at young people and each other about young people’s futures. Society pressures educators to see their role as the narrow one of preparing children for work (with lip-service to educating for life). To survive in this system, many of us gave up our dreams for our lives and our visions for a better world, and underneath, this has left us heartbroken.

In the narrow lives that middle-class people are persuaded and frightened into accepting, the threat of “mental health” oppression helps to keep people conforming to prescribed roles. Even slight non-conformity may be described as “crazy” or “ill.”


Separation is central to middle-class oppression. We were systematically separated from other working-class people, often physically, living in different neighbourhoods and attending different schools. Our parents had restricted social networks and screened our friends and playmates.

We were further separated by lack of real human contact with the people around us, including middle-class people. We were expected to relate through a veneer of politeness; spontaneity and openness were often discouraged. Verbal contact was sometimes a substitute for physical contact and provided plenty of opportunities for being humiliated. We were told to keep things private and “in the family.” We were not encouraged to see other middle-class people as supports or allies.


The members of each class are given false information about the other classes and discouraged from forming close relationships across class lines.

Differentiating us from the rest of the working class starts early. We were trained to see ourselves as more intelligent or important. We were taught to fear and tohave low expectations of working-class people. We were told that if they really wanted to improve their lives they could; they were simply lazy, stupid, and irresponsible. We were told that the way society was organised was the most rational and either that there was no injustice inherent in the system or that a fair society was an impossible, childish ideal. Often we were denied access to information that would have given us a clear picture of the world.

Adults around us modelled oppressive attitudes and behaviour toward working-class people, even when we were not told directly that we were superior. They seldom had working-class friends.

Despite the general encouragement of middle-class young people to explore and think and appreciate different cultures, the subject of economics is presented in ways that obscure alternatives to the current system, which comes across as an inevitable reflection of the natural world.Although many of us have been brought up to ask questions, we do not learn to question our place in the world. Our education prepares us to use the existing system, but not to challenge or improve it in human ways.

Denial of Reality

As young people, some of us noticed that the world around us did not make sense. We wondered why some people were treated differently, or in ways that seemed to us unfair. Sometimes we were given no information at all about puzzling or frightening aspects of society. We instead got the message, repeatedly, “Everything is fine,” as though everything were perfectly rational and there were no cause for concern. Often adults, including the people who loved us most, told us we were mistaken in our feelings and perceptions. This was frightening and led many of us to try to conform.

As adults, when we notice that something is wrong, we tend to blame ourselves or others for the difficulty rather than blaming the oppressive society. In particular, for both adults and children in the middle class, there is a widespread denial of the reality of class oppression.


Most of the damage done by any oppression is caused by its internalised forms. If people did not internalise oppressions, they would not accept them for long. In general, middle-class people have been hurt—differently from other groups but just as systematically—and then trained to believe we haven’t been. This is central to our internalised oppression, and it means that we see the advantages attached to being middle-class, but fail to see the price paid in human terms. Below, we describe some of the ways we commonly internalise our oppression.

We lose a sense of our goodness

As middle-class people we never feel good enough. We constantly feel we have to win approval and justify our existence. We monitor and “second-guess” situations to see what is expected. We censor or adapt what we think or say in order to be acceptable. We feel we have to be perfect. We crave acceptance so that we can feel safe and comfortable.

In counselling sessions we try to figure out what our counsellor expects from us. We are grateful for specific directions. We are uncomfortable simply noticing that someone is there for us unconditionally.

Even as we become aware of internalised oppression, we still try to live up to expectations. We may work for liberation out of guilt or obligation. We may try to figure out what will make working-class people accept us. We try to do the right thing and look to others to find out what that is. In RC, this often takes the form of trying to hide our distress patterns or to act outside them without discharging or showing the struggles we feel are shameful.

Because we chronically feel bad about ourselves, we find it hard to work for real on our oppressor material, despite good intentions. We may feel guilty or be in denial, or resent working-class people who “make us feel bad.” But mostly, we feel so unsafe that we go numb to what really goes on for us. In this way we lose our sense of connection to the people we may have participated in harming.

We stay timid and invisible

We were alarmed by the irrationality and general mistreatment that we saw. As a result, we often internalise a sense of responsibility for inequality and fear that working-class people may attack us for all that is wrong with society. Hence we are pulled not to be visible as middle-class.

 The system constantly manipulates us by threatening loss of privilege. We can become cautious or timid for fear of getting things wrong. We don’t speak out for fear of “rocking the boat.” This fear may be so strong that we avoid doing—or even hearing or noticing—anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. These patterns canprevent us speaking and acting against injustice, including racism and classism. In fact, to openly step out of conformity is safer than our patterns admit, and the more we build honest human relationships, the safer it becomes.

The split between mental and manual work in capitalist societies can allow us to be fascinated and at ease with analysing ideas and arriving at “understanding,” yet scared of putting things into practice. Some of us have a theoretical understanding of oppression that never takes the form of practical opposition to the system. We may feel it is premature to act until we have our thoughts exactly right.

To join the middle class as an adult without having been socialised into the “rules” can be frightening and confusing. We who did so are newly and suddenly exposed to a group who rarely talk about the concrete reality of most people’s lives. We are confronted with difficult patterns of timidity, superiority, pretence, and isolation. It is worth noticing that what we are experiencing gives a clue as to what life was like for children raised middle-class. It was that scary. It was that confusing. It was that unreal.

We are confused

Because of the conflict between what we saw and felt and the messages we received as children, we acquired distress recordings of chronic confusion. They interfere with our ability to think about the world. Even now when we listen to a clear description of how class operates, we have difficulty following it. It just about makes sense while we are listening, but as soon as the person stops talking, we find we have lost it again.

We try to think about classism and its effects, but in a real way we do not understand it. We do not “get” what it is like for people who are working-class or raised poor. This does not mean we are bad people, but it is useful and important for us to acknowledge how little we really understand what is going on. Our confusion about how classism works results from the oppression and is not an inherent inability to think. Like any chronic distress, confusion can be discharged and our thinking recovered.

Being confused about their class identity can itself be an indication that someone has internalised middle-class oppression and therefore couldusefully identify as middle-class.

We are preoccupied with comfort and security

Much of the conditioning leaves us preoccupied with, or even addicted to, our comforts—financial security, mobility, career success, material well-being, playthings, and so on. We live narrow lives focused around getting things, enjoying them, and worrying about losing them. These pursuits provide no deep human satisfaction. Material comfort is a desirable goal for all humanity, but our rigid preoccupation with it damages us. It makes it difficult for us to notice the irrational nature of the class system around us and leads us to accept inequality as natural or inevitable. We may be upset more by threats to our own comfort, such as increased taxes, than by the plight of oppressed people around us. We lose a sense of the “big picture” and of the relative unimportance of our own daily concerns.

We feel guilty

Since we have been set up as agents of oppression, we often carry a deep sense of guilt about the inequality we witnessed and the privileges we have had. Sometimes we wish we were “more oppressed” so we would not have to feel so bad about ourselves.

Because our oppression tends to be invisible, to others and to ourselves, our internalised oppression is treated as anindividual distress or failing. Our money and education are supposed to be enough to make our lives good. When we look back on our childhoods (so full of denial), we often cannot remember how hard they were on a human level, and we cannot understand what could have left us with our present distresses and struggles, which must, therefore, be our fault.

Our struggles feel unimportant compared to those of people facing “real” oppression, so we feel we should say nothing about our difficulties, should claim no attention or resource, and should not ask for help.

Guilt about being middle-class, as well as fear of being attacked as oppressors, can make us reluctant to take on middle-class liberation work in RC. Deciding to identify as middle-class can feel like deciding to be an oppressor. For those of us whose parents were working-class, it can feel like “selling out.” Within RC, just because there is more clarity about class oppression, we may try to hide our middle-class trappings and look for excuses to call ourselves working-class. In a real sense this is accurate, but the pull to identify only as working-class reflects our fear rather than real understanding.

Like humiliation, shame, contempt and other complex emotions, guilt is best understood as a distressed perspective. When we feel guilty about inequality, we mistakenly believe that we are to blame for it and therefore bad. The distress recording has to be contradicted—class oppression is not our fault, even though our past actions may have contributed to it, and we remain completely good. We can then shed the guilt by discharging grief and anger about the injustice, its effects on us and others, and our own unwanted role in it.

We pretend

Others often notice middle-class “pretence.” This can, in reality, be a variety of things. Sometimes our confusion makes us act as though everything is fine. We then seem shallow. At other times we get pulled into acting in unreal and accommodating ways out of fear of attack or disapproval. This can make us so unaware that we ignore real and pressing issues.

In RC we can become preoccupied with giving up pretence in order to be accepted. Instead of discharging what holds it in place, we try to “act real” and get stuck there. What others see as our “pretence” generally indicates that we are feeling bad.

Within this pattern, we have become so used to trying to be whatever is expected of us that we lose the ability to be and show our true selves. Rather than really connect with people, we try to behave “appropriately.” Our struggles are often invisible because they are considered signs of success in the oppressive society—we appear competent. Most of us have mastered looking as if “there is nothing wrong” with us. We try to cover up our awkwardness, confusion, embarrassment, fear, and other struggles because we do not expect anyone to stick by us or want us, let alone help us. We “perform” in order to keep people interested or accepting. Unfortunately, it is precisely our performing without showing ourselves that makes us difficult to be around and spoils our relationships with working-class people. Our “composure” makes it hard for people to interpret what goes on for us or to see our struggles.

“Mental health” oppression, with its pressure to conform to “normality,” reinforces pretence and encourages us to numb and deny our feelings. Many of us do this through various addictions, such as alcohol, drugs, television, computer games, surfing the web, and shopping. Many of our addictions—overwork, for example—are not recognised or taken seriously as damaging.

People in RC sometimes blame us for “middle-class pretence” and ridicule our patterns. Pointing out, blaming, or mocking middle-class patterns is not useful, and is never a substitute for offering workable contradictions.

We stay isolated

Because of our isolation as children, it can be hard to tell thatanyone is there for us. We were brought up to feel responsible and to value ourselves according to how well we ran things and solved problems, but not to expect help, support, or cooperation. Relationships often feel so hard that it seems easier to do things on our own. We may sometimes insist on doing what we believe is right in isolation from, and against, the rest of the world. This makes personal relationships difficult and also affects our efforts to organise for social change—it can feel hard to reach out and hard to build and maintain alliances. (There may be overlaps here: with the rigid individualism that is part of Protestant internalised oppression; with owning-class material; and with the experiences of people from imperialist or colonialist backgrounds).

Isolation, as well as competition with other middle-class people, canhinder middle-class workers from organising collectively.

We compete and “look down on”

We internalise feelings of superiority and feel that unless we are better than someone, we are no good. There is a constant pull to compare our status, possessions, achievements, lifestyle, and so on, with those of others—to see who is ahead and who is behind. We compete as individuals rather than work cooperatively. Competition can also operate between us in RC, but so far these feelings are rarely worked on openly.

We feel insignificant as leaders

In our leadership, we constantly struggle with feeling insignificant. While middle-class people have played important roles in liberation struggles, we tend not to see ourselves as making a significant difference. This is paradoxical, because our conditioning told us we were more important than some other people. However, because our significance was made conditional on living up to expectations, we never got to feel it in any human sense.

Middle-Class Constituencies

Many groupings make up the middle class, and each faces unique forms of oppression as middle-class. At this point, we know more about some of these than others, and much work remains to be done to clarify what it means to be middle-class and part of another oppressed group. We can illustrate some of this with a small number of examples.

The Oppression of Middle-Class People of Colour

We middle-class people of colour are not a homogeneous group. Some of us live in the country of our ancestors, which in some cases is a colony or former colony. Some of us are indigenous in white-dominated countries. Some are descendants of people who were enslaved. Some are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Our experiences as members of the middle class vary according to these and other aspects of our background and identity. In this section we focus on the experience of middle-class people of colour in white-dominated countries.

We often experience intense isolation. Our acceptance as full members of white-dominated middle-class groups is dependent on separating ourselves from working-class and poor people of colour. We are held out as a model of what other people of colour could be if they acted right, worked hard enough, and weren’t lazy. Because of this, many of us grow up hating ourselves and each other for being people of colour. Once partially and conditionally accepted by white people, we are tokenised and used as a wedge to divide communities of colour.

Middle-class USers of African heritage, for instance, are said to be responsible for “lifting up the race.” The goal is to be “white” or “acceptable” to white people. We may be told that we are not “really” members of our racial and ethnic groups. Terms such as “acting white,” “being too black,” and so on, come from our internalised oppression, and separate us from the rest of our people.

For some of us, middle-class messages line up with the messages we get from our cultural heritage. In many Asian immigrant communities, for instance, we are taught to strive to be middle-class—to improve the family status and finances as quickly as possible. (We must be successful for the whole family, including our ancestors.) In white-dominated countries, many middle-class Asians are forced to assimilate—to give up our language, accents, clothing, and food and look as far as possible like white, middle-class people. In particular, education and such qualifications as degrees are seen as a way up and out. We are told to be careful and quiet.

Pressure to assimilate is an important part of the oppression of middle-class people of colour. In some situations, assimilation has survival value, but at the cost of people’s connection to their own people, their culture, and their humanity. We are told to blend in, not make waves, and not show ourselves “too much”. We are under pressure to make physical changes to our bodies to fit in—straightening hair, lightening skin, avoiding darkening in the sun, starving or overeating to match the advertisements, having cosmetic surgery (on our eyes, noses, hips, lips), and so on. Many of us grew up in white suburban communities and thus make white friends or pick white partners. We are then often blamed for giving up on our own people and culture.

We get the message that we can escape the immediate effects of racism by being middle-class and accruing more wealth and goods. White people become a false “safe place” because of our internalised oppression. We may “choose” to be with white people in schools, living arrangements, businesses, marriages, and so on, because we believe that what they have is better and will show our success. We are often pushed into neighbourhoods where we may be one of only a few people of colour. We are forced to choose between “moving up the ladder” and staying connected to our people.

We may feel that we must compete with people of colour for limited resources. We are also encouraged to act as agents of oppression to our own people. Because we are also people of colour, our attempts to enforce white middle-class standards of correct behaviour, or to use them to justify discrimination, are not recognised as racism.

Our successes are held up as evidence of the absence of racism. In fact, racism is often more insidious, because harder to detect, in middle-class settings, where it takes the form of exclusion and pressure to assimilate rather than overt discrimination and abuse. Many white middle-class people consider themselves, their neighbourhoods, schools, and businesses to be free of racism (and superior in this area to their working-class counterparts).

Being middle-class people of colour puts us in the role of spokespeople and performers because of the exclusion of most people of colour. As a result, we lose touch with who we are personally and with our own needs. In order to prove ourselves, we overwork and do not have enough rest or fun in our lives. We constantly question our own intelligence and have it questioned by those around us.

As assimilated people of colour, we are expected to be caretakers of white people around their racism and awkward feelings. We then tend to ignore our own terror, rage, and shame about racism, and instead intellectualise. This process isolates us from our own people and from our white counterparts.

The Oppression of Middle-Class Jews

Middle-class oppression and anti-Jewish oppression are intertwined in the sense that, whatever their class, Jews are misrepresented and scapegoated as the immediate oppressors in society. We get the message that we can escape anti-Jewish oppression by being “successful” and therefore indispensable to the society at large.

Under feudalism, the combination of occupational restrictions and lack of permanent citizenship set up a limited set of options available for Jews. For centuries, Jews did not have a homeland, and we were allowed to live in a particular country for a period of time only in exchange for being useful to oppressive rulers. Since the beginnings of capitalism, although many Jews have always been working-class or poor, disproportionate numbers of Jews have occupied visible middle- and upper-class positions in many Western countries—as lawyers, teachers, social workers, and leaders in business, for example. Jews collected taxes, lent money for interest, and performed other tasks that placed us in a middle-agent role and made us visible as agents of oppression. During times of economic hardship, we have then been scapegoated for the suffering of the majority and used to obscure the systemic causes of the unequal distribution of resources throughout society. We became targets for the hatred and frustration of the masses, deflecting hostility from the rulers, who were in fact systematically mistreating both Jews and Gentiles.

The tendency to seek upward mobility is a pattern in which Jews seek security through wealth and/or association with those in power, each time hoping to become indispensable enough or integrated enough to prevent expulsion or violence.

Our acceptance as full members of middle-class groups is dependent on separating ourselves culturally from aJewishness that is seen as too “loud” or “extreme.” We are allowed to mix in Gentile middle-class environments if we do not act “too Jewish.” Thus, many liberation movements include Jews who have little connection to our local synagogues and communities, and whose welcome depends on our being invisible as Jews.

At the core of the internalised oppression of middle-class Jews is a state of chronic and deep-seated insecurity that stems from the history of repeated threat to the survival of the Jewish people. The content of the internalised oppression is the feeling that our very existence is conditional on our conforming to role (as on occasions it really has been), together with the expectation of being so readily disliked, blamed, and hated that no amount of conformity can assure our safety.

The Oppression of Middle-Class Young People

We were not born middle-class. Like all young people, we were born free of inhibitions, wanting to be physically close, playful, creative and knowing our own goodness. It is deeply confusing for us when our parents try to parent us “the right way” instead of being themselves, which is all we need from them. Our parents often seem to dislike the way we intrinsically are, and to want us to be less playful, less messy, less exuberant, less passionate, more careful and controlled. They seem to prefer our ”good behaviour” to our true selves, and this undermines our original confidence in our goodness. Our parents often seem to value material things, status, and achievements more than relationships, including their relationships with us. As we grow up, we are under pressure to show our maturity by accepting this.

Other aspects of our oppression have been described earlier in this document. The oppression of the current generation of young people is significant because it can be stopped.

The Oppression of Middle-Class Women and Men

Class enters into the major institutions of men’s oppression, such as work organisations and the military, in which hierarchical chains of command are closely linked to class. Many aspects of the conditioning of men resemble—and reinforce—the damage done by class oppression. In work and in private life, we are taught to equate success with high status. We value ourselves (and expect to be valued) for what we have achieved in terms of wealth, income, or career, or because we are in charge of (“better than”) others, rather than for our inherent humanness. Overwork often keeps us away from family life or preoccupied even when we are physically present.

Class also enters into all the major institutions that oppress women (including the beauty industry). Both women’s and middle-class oppression emphasise appearance, conformity, and making things go smoothly. Even sexuality and being with children can become matters of achievement (“getting it right”) rather than close connection. (A whole magazine industry meets and reinforces this distress). As middle-class women we are pressured to choose discreet, elegant, expensive make up and clothing, to have a lovely house, and to produce well-behaved, successful children. At the same time our middle-class conditioning may lead us to keep quiet about difficulties in marriage, including domestic violence, and it can be hard to stick up for ourselves and act with integrity. Women in paid work and those who stay home with children may be divided by feeling “better than” or “worse than.” When women combine paid work with raising a family, we may employ working-class women to do cleaning and child care at relatively low wages, paid for out of our own earnings.

Other Constituencies

The oppression of many other groups interacts with that of middle-class people. The pressure to conform, for instance, reinforces “mental health” oppression and Gay oppression. There is no space here to discuss all our middle-class constituencies and their particular oppressions, but if we want to understand how we have been divided and what we need to do to come together to work for the liberation of us all, we need to become experts on what goes on for all groups within the middle class.


Middle-class people have used various strategies to cope with our oppression and internalised oppression. Their ultimate effectiveness depends on whether they include an awareness of class oppression and an orientation to change the world.


Middle-class people are frequently encouraged to address inequality through charity. Charity work can be a first step toward learning about the realities of injustice and the need for systemic change. But charity is limited, because despite its workers’ strong commitment, it generally operates out of the incorrect perspective that inequality is inevitable or deserved. It can also imply that the givers are in some way superior to the recipients, or that they should try to be more like us. Understandably, recipients don’t like patronising “do-gooders.” Charity aims to alleviate problems without challenging the system that causes them, so that individuals feel better about those “less well off,” while society is absolved from making the necessary radical changes.

A middle-class distress recording says that all we have to give of any value are the resources we control: money, information, our institutional connections, and our abilities, rather than ourselves. To share resources in a context of building real relationships with those we work with is a step towards contradicting the inequality built into the idea of charity.

Personal Growth

We may pursue “personal development,” where we settle for feeling good about ourselves and fail to see the need for, or possibility of, changing the oppressive system. We involve ourselves in movements or practices that often improve personal well-being, but lack any broad perspective on oppression.

Opting Out

 Feelings around being middle-class can lead us to “opt out” of mainstream organisations and institutions in favor of an alternative lifestyle. Some of us try to live free of commitments or concern with “typical” middle-class preoccupations. Such individualistic solutions may protect us from the irrationality we have noticed, but they leave the internalised oppression and the basic system unchallenged. Whether such choices are useful or counterproductive depends largely on whether they are based on painful emotion. Guilt, or hating being middle-class, are examples of motivations that are not useful.

In opting out, we may try to figure out how it would look if we got it “right.” How much money is it okay to earn? What possessions is it okay to own? What should our lifestyle look like?We focus on finding the right “formula.” In doing this, it is clear that we are still preoccupied with appearances.

In some cases alternative lifestyles are part of broader movements for social change, such as the environmental movement. We discuss middle-class movements below as part of the challenges involved in middle-class liberation.


Increasingly, capitalist society is becoming unworkable. Inequality is on the increase globally, as are social disintegration and environmental destruction. Without any effort on our part, the present economic system will collapse of its own accord. Our challenge is to play a decisive role in dealing with the destructive effects of these processes. Ultimately, our liberation involves building a society that is organised around meeting rational human needs without the exploitation of one group for the benefit of another.

More immediately, it means freeing ourselves from internalised oppression so that we can act with greater power to help put an end to class oppression.

The reality is that we have no real security within the class system. We are as vulnerable as anyone else. Middle-class jobs are eliminated whenever it is possible to do so, and this happens increasingly. It is in our own interests to eliminate the system which currently enslaves us through its bribes and threats. We need to commit ourselves to eliminating classism for our own sake as well as for the sake of others. This means giving up identifying our interests with those of the capitalist system and giving up our conditioned preoccupation with financial security and comfort.

If we pursue middle-class liberation out of obligation or guilt, it can become hard work. In some of the early work in this area, people tried to operate on top of feelings (rarely contradicted) of disliking themselves and other middle-class people. It is a tribute to the early leaders that they persisted, and hardly surprising that some people felt isolated or dropped out.

In working for liberation, it is important to begin with a focus onwhere we are rather than where we feel we should be. This means being honest and realistic about the reality of our lives and our distress. Particular challenges stand out in doing this work.

1. Claiming Our Goodness

Reconnecting to our inherent humanness is basic to middle-class liberation. This means taking pride as middle-class people and modelling being pleased with ourselves just as we are (i.e., completely good, completely innocent, completely worthwhile, and completely powerful; intelligent, spontaneous, fun-loving, loveable, courageous, and exciting). No negative characteristic ever associated with middle-class people has anything to do with our inherent nature—all are effects of oppression. We ourselves are fine.

Reconnecting with our inherent goodness and that of all middle-class people is vital to our re-emergence. It means noticing where we have hung on to pieces of our humanness. It means realising that there is nothing we have to do to justify our existence. There is no way we have to be in order to feel worthwhile. We do not have to be in any better shape than we are in order to feel good about ourselves. There is no distress we should not have in order to be able to like ourselves. With a clear sense of our goodness and that of other middle-class people, we can better deal with the ways class oppression has interfered with us.

Left undischarged, doubts about our goodness lead us to try to compensate by charity work and so on. The real solution is to reclaim our goodness and have people in our lives on the basis of our inherent connection. As we do this, we also get to reclaim our passion. Recovered childhood passions (trampled upon in the process of getting us to behave “properly”) will be a strong basis for liberation work.

2. Showing Ourselves

Another important part of the liberation process is learning how to show ourselves—our humanity, our struggles, and our vulnerability. We are often so busy trying to behave appropriately that we do not even notice how we feel. If we are not in touch with what we feel, we cannot discharge it. If we do not show ourselves to others, we cannot really get close.

Behind our pretence and outward appearance of feeling fine, childhood experiences have left many of us feeling flawed and wounded beyond repair. We struggle, but we keep it hidden. Learning to show and discharge our struggles means letting others see how awkward, embarrassed, scared, unsure, confused, and isolated we really feel—without doing anything to reassure them. Instead of covering up feelings, we notice that we are not alone and discharge how bad we feel. This way, others get to see our humanity, vulnerability, and goodness.

3. Claiming Our Identity

Another important part of the liberation process is claiming our identity as middle-class people. (When people with a current middle-class job or life-style identify solely as working-class, their middle-class internalised oppression remains intact. This is not useful for them personally and for class liberation work generally.) As with all socially imposed identities, it may be helpful to see this as a three-step process:

Claiming the middle-class identity. We acknowledge our middle-class background and/or current lifestyle. For example, we talk about what has been great about being middle-class, about our roles as middle-class people, about how we were raised and about our jobs, and about what we love about ourselves and other middle-class people.

Cleaning up the middle-class identity. We talk about what has been hard about being middle-class, looking at how we have colluded with the oppression and acted it out, discharging the confusion, isolation, and hurt attached to being middle-class. In particular, the level of pretence we have internalised makes it important to look at how strongly we were oppressed in our early lives and how much grief, rage, disappointment, and contempt we had to suppress in order to survive.

Throwing out the middle-class identity. We give up defining ourselves as middle-class and reclaim our connection to the working class and to our common humanity. (We may still accept the description “middle-class” used about us by others.) We never lose anything inherently human as we give up an identity. As we discharge the distress attached to it, the identity loses any significance as a core aspect of who we are. This becomes possible when we do the work of cleaning up the identity.

4. Building Close Relationships with Working-Class People

As we reclaim this connection to ourselves, we get to notice how our lives have been degraded by our having been separated from the people around us, especially from working-class people. Our liberation is going to involve discharging whatever gets in our way of building close relationships with working-class people and taking steps to end our isolation from them.

Because we are often not directly or materially affected by the struggles we engage in, we can give up without penalty if we get discouraged. This same pattern may make us feel a pull to leave relationships that feel tough or overwhelming. We need to fight to stay in relationships with working-class people, let things get messy, and figure things out. To work through the difficulties, we must become aware of, discharge, and eliminate the ways in which classism interferes with our ability to build close, peer relationships with working-class people.

5. Supporting Working-Class Leadership

In addition to our building close relationships, this work will involve supporting working-class leadership, in and out of RC. This will often mean stepping aside from formal positions of leadership in order to allow working-class leadership to develop. While individual middle-class people may sometimes reach great clarity in relation to class oppression, as a group, we often struggle with areas of confusion and timidity that can interfere with our leadership. To develop our clarity and our determination, we are going to need close contact with working-class people and a willingness to be led by them in the struggle for liberation.

We can be powerful allies for working-class people, holding out a picture of their intelligence and strength and assisting them to access resources denied them. We can use our own leadership skills to assist working-class people to become visible leaders—of us as well as of working-class people—sharing their thinking, speaking up, and taking charge of their lives and organisations.

We have tended to think in terms of reclaiming our connection to working-class people one-to-one. We also face a challenge to organise middle-class people, as a group, to get behind and support working-class people. This has huge implications for the future of this work.

6. Going After Relationships with Other Middle-Class People

“Middle-class people will be welcomed as members of a division of the working class, but are expected to build, organise, and clarify the ideology of their own movement, and to join the rest of the working classes in their own strength and clarity, rather than simply try to identify with blue-collar, manual labor, or other working people.”—Harvey Jackins

It sometimes happens that we want to re-emerge without tackling our isolation from other middle-class people and without taking charge of the re-emergence of our own people. It can feel more interesting and rewarding to build connections with working-class people. However, we cannot step completely outside of our internalised oppression unless we are committed to going after other middle-class people also. This includes the middle-class people whom we can’t stand or the ones who are “very middle-class” or stuck in pretence. In many cases, these are simply the people on whom the oppression came down hardest. Giving up on other middle-class people will leave us stuck in a large piece of our oppression. Building close bonds and friendships with our own people and taking on leadership of middle-class liberation inside RC, and in progressive middle-class organisations outside, will challenge all of our internalised feelings and help our relationship with working-class people.

Pursuing middle-class liberation because it makes sense for us (not just for some theoretical ideal or for some other group) means pursuing liberation for our whole group.

7. Being Honest About Class and Classism

Because of our respect for RC theory generally, we sometimes repeat the jargon of class theory without any deep or clear understanding. We pretend to understand and be committed to the elimination of class oppression without any real sense of how this is a central part of our own liberation and of how it might affect our own lives.

We need to reclaim our knowledge of how classism works—and we do know. We need to tell our stories of growing up middle-class, and our earliest memories of noticing economic or class differences. We need to remember how we got separated. We need to report the messages we got about the people around us. We need to discharge about where we have been hurt by classism and about how we actually feel about a classless society.

Showing that we don’t know can feel humiliating (since many of us were only praised when we knew things). Our challenge is to be honest, primarily with ourselves, even when we are not sure or do not understand. (It is fine to admit how little we understand class oppression. Our difficulty is simply another piece of distress that can be discharged.)

It can be hard to feel wholehearted about eliminating class oppression, because we stand to lose benefits, especially those of us with greater investment in the system. Here, too, we need to be honest. If we don’t understand theory or don’t feel committed to liberation, honesty will allow us to discharge the feelings of confusion and fear that are getting in our way.

8. Being Rational About Money and Wealth

Acting rationally about money means giving up organising our lives around comfort and security and instead organising them around having a big life. This means breaking our ties to accumulation or materialism and giving up our addiction to comfort and security. It means transforming our personal relationships with the class system.

A starting point can be deciding to settle for “enough.” We need to figure out how much is enough. How much money, how much work, how much consumption,how much time for ourselves and our families? How much would be enough if resources were shared within a community? We need to figure out how much is “enough” in our local context and how much is “enough” in a global context.

Which of our advantages exist only because other people are deprived of the fruits of their labour and because the environment is exploited in ways that are not sustainable? Which are natural human rights that everyone ought to, and really could, have access to? Which of our comforts and opportunities are really substitutes for community-based and land-based resources that have been dismantled and taken away from us by industrial society? Those of us in the “first world” need to listen to people in other parts of the world in order to get a clear picture about money, wealth, and the undesirability (from their point of view) of some of the “essentials” we cherish. Our idea of “enough” is badly skewed by the consumption requirements of capitalism. Getting clarity about all of this requires discharge.

9. Becoming Visible Liberationists in the World

For our own sakes and for the sake of the liberation of others, middle-class people have to stand up for a more human society. We need to become visible as middle-class leaders and leaders of middle-class liberation. As we do this work, we will confront pulls to be invisible, to retreat behind conventions, and to placate the powerful. To remain visible as ourselves will feel scary at times, because all our conditioning told us to be quiet and low-key. Committing ourselves to becoming visible will contradict the timidity, the fear, the sense of insignificance, and the powerlessness we feel a lot of the time.

In doing this, we have to risk getting it wrong and making mistakes. We have to risk feeling humiliated, that feeling that we try to avoid at all costs. We have to risk speaking out even when we can’t say why we think something is wrong.

It is possible to act against capitalism from any position in society, but some positions are more “strategic” than others. In middle-class support groups, we need to think about how the system works, our niche in it, the extent of our power, and our possible role in bringing about social transformation. If we decide our current social position does not offer as much scope as we would like, we may decide to change it.

Taking leadership includes becoming active in various sorts of organisations. Alternative movements, such as environmentalism and the peace movement, have often not understood class oppression, but they have been aware of other oppressions and threats to humanity. Our challenge is to broaden their policies and programmes to reflect greater awareness of how oppression operates. Given the large part played by middle-class people in these movements, it is important to notice how our conditioning affects our roles and relationships, and to discharge feelings around our middle-class identity as we do this work.

Some of us choose to work for change from within mainstream middle-class organisations and institutions, attempting to reach and influence people where they are—such as in workplace trade unions, residents’ associations, and political parties and pressure groups. The difficulty here is that most such organisations assume that capitalism can be gradually reformed without challenging its core values or structures. To end class oppression we must discard this middle-class notion that “reform” of the class system is possible. In this context, the concept of non-reformist reforms is useful: that is, reforms that bring about change while at the same time increasing awareness, growing organisation, developing leadership, and raising expectations about a rational society.

Those working for social change have long been distracted and divided by arguments about whether it is more correct and productive to work within existing institutions or to create alternatives. Both are necessary. We need to work within existing institutions to transform them, and to build institutions that are fully inclusive, welcoming everyone’s participation. People taking each approach are natural allies.

Wherever we work for social change, taking leadership as middle-class liberationists means directing the energies and resources of middle-class organisations toward more rational goals. It also means acting to eliminate the other oppressions that divide middle-class people. And it means taking our place with people of other class groups and being proudly visible as middle-class people in common struggles.

10. Building Alliances with Owning-Class People

In our desire to build close relationships with working-class people, we can sometimes neglect to think about our relationships with owning-class people. This alliance is important to ending the internalised oppression of both groups, since it involves owning up to and discharging deep feelings that we have about each other, including dislike, discomfort, and inferiority and superiority. As we step out of the internalised oppression, we will find it easier to think about the places where owning-class people are getting stuck and to offer them decisive counselling. They, in turn, will play an important role as allies for us.

11. Eliminating Racism

Eliminating racism is crucial to middle-class liberation.

We middle-class people of colour are central to middle-class liberation generally. An important goal is to have middle-class people of colour leading all middle-class people, not just our own group of middle-class people of colour. At the same time, we need encouragement to take a full part in the liberation of all people of colour. We need to reclaim our own people fully, and to notice that we completely belong to them.

We white middle-class people must build close relationships with people of colour, realising that they welcome us, and accepting that we will make mistakes along the way. We will not only contradict our racist oppressor patterns, but also help dismantle internalised middle-class oppression. It will be useful to admit where it gets hard and where we don’t know what to do, and to achieve much discharge on superiority patterns.

12. Eliminating Anti-Jewish Oppression (Anti-Semitism)

The presence of a scapegoat acts as a safety valve essential for the maintenance of class oppression. Eliminating Jewish oppression means removing Jewish people from that historical role. Racism must also be eliminated so that one oppressed group is not substituted for another in that role.

To take on eliminating Jewish oppression, we middle-class Gentiles must confront wanting to pull back, as well as the feeling that certain struggles are too hard to figure out. Close relationships between Jews and Gentiles and visible commitments to eliminating anti-Jewish oppression are excellent challenges to middle-class isolation and timidity. They help us face and discharge our own pull to assimilate and have others assimilate.

Middle-class Jews need to discharge the internalised oppression installed over generations that makes us believe that anti-Semitism is inevitable, or that scapegoating is “normal.” We need to know we are central to middle-class liberation, and that our real security is based in our relationships—not our possessions.

13. Taking on Young People’s Liberation

The challenge for middle-class young people is to reject small, narrow lives and rigid restrictions on who we can be close to. We need to take our time to experiment and make thoughtful decisions. We need to hang on to our integrity, spontaneity, ideals, interests, and enjoyment of life.

Adult allies need to like and believe in young people. Our own efforts to carve out a satisfying, joyful, and principled life in pursuit of a big vision can be an important model.

14. Taking on Women’s and Men’s Liberation

Many middle-class women and men have been able to recognise that both sexism and the oppression of men are against everyone’s human interests. For effective liberation work we need to recognise how women’s oppression, men’s oppression, and middle-class oppression are entwined and mutually reinforcing and how middle-class oppression and internalised oppression can limit the scope and effectiveness of both women’s and men’s liberation.

15. Ending Other Oppressions

Within each country the class system takes a slightly different form, and there will be a particular form of middle-class internalised oppression to discharge. There is specific work to be done in relation to each of the oppressions that intersect with middle-class oppression. As mothers, fathers, women and men, as younger or older people, and as people in particular jobs or doing necessary unpaid work, the oppression affects us in specific ways that we need to identify and unravel. There is also an issue for all marginalised groups—such as disabled people, Gay men , Lesbians, and Bisexuals, “mental health” system survivors, and homeless people. They are targeted by the oppressive requirement to conform and obey, or to keep quiet and out of the way, which is used to exclude anyone who “looks wrong.” Genuine social inclusion is a rational goal that goes against this distress and undermines the class system itself.


What we have described here is the emerging theory of middle-class oppression and liberation. There are still many gaps and areas that will become clearer as we counsel and take initiatives to change the world around us. We have made progress in clarifying this picture over the last twenty years. Given where we started and given how little awareness there is of any of this in society at large, what we have done in RC is exciting and encouraging. We can continue to figure this out. We can make a profound difference in the world. Knowing how much we have done and how much more we can do, let us take up these challenges and make this work a focus of our re-emergence and liberation.

Last modified: 2023-04-15 09:24:12+00