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Middle-Class People and Ending Classism (draft 10.8.21)

In a class system, the bulk of the wealth that the system produces goes to a small group who own and control the entities that people work for. This group is the owning class. The class system has two ways of ensuring that working people agree to this specific way of distributing wealth. The first is to keep the working class divided by installing many kinds of oppressions, such as racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism.

The second is to take a section of the working class and get us to see ourselves as different, as not having the same interests as the rest of the working class. This group is the middle class. We are a section of the working class that has been artificially separated from other working-class people. In return for rewards and privileges unavailable to other workers, and under the influence of considerable pressure and much misinformation, we agree to help support and maintain the class system.

WHO WE ARE

We define the middle class as those people whose role it is to help the economic system work smoothly, efficiently, and profitably. Middle-class people do not work directly in the production of goods or “non-professional” services, but instead occupy various managerial, supervisory, administrative, and coordinating positions. We also work in a range of “professional” roles that serve to enhance the compliance, motivation, control, efficiency, and health of working people so as to facilitate their cooperation and productivity. Professional roles include work as educators, academics, journalists, lawyers, trainers, consultants, religious leaders, health workers, and psychologists, among others. These jobs have in common the basic role of making the economic system work smoothly and of keeping the workforce compliant, efficient, and productive. Many characteristics commonly associated with the middle class are not actually essential to being middle class, although income, or the way people speak or behave, among other characteristics, may sometimes offer clues that someone is middle class.

The middle class is highly diverse. We vary as to ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship, family background, and so on. Our additional identities lead to our having different experiences in the class system, and different feelings. For example, middle-class people of the global majority have experiences and feelings that middle-class white people do not have. The experiences and feelings of middle-class Jewish people differ from those of middle-class Gentiles. People who were brought up poor or working class and who are currently middle class have experiences and feelings that people brought up middle class have never had and may not understand.

Those of us who were raised middle class found that love and approval were often conditional on our being “good,” quiet, polite, conforming, and  untroublesome. We learned to monitor every situation to make sure we weren’t upsetting anyone or breaking any rules. Those of us who came into the middle class from a different background were encouraged and pressured to assimilate to these expectations and to cut ourselves off from our own people, experiences that left us with feelings of anger and grief.

It is clear when we examine this diversity that being middle class is not about having particular feelings or experiences. Nor is it about how we speak or how much we earn. These markers vary within, and between, middle-class groups. The key to what makes us middle class is the role we play in the class system.

OUR ROLE

Our role of helping manage and maintain the smooth and efficient operation of the class system can be broken down into sub-roles. Individual middle-class people may play one or a number of these sub-roles, as paid workers, as unpaid workers, or as consumers. (The pamphlet Ending Class Oppression: A Liberation Perspective for Middle-Class People more fully describes these roles, along with other aspects of how the class system works.) Here are eleven of these roles.

  1. To manage, coordinate, and make decisions about, the work of working people, for example as managers, supervisors, superiors, administrators.
  2. To suppress, minimise, or manage discontent and dissent, for example as human relations managers, social workers, religious leaders, lawyers, “mental health” professionals, politicians.
  3. To make money for the owning class by developing new or better products, processes, systems, rules, or controls, as scientists, engineers, accountants, lawyers, and so on.
  4. To be preoccupied with making money or climbing into the owning class, as self-employed people or small business owners.
  5. To produce and disseminate ideas that present the oppressive system as benign, fair, and natural, for example as writers, media commentators, economists, politicians, educators.
  6. To develop, nurture, educate, and maintain compliant and productive citizens, for example as parents, teachers, doctors, guidance counsellors, therapists, psychologists, trainers, caregivers.
  7. To distract people from the oppressiveness of the class system, as beauty and health professionals, media professionals, journalists, writers, artists, entertainers, and so on.
  8. 8. To be distracted and “harmless” as consumers by becoming preoccupied with the pursuit of comfort, security, cultural opportunities, optimum health and fitness, an enjoyable life, looking good, feeling good, and so on.
  9. To be a model for other groups to aspire to and to be the proof that capitalism works. The presence in the middle class of those of us who have come from the working class and those of us who are targeted by racism is used as evidence that capitalism works if people try hard enough.
  10. As young people, to study, work hard, and be well behaved, to restrict ourselves to “realistic” dreams, and to do sufficiently well academically that we obtain well-paid, high-status jobs with good career prospects.
  11. As women, to model that all women can “have it all” (be attractive, have successful families, have successful careers), so that a woman who fails to meet these standards is regarded as individually at fault.

In these roles in the class system, we act as agents of the owning class and thus the visible face of class oppression. In our roles, we internalise feelings of superiority, entitlement, disconnection, and separation, which we act out in relationships with working people. Our roles and our behavior can leave us open to criticism and attack (which can help discourage us from taking on the middle-class liberation work described below). We also internalise fears, confusion, timidity, and negative feelings about ourselves. We would love for someone to hand us a formula that tells us what we should do.

THREE IMPORTANT ASPECTS TO OUR WORK

We are oppressed as workers and at the same time play an oppressive role in relation to the rest of the working class. Our liberation involves changing the role we play in the class system and bringing an end to class oppression. The work has three aspects.

First is to work on our internalised oppression to overcome all the misinformation we received about ourselves and our people and to discharge the feelings that keep us from acting in proud, visible, and fearless ways. This work includes claiming our middle-class identity and being pleased with how well we have done in spite of our own hurtful class conditioning. Most of the work we have done so far has been in this area.

Second is to work on oppressor material in order to eliminate classism from our immediate relationships with working-class and raised-poor people. We need to become aware of classism in ourselves and our organisations and to take steps to get rid of it. We also have to work on racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, Gay oppression, and any other oppression that keeps us separated and divided from the rest of the working class and from each other. Increasingly, this second aspect has to become more central to our work.

Third is to decide to end the system of class oppression itself. Part of this work is to recognise that the capitalist system and the class system on which it is based are unworkable and unsustainable. It also includes working to bring about just, sustainable societies free of class oppression. We are still in the early stages of this third aspect of the work.

If we take on only the first two aspects of the work, we can fool ourselves into thinking we are also committing ourselves to ending class oppression. In fact, we can take on the first two and still leave the broad system of oppression unchallenged. The necessary third aspect is to work on ending class oppression itself.

THE CURRENT SITUATION

Because of both its own instability and its impact on our environment and climate, the current economic system is unsustainable in its present form and is becoming increasingly unworkable. It is incompatible with a habitable planet. Also unsustainable are the lifestyles of those of us in richer countries, with our heavy use of limited resources and our generation of large amounts of waste. The climate emergency and the disintegration of the economic system will most likely come to a head in the lifetimes of many of us alive today.

The ultimate breakdown of capitalism will not, in itself, mean the end of class oppression. Capitalism as we know it could be replaced by another system of class oppression. As the current system becomes more and more unworkable for larger and larger numbers of people, we, as middle-class people, can decide to work for its replacement by a system that is not based on the exploitation of any one group by another group. Ultimately, our liberation involves building a society organised around meeting rational human and environmental needs instead of around greed and the accumulation of ever greater profits.

For us to make a decision to end class oppression means our giving up organizing our lives around comfort, security, and a sense of entitlement. We can instead decide to prioritise our having a life organised around justice and liberation.

An important goal is to reclaim our ability to think about, and understand, the workings of capitalism and the class system. Such a project includes our discharging all our feelings connected to capitalism and its increasingly likely collapse. It also includes our informing ourselves about possible alternatives to capitalism, examples of many of which already exist within the current system.

To get to where we can play a decisive role in managing the collapse of capitalism and its replacement with a more rational system, we have to organise ourselves as a solid group committed to backing working-class and raised-poor leaders. If we are to resolve the challenges of climate change and environmental destruction, the leadership of Indigenous people, people of the global majority, women, young people, and young adults will also be crucial. We have to decide to make the development and backing of their leadership central to this work, both inside RC and in the wide world.

Large-scale change does not happen solely as the result of one person’s efforts. Leadership is a collaborative process, and the development of widespread leadership across many constituencies will enable us to have a decisive influence on the kind of society that emerges as capitalism collapses.

Seán Ruth
International Liberation Reference Person for Middle-Class People

 

 


Last modified: 2021-10-08 15:50:47+00