The phantom of the middle class

middle class

Recently, in the House of Commons, “middle class” has become the favorite buzz word, omnipresent in every debate related near or far to the current state of the Canadian economy. “The middle class is hurting” is an almost daily remark uttered from the Liberal corner of the house as is the question “What is this government doing for the middle class?” Every dip or bounce in the GDP or in economic indicators resuscitates the urge of many parliamentarians to take care of this vital and yet fragile section of Canadian society.

But no one has ever cared to define what middle class means in this day and age. Before claiming to be the champion of the middle class, one has to first identify what the middle class truly is and if the notion of middle class is the same as when the concept was first coined.

The truth is that in many ways the middle class as a sociological entity was born in the post WWII period, built in many ways as a consequence of the Spirit of 45, which is brilliantly portrayed in Ken Loach’s documentary of the same name. This Spirit of 45 was the motor behind a blueprint to sap the economical and social foundations that had bred fascist and extreme right-wing ideologies in the first place.

spirit of 45
Scene from The Spirit of 45

Through communist, socialist, social-democratic forces during the first post-WWII decade, the foundations of the social state were laid: universal public health, universal access to post-secondary education, social insurance and more. This social welfare state is the engine that allowed the development of a new kind of social class which was universally described as the middle class.

This development of capitalism with a human face went hand in hand with the construction of a mass consumerist class and here is where the dichotomy begins. Even though the accession of the middle class was enabled by the construction of a social welfare state, the majority of individuals of the middle class never considered themselves as the product of the social welfare state, or a product at all, because of the lack of class conciseness within the so-called middle class, the middle class never truly existed.

To form a political or social class, one must first identify with the bonding aspects that supposedly connect individuals to one classification or another. So what are the unifying aspects of the middle class in economical, social or political terms? None, if there were some before, they hardly exist today.

Unlike the working class, which is historically united around organized labor movements or expresses its political force through labor parties or the farmers which organized farmer organizations, be they unions, coops or political parties (the NDP is the alliance between those two social groups and political forces), the middle class has never succeeded in organizing around a certain set of values and principles. So the subsequent question is: if the middle class is not a class by definition, what meaning should give to this notion of middle class?

silent majorityOne interesting historical aspect is that the development of the middle class as a notion that is intertwined with the neo-liberal revolution spearheaded by Thatcher and Reagan in the 1980s. At the time, the middle class was used as a synonym for the “silent majority”that was against taxes, against welfare fraud and thus against the social welfare state as a whole, against government in many ways and inherently individualistic, only preoccupied by economic matters. Here taxpayers and middle class are interchangeable. In the Canadian context, in many ways the consequent “common sense revolutions” of Mike Harris in Ontario and of the Reform Party on the federal level used the same rhetoric and couched their legitimacy on the shoulders of an invisible middle class.

Today, global austerity, the tyranny of balanced budgets and growth as an end in and of itself use the same logic and are supposedly championed by the middle class. To be the “champion of the middle class” is to not challenge the reckless economic ideology that is at the root of the global recession despite the hardship of hundreds of thousands of Canadians, the true non-silent majority.

The middle class as a notion is the worst enemy of everyone who in purely economic terms is middle class, in between the affluent sections of society and the disenfranchised.

The motion that we are seeing today is the motion of disenfranchisement of the middle-class as a direct reaction to the advent of modern capitalism. Through austerity policies and the dictatorship of profit and the markets, the social welfare net which had been the motor of the ascension of the middle state is under assault.

There is a complete disconnect between the economical reality of most middle class families today in Canada and the reality portrayed by politicians in the House of Commons. In that sense, the middle class is a complete abstraction, with no ties to reality.

The middle class is anything and everything you want it to be, you can make it say what you want, however you want and when you want it and because it’s unrepresented, without a physical link to everyday reality, it will never contradict you. The Liberal and the Conservative parties fight in a meaningless debate to represent the silent majority of Canadians, the hurting middle class that needs jobs and economic growth, while on the other hand is okay with slashing corporate taxes and hand-outs for multinationals. Really, the middle class is Disneyland for political demagogy, it’s the link that reconciles the irreconcilable.

living wage

The truth of the matter is that today a clear majority of Canadian households barely survive from paycheque to paycheque. In this reality where a living wage is an unforeseeable utopia, a majority of Canadians are indebted to their necks and most of my generation will start their professional careers with an already unhealthy amount of debt and in precarious jobs positions.

This is the reality of the majority of Canadians and these elements constitute the new social class of the 21st century: the precariat.

The middle class of yesterday is the precarious unemployed youth of today, the minimum wage slaves, the young families struggling to provide a standard of living for their children. These are the tens of millions of Canadians that have fear for their future and their financial stability.

The notion of middle class cherished by many politicians is but an abstraction, it superimposes itself upon this dreaded reality with the objective to make it disappear. Forget your real situation, because as long as you considered yourself middle class, trust us and there will be a better tomorrow for you and me.

Little do they know that the prosperity and the growth they talk of created the dismay of the middle class as a tangible reality, as something to look forward to.

Now we are all precarious.

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