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Nature and Role of Middle Class Today | Anil Rajimwale

Saturday 22 June 2024, by Anil Rajimwale


(A summary of the talk given in the AIPF Study Circle, 16 June 16, 2024. With references from discussion.)

by Anil Rajimwale

The study of the middle class today has become far more complicated, because this class or stratum itself has become more complicated because of the vast changes in the last four decades or so. We need a deeper analysis of the problem.

A bit of history and background

The term ‘middle class’ has emerged in a certain historical context. Use of the word ‘class’ can be made for this stratum only with certain reservations. Class refers to certain relationship to the means of production, as for example in the context of the capitalist ‘class’ or the working ‘class’ etc. It would be preferable to use the term ‘stratum’ or ‘section’ instead of class in the present context.

Initially, the middle class emerged as a stratum during the age of the French revolution as a middle section between the powerful feudal classes and the mass of peasants. These strata emerged as belonging to the ‘burghs’ (urban centres) towards the end of the feudal ages. The burghs were the centres of trade and industry consequent upon the industrial revolution. Those belonging to the burghs were the ‘bourgeoisie’ (middle class). They were in between the feudal lords and the peasants as the rising class of industrial entrepreneurs and traders.

It was the bourgeoisie (middle class) who led the French revolution as also the rising industrial society in England. Bourgeoisie today is identifiable with the capitalist class.

Middle class in the capitalist society

With the domination of the capitalist class in the industrial societies of the Western countries, a new ‘middle class/stratum’ emerged, this time between the capitalist class and the working class. They were the petty bourgeoisie, the journeymen, roving artisans, later the mental workers in the offices, professionals like teachers and doctors etc, engineers, those working in the communications, and such others.

‘Petty bourgeoisie’ is a class which has contradictory and dialectically opposite features, occupying a place in between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. A petty bourgeois is both an owner as well a worker himself/herself. Therefore, behavior and attitude of this class is vacillating and constantly shifting. He/she might be the owner of a workshop/business/shop etc. He also is the worker in his own workshop, with a few workers. The petty bourgeois aspires to become a prosperous capitalist, and some of them do become so. But most of this class are thrown down among the working classes and the downtrodden due to the pressure of the laws of capitalist production and market.

Therefore a conclusion was drawn that under capitalism the middling petty bourgeoisie kept on disintegrating. This is a reality, no doubt.

But at the same time, there is the opposite tendency in operation. With the spread of capitalist mode and market, professionals of a wide variety emerged in a large number. Besides, with the spread of industrialization, ‘smaller levels’ of industries also spread. Today we call it the MSMEs. Therefore, the petty and small bourgeoisie instead of disappearing, appeared widely in new forms.

Marx has dealt with in detail with labor of the professionals in Capital Vol 1 in the context of distribution of the surplus value/profits.

The middle classes increased greatly between the two world wars, because of a number of reasons, which need a separate and detailed treatment.

Middle class after the WW II

A number of interesting developments took place after the Second World War (WW II), deeply affecting the nature and role of the middle sections and strata. World capitalism and imperialism went through both rapid development and severe crises periodically, simultaneously. Capitalism is very flexible system, which comes out of the crises with new features.

For example, the oil, energy and general crisis of the 1970s, in particularly the oil crisis of 1973, brought out drastic changes in the middle class. The oil crisis necessitated an economy of energy and petrol. Consequently, 4-stroke engines were invented, which saved lot of oil and petrol. It led to the invention new kinds of two-wheelers, which can be termed as a technological revolution helping emergence of new type of the middle strata with new individuality with new sociological, social and political questions.

Two-wheeled scooters, beginning in Italy, brought about a revolution in transport and roads, as also in the middle class. It now became much easier for the individuals to go about and travel to work and for tourism. He/she felt a new kind of freedom, real and unreal, both. It suited the middle class families which were growing smaller and moving towards the nuclear family. It was a ‘world in itself’!

Later on electricity and batteries were added, making the two-wheeler far more affordable.

A case in point is the production of small cars. The transition from big cars of the early 20th century to smaller and mini-cars of today brought about big sociological changes. Maruti revolutionized the affordability and roads in India. It forced the construction of smoother roads in its wake. At least in India, it is Maruti cars, which have brought about automobile and road revolution. Today cars are so widespread, smaller and so much of secondary or second hand market has emerged (‘Cars 24’ etc!) that the roads are clogged with them. The middle strata/sections play a dominant role here. [1]

The post-WW II era is dominated by the emergence of new middle sections of varying nature and variety.

Discussion on post-industrial society

Radovan Richta and Daniel Bell identified certain trends in social development which became famous as the ‘post-industrial society’. Bell in his book of this name pointed out that the society in the West was shifting from production to services. Though production increased as never before, greater proportion of workers and employees are engaged in services than production. This shift in the social spectrum was to become the hallmark of the subsequent trends in world society and it continues to gather speed.

Due the high productivity accelerating still further, the importance of distribution, market, office work and service industry/sector is far greater today. It is in this background that the nature and role of the new middle class assumes greater importance. Alvin Toffler has pointed several new features of this historic shift.

The new developments have their own contradictions in the conflicts of the role of the middle classes with changes in the role of the working classes.

The service sector has produced new sections, who are engaged in working out distribution mechanism within the new market. The surplus value produced in production takes the form of prices and profits in market. It is the service sector which basically ‘services’ the profits to the various sections, layers and classes of the society.

Service sector is spreading faster due to the scientific and technological revolution (STR) and information revolution (IR). Middle class or strata are crucial to this sector.

STR and IR

The last four decades or so have seen the rise and unprecedented spread of the scientific and technological revolution (STR) and its evolution into the information revolution. Information has today become the decisive factor of production and communication. It entered production to help speed it up, but has today become the primary force of production and social development.

Spread of information and its tech have caused major changes in the socioeconomic structures. Mobile has become a major means of information and even production in the last two decades, causing developments towards the middle strata of society. Technologies are causing the tools and means to be smaller and individual-oriented, increasing the role of the individual rather than of structured classes and strata. This has led to serious rethinking in the fields of sociology, economics, politics, and even philosophy.

Middle class is becoming the carrier of these changes. Even the working class is becoming like the middle classes due to computerization, electronics, nano scales, mobiles, and other tech developments. The nature of ‘work’ and ‘labor’ is becoming similar and more homogenous.

Science becoming productive force leads society to use symbols and signals as the productive and informative forces, in which labor by brain has become important as never before. [2]

Urbanization, democracy and middle class: case of Latin America

Latin America seems to be the place where the socio-political forces have been able to negotiate with the new realities of urbanization and increased role of the middles strata. It is true that Latin America is an anti-imperialist, anti-US continent, and as such it is more amenable and naturally oriented to democratic changes. Yet, certain new developments and changes need to be taken into account, including urbanization, parliamentary democracy as the vehicle of social change and the greater role of the middles sections in favour of social transformation. Left and democratic forces are coming to power constantly in the 21st century. [3]

It seems the Latin American democratic and left forces have better understood the nature of the urban modern (postmodern?) middle strata.

Hence, their successes. A new kind of social approach is being worked out for social change, using parliamentary institutions. And that is something unique. In a continent where the armies usually suppressed the left and progressive advances, it is unusual to find them respecting the democratic verdict. This is unprecedented. Combined with the urban middle classes/sections, a new stage has been reached where new institutions of transformation are being developed.

We need to go deeper into these developments.

Implications of changes in the rising new sections: the debates

Widespread debates are taking place on the implications of the new developments in the social strata and classes. ‘Proletariat’ was the traditional term for the working class. Today it has practically gone out of fashion. Some new terms are being used by certain scholars. Among the terms are: ‘cybertariat’ and ‘precariat’. The former represents the workers in the field of electronics etc. ‘Precariat’ deals with ‘precarious’ nature of work/labor. The proportion of casual and temporary work has increased as never before. Their position is ‘precarious’ and uncertain. New tech has rendered the mills and factories and tools smaller. The small-scale production and distribution has spread widely. Consequently the work/job has assumed a temporary and precarious nature.

There are widespread debates among both the Marxist and non-Marxist scholars about the nature of working class, of work and labor/labor process, surplus value, profit, etc. There are ‘autonomous Marxists’, ‘humanist Marxists’, those defending law of value and those opposing it, supporters and opponents of law of value, etc. New schools have appeared who have nothing to do with Marxism but whose contributions cannot be denied.

Andre Gorz, a prominent theoretician of the concept of production and working class, has written a book on the ‘Farewell to the working class’. He opines that the traditional working class has disappeared, a new one taking its place. Hardt and Negri are two of the academics who are dealing with the problem whether the law of value is applicable today. A section of the academics considers the producers of both tangible and intangible ‘goods’/’items’ pay ‘rent’ to the electronic platforms. That is how profits are being generated today.

It is obvious that one needs to go much deeper into the complicated, even mysterious questions generated by new levels of technology and their impact on production, market and society. It is obvious that we have entered into a qualitatively new stage of capitalism, which may be termed as ‘post-capitalism’, post-industrial society, combined with postmodernism, debatable of course. [4]

New individual/subject

The application of the new technologies has given rise to novel philosophical problems, needing deeper analyses. According Mark Poster and Baudrillard, the new tech constitutes a new subject in the course of communication and electronically transmitted language. New language structures are coming into being.

What we are dealing with is an electronically constituted ‘subject’. We deal with the world of images and signals. Consequently, an electronic ‘image subject’ is created temporarily, and then it disappears with discontinuation of the communication. It is a world of conflict, contradictions and dialectics of the tangible and intangible objects. The latter is growing and spreading; there is a virtual world growing alongside and in combination with the real world. Both affect our consciousness in an effective manner.

Scientific academics have a huge task before them of interpreting the new world.

[1Prof Anil Sawant pointed out during the discussions that the big Ford car in the early 20th century was the norm. The automobile evolved to the mini Nano cars in the 21st century, although Tata’s venture failed. Yet smaller cars gave a sense of ‘freedom’ and independence, a kind of liberation. Emotional attachment with the car is very important today. But if the price of petrol and diesel increases (in India people ask: how many kms per litre?!) then the dreams of small cars are shattered.

[2Gaurav Verma opined that the middle class today behaves in a peculiar manner. It does not react to the rise in prices, for example, of the petrol etc. It is often a victim of rightwing ideas. Its members behave differently on the electronic platforms: very active there, but will not come out on the roads. They act very fast on the Internet. They have a complicated and dual nature. Only the farmers have come out in agitations on the road.

[3Krishna Jha pointed out that the role of the middle class in Latin America may be alright, but there the main inspiration is the anti-imperialist, anti-US nature of the movement, including the middle class. It has a dual nature. In India it has played a positive role, and leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak emerged out of it. The lower sections of the middle and the working class people played a crucial role in India’s freedom movement. They were uprooted from the calm surroundings of the villages and forces into factory work in the industrial cities like Bombay. They were confine to one room tenements (‘chawls’) where one could only meet depression. Tilak raised their mood by organizing them He fought against longer hours of work consequent upon introduction of electric bulbs, which at first brought sense of relief and happiness, but then the work hours were prolonged. Long strikes such as the one of 1928 (6 month long) brought new awareness, also through political classes every day of the strike.

[4Amit Kumar pointed out that it is a matter of debate and discussions whether the working class or the middle class will lead the social movements and transformations. A reconsideration of problems related with surplus value, class, production etc is needed.

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