The Myth of the Middle Class: Redefining the Working Class for a New Age of Work

Jacobin’s recent excerpt of Hadas Thier’s book, A People’s Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics, opens with a concerning m-dash. 

“The working class — black, white, native-born, and immigrant — across a diverse set of experiences and facing myriad oppressions, collectively make up a class of people who are exploited to create profits for the few.”

This definition blows. The “working class” is inherently multiracial, and it’s ridiculous that Thier should need an aside to clarify this definition. It also makes complete sense.

Trump has brought “white working class” voters to the forefront of America’s political consciousness, racializing the term “working class” so much that Thier cannot use it without pausing to clarify its racial makeup. This is a shame, because, as the clickbait-y title of this excerpt explains: “The Working Class is the Majority of Society.” Thier cites that 63% of Americans are now working class (though he guesses this is a conservative stat)–and this 63% only refers to the measurably employed, not the huge swaths of people who cannot work, people who cannot work legally, and people who labor unpaid. Thier quotes journalist Kim Moody, who estimates that the working class in its entirety makes up three-quarters of the population: an overwhelming majority.

I start with the working class because I believe it is the dangerous, active terminology lurking underneath “the middle class,” a phrase politicians employ to keep workers from realizing collective action. While the middle class technically designates a portion of people who sit between the rich and the poor, it’s anyone’s guess as to where we draw these lines. As “middle” implies statistical and, consequently, cultural normalcy, the stakes are high when we ask–who, or what, exactly, is the American middle class?


A Quick Jaunt Through Wikipedia

Engels traces the middle class back to mercantilists who arose in feudalist society, or, the urbanite merchants who landed somewhere in between nobility and peasantry. As capitalist society developed, the middle class became synonymous with the “petite bourgeoisie,” or, the class of people who make a living off managing (re: exploiting) proletariat labor, while simultaneously experiencing some degree of exploitation at the hands of the big boy bourgeoisie. 

In essence, the middle class describes people who fall in between the proles and the bourgeoisie, a definition one might reasonably respond to with: Duh

If we want to get a little more specific, the middle class describes salaried middle-management workers: lawyers, doctors, academics, small to medium-sized business owners, etc. They don’t necessarily own the institution they work for, but they play an integral role in running the company by managing less powerful employees. Lewis Corey defined the middle class as salaried managers, importantly different from “the masses of propertyless, dependent salaried employees.” Corey continues to posit that, in economic terms, anyone with a salary might be sensibly lumped into the new middle class–though this new middle class, in Corey’s eyes, might also be described as a new proletariat, as these salaried workers are still at the mercy of the bourgeoisie, they just get vacation and health benefits. 

I repeat this history to emphasize its murky nature: the middle class describes people in between the rich and the poor, a vague identity which increasingly became the target audience of Presidential hopefuls around the turn of the 21st century. If you track the statistical frequency of the term “middle class” through Presidential candidates’ speeches, we get an enormous uptick in the 2000s, particularly from the king of middle class politics, Barack Obama. 


We Are The 96%

Obama’s first move in office was forming the Middle Class Task Force, headed by Joe Biden, with the goal of “getting the backbone of this country up and running again.” For Obama, strengthening the middle class was not a matter of “class warfare,” but one of national welfare. What’s good for the middle class is good for America, etc., etc. I had the political consciousness of a goldfish during his campaign years, but even I could have told you that Obama had a throbbing boner for the middle class. The phrase littered his speeches like his whistling s’s, was so inextricable from his vocal pattern that an impressionist might skip the bit entirely so as not to be too obvious.

The middle class was a safe audience for Obama, especially given his definition: anyone who made less than $250k a year, or, 96% of America. Mitt Romney also ran a campaign championing the middle class, and it did not feel contradictory, so broad were both candidates’ definitions. They were both running for the everyman, who was really any man, so long as he didn’t own a private jet.

Bernie, too, played up the middle class angle, stating at a rally in Dearborn, Michigan that his campaign was “about the survival of the middle class,” which is not even an anti-socialist sentiment when “middle class” refers to 96% of the population. 

Obviously, this math does not square. Wealth in America is not distributed such that 96% of people are middle class. Statistically speaking, the middle class represents a rough third of Americans, and even this third does not fall within the belly of the bell curve, but rests above the 63% of working class people, and below the 2% of the filthy rich. It is in no way the statistical norm.

Yet few people use the term “middle class” to designate this above-average income bracket; they use it to designate an aspirational identity voters are encouraged to claim at the expense of their working class interests, which are different from the interests of six-figure managers who the term “middle class” lumps together. Middle class interests are preservative: reproducing normalcy, the exploitative status quo, if one that allows slightly more Americans to score salaried office jobs. (And even then, where does America find the wealth to bolster this middle class? Hint: imperialist expansion, or, sending under and unpaid labor to “third-world” countries. Money does not grow on trees; it redistributes with blood.)

Scholars Michael Zweig and Jack Metzger challenge the notion that most Americans identify as middle class, an idea that multiple presidents have ridden to the Oval Office. While an overwhelming majority of people check “middle class” on self-identification surveys, this number drops to less than half when “working class” is also presented as an option. 

All of these stats are cribbed from The Sinking Middle Class: A Political History, by David R. Roediger, which points out another key feature of middle class self-identification.

“Many factors conspire to lead US citizens to think ‘white middle class’ when they hear the words ‘middle class.’ Patterns of who has historically done hard manual labor and of relative access to education have left whites overrepresented in professional, white collar, and managerial labor. Loose talk of saving the middle class obscures this past and present.”

Middle class talk is loose talk. It’s also white talk. The middle class’s historical ties to whiteness have produced another concerning classification: the white working class. 


The White Working Class

I don’t remember who explained this to me, but I remember the explanation. The person despised the phrase, “white trash:” why specify that the trash person in question is white unless there is something inherently trash about nonwhite people? “White trash” is a racist distinction.

So is “white working class.” 

We live in a capitalist society, a hilarious and deadening statement to write, it is so obvious and vague. What I mean by it is also obvious and vague: that a small number of people exploit the work of the majority. “Working class,” then, is a much more accurate descriptor for Obama’s 96% of “middle class” Americans; it is expansive, inclusive, and necessarily multiracial. 

The term “white working class” functions to divide white workers from nonwhite workers by assuming that “working class” is the exclusive purview of nonwhite laborers and white people who have unluckily landed in this lot must be differentiated as such. This classification also implies that white working class interests are different from nonwhite working class interests, which is only true if the white working class seeks to uphold the benefits of white supremacy. White working class people who affiliate politically with the white working class are KKK Proud Baby Boys, 10 out of 10 times. 

This is the base Trump activates really successfully: white supremacists sickly cloaked in the language of identity politics. Liberals supposedly dedicated to racial justice continue to reify the “white working class” with this moniker rather than specify that these people are white supremacists, a dangerous distinction to miss. Because white working class people who are not white supremacists face a network of interwoven problems, systemic and specific alike, none of which are addressed usefully by distinguishing their working class-ness with whiteness.

“Working class” is a more useful term for white members of the working class, precisely because it aligns workers across racial divisions, a nonnegotiable alliance for any popular scale anti-capitalist movement. Politicians cling to the phrase “middle class” for dear life so as to get the “working class” identifier off the table, out of mind. Labor is such a powerful, exploitative framework so worthy of collective upending that working class coalition scares the living shit out of people in power. 

This is how we know where to start.


Worker Solidarity Beyond the Office

Working class coalition is the beginning of the end for capitalism. The bourgeoisie know this, and have been moving tirelessly to prevent worker mobilization. One of the most radical parts of Bernie’s platform was his Workplace Democracy Plan, which would have given workers more leeway to strike, bargain, and unionize. The most radical candidate, and all he would have granted the proletariat was a sliver of leverage to fight back. This would have been meaningful, but, also meaningfully, the plan and its “radical” designation by fellow liberals describes a seemingly immovable power imbalance between workers and owners in present America.

Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Plan is also meaningful in describing the failure of existing political strategies for organizing workers: namely, unions. Unions are ace in theory, but are beholden to the realities of capitalism, so often compromise their goals for crumbs of representation or follow leaders who are more interested in building NGO-worthy resumes than actualizing worker power. Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Plan depended on scoring support from union leaders, or, playing the game to get a shot at changing it–which, you’ve got to do to some extent–but is a total bummer in the context of a socialist uprising. 

The greater issue with centering unions in a contemporary working class movement is that fewer and fewer workers belong to unions. The option of unionizing is not available to the growing precariat, an intentional feature of the gig economy.

The 2008 recession left a cohort of shiny startups in its wake: Uber, AirBnb, Instagram, Postmates. LinkedIn users have spun this recent history to project a silver lining onto COVID; Out of great struggle comes great innovation, or something. But the innovation of all these sans serif startups birthed in the Great Recession’s subprime placenta was the same: invite “independent contractors” to share their goods with others and make off with the lion’s share of the profit. This is the “share economy” in a nutshell. It is also the corporate logic that founded the precariat, a new class of workers with even less power than their blue-collar forefathers. The precariat is so disempowered that they do not even get the dignity of employment. To this day, Uber does not identify as an employer. 2.6 million drivers work for Uber.

Guy Standing is the real name of an economist and the author of A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, in which he estimates the precariat to already constitute 40-45% of most countries’ labor force, only twelve years after its 2008 explosion. Precariat labor is soul-sucking in a way that would even make Marx cringe: it’s unstable, underpaid, and exacerbates existing inequalities with no HR department to offer the pretense of mediation. It also isolates workers from each other by doing away with any sort of common workplace, any chance for coworker friendship that might lead to collective action.

While the express point of these startups’ shitty, evasive language is profit–i.e., reclassifying employees to legally deny them expensive benefits and salaries–this shifty vocabulary has larger ramifications for workers’ organizing power. At the most basic level, refusing workers the “employee” title makes it more difficult for employees to rally around a collective identity. (Am I technically “employed” if I’m a “driver-partner?” If I’ve never met a coworker? If my boss is an app? It’s not that people are incapable of making this jump–but it’s a developing roadblock en route to worker solidarity.)

As the precariat grows, more workers are robbed of shared space and identity with fellow workers, more workers clock longer hours for less pay and have less free time and energy to mobilize. It becomes brighty clear that organizing via unions, at least as unions currently exist, is not going to cut it. We’re going to need a bigger boat. 


The Bigger Boat

The precariat needs big moves to get the boot off its neck, stuff that is “radical” by conservative US standards, like a universal basic income or single-payer healthcare (how leftistl! How uncouth! Someone call Nancy!). And none of that can happen unless we do away with this myth of an all-encompassing “middle class” and embrace that the large majority of us are working class. We are exploited by the rich for profit–in importantly different ways, but for an importantly similar end: Jeff Bezos’s nest egg.

The working class should not need a parenthetical to clarify its scope. Dividing working class interests by race and gender is a tactic of the elite to weaken our collective potential. People marked worthless by relations of production have the exact same interests as people marked worthless by relations of social reproduction; it is the same system that marks us; to fail by one measure is to fail them all. We cannot let the name “working class” die to a rise ‘n grind culture that views poverty as personal failure, nor can we let Trump reinvent the working class as a white supremacist group.

I’m not saying we all need to be proud to work; that’s much easier for privileged people to realize, and I do not think there is necessarily dignity or pride in labor. But I think there can be both dignity and pride in worker solidarity, in the connections my worker status opens up between me and the teenager bagging my groceries, the salesman cold calling my cell with another dreary insurance pitch to secure a car I do not own. This collectivity is the force of the working class movement. Yes, sustained political committment, but also tipping the delivery guy stupid because it is raining, because I am so familiar with his blank face, this shared reality in which we must do shit we hate to survive. Yes, my survival is hateful. And I must name my hatred, direct it, keep it on the tip of the Mayor’s tongue. 

There is my hope, too, keeping him up at night. There is my hope in the way he won’t say “working class” out loud, like if he repeats it in front of the bathroom mirror three times then it just might come to life. Like working people are the specter he will never escape, yet here we are, haunting him out the door.


Sophie Dillon

Sophie Dillon

she/hers

is still figuring it out.

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