Middle Class is a term that is used a lot, but it has a multitude of meanings. In this column two weeks ago (23 February) we argued that it is often used wrongly about people in 'white collar' jobs, like office staff, teachers and many health workers.
These groups are part of the working class. Middle class is used more accurately to describe other groups. Among them are the layer of people who make up what is sometimes called the 'traditional middle class'. This group is sometimes called the 'petty bourgeoisie'. This expression covers groups such as small businessmen and traders.
Those falling in this group include, for example, shopkeepers, pub landlords and market traders, as well as some independent professionals such as many GPs, dentists and opticians. This social layer is often hailed by politicians of all parties as embodying the values they claim to stand for-hard work, family and independence.
Political leaders such as 1970s Tory prime minister Edward Heath and 1980s Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher both used to boast of their roots in this social class. Thatcher in particular constantly invoked her supposedly thrifty, small town grocer origins as embodying her values. Newspapers like the Daily Mail centre themselves around the lives, hopes, fears and paranoias of such middle class people.
Many TV soap operas which claim to be about 'ordinary' people, from Coronation Street to EastEnders, also centre on such people and would have us believe the world is made up of them. Albert Square, with its small businessmen, market stall holders, cafe owners and publicans in fact bears little relation to the real east London, where most people work in offices, factories, hospitals and the like.
But though the media and politicians vastly exaggerate the size of this middle class layer, it is nevertheless an important part of society. People drawn from it often play a role in all sorts of local organisations-from churches to community groups and councils. In Britain and most industrial countries this middle class layer is much smaller than the working class, both manual and white collar, which makes up the overwhelming majority of society.
In some countries this petty bourgeoisie is bigger and more important than in Britain. In some Third World countries it can even be as big as the working class. In periods of capitalist prosperity many members of this traditional middle class can achieve a degree of success and living standards above that of most workers.
But when capitalism goes into crisis they are among those often hardest hit. They find themselves crushed by the economic crisis and are squeezed by the bigger capitalists. In the great slump of the 1930s this middle class was devastated as its businesses and savings were wiped out.
Today in Argentina this middle class has been utterly ruined almost overnight by the massive economic crisis. People have seen their savings seized and their livelihoods destroyed. Independent professionals have seen their income dry up because they cannot sell their services.
Small businesses have gone bust in huge numbers. When the traditional middle class is hammered in this way it can suddenly become a serious political force. It can erupt into protest and struggle, exactly as we have seen in Argentina. There it was members of this traditional middle class who were at the forefront of the uprising in December.
In some of the popular assemblies such people are playing an important role too. The example of Argentina shows how the traditional middle class can be pulled into struggles which begin to challenge the ruling class of the big capitalists, the bankers and the state.
But the traditional middle class is not going to reshape society in the interests of the immense majority. Only the working class has the size, power and social interest in toppling the existing system and transforming the whole of society. If workers lead that kind of struggle they can pull behind them the traditional middle class.
If workers do not do that the traditional middle class can be pulled in other quite different directions. In many countries conservative and right wing parties receive much of their support from this social layer.
And when this class has been ruined, even more right wing forces have been able to pull it behind their movement-as happened with fascism in the 1930s. The key to which way this petty bourgeoisie is pulled in a great social crisis lies in whether workers' struggles point to how that crisis can be resolved.