When people want to discredit a protest movement, they sometimes describe it as “middle class”.
Quite often they mean anyone in white collar professions, university graduates, and those who make supposedly “middle class” consumer choices, such as being vegan.
This isn’t a very useful way of defining the middle class. It’s much better to understand class as a social relationship.
The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that capitalist society is divided between two main classes—capitalists and workers.
A minority of capitalists own or control the “means of production”. That could be a factory and the machinery, the planes, trains or buses, or a call centre and the phones.
And because working class people—the majority in society—don’t own or control this stuff, they’re forced to sell their ability to work for a wage.
There are also groups that sit between capitalists and workers.
When Marx was writing in the 19th century, he referred to them as the “petty bourgeoisie”—small capitalists.
They include shopkeepers, professionals who run their own businesses such as GPs, dentists or lawyers, and owners of smaller companies.
But changes in capitalism mean other groups, who aren’t “small capitalists”, are part of it too.
Managers are one the biggest components of the middle class.
As firms grew into huge corporations, capitalists came to rely on a bureaucracy of managers to discipline the workforce.
At the very top of the scale, it’s hard to distinguish between capitalists and managers who enjoy similar privileges. At the other end, line-managers often don’t get paid much more than workers and have others breathing down their necks.
The same is true within the public sector.
In a school the head teacher and a handful of people in the senior leadership team are managers.
The bulk of ordinary teachers and support staff are workers under managerial discipline.
In addition to managers, a small section of white collar professionals are middle class.
For instance, professors rely on salaries, but still have a large amount of autonomy from managerial control—although autonomy in some professions has been eroded in recent years.
Because middle class people sit in between capitalists and workers, they can identify with both classes.
Your line manager might behave like a mini-dictator, but also complain about the company’s latest cost-cutting restructure. And heads bear down on teachers, but sometimes speak out or join union protests over budget cuts.
Outside of the workplace, middle class people can be pulled to both the right and left.
Often they identify with “centrist” politics, favouring stability and the status quo that they’ve done well under.
When the system isn’t delivering, the middle class can feel squeezed and sections can look to right wingers who scapegoat minorities for problems.
Donald Trump’s core support and large numbers at Brexit Party rallies are made up of petty bourgeois types.
But the middle class’s response is shaped by the class forces around it—and it can be drawn behind a militant working class fighting for social change.
A movement like Extinction Rebellion, for instance, includes middle class and working class people horrified at the prospect of climate change.
To dismiss it as middle class—which even some on the left do—misunderstands what class is and the movement’s significance.
It’s a no-brainer that socialists should be part of a movement fighting for system change.
And we should seek to link it with the organised working class, which has the collective power to shut down the system burning the planet.