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Middle Class Myths

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In this article, I hope to show that universally held beliefs can actually be simply urban myths.

Social classification theories can be based on one of several criteria. Wealth and power are the most common and each has been used for thousands of years. The consciousness theory of class is sometimes used; and Karl Marx had his own theory of class analysis. Wealth and power are often synonymous, but are not necessarily so. For example, the U.S. President is arguably the most powerful person in the world, but is not normally among the wealthiest. On the other hand, many successful businessmen and women are among the world's wealthiest persons, but often have limited power.

Classification based on wealth is what is most often referred to when someone thinks of social class. Such classification  has the "rich" at one end and the "poor" at the other. In between those extremes are those who have more than the poor, but less than the rich. Those can be properly called the middle class, which is sometimes even subdivided. This paper is not concerned with the subdivisions, but with the specific attitudes of many of those who self-identify as being "middle class."

In order to explain what I mean by "middle class myths" and to describe the reasoning behind it, I must introduce a new theory of classification.

This theory is based on how individuals function in society. People can be grouped into one of two categories depending on their societal function. The first category -- the working class -- includes all those who spend their work day engaged in productive labor. This class is very broad financially and ranges from those who are living at a subsistence level all the way to many who are slightly less wealthy than the rich. The second category includes all those who do not spend their day engaged in productive labor. I call those the allocator class. In order to minimize confusion, it is necessary to define these two classes more fully.

Productive labor occurs when that labor results in goods or services. Production of goods is straightforward, and I think almost everybody understands what it entails. A problem exists, though, with the definition of services that are provided by productive labor. The broadest definition of services, which is used by most economists, can include anything and everything. Here I will use a more narrow definition. Services resulting from productive labor are those which either 1) enable production, or 2) provide functions necessary for individuals and society to function. For the second case, I mean the most basic and essential individual and societal functions; not everything that presently exists. For example, according to this definition, a payday lender would not be engaged in productive labor.

Those in the allocator class do not spend their work days engaged in productive labor, as defined above. Most of these individuals work, often very hard. The difference between them and the working class is that the allocator class does not directly produce goods or services. For example, an individual who makes his living playing Three Card Monte all day every day might make a comfortable living, but he is not doing productive work, and does not belong to the working class.

The above is but a brief explanation of what I mean by the two social classes based on how individuals function in society. I realize that it is very easy to question or poke holes in these definitions. Economists, philosophers and others have written volumes explaining various social classification theories. I am including these definitions here just to clarify my thesis.

There are a couple of other concepts that also must be introduced. First, at least in the United States, there is a belief among those who consider themselves part of the middle class that they are somehow different from those economically less well off (besides having slightly more money). This belief seems to be almost universal, but I have yet to have anyone explain to me how they are different, what that means, and very few will even admit that they feel this way. This belief appears to be primarily subconscious. Also, most expect to be upwardly mobile. Very few now expect to become rich, but many still think they are going to do better than their parents did, and that their descendents are going to do better than they did. Current economic realities may change that perception.

How did these ideas come about? I'm not sure that history can help. During the thousand years or so of European feudalism, there is no indication that serfs ever thought they had a chance of improving their lot in life.

Simple arithmetic might provide a hint. For every very rich person -- one who has sufficient wealth to influence or control government and the economy -- there are at least a thousand people with far fewer resources. As soon as those who have very little realize why they have very little (appropriation by the allocator class), the results can be very bad for those who have almost everything, as King Louis XVI of France and Czar Nicholas II of Russia found out.

In order to forestall such an unpleasant outcome, the "haves" thought that substantially changing the 1000:1 ratio would ameliorate the problem. This was done by getting a significant part of the working class to identify themselves with the allocator class, rather than with the other members of the working class. This brilliant concept gave birth to the twin myths of the middle class. First, is the belief that personal value is determined by personal wealth; and second, is the belief that hard work and risk taking will always result in significantly increased wealth and therefore personal value.

The growth of the number of those of moderate means in the U.S. over the past three-quarters of a century or so has certainly increased the effectiveness of these myths. With about 80% of the population considering themselves middle class, the chances of social unrest threatening the U.S. allocator class is very remote, and the middle class myths will have served their purpose.

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Bruce is a retired university professor who has been actively supporting populist progressive positions for the past ten years. Besides teaching, he has spent almost ten years in the Marine Corps, including more than two years in combat, and has (more...)
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