All classes die, the material reality that shapes them changes over time as the means of production and consumption mutate; some go quietly, others do not. The British traditional middle-class has currently elected to “die in silence”. This article aims to examine the increasing decline of the traditional middle-class after the 2008 financial crisis. For the purposes of this article, the term
traditional middle-class must be clearly defined. However, as Edward Thompson noted, “the finest· meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or of love”. Class is a fluid relationship, not an a-historical construct, and no definition will ever be perfect, but it is possible to apply some general identifiers when defining a class.
Thus, I define the traditional middle-class as being predominantly constituted of individuals (and their families) who work in the professions which are old professions, meaning that these professions existed, in some form or other, in the nineteenth century, as a result of this longevity, they have a particular cultural status and respect associated with their title, for instance the trusted position of doctors in society. This cultural status, often associated with a level of intellectual capability and professional qualification(s), is an integral part of this class’ identity. Furthermore, to be a working member of this traditional middle-class, one must be in a profession that has a clear progression to a job which would place someone within the top 10% of earners in the UK (£54,900 for the 2017-18 tax year). While material circumstances are not the only shaper of class, they are not insignificant, and wealth and privilege are an integral tradition of this class, transmitted from one generation to the next. Not everyone in this class will reach this level of income, but the opportunity for them to do must be there, for instance progressing from junior doctor to consultant, or university lecturer to professor. Borrowing from Alex Callinicos’ distinction between the old middle class and the “new middle-class”, my traditional middle-class is “not subject to continuous surveillance and control at work”, and therefore has more freedom in how it exercises its productive processes.3 The members of this class may seldom own their means of production, but they often direct them. Although there will be other classes that meet some of these criteria, there is none that meets all of them.
Another way of helping to define this traditional middle-class is to say what it is not. It is certainly not proletarian, meaning those who trade their work for wages and, with their employment characterised by insecurity, are therefore inclined to socialism. It is not the traditional British aristocracy, nor is it part of the emergent financial class that are increasingly central to Britain’s economy. Equally, it is not the “traditional petty bourgeoisie of shopkeepers and artisans”, nor is it the small capitalist class that own the means of production. As well as this, the traditional middle-class is not the professional managerial-class/ new middle class that rapidly grew in the post-war period and was the subject of much debate amongst Marxists in the 1970s and 1980s and exists primarily to manage the relationship between labour and capital. 6 The traditional middle-class predates the professional managerial-class; however, there is an increasing overlap between these classes, as the managerial-class grows in size and the children of the traditional middle-class join its ranks as they enter the job market.
This leaves us with a class largely constituted of professions such as doctors, academics, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and civil servants. Although not all of these professions were originally members of the traditional middle-class, by the end of the twentieth century they were inarguably part of it and, while there are exceptions, they would largely conform to the above definition. By the end of the twentieth century it looked as if the traditional middle-class had inherited the earth; however, they rapidly squandered this inheritance, and are now a moribund class, as their cultural and material base is rapidly being eroded.
The fall of communism in 1991 heralded the triumph of a certain version of liberalism and the seemingly permanent acceptance of the primacy of markets. While not all members of the British traditional middle-class embraced this, it was a movement that initially significantly benefited their class, as their quality of living rose while the price of living fell. Just as the baby boomers had benefited from the post-war settlement, so did the Generation X members of the traditional middle-class benefit from the end of the cold war. The primacy of this was perhaps best demonstrated by the landslide victory of New Labour in 1997, which seemed to have successfully married Labour’s working-class roots with a new mass-appeal to the middle-class, with Tony Blair, lawyer and child of a university lecturer, serving as the embodiment of the British traditional middle-class. Indeed, much of Blair’s cabinet and senior party structure was drawn from this class base. Thus, the traditional middle-class had cemented itself as the ruling and governing class in British society. However, rather than capitalise on its hegemonic position, it supplicated itself to capital.
The eventual result of the global supremacy of markets was the 2008 financial crisis, as the internal contradictions of the market negated themselves causing it to short-circuit. The aftermath of this can now be seen to have had a severe impact on the traditional middle-class. At the time, this
was erroneously interpreted by some as the collapse of capitalism. In hindsight, it was only the collapse of a specific variant of capitalism, which was the unsustainable compromise of social democracy and marketisation. As Brecht observed, capitalism is permanently revolutionary.
Since 2008, capitalism has morphed into something less restrained and more brutal, as shown by the rise of the gig-economy. In this sense, it more closely mirrors the capitalism of Marx’s time that was fuelled by the insecurity of the proletariat. However, the fundamental difference is that the traditional middle-class, on a material level, are no longer secure and shielded from the worst of capitalism’s vicissitudes. It is this exposure and insecurity that is undermining the material base of the traditional middle-class. The consequences of this are being born by Generation Y/Millennial members of the traditional middle-class and it is they who are living through the death of their class.
In the south of England (typically seen as the traditional middle-class heartland) house prices have dramatically increased, which has left many people, in rented accommodation, resulting in the rise of a rentier class. This means that for the millennial members of the traditional middle-class (those born between approximately 1981 and 1996), home ownership, once an important signifier of middle-class security, as it was the ownership of property, is now a distant ambition. A recent study of the ONS reported that in 2017 35% of 25-34-year olds live in the private rental sector. The increase in rented accommodation is largely due to a rise in house prices. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that mean house prices were 152% higher in 2015-16 than they were in 1995-96, while in the same period net family incomes of those aged 25-34 only grew by 22%. Unless house prices suddenly members of the traditional middle-class will continue to be priced out of areas they would once have taken for granted. Thus, the class is becoming increasingly spatially fragmented, as its younger members move further afield to find affordable housing, and therefore it is losing it geographic centre.
While the cost of living rises, the professions that gave the middle-class their status, are themselves coming under attack, as the terms and conditions of employment, for instance, pay, time-off, and pensions, become less favourable. The gig-economy has well and truly arrived for the traditional middle-class. For instance, many new university academics are on temporary fixed-term or hourly-paid contracts. It may be that a fall in professional incomes is not unique to Britain. An OECD survey from April 2019 claims that “skill levels are increasingly failing to yield entry into the income class with which they are traditionally associated. Highly skilled workers, for example, are less and less likely to belong to the upper income class in most countries”. What is undeniable is that, while traditional professional jobs may still bring with them a level of cultural capital, their material rewards are rapidly declining.
The damage done to the traditional professions on a material level is demonstrated by the increased labour militancy in traditionally middle-class professions. In 2016 Junior doctors launched an unprecedented wave of strike action over their new contract. In 2018, academics struck over a change to their pension scheme. While in 2019 Ryanair pilots in the UK went on strike, while British Airways pilots only climbed down at the last moment. Labour militancy does not manifest out of thin air, instead it is provoked.
While labour militancy is not new in some parts of this class, for instance university lecturers engaged in industrial action as members of the AUT in 2006, what drives the current militancy is new. The 2018-2020 Higher education strikes were a direct result of the increased casualisation of labour and deteriorating terms of employment that are signifiers of the marketisation infused reification of higher education that came into existence in 2011 with the trebling of tuition fees and removal of government grants to universities, this was not the case in 2006. As well as this, the civil service seems to be on a collision course with the British Government over reform and safe working practices during the pandemic, with the First Division Association recently threatening strike action. Essentially, the government want the civil-service to act as though they are members of the obedient professional managerial-class, instead of the traditional middle-class which has normally exercised greater autonomy in the workplace. This is a distinct development in the nature of civil service labour militancy, as the FDA’s only previous national strike action was the 2011 strike over pensions, and that was about conditions of pay and employment, and not obedience to the state.
That labour militancy has become increasingly common in professions that were previously antipathetic to it, and changed the character in professions that were less apathetic, is an indicator of the severity of the situation that the professions of the traditional middle-class now find themselves in. This is close, though not identical, to the proletarianisation predicted by Marx. For while the working-conditions of the traditional middle-class decline, and they experience increasing insecurity in their employment and diminishing renumeration, they still exercise a substantial control over their processes of production, and their distinct cultural capital still separates them from the proletariat. For the moment at least. However, it is evident that the traditional middle-class is now in desperate need of the “white-collar revolution” advocated by Clive Jenkins.
Accelerating the decline of the traditional middle-class has been the rise of the aristocracy of finance, by which I mean those who work in Britain’s financial services and banking sectors; it is a class born as a result of the latest manifestation of capitalism and raised to prominence as a result of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries’ acceptance of markets. It is now central to Britain’s economy and society.11 Although these two classes are not mutually exclusive, and many of the initial members of the financial aristocracy will have been drawn from the ranks of the traditional middle-class, the material realities they operate in are increasingly stratified. It is partly the injection of new levels of wealth from the financial class that have undermined the material base of the traditional middle-class. It is this money that has contributed to soaring house prices and squeezed the professions in other ways such as rapidly rising private school fees pricing the middle-class out of schools that became a viable alternative to state provided grammar schools as grammar schools decreased in numbers. Indeed, the importance of the school to the maintenance of a class, as a cultural and physical location, cannot be understated. Gramsci observed how “each social group has its own type of school, intended to perpetuate a specific traditional function, ruling or subordinate”. Since the decline of grammar schools in Britain, private schools have proven an important space for the children of members of the professional middle-class to socialise almost exclusively with their own class.
The rise of the financial sector in Britain has dramatically changed the country’s means of production. It is at this point that some of Marx’s reflections are most apt. In The Civil War in France he observed how the rise of the financial aristocracy, supported by the July monarchy, just as the British government supports the current financial class, mean that “the same unbridled assertion of unhealthy and viscous appetites broke forth, appetites which were in permanent conflict with the bourgeois law itself”. Essentially, an economic system which concentrates too much power in the hands of banks, for instance the significant proportion to which they fund the rest of the economy, will always tend towards excess, and chafe at any restrictions. The financial aristocracy should be anathema to the traditional middle-class as they are in direct competition with it. As Marx wrote, the financial aristocracy earns its wealth “not from production but by sleight-of-hand with other people’s wealth”, thus by its very existence, it is dramatically changing the dialectic of production and consumption that underpins the professional middle-class.
Just as the traditional middle-class is undermined materially, so too is it undermined culturally. Current indicators are that the pandemic will substantially damage Britain’s cultural and arts sector, as the government elects not to adequately support it, thus dismantling important sites of cultural production and consumption. Culture, including music and art, has always been an integral cornerstone for bourgeois society (of which the professional middle-class are an integral part, as is demonstrated by Hobsbawm’s analyses of the role of the piano, and what it represents as physical and cultural capital, in the bourgeois household).16 A class’ culture is a fundamental part of its formation and continued existence. For instance, Brecht was adamant about the role art plays in directly shaping society, as it changes “the means of pleasure into an object of instruction”. Equally, Lucien Goldmann claimed that culture raises a class’ “collective consciousness to a degree of unity toward which it was spontaneously oriented but might never have attained in empirical reality”. Historically, the traditional middle-class, because of their relatively high disposable incomes, have engaged in copious cultural consumption. Therefore, the deterioration of the material base that produces this culture (the pandemic induced closure of theatres, museums, art galleries etc.) robs this class of vital outlets for the production and consumption of its culture, and consequently its consciousness.
As well as this, the status-quo that many would, rightly or wrongly, associate with the traditional middle-class in Britain, suffered a serious blow with the result and aftermath of the Brexit referendum. The result of the referendum was speciously presented as a victory for the neglected working-class of the north against the metropolitan elite of the south. While this is far from true, and many working-class voted for remain and middle-class for leave, the hegemonic nature of this myth, which has hardened in the last four years following the referendum result, has increased hostility towards the traditional middle-class, as their expertise is dismissed as useless. As a result, society is more divided and the traditional middle-class is more isolated.
With a decaying material and cultural base, the traditional middle-class’ fate appears sealed, it is in terminal decline. The fluid relationships that underpinned this class have been fundamentally altered. Its younger members cannot hope to have the same security that their parents had, in the form of home ownership, secure jobs, and good pensions, while its cultural supremacy is rapidly eroded. Taking its place as the ruling class, (meaning the class that most strongly influences the direction and shape of the economy and the state) is a more ruthless class who are riding high on a newly invigorated form of capitalism, that benefits from a compliant state and the resultant insecurity in society. While the professional middle-class will not disappear entirely, just as the industrial proletariat have not, it will only continue to exist as a parody of its former self haunted by the tradition of dead generations, as the perception of what it should be drifts further from the reality of what it is.
The traditional middle-class is complicit in its own decline, it enabled the state to undermine the material and cultural foundations of its class. In the last twenty years of the twentieth century, many of its number embraced legislation that curbed the power of organised labour, which beforehand had provided a check on capitalism’s excesses in the workplace. Equally many, if not always consciously, embraced the products of burgeoning zero hours contracts across the economy in 2010s. The result of this is now born by the young members of this class in their respective professions, as labour continues to be artificially fragmented and casualised. In the workplace, the traditional middle-class is being dismantled, just as the industrial working-class was. Equally, in the last ten years, successive British governments have disassembled the British welfare state, removing another check on capitalism, while the 2015 ministry was elected on the pledge to hold a referendum of European Union Membership. These governments would not have obtained office or legitimacy without substantial votes from the professional middle-class.
The decline of the traditional middle-class brings to mind Jim Butcher’s aphorism that if attacked by a bear “you don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away, you just have to run faster than the guy next to you”. The traditional middle-class successfully did this, but now they are the only thing left for the ravenous bear to eat. Although the passing of this class may not necessarily provoke sympathy, the middle-class does not have the inherent romance of the proletariat, its death is a clear indicator that the wheel of history has turned again, and once the wheel has turned, it cannot be turned back. In many interpretations of Classical Marxism, it was widely assumed that the end of the bourgeois as the ruling class would result in the rise of the proletariat. However, this is evidently not the case, and as capitalism’s wheel turns, it appears as though the traditional middle-class are joining the proletariat beneath it.
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Historical Materialism is a Marxist journal, appearing 4 times a year, based in London. Founded in 1997 it asserts that, not withstanding the variety of its practical and theoretical articulations, Marxism constitutes the most fertile conceptual framework for analysing social phenomena, with an eye to their overhaul. In our selection of material we do not favour any one tendency, tradition or variant. Marx demanded the ‘Merciless criticism of everything that exists’: for us that includes Marxism itself.