The American Understanding of Class
On the rare occasion that social class emerges in contemporary political discourse, class is seen as being a “ladder” with three main tiers: upper, middle and lower. Within these tiers, there are usually two or three rungs, dividing each “class” itself into upper, middle, and lower sections. So, instead of the concrete conception of class based on how people relate to the means of production, we have a pedantic strata of “upper middles” and “lower uppers” to distract us from the core antagonism in society: the contradiction between capitalist and worker, bourgeois and proletarian.
This “class ladder” perception comes from a misunderstanding of bourgeois sociologist Max Weber’s conceptions of what he referred to as “social status.” Weber, who is often referred to as the father of modern sociology (and has even earned the nickname of the “bourgeois Marx” among some), formulated his social theory in an effort to offer rebuttal to Marx, saying that social stratification is more complicated than a struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat. “Class is not a community” he argued, but a mere economic category with which to classify people within society, and asserted that the core antagonisms within society stem from class, status, and party, with his “ideal type” (theoretical construct of a phenomenon in its “purest state”) for each acting completely independently of the others. Status, according to Weber, consists of the stratification of society into exclusive groups based on common interests, experiences, and other cultural factors that make them peers. It is an entirely subjective evaluation that members within a status group use to justify the existence of said status group, and exclude others from that group. Status groups can range from micro-statuses, such as being a member of a family or going to a particular school, to larger statuses, such as being part of a particular “race,” nation-state or other larger community.
Who Are the “Middle Class?”
The “middle class” consists of petty-bourgeois and proletarians who can be understood as being the “labor aristocracy.” The labor aristocracy don’t own their own means of production like the petty-bourgeois, and have to work for a living like any other proletarian, yet tend to make higher wages and salaries compared to other workers. The “middle class” lacks the unique relations to the means of production that the proletariat, bourgeoisie, and petty-bourgeoisie, and therefore does not constitute a class, but a status, as articulated in Weber’s social theory.
“Middle Class” Status as a Means of Dividing the Proletariat
Status has consciously been utilized by the bourgeoisie and bourgeois ideology to divide the world proletariat via racism, gender-chauvinism, national-chauvinism and other reactionary forces which seek to put one person above another within a group of people, be it a class, national group, or other agglomeration. Status is a distraction, to divide workers against one another to the benefit of their common enemy. Examples of this purposeful use of status are numerous, and include the implementation of the first slave codes in the American south to separate working class whites from slaves by enforcing a comparative status, and the utilization of anti-Semitism by fascists and other reactionaries to shift anger from the bourgeoisie as a class to Jews. The “middle class” status myth is another status constructed by bourgeois ideology to divide workers against one another and to distract from the core antagonism in capitalist society.
The “middle class” has become the focal point of mainstream political discourse, with themes like “defending America’s middle class” coming from both sides of the isle. The “middle class” in America represents those workers and petty-bourgeois who at least partially achieve “the American dream” and are held in higher regard than the “blue collar” proletariat and those who haven’t achieved this fetishized status. As a result, the rhetoric we hear purposefully overlooks the vast majority of working people in this country, focusing the lip service on an elite group of small business owners and “white collar professionals,” who use what little political power they actually have to throw the rest of the workers under the bus. The comparatively higher status of the labor aristocracy within this illusory “middle class” helps reinforce a petty-bourgeois perspective among these workers, allowing them to justify their position of comparative wealth and throwing any true semblance of class consciousness out the window.