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The middle class, in colloquial usage, consists of those people who have a degree of economic independence, but not a great deal of social influence or power. The term often encompasses merchants and professionals, bureaucrats, and some farmers and skilled workers[How to reference and link to summary or text].
Social hierarchies, and their definitions, vary. There are many factors that can define the middle class of a society, such as money, behavior and heredity. In some countries, it is predominantly money that determines an individual's position in the social hierarchy. In others, other social factors may have as strong an influence. Such factors include education, professional or employment status, home ownership, or culture.
Connotations attached to the term also vary significantly between and within different countries. In the United States of America and Canada, usage is increasingly broad in scope, but almost always positive in intent (see American middle class).
History and evolution of the term
The middle class in this article refers to people neither at the top nor at the bottom of a social hierarchy. The term "middle class" has a long history and has had many, sometimes contradictory, meanings. It was once defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the nobility and the peasantry of Europe. While the nobility owned the countryside, and the peasantry worked the countryside, a new bourgeoisie (literally "town-dwellers") arose around mercantile functions in the city. This had the result that the middle class were often the wealthiest stratum of society (whereas today many take the term to refer by definition to the only-moderately wealthy.) In France, the middle classes helped to drive the French Revolution[How to reference and link to summary or text].
Descending from this distinction, the phrase "middle class" came to be used in the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution to describe the professional and business class, as distinct from both the titled nobility and the landed gentry on the one hand and the agricultural and (increasingly) industrial labourers on the other.
Throughout the twentieth century, the titled nobility of the United Kingdom became less homogeneous. This was because of the increasingly eclectic background of new creations, most of which were politically driven by the so-called middle class, and the declining power of the House of Lords relative to the House of Commons after the Parliament Act 1911. So far as the hereditary element of class was concerned, the titled upper class became less numerous because of the near cessation of new hereditary creations after the Life Peerages Act 1958. This was coupled with the natural rate of extinction of existing hereditary titles and the near abolition of the hereditary element of the House of Lords at the end of the twentieth century. At this point, hereditary titles are in no way the key to being "upper class," although they do lend a distinctive panache within the upper class. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Tim Hames was able to write in The Times (on 9 October 2006): "In a world in which David Cameron, whose mother-in-law is Lady Astor, and George Osborne, the son of a baronet, can claim to be “upper middle class” and that claim passes without much challenge, the upper class has plainly been reduced to such a rump that it now consists exclusively of the Royal Family."
In early industrial capitalism, the middle class was defined primarily as white-collar workers—those who worked for wages (like all workers), but did so in conditions that were comfortable and safe compared to the conditions for blue-collar workers of the "working class." The expansion of the phrase "middle class" in the United States appears to have been predicated in the 1970s by the decline of labor unions in the U.S. and the entrance of formerly domestic women into the public workforce. A great number of pink-collar jobs arose, where people could avoid the dangerous conditions of blue-collar work and therefore claim to be "middle class" even if they were making far less money than a unionized blue-collar worker.
In the United States by the end of the twentieth century, more people identified themselves as middle class than as lower or "working" class, with insignificant numbers identifying themselves as upper class. In contrast, in the United Kingdom, in recent surveys up to two-thirds of Britons identify themselves as working class. This can reasonably be attributed to the wish to avoid the pejorative connotation described above. Nonetheless the British Labour Party, which grew out of the organized labor movement and originally drew almost all of its support from the working class, reinvented itself under Tony Blair in the 1990s as "New Labour," a party competing with the Conservative Party for the votes of the middle class as well as the working class.
The size of the middle class depends on how it is defined, whether by education, wealth, environment of upbringing, genetic relationships, social network, manners or values, etc. These are all related, though far from deterministically dependent. The following factors are often ascribed in modern usage to a "middle class":
- Achievement of tertiary education.
- Holding professional qualifications, including academics, lawyers, engineers, doctors, and clergymen regardless of their leisure or wealth.
- Belief in bourgeois values, such as high rates of house or long-term lease ownership and jobs which are perceived to be "secure." In the United States, Canada, and in the United Kingdom, politicians typically target the votes of the middle classes.
- Lifestyle. In the United Kingdom, social status has historically been linked less directly to wealth than in the United States, and has also been judged by pointers such as accent, manners, place of education, occupation and the class of a person's family, circle of friends and acquaintances. Often in the United States, the middle class are the most eager participants in pop culture. The second generation of new immigrants will often enthusiastically forsake their traditional folk culture as a sign of having arrived in the middle class.
Marxism and the middle class
Marxism does not necessarily see the groups described above as the middle class. The middle class is not a fixed category within Marxism, and debate continues as to the content of this social group.
Marxism defines social classes not according to the wealth or prestige of their members, but according to their relationship with the means of production: a noble owns land; a capitalist owns capital; a worker has the ability to work and must seek employment in order to make a living. However, between the rulers and the ruled there is most often a group of people, often called a middle class, which lacks a specific relationship. Historically, during feudalism, the bourgeoisie were that middle class. People often describe the contemporary bourgeoisie as the "middle class from a Marxist point of view", but this is incorrect.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Marxism states that the bourgeoisie are the ruling class (or upper class) in a capitalist society.
Marxists vigorously debate the exact composition of the middle class under capitalism. Some describe a "co-ordinating class" which implements capitalism on behalf of the capitalists, composed of the petit bourgeoisie, professionals and managers. Others dispute this, freely using the term "middle class" to refer to affluent white-collar workers as described above (even though, in Marxist terms, they are part of the proletariat—the working class). Still others (for example, Council communists) allege that there is a class comprising intellectuals, technocrats and managers which seeks power in its own right. This last group of communists allege that such technocratic middle classes seized power and government for themselves in Soviet-style societies (see co-ordinatorism).
- Lower class
- Lower middle class
- Upper middle class
- American middle class
- Black Middle Class
- Upper class
- Political Donor Class
- Nouveau riche (New Money)
- Old Money
- Bourgeois personality
- Social structure of the United States
- Household income in the United States
- Personal income in the United States
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