Mid­dle class? Think again

Terry Bell

CityPress - - Business - Business@ city­press. co. za

The ques­tion of class came up this week with arch free mar­ke­teer Ann Bern­stein and the Cen­tre for De­vel­op­ment and En­ter­prise (CDE) hail­ing the po­ten­tial growth of a global mid­dle class, among them teach­ers. At the same time, the SA Demo­cratic Teach­ers’ Union con­cluded its con­fer­ence, declar­ing teach­ers to be “rev­o­lu­tion­ary pro­fes­sion­als [and] agents of change ... in pur­suit of so­cial­ism”.

Strange as it may seem, th­ese po­si­tions have a great deal in common: they both pro­mote myths. Iron­i­cally, Bern­stein’s and the CDE’s stands also put them ide­o­log­i­cally in bed with com­mu­nist icons Fred­er­ick En­gels and Vladimir Lenin.

The link with En­gels and Lenin came when Bern­stein this week lauded what she and the CDE per­ceive to be the global growth of “the mid­dle class”. She was re­fer­ring to peo­ple who have steady em­ploy­ment at rea­son­able lev­els of pay and en­joy a bet­ter life­style than “the poor”.

This was the very class of peo­ple de­scribed by En­gels more than 150 years ago as the “aris­toc­racy of labour”. Lenin agreed in 1916 when he wrote that higher paid work­ers in per­ma­nent jobs in de­vel­oped coun­tries had be­come part oftheirestab­lish­ments. They­had, in­Bern­stein’s terms, be­come mid­dle class and con­ser­va­tive.

This was at a time when economies had been in a growth phase, pow­ered, cer­tainly in the case of Bri­tain, by colo­nial con­quest. Skilled work­ers in the im­pe­ri­al­ist coun­tries, their labour ur­gently needed, could be paid pre­mium wages based on the ad­di­tional prof­its gleaned from the ex­ploita­tion of work­ers in the colonies. It was as­sumed they were in ef­fect “bought off” by their bosses and, as such, iden­ti­fied with and sup­ported the sta­tus quo.

This seems to re­main the idea be­hind the no­tion that it is nec­es­sary to cre­ate a mid­dle class “buf­fer” be­tween the rich and poor to main­tain sta­bil­ity. It is a clas­sic con­ser­va­tive propo­si­tion that ar­gues there can be no al­ter­na­tive to the present eco­nomic and so­cial sys­tem, merely a few vari­a­tions on the same theme.

But Lenin’s view was shat­tered in 1919 when most of this sup­posed “aris­toc­racy” in Bri­tain went on strike, es­pe­cially in Belfast and Glas­gow. They did so against the wishes of the union lead­er­ship and the Trade Union Congress, high­light­ing the dan­ger of cre­at­ing myths, of al­low­ing prej­u­dice and per­cep­tion to cloud re­al­ity.

Sim­i­lare­rup­tion­sof­prote­s­tandi­den­ti­fi­ca­tion as work­ers have oc­curred over suc­ceed­ing decades in var­i­ous coun­tries: there is noth­ing like aus­ter­ity to shat­ter il­lu­sions of be­ing mid­dle class and so im­mune from the job in­se­cu­ri­ties and pay cuts of other work­ers. Which is per­haps why, in th­ese eco­nom­i­cally strait­ened times, so many South African teach­ers are unionised and re­gard them­selves as work­ers, even if not rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies or so­cial­ists.

But il­lu­sions do still ex­ist. Th­ese are sub­jec­tive. Ob­jec­tively, teach­ers, like nurses, ditch dig­gers and driv­ers, are mem­bers of the mas­sive global class of work­ers. Their po­si­tion in the so­cial strata is fun­da­men­tally de­ter­mined by their re­la­tion­ship to work.

To ig­nore this re­al­ity and to make plans and poli­cies based on myth is not only silly, it could be dan­ger­ous.

But at least the mod­ern myth mak­ers are not as crude as Pro­fes­sor Ed­ward Bat­son, one time head of the so­ci­ol­ogy depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Cape Town.

The late Lionel For­man re­ported that he and other stu­dents were sent out by Bat­son in 1945 to count the num­ber of house­holds in Cape Town’s Dis­trict Six that had door mats. Those that did not were de­creed to be “poor”.

At its most ab­surd, it could have led to a poverty re­lief pro­gramme that pro­vided door mats.

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