It seems clear that we live in an age of growing inequality, as a recent BBC analysis showed. And this inequality has a particular shape to it, because its prime feature is the evisceration of the middle class. It arises from the process of globalization which, in its early phases, most obviously threatened the working classes, exposed to international competition for labour. Now, across the developed world, the middle classes feel the squeeze: the middle class is turning proletarian.
Although seen as a recent phenomenon, the roots of this lie in the corporate restructurings that started in the 1980s. Then, it was just organizational theorists who noticed how middle management was being transformed. Charles Heckscher’s excellent book White Collar Blues (New York: Basic Books, 1995) summed it up well: “The downsizing trend has begun to erase the key distinction between managers and workers: for the first time managers are being treated as a variable cost rather than a part of the fixed based” (Heckscher, 1995, p. 4).
The basic deal for the middle-classes has now disappeared: do well in state-funded education, enter the corporate hierarchy, have a job for life and draw a pension. With it has disappeared the middle-class dream, a dream that was primarily organizational, because these benefits mainly flowed from the workplace. But it is not just that. Current analysis of this issue invariably focusses on salaries and wealth distribution, but the malaise of the middle class runs much deeper than this. The neo-liberalization of the public sector (for which, it should be noted, many in the middle class voted) has dramatically undermined the security that the middle class took for granted. For example when I was young a part of the middle class deal was that their children would be able to go to university without paying fees, a doctor would visit them at home if ill, their daily commute to work would be subsidised, and their ageing parents would have state-funded care homes. Now, all of that has disappeared. And not to equalise things between middle and working classes but because of a massive transfer of wealth to a tiny minority.
It used to be a cliché that any undergraduate history essay could safely include reference to ‘the rising middle class’ and in any period it would, indeed, be a relevant factor. Not so for the present period, and how will this play out? The answer is unpredictable, but will probably be to feed political extremism at both ends of the spectrum and, especially, scapegoating of ‘demonized others’ – immigrants and those on welfare being the most obvious targets.