Firstly, I’ve no wish to define people by accidents of birth and then condemn them for the effects of those accidents – by accent, dress, or other filial habits. Whichever class we’ve been born into remains as our original soil. Parenthood, love, loyalty and some behavioural codes, grow from that sacred ground. There’s nothing we can do about our entry into the world, or our remaining gratitude for it. However, as adults (if we accept that rite of passage) we must look about at the wider world – our connections to and our effects within it.
I’d like you to consider that the current middle class is a defended enclosure by those whose income is largely composed of rent. Perhaps as powerful as land enclosure, I ask you to contemplate a modern enclosure – status property. I leave aside the historical middle class – the yeoman, guildsman, bourgeoisie… I think they may have passed away.
The negative effects of land enclosure are copiously documented by well-known economic philosophers, dating back at least as far as the Reformation (Thomas More). The negative effects of what I’ve chosen to call status enclosure, as far as I can tell, are not documented at all. I speculate that status enclosure may be an even greater drain on a community than land enclosure. At any rate they’ve a similar weight in the scales (and scales of injustice).
I propose that the gathering of rent for status is the central process by which we become middle class.
Status enclosure is the means to a monopoly of services. Lawyer, dentist, GP, architect and so on have gained right of enclosure to impose a large rent for their very existence – not for what their labour may provide. Rates such as £250, or £300 per hour are commonly demanded from those who must seek their services. Rent payers may be earning less than £10 per hour. I propose that that right for rent has created a new class division – so much so that the middle-class has become a class enclosure. It has accumulated wealth by demanding rent from those who have fast become poorer. The equation is direct. That a whole class has grown rich by gathering rents from another is a plainly shaky foundation for a stable future. It is now evident that rent payers have been bled so dry, that “professionals” have become anxious at the dry river beds of their once-seemingly perennial spring. The middle-class has bitten too hard on the hand that feeds it.
Another and highly significant element of both status property and land property is the right to behave as we choose behind the fence – home as castle – trespassers will be prosecuted – my qualifications speak for themselves – in the sanctity of the home…
Enclosure defines a right to irresponsibility, whereas commons (now lost) had defined rights to responsibility. That right to responsibility provided a place in larger society and a self-respect. Commons, which once maintained both personal dignity and social well-being, (the common good) have become almost entirely enclosed into other peoples’ properties (land, intellectual and status). Loss of place and self-regard has fermented an ill-defined yearning which, in turn, has penned the following tragedy, containing spun characters such as Mr Immigrant, Mr Wastrel and so on. A more productive view may be comic (tragedies and comedies share identical plots).
Yes, it’s both tragic and comic that the super-rich (who own nearly all newspapers and radio/television stations) have managed to stir an inevitable class resentment away from reason and justice and towards a right-wing revolt. That is apparent in the Trump and extreme right-wing Conservative Party victories and in Brexit. The middle class – often Blairite, or American Democratic (but still neoliberal) have been outraged by the folly of it all! The so-called working class has revolted. Yet, in truth, how can ordinary people not revolt? – We have no more space to breathe.
The comedy lies in a historically recurring banana skin – a monarch’s appeal to “the people” against baronial threats to the throne. The modern comedy is evident in that same recurring plot and so it seems that brutal history continues. New monarchies have emerged. Equally, they appeal to the people against a wily middle-class of civil servants, politicians, professional people and law makers. The oligarch, or tech billionaire is an individual – flesh and blood – Look, you and I are the same, says oligarch to crowd. Yes, says crowd to oligarch, we are the same. The laughter is of the mind. The same plot, felt with the heart, may easily break it.
But recent disturbances originate with neither oligarch nor people. The oligarch has been opportunistic. They emerge from the pillaged, ill-defined and unsure lands created by those nice status enclosures. Though oligarch stirs the people to pull down fences, the source of the social wound is the amorality of the new middle-class.
Those status enclosures had fenced out the moralities of the trades and they’d simultaneously fenced-off, or boarded-up the eyes and ears of the trades. Our boarded-up town centre is a metaphor for everything. There is no one to notice that resources have been pillaged and that climate change has probably accelerated beyond human recall. All we can hope, is for less destruction than the imagined worst. Liberal minded subscribers to Friends of the Earth will still jet to holiday and work destinations. They will mock climate change deniers, while merrily causing climate change. Behind our own enclosure we can live a fiction that behind other enclosures appropriate specialists are beavering away at preventing climate change. They are not.
Europeans and Americans are distracted by a class war of their own making. Had liberal, middle-class values prevailed and elected a Hilary Clinton, or an Ed Milliband, then we’d still be blindly hurtling towards increasing inequality, utterly degraded soils and catastrophic climate change. It has become convenient to blame the barbarians – Donald Trump, or Theresa May and to forget that our own trajectory was identical. The illusion created by status enclosure is that someone of knowledgeable status is in charge – we might say, at £250 per hour it’s a gold-plated certainty. (Well, 25 to 1.)
But there is no one.
Much environmental and also left-wing conversation has been led into a class war. We must educate the uneducated – enlighten the darkened – civilize the barbarian.
Yet that whole landscape (& social-scape) is a delusion. The truth is that the so-called, climate-educated middle-class is the largest contributor to both climate change and inequality in both wealth and opportunity. The equation is direct – the more we spend – the more we consume – the more we cause climate change. And then again – the more we spend – the less another can spend – and so the more we become the barbarian who undermines the culture.
The first step to mitigate both resource depletion and climate change is to shrink our needs. The first step towards a more egalitarian society, in which all can happily participate, is also to shrink our needs. The proper question to ask in that process is, what is the best road to happiness? Let’s re-educate ourselves by that question. For most of us, there’s so much to personally change and change utterly, that shaking the lapels of climate change deniers is a waste of fast-diminishing time.
What is happiness? Even the most defensive must know that it is not in property, or achievement – it is in what we see, smell, taste, touch hear… – in what we do. And which of those sensory things most evokes happiness? Presence of family, friends, food, alcohol, scents, sights and sounds – a shower of rain on parched ground, or clouds breaking for a sunny day? None of those things should be denied to anyone. Neither do they cost much. Of course, inequality can remove the liberty for even such simple things.
It’s well to remember that today’s behaviour is not palpable in all its effects. Inertia in ocean, ice cap and in cumulating swell of ecological vibrations means that all is worse than we can currently record. This year’s storms were built by last year’s consumption. Next year’s storms have already been created by what I did yesterday. Similarly, the warbler in the hedge who so delights me with his song, may be gone from the Earth in a season by the way I currently live – diminishing lovely complexity by another step towards lifelessness of mere elements. The balance of atmospheric carbon dioxide has been achieved by a massively complex, balancing and re-balancing of all living things. My profligate and careless CO2 emissions in 1990 sit heavily in the atmosphere today. My CO2 account is full to overflowing. It must close.
It’s fair to say (physics says it) that our problem is less the climate change deniers, and more the self-satisfaction of the climate knowledgeable middle-class. The probity, care, ingenuity, dexterity and complex responsiveness of the trades have been enclosed and boarded up – just like those boarded-up town centres – once the hub of a wider community of trades and husbandries. There is no one to respond to the natural physics – the ecologies on which all economies depend and are a part. Community has become blind. As laws of physics and biology unfurl their anthropogenic consequence, no one of professional status is present to note them. If professional has come to indicate status enclosure, then anyone, who wishes for a pleasant tomorrow, must know that today calls for the time of the working amateur – of those who love – and who may eventually profess it.
World leaders recently gathered (again) to discuss measures to communally mitigate climate change – that is, the world’s middle classes – civil servants, politicians and climate scientists. In spite of regular gatherings over the years, since 1990 carbon emissions have continued to rise and are still rising. Nation states will present their targets and outcomes for what is convenient and simple – that is electricity generation – It will be easy to supply all current electricity needs with true renewable sources – for UK that means mostly wind – and it can be done quickly and cheaply. Future electricity demands (imagining current transport and heating needs supplied by electricity) are a different story. In short, those demands will not be met. Earth does not provide that much energy. At COP 23 a handful of true professionals will profess that to resolve impossible demands, we must remove those demands – that economies which consume too much must shrink their consumption. But that will not be discussed at a government level and that is why carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise.
Behind the lucrative enclosures, the title of professional has come to imply – not one who has attained a knowledge worth the professing, but one who is discreet, taciturn and guarded. From behind the twitched curtains of status enclosure some words may be stimulated at £300 per hour. They stop when the payment stops. I hope that new amatory professionals from every cast and class will begin to sing without price – to profess their common human souls. There’s a commonwealth to reclaim and fences to grub up – both a part of the pursuit of happiness. Living on less has been the central moral of just about every religion and philosophy since human cultures grew complex. It could become fashionable. If we remove that fixed, defensive gaze on our land and status properties, and then look up, and then, out and about, we’ll see the world expand.
There is so much work to be done that I ask an alliance of working and middle-class people to form a durable, working society – a new and rapidly-swelling working-class – one which is deaf to the appeals of both tech billionaire/oligarch and those lucrative rents – and is awake to the living world. The binding chore of that society will be glad devotion to the beauty and rewards of a moral common – one which does not recognise status (and eventually land) enclosures and which pays no rent. How else can ingenuity and dexterity be properly nurtured and shared? – and how else can the near infinite complexity of ecosystems of which humanity is but one part be properly celebrated? Human societies are one emergent spring. Human individuals have the fascinating obligation to devise tributaries in return…
Peer review? Have you seen the quality of the peers?
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One Reply to “How destructive is the middle class?”
Many thanks for this thought-provoking and well-presented post!
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