Sunday, 2 June 2013

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

According to historical records, El Libertador Simón Bolívar, a military and political leader who played a key role in Latin America’s independence wars against Spain's colonial rule in the early 19th century, came from a wealthy family. From a similar background sprang John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who, as US president in the early 1960s, oversaw rapid GDP growth in an ailing economy. Equally, Karl Marx, economist and intellectual was born into a well-off middle class family.

Besides their liberal views, the three men mentioned above all shared a common denominator: their rich backgrounds. They, like many other progressive world leaders and historical figures, came from a class that was not meant to give the great unwashed a second thought.

But give it a second thought they did. In the case of Karl Marx, it was his theory on labour, its relation to capital and how the latter affected the proletariat that gave rise to the socialist ideals that culminated in the Russian revolution in 1917.

The story of the middle- (or sometimes upper-) class intellectual who sides with the poor is quite well known. Many have trodden the same path and many more will. Under the belief that everyone in society should be treated equally, well-heeled folk stand up for their working class brothers and sisters.

Do we need them, though? The question is relevant in 21st century Britain, especially in times when social mobility has stalled and economic stagnation has taken root.

Karl Marx came from a middle-class family but sided with the poor
As a lifestyle to aspire to, the middle-class might occasionally act like a yardstick for those with ambitions and the drive to improve their chances and those of their children’s. But as a measure of the free market theory that suggests that lower taxes for the rich contribute to an increase of living standards for the poor, the middle-class would not be good evidence. For a good example of this, go back to 2008 and see where the economic crisis originated and who caused it.

Of course, the middle-class brings with it a wealth of knowledge and resources in the struggle against the status quo to which the working class has not got much access. Many times it’s the petit bourgeoisie the one with the long-term vision. That this capacity to anticipate future developments and plan responses to them might not be grounded on the same reality lived by Joe and Joanna Public doesn’t take away the contribution that the middle class has made throughout history. They are the ones who have the ideology, who write the theories and who on occasions can see the bigger picture. We do have to take into account, though, that when, for instance, Bolívar emerged as a charismatic military strategist in early 19th century, the image he had in his mind was Napoleon’s coronation in Paris. That event was a world away from the plight of the indigenous peoples in South America.

However, sometimes when I read articles in newspapers and magazines they seem to convey the message that were it not for the middle-class, working class folk wouldn’t be able to look after themselves. The language in which this type of opinion is usually formulated can be thought of as patronising and insulting. For some the working class has become the perfect excuse to decry the state of Britain today. From tabloids laying into alleged “scroungers” and single mothers from council estates to forward-thinking broadsheets asking covertly: “Why can’t they be more like us?”, everyone has their favourite story to tell about those at the bottom of the ladder. Except for those at the bottom of the ladder.

We live in depressing and exciting times. Depressing because the economy has stalled for a good five years now and the current chancellor’s plan of “cut, cut, cut” is not working. On top of that he hasn’t got a plan B either. Exciting, because I sense a political change in the air. This time, though, this change is coming from the bottom up, as the Los Indignados movement in Spain has shown.

In his famous novel, 1984, Orwell explains how the middle class uses the lower class to topple the upper class and thus become the new ruling class themselves. It happened in Russia (despite Marx’s socialist influence); it happened and continues to happen in Latin America where radical, revolutionary movements usually morph into dictatorial ones with a new and loyal middle-class joined to the government by the hip. It also happens in the UK where the three main parties are mainly made up of members (including the Primer Minister) who have never held blue-collar jobs in their lives and have almost no experience of what living as a working class person is like.

Against this background, the only good outcome of the current economic crisis is a levelling of the playing field in which the middle-class can’t claim to have the upper hand or be the trail-blazer anymore in its struggle against the class system. Whether the working class can fill up that void remains to be seen, but I feel optimistic. I really do.

© 2013

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 5th June at 11:59pm (GMT)


18 comments:

  1. You know, I haven't thought about 1984 for a long time. I think it is happening in the US as well....the middle class using the lower class to topple the upper class. And so often the upper class is vilified. Quite sad, I think........

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  2. A thoughtful analysis of the economy in Britain. Let's hope that things will get better!

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  3. really interesting thoughts....the gulf between the haves and nots is def growing....the middle class is currently shrinking here in the states...i wonder at times what it will take to find our way forward from here...

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  4. Thanks for your interesting piece. It is difficult to even discuss class issues in the U.S.! I do not think people (working class) quite understand how very rich the rich are. We have so many divisions based on race and ethnicity that greatly complicate the discussion. I am glad you are optimistic though! I hope things will get better without destroying what's still good (like the environment and some semblance of workers' rights.) k.

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  5. Yeah it is disgusting how rich the rich are and they just keep getting more. For what? Can't possibly spend it all. The middle class will be non existent soon.

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  6. someone once said that the most stable states have in common that they have a big middle class percentage.. i too wonder in what ways the world economy and everything develops.. we're living in an interesting time for sure

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  7. Just to have a thought beyond your daily needs requires leisure time. The rich have had both leisure, access to resources and opportunities to read/encounter new thoughts and new systems.

    The middle class was getting there also, with more leisure time, and abundant free opportunities and access to ideas and systems.

    But now, how can this class which is rapidly shrinking contribute to a global solution of income inequality when they are being squeezed out of existence?

    How can they begin to see beyond their daily grind when safety and long-term food and health security are constantly shattered by forces they have no control over?

    Revolutions start in economically troubled times, with people who'll show up at rallies and demonstrations because their lives couldn't get much worse.

    We're ripe for a big change.

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  8. Estupenda reflexión para una mañana de domingo.
    En España cada vez hay más pobres y los ricos son más ricos. La clase media sobrevive a duras penas.
    ¿Indignados? Cada vez irán quedando menos indignados y más esclavos.
    Panorama desalentador.

    Saludos

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  9. There has been such change since the eighties, hasn't there?
    The super-rich have become so rich that it is bordering on the obscene, while we who used to be regarded as the "middle classes" have become poorer and poorer.

    Yes, you've certainly given me lots to think about here.
    Many thanks for the prod - my mind is in "solution seeking" mode now! Haha:D

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  10. Marx believed that the liberation of the working class had to be carried out by the working class themselves. So, as I understand it, from a Marxist perspective, middle class political activists are fine, so long as they are encouraging and don't merely substitute themselves for genuine grassroots political activism.

    As for "why can't they be more like us", I sometimes despair and think that small-l liberalism has been reduced to trying to make poor people feel guilty for buying cheap clothes (made in sweatshops!) and eating cheap food (bad for you - and the planet!). A parody perhaps, but one worthy of scrutiny.

    I write as a Guardian reader - but that's probably obvious. :)

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  11. De nuevo por aquí aunque voy muy retrasada en todos los planes.
    Un articulo muy interesante del que se diferencia ciertos puntos de vista que dan un punto de reflexión.
    Un abrazo

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  12. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Dominic, thanks, I'm also a "Guardinista", so I know exactly where you're coming.

    Rosaria, those are my thoughts exactly. With a shrunk middle-class the shoe is suddenly on the other foot and they're having to make decisions that they once deemed unworthy of their status.

    Have a great week ahead.

    Greetings from London.

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  13. 1984 one of my favorite novels! love George Orwel.
    about Marx I study him a lot at school and University and really I think isnt special.
    But. you have reason we live really special times.
    Is difficult say what the people really need Chile is a country with a few richs that make all they want but. still many people dont have the necessary.
    Sigo en español.Una de las cosas que hecho de menos que antes Chile era un pais mucho mas solidario y sencillo.Hoy te encuentras con que cada uno vive su vida y no le interesa lo que le pasa a otro.Detesto eso.Quizas como cristiana eso me indigna mas pero me es imposible pensar de otra forma.Hay demasiada injusticia en este mundo.
    como siempre nos haces pensar y mucho!
    gracias.

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  14. never heard of this singer. Thanks for sharing. :)

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  15. And I feel optimistic enough to say, Yes, you may well be right! Excellent post.

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  16. Some interesting ideas. I am trying to relate it to my own experience, though, and I have to say I don't sense a new political mood, just a retreat into UKIP style ideas.
    I don't know whether this means I am out of touch, living in my little middle class bubble.

    I must re-read 1984.

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  17. Hola...pasan los años hay más ricos y más pobres se perdió la clase media y la mala distribución de los sueldos, sin ser pesada los animales tienen más amor que algunos humanos,falta descubrir las múltiples inteligencias que puede tener un ser humano y usarlas para el bien de los más necesitados,abrazos y abrazos.

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  18. and thus become the new ruling class themselves.

    You find that in so many things, though to lesser degrees. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss(at least in some important ways). I am a big believer in success & profitability, but I try for that without stepping on others.

    I'm not sure why I am now thinking of Thoreau's advice: Beware all enterprises that require new clothes(because, actually, I love new clothes).~Mary

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