Proletarianisation of the middle class
Either the concept of class is valid, or it isn't, but it's difficult to conceive of a class that would stand in-between the bourgeois and the proletarians, and even more difficult to understand how such a middle ground could become so wide as to occupy nearly the whole field.
In capitalism, as we've said before, not everything is capitalist, and not everything that is capitalist belongs to the most technically or socially advanced forms of capitalism. The existence of small owners of the means of production is necessary for commercial and industrial vitality (there's no capitalism without dedicated entrepreneurs and innovators), and also necessary as a social shock absorber. The French (or Italian, or US...) bourgeoisie periodically needs an influx of fresh blood into its veins, and also it could not rule society with just the support of a few hundred thousand propertied people. It must share political, intellectual and (up to a point) economic power with what in 1872 a French politician called the "new social strata", in which he included shopkeepers, craftsmen, railway and State employees, teachers and doctors. The list is outdated, the principle remains.
The petit-bourgeois are thus called because they possess little capital: their command over the means of production stops at the gate of their small business. In 21st century France, craftsmen, shop owners, small company bosses, professionals and other "independents" are said to be 15% of the working population. No doubt the figure would be similar in Italy or Germany, and lower in more modern countries like Britain, but these groups have not and will never be totally swept away by capitalist concentration. They are less numerous than those relatively well-paid wage earners with no capital apart from their savings (plus sometimes inherited money), that they invest in shares and bonds that give them no control whatsoever on any means of production. Besides, in Europe as in the US, most of the time, property hardly goes beyond the walls of the house or flat where those "privileged" people live. Few households can afford a sizeable private pension scheme.
Nevertheless, the middle classes, "new" or "old", take on a social reality when the proletarians do not fight or are defeated. It's the lack or failure of capital v. labour confrontation that often gives a fresh boost to a vast middle ground which includes many workers averse to working class militancy. Typical "centre" parties (the Radical party of the French Third Republic, the Zentrum in Weimar Germany, or the Italian Christian-Democrats after 1945) only played a big role after the demise of labour forces, and because they managed to have a large worker following. Such parties have little autonomy of their own and side with labour or capital according to which pole is the most dynamic. The 2001 Argentinean rising was launched by proletarians: the initially hostile middle classes joined in when the closure of banks by the government deprived them of their money, and they left the movement as soon as the banks opened again. Even when he has trouble making ends meet, every wage earner is not a proletarian. Let's limit ourselves to Europe: all great historical fractures, Chartism, February and June 1848, the Paris Commune, 1917-21 in Germany, Nazism, June 36, Italy 1969-80, Portugal 1974-75, have had the middle classes waver according to which way the wind blew. Afterwards, after the commotion, the rulers explain their victory by the stabilising effect of a sociological majority which is in fact the result and not the cause of the ebbing of the movement. The hotchpotch known as the middle class only comes to life when the conflictual partnership between capital and labour loses momentum, and its theorisation tells us more about society's self-image than about its reality.
What the phrase "middle classes" boils down to is the notion that apart from the homeless and the idle rich, everybody works or is supposed to (meaning, not housework, but work to earn a living). Yet what do a cashier, a university lecturer, a computer analyst and a psychologist have in common ? That word mixes together a wide range of non-factory manual and menial jobs (shop assistant, postman,
lorry driver, etc.) and a series of professions that enjoy a much higher income, protection, power and social image. These two sets play different historical roles. The school cleaner and the school teacher both live off a wage, but the former does not experience his situation like the latter.
Productive labour remains the axis of contemporary society: it's certainly less individual, less direct, less manual, less traceable than in 1867, but it has not been diluted to the extent that it would exist everywhere and nowhere. A mechanics professor, an assembly line worker, a fork lift operator and an ad-man all contribute to the launching of the new Toyota model, but not to the same degree. (All we can say is their respective contribution to value creation would be even more difficult to quantify in a Toyota plant today than in an 1867 cotton-mill.) Whereas a few factories directly sell their goods in a shop next to the workshops, no seller could do without a worker.
Every society implies some balance, class societies a class balance, and our society a balance between capital and labour. That relation has been successively based on factory workers that came from crafts, then on skilled workers and the "labour aristocracy", afterwards the unskilled "mass worker", which no other group has yet come to replace in this pivotal role.
We live in a world that calls itself "post industrial" and yet depends on manufactured artefacts, from microchips to cruise liners, more than any civilisation before. No need to be a diehard Marxist to explain this paradoxical negation of omnipresent ever-expanding industrial realities, this negation of labour (manual labour particularly), by the necessity to subdue the restless workers of 1960-80, and to consolidate their submission by the symbolic death of the working class in public imagery. A country's wealth and power used to be measured in tons of coal and steel, now it's assessed by the number of post-graduate researchers.
A new social foundation stone was laid in the 1980s and 1990s. As the spearhead of the new economy is said to be in the service sector, and above all in technologies supposed to be based on knowledge that produces more knowledge (thereby effortlessly creating new value), the middle classes were promoted again. This time it was not the post-1945 typists, shop-assistants, public employees and technicians. We're invited to the birth of new new middle classes. Needless to say, those lucky enough to belong to them have nothing to do with machine-tool grease: but they never use Tippex either. They are partners in a team, they are given minor responsibilities, they do multitasking, regularly attend training sessions and have to be autonomous. They have jobs in the media, in communication, in the university, in research. Nobody's called a worker today except social workers. They all use high technology tools, and keep on using them after office hours.
Those strata were described as the majority of the working population of tomorrow, and heralded as the prime stabilising factor of a renovated capitalism. Unfortunately, as soon as it appeared on the stage, the neo-tertiary was subject to proletarianisation. Why should it be spared by cost-cutting ? The symbol manipulator also is expendable. The "clean desk" policy often even deprives him of an office of his own. It's all very well for the European Ph. D. holder to move to North America... if the ex-pat proves more competitive than the locals. Everybody's heard about the amazing rise of the property market in the US and Britain, but the Parisian neo-tertiary employee will have to work twice as long as his parents to afford the same type of flat. People now talk of a minimum wage for middle managers, and it's not uncommon for doctors' or professionals' kids to become primary school teachers, which would have been close to a social downfall in 1960. Millions of European office jobs will be relocated to North Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Nobody escapes social insecurity. Once again, the capitalist dream is yours if you're rich or lucky enough to buy it.
The would-be stabiliser reveals itself to be fragile. It's always a weary capitalism that regards itself as neither bourgeois nor labour, and looks for a social "average" that would spare it the dire straits of class antagonism.