Asset source: Shutterstock | Graphic Design by Noel Ransome 

A Guide to Navigating the Bullshit Dream of ‘Middle Class’

It isn’t just about your income.

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Nov 9 2017, 7:00pm

Asset source: Shutterstock | Graphic Design by Noel Ransome 

There is an old poster I saw once from some group of 1970s student radicals. It shows a woman of colour standing pensively alongside a fence beneath the words “Class consciousness is figuring out what side of the fence you’re on. Class analysis is figuring out who’s there with you.”

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because there is something profoundly uncanny about how we talk about the “middle class” in Canada.

Most of the political, economic, and cultural apparatuses in this country are ostensibly geared towards servicing the interests of the middle class. Most of us also tend to locate ourselves more or less confidently within its ranks. But it’s not really all that clear what the middle class is, how to tell who belongs there, or why it seems to be the axle of the Canadian universe.

The standard rule of thumb in most popular discussion of class in Canada is that a) class is primarily tied to, or even determined by, an individual’s income level and/or the material conditions of their lifestyle, and b) that the “middle class” occupies the central band around a given region’s income. While straightforward and seemingly intuitive, I argue that this approach to thinking about class is not especially useful when actually applied as a tool of socio-economic analysis.

Fortunately, Global News ran a recent report that aimed to explicitly define the middle class in Canada. It’s actually a very pure example of this type of analysis of the Canadian middle class that actually highlights the critical shortcomings of the standard approach, insofar as it obscures more about regional economic disparity and income inequality in Canada than it reveals. But in charting its limitations, we might be able to sketch out a more useful framework for analysis: useful not only in understanding the broad strokes of the Canadian socio-economic landscape, but also in clarifying our politicians’ famously fatuous language about the “middle class.” (That is, it might help us to identify when they’re bullshitting us—and themselves.)

Erica Alini’s report in Global worked with Statistics Canada to create a rough map of the country’s middle class by by analyzing census data for household income distribution. StatsCan then determined local income rankings based on the 2016 census and broke those rankings into five groups (or quintiles) of equal size. The three middle quintiles demarcate, roughly, what counts as middle class. The Canadian middle class, then, turns out to be anyone earning between $33,000 and $130,000 a year—which is quite a range.

Of course, this is only the national figure, which can vary wildly depending on what part of the country you’re looking at. The cutoff for the lowest middle class quintile in Fort McMurray, Alberta is in the ballpark of $91K, which puts you well into the top quintile of the post-asbestos Thetford Mines in Quebec. But by and large, things tend to stick around the national average, as you would expect.

But there are some issues with the picture Alini paints of the Canadian economy. For one, although she notes that regional disparities impact what counts as ‘middle class’ for an area, the piece discusses only comparisons between major urban centres in each province, alongside obvious resource-based outliers like Fort Mac and Thetford Mines. A much more telling impact of regional disparity in income would compare urban centres with rural areas; what counts as middle class varies more between Fort Mac and Vulcan, St. John’s and Baie Verte, than between Toronto and Montreal or Vancouver.

More fundamentally, naming the median three income quintiles as “the middle class” does not tell us anything particularly useful or interesting about Canadian society, and it results in more than a few absurdities. I find it difficult to believe that anyone living in Toronto on a household income of $35,000 a year has a standard of living we would readily recognize as “middle class,” trust funds and other social supports notwithstanding. (And the claim that $31,000 makes you middle class in Vancouver is probably more egregious.) This also omits the implicit assumption that people at the top and bottom of this 60% chunk of the Canadian economy have mutual or overlapping class interests, which strikes me as a vaguely incredible proposition.

Despite its shortcomings, however, there is a reason the income model persists in mainstream discourse. It is highly individualized, and (comparatively) conceptually straightforward. Your class position is a function of your income; the amount of money you make determines the kind of lifestyle you can live (and where you can afford to live it). What is class but a social status, a mode of life? And what is the “middle class” but the aspirational virtuous mean of an unequal society?

This model, in other words, links an individual’s class position to a social status based on consumption. If your class position is expressed in the way you live (ie. the things you own, the things you consume, etc), then most people can (or at least aspire to) pass for middle class even if it’s not, strictly speaking, where they fall among income brackets. That middle class is understood as a kind of personal cultural identity based around a certain pattern of conspicuous consumption goes a long way in explaining Canada’s love affair with astronomical levels of personal debt. Ye shall know them by the exotic fruits in their renovated suburban kitchen, and what Mammon has joined together, let no credit card statement put asunder.

But this is very clearly a limited picture of what class is in Canada. A more useful way of looking at the situation is to consider class not so much as a function of how much money you earn, but by what you actually have to do to earn it—how much power you have over yourself and/or others at your job. Where do you fit relative to decisions over the production and distribution of economic goods and services? This is a more meaningful rubric for demarcating class position than your level of consumption.

The Canadian economy, like all developed economies in the 21st century, is stratified by a breathtaking array of specialized labour practices that work more or less in concert—by the grace of our capitalist central planners in Toronto and New York—to keep our crisis-prone economic system running as smoothly as possible. Fundamentally, you are either selling your ability to labour, or you are buying someone else’s. (Some people also work at directing, regulating, and policing who may sell that labour, for what price, and to what ends—this is a substantive distinguishing feature of the “middle class” properly so-called.)

Class is better understood as a category of social power. That is, it discloses how much autonomy or agency you have in shaping the world in which you (and others) live and work.

On this reading, the middle class is not merely a group of people who happen to have enough education and money to participate in what we have collectively come to define (or accept, as depicted through media and cultural apparatuses) as a ‘mainstream’ or ‘normal’ life. They are, rather, the credentialed professionals who have greater degrees of autonomy at work and a greater access to, and control over, the mechanisms of social and economic and cultural exclusion that separates them from the working class. (Who is excluded by whom in this country, through which mechanisms, and on what basis, is a discussion we leave for another time.)

The middle class may be excluded from any meaningful access to capital, but they have access to other privileges—educational, cultural, intellectual, legal, etc.—that demarcate and elevate them above the working class, who has no meaningful access to either. (The jury is still out on whether or not unionized workers count as properly middle class or as a particularly privileged subset of the working class itself.)

No one is stopping you from living your idealized middle class #bestlife if you have no qualms in charging everything to your credit card.

It is fair to say, however, that the fortunes of the middle class are not what they used to be. The heyday of the North American middle class seems to have been the 1970s (and things are not as grim in Canada as they are in the United States). The education and credentials that were once hallmarks of middle class status are now more widely accessible than ever (thanks in part to an economic order increasingly premised on the vast and uncontrolled expansion of personal debt), but those credentials are also less tied to securing or maintaining middle class jobs than ever before. The global implosion of the financial system in the last decade also marked a definite shift away from security and towards a much more precarious work environment for those of us with aspirations to either join or remain in the middle class. Good education is still a your best bet to join the club, but it’s nowhere near the guarantee it once was—just ask one of the PhD college instructors on strike in Ontario.

Of course, no one is stopping you from living your idealized middle class #bestlife if you have no qualms in charging everything to your credit card—and as long as you can pay the piper when the creditors come calling. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Ironically, taking this approach to class not only clarifies things, but brings us full circle back to commiserating with the federal Liberals about the woes of the middle class. The situation may not be quite as bleak as they suggest, but the future is both literally and figuratively precarious. (And it’s always more dire for the working class, who unquestionably make up the majority of any developed capitalist economy.)

Unfortunately, there are a number of indications that the Liberals seem more concerned with catering to the interests of the upper class—those with substantial access to capital, ie. the social power to order and structure the economy and everything that entails—than they are with catering to the particular class interests of the rest of us. You could argue that a rising tide lifts all boats; but you could just as easily argue that the interests of the ruling class do not strictly align with your own, and may even run directly counter to them. Conclusively arbitrating this dispute is, of course, far above my pay grade.

Anyway, this concludes our brief lesson in the broad strokes of the Canadian middle class. If this is your jam, I recommend checking out some of the recent work by Erik Olin Wright and/or Malcolm Harris. But I hope this has helped you get a better sense of which side of the fence you find yourself on, and who else might be there with you.

Follow Drew on Twitter.

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