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