I’ve found myself using the term “middle class ideology” and realized that I’ve never explained what I meant. Let’s start with some basics: The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, or ruling class, means that class of people who live by selling the products of the labor of others. The working class are those who live by selling their labor-power to capitalists. There is also a broad middle class of small shop owners, craftsmen, family farmers, private contractors, free-lance artists, middle managers, and academics.
The middle class is, by definition, caught between the two major classes of society. The bourgeoisie has the entire state at its command: the police forces, the military, the jails, the courts, surveillance legal and illegal; in a word, overwhelming armed might, backed up by ownership of the media and control of education, all of which represents enormous power. The proletariat, insofar as they are organized, has the capability for mass, united action, and, even more, have in their collective hands all of the wheels that make society function, that produce and transport the goods we need, keep the roads open, keep us healthy, and create and maintain all of the infrastructure that permits society to function, all of which represents enormous power.
The middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, has—well, they have hope that between the two clashing armies they won’t get crushed to death. The bourgeoisie advances its interests in direct conflict with the working class, ie, by attempting to drive down wages and conditions so that a larger share of the surplus value goes into their pockets. The working class advances its interests in direct conflict with the bourgeoisie, ie, by attempting to raise wages and improve conditions so that a larger share of the surplus value goes into their pockets. The middle class, as a class, has no direct way to advance their interests. As individuals, they may choose to align with the working class, with the ruling class, or, most often, they will hope and pray that the two great classes do not come into open conflict, because that is a dangerous time to be in the middle: major labor battles are inevitably accompanied by the bankruptcy of small businesses and difficult times at best for artists, managers and academics. Thus it is in the interests of the middle class, above all, that conflict between these armies be prevented, or at least delayed as long as possible.
As long as society is driven by the conflict between property owners and those who must labor for the enrichment of the property owners, political ideologies will and must represent, above all, the interests of one of the classes of society: ideologies either emerged and gained popularity through educational institutions run by the ruling class, or ideologies that grew up in conscious opposition to them, and all ideologies gained influence because they “spoke” to some segment of society. No one would make such a simplistic claim as that the social class to which you belong is the only thing that determines your ideology: if that were true, every worker would be thoroughly imbued with revolutionary consciousness and there would be no need for a vanguard party. But to understand the development of political ideas in class society, we must begin, above all, with understanding whose class interests those ideas serve.
Ideologies of the ruling class are easy to identify if we bother to look; nationalism and patriotism come first of course—we should see ourselves above all as part of a nation, not a class. But there are others: What’s good for GM is good for America. Thou shalt not steal. Law and order. You, too, can become a rich property owner if only you work hard enough to enrich someone else in the meantime. Your success or failure is purely a function of yourself and has nothing to do with social conditions, &c &c. Under certain conditions, pacifism.* Anything such as racism and sexism and hatred of immigrants or foreign workers that pits one section of the working class against another is of obvious benefit to those who have nothing to fear except working class unity.
Ideologies that are in the interest of the working class are those of solidarity, of resistance to tyranny, of class consciousness, of democracy, of equality, of independence from the political frauds of the class enemy. Even more, ideologies that actually help us understand the processes of history, that help lay bare the conditions that determine the laws of motion of society, help arm the working class for battle. We might even go so far as to say that every idea (ie, science) that helps us understand the objective processes of the world is, in a revolutionary epoch, at least in some measure revolutionary. This could help to explain the close ties between political reactionaries and those who oppose science. Marxism is, so far, the highest form of working class ideology, not because it is a schema or a system or a set of formulas, but because it is above all a method for understanding the development of the class struggle and providing a guide for activity to advance the working class.
Ideologies of the middle class** inevitably attempt to soften, hide, and diminish the conflict of the great classes. If you are looking to identify middle class ideology, look always for ideas that disguise hard edges and blur lines: Do not speak of enemies, we are all just people. Let’s not talk about conflicts over profit, but rather about how something makes someone feel (the middle class is always big on feelings). Don’t get upset about political disagreement, it’s just ideas. Let us, above all, renounce violence.* Let’s not talk about class conflict, but about love and kindness. Do not use harsh language that “alienates” people—ie, it makes them feel bad, and “how are you going to convince them if you’re being mean to them?” as if it were a question of convincing those who have already taken a stand on the other side! But the middle class, you see, hates the idea that there are “sides” and so, to them, everything must boil down to ideas, and if people oppose one another, that must only be because they have different ideas. Middle class ideologies like to talk about “people.” As in, “people need to realize this,” or, “people should stop doing that.” If they do make divisions among people, they will be based on anything but class; that is, any division that does directly bring them into conflict with capitalist society.
It can pretty much be categorically stated: when you see a cry against social injustice that turns your attention away from the actual oppressors—ie, the capitalist class—and turns your attention to another section of those exploited by capitalism, you are seeing, in essence, “let us see how much we can get without running the risk of making our masters angry,” and this fear of making the masters angry runs through middle class ideology like a yellow thread: whether it is fear of damaging one’s career, fear of outraging public opinion, or just fear of starting something without being able to control it, fear is the unifying factor. I got into a mess a while ago on these pages when I referred to a certain well-known individual as a Stalinist, even though he had explicitly broken from Stalin. I think part of the confusion (that I didn’t understand at the time) comes exactly here: When I speak of Stalinism as an ideology, one thing I am speaking of is a deliberate turn within the workers movement away from the working class and toward a middle class agenda that will, in the hopes of the Stalinist, prevent or delay a conflict with capital.
As we can see, middle class ideology, though concerned with avoiding, preventing, delaying, and softening the conflict between the major classes, inevitably ends up, because of this, supporting the status quo, and as the status quo means rule by capital, middle class ideology must end by supporting the ruling class. That is, as well as I can explain it, what I mean when I refer to middle class ideology. I hope it helps.
*Pacifism deserves its own special note, because of how it moves from a bourgeois ideology to a middle class ideology and back: During an imperialist war, sections of the middle class will be pacifist, because they see the war as oppressive and immoral, but can’t go so far as to advocate a military victory for the other side. But once the imperialists have secured their victory, all of a sudden the imperialists become the pacifists, and resistance by the conquered people is wrong because they are “resorting to violence to solve their problems.” We saw this method with the attacks on the indigenous peoples of the United States, with Israel, later with Yugoslavia, today all over the Middle East.
**Ironically, one of the most pernicious forms of middle-class ideology is the supposed rejection of ideology, usually expressed in some disdainful comment about “isms” that carry the implication that as long as you don’t know the name of your ideology, you don’t have one, reminding one of the famous character of Molière who said, “Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.”