There is a tug-of-war going on between the proletarisation of the middle class and the middle-classisation of the proletariat. Proletarisation, favoured by the 0.1 percent, is winning.
The dream of social democracy and unions was historically to lift the proletariat into middle class status – to eliminate the underclass reality. The results were for a long time spectacular. Germany, the unsung hero of social progress, is a society where the factory worker proudly enjoys solid middle class privileges; and where the factory worker’s daughters and sons possess social mobility like any other member of the middle class. Even the pariah of modern society, the immigrant, will at the latest in the second generation be a candidate member of the German middle class.
This proud model is under threat, less in Germany, it is true, than in many other countries where it is less deeply embedded. It is under threat not because there is an attempt to re-establish the distinction between proletariat and middle class. The threat is the attempt to hollow out living conditions of the middle class to such an extent that proletarisation is the effect. What we have seen over the last more than thirty years is that living conditions of the traditional middle class, middle management in industry and government, have eroded, as have those of the factory worker, its newest member. The much-discussed equality gap.
The proletarisation disease has been highly contagious. Under the banner of ‘small government’, a mainstay of the middle class, the civil service, has been decimated and its social position and privileges cut. Unrestrained market mechanisms have turned the social mobility tool of ‘good education for everyone’ on its head. The pool of contenders for middle management jobs has swelled and employers have promptly seized on this to put pressure on salaries and relative wealth. Automation and rationalisation have meant that manual labour has become less valuable and that the uplift of the proletariat was reversed. The curse of oversupply has applied equally to worker and middle manager, and has had the same result. Demonstrating the validity of part of classical Marxist economics, the 0.1 percent has continued to benefit only because new markets opened up in the emerging world. However, the 0.1 percent has forgotten the other truth of Marxist orthodoxy, namely that capitalists need a wealthy domestic population for strong, continued consumption of their products. The equality gap means that the global economy will encounter saturation effects at some point, even if it is true that the squeeze on salaries in developed countries makes products more affordable in developing countries and thus enhances inter-regional equality. However, the excessive wealth of the 0.1 percent penalises the populations of developing and developed economies equally.
There is, however, also a mortal danger in the proletarisation of the middle calls. Democracy is, in the final analysis, a middle class instrument. With the wilting of the middle class, democracy as we know it is at risk. The middle class votes its values. Those values used to be middle-of-the-road; used to be tolerant Enlightenment values; used to care about facts and decency, used to be unadventurous in international relations. These were values predicated upon comfortable living conditions and recognised social standing. When we allow the middle class status to erode, we allow democracy as a common sense institution to erode. When middle class values recede the field is open for extremism and demagoguery! Look around you for evidence!