In my post yesterday, I quoted Michael Moore saying that nowadays 70% of the working class consists largely of women, people of color, and people between the ages of 18-35. He seemed to equate ‘working class’ with lower income workers. In a comment drken said, ” I always thought “working class” meant middle and lower-middle class people. They don’t have a lot of money, but they’re not impoverished.”
It is clear that there is no unanimity regarding the terminology to use since there are three factors that are being considered and they cut across each other: income level, nature of work, and attitude. When it comes to income classes, one can quantify the levels in terms of quintiles. Starting with lower income class, one goes up to lower middle, then middle, then upper middle, to finally upper income class. But the other two categories are not that easy to discriminate between.
Back in 2008, I looked at income data at that time and divided the quintiles thusly:
20% of households earn less than $19,178
20% of households earn between $19,178 and $36,000
20% of households earn between $36,000 and $57,568
20% of households earn between $57,568 and $91,705
20% of households earn over $91,705
I also looked at data on the upper income brackets.
10% of households earn between $100,349 and $138.254
5% of households earn between $138,254 and $329,070
1% of households earn between $329,070 and $482,129
0.5% of households earn between $482,129 and $1,401,635
0.1% of households earn between $1,401,635 and $6,473,710
0.01% of households earn over $6,473,710
In practice, everyone likes to think of themselves as the middle class even if they exceed the upper end of that range at $91,705. The term ‘middle class’ has become highly vague, lying somewhere between ‘not desperately poor’ and ‘not obscenely wealthy’, like the one-percenters. Maybe we need a new category called the ‘affluent’ that lies in the range from $91,705 to the one-percent lower cut-off.
I used to think of the ‘working class’ mainly in terms of the kind of work they did. I saw them as doing largely manual labor that required considerable physicality, such as those working in factories, mines, construction, farms, and so on. These were jobs where people ended the day physically tired and somewhat dirty. But it used to be that at least during the time when unions were strong and corporations were not able as they are now to drive down wages, some of these jobs paid fairly well, enough that the workers could live middle class income lifestyles.
But what about the large numbers of workers in the service sector, those working as shop assistants, clerks, hospitality workers, and the like, who usually earn in the lower or lower middle income ranges? Where do they fit in? The term ‘petite bourgeoisie’ that is defined as “the lower middle class including especially small shopkeepers and artisans” would seem to be the most apt.
What about those who work in white collar jobs that offer a middle class income? We might call them the ‘bourgeoisie’ because the first definition of that is defined as “members of the middle class”. But the word also connotes people having a certain political stance and how they view themselves vis a vis other members of the community as can be seen in the second definition of “a class or group of people with social behavior and political views held to be influenced by private-property interest: a social order dominated by capitalists or bourgeois”. In other words, these are people who seek to identify with the upper income groups and the capitalist system and distance themselves from the working class, even though they may be in the same income brackets.
Then we have the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ that consists of writers and academics who work mainly in the world of ideas and whose incomes can straddle many classes, ranging from lower income to upper middle.
The terms bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie and even intelligentsia had their heyday in the days of Marxist economics and politics where they were used routinely but now, perhaps because of their identification with Marxism, have fallen out of favor, even though they remain perfectly serviceable. Another factor may be that the word ‘petite’ that means ‘small’ is pronounced in this particular context as ‘petty’ and that might be seen as pejorative.
In political discussions in the US nowadays, I think it is the income levels that people are referring to when they talk of classes and not the nature of work. So when people talk of the working class, they see it as synonymous with a particular income range that is either the lowest or the lowest two quintiles, while ‘middle class’ is used to refer to everyone else except those one-percenters at the very top.