Panic in the middle class
Summary: Categorizing the population into distinct classes is challenging. Several possibilities exist for understanding the 'middle class': The middle class can be seen as a transitional stage in society, caught between capitalists and proletarians; it may serve as a buffer zone, mediating the interests of extreme classes in a dual-class system; and it may have its own unique societal role.
There is an old middle class which consists of farmers, craftsmen, and small traders, who resist classification due to their ties to pre-capitalist traditions and individual interests.
The new middle class comprises white-collar workers and individuals from diverse backgrounds, who resist identifying with a proletarian identity for various reasons.
The rise of National Socialism (NS) in Germany was significant, as the NS appealed to various societal groups, including the disenfranchised middle class, due to economic hardships and disillusionment with established political parties. The NS had an anti-capitalist stance, targeting wealthy capitalists and exploiting resentment among office workers and commercial employees. The NS appealed to those dissatisfied with the parliamentary system and to the youth.
When attempting to categorize the population into objective class distinctions like capitalists and proletarians, there are elements of the middle class that don't fit neatly into either category. When thinking about classes as driving forces in society, it becomes challenging to categorize these large groups into distinct categories based solely on objective criteria.
A couple of possibilities exist:
- The antagonism between capitalist and socialist societal wills is seen as the decisive feature of the era (1930). This structural principle, once emerging, inevitably leads to a revolutionary transformation of society. Those who are neither capitalists nor proletarians become a middle layer without a distinct function based on the typology of class society.
- The current class society is fundamentally seen as a dual system, and the possibility of a transition to a categorically different structure is not considered. Capital and wage labor are not seen as vectors of history. Instead, the extremes of class differences within capitalist society are merely differences in interests. The middle class serves a necessary dual function as a transitional stage in social mobility and as a regulatory and buffer zone that mediates the interests of the extreme classes.
- The middle class can also be seen as a carrier of a distinct societal will, a social force with its own direction of action, alongside monopolistic capital and dependent wage labor. This view suggests that the middle class is not just a mediator but has its own unique societal role.
The middle class in the modern class society (1930s) is a population block caught between the two antagonistic classes. While their elements are diverse and not yet definitively categorized within the class structure, they are increasingly pressured to take a stance in the class struggle. The middle class, as a distinct class, might not exist, but rather it is a zone not yet fully penetrated by the principle of class stratification. Over time, this zone is expected to erode as individuals within it align themselves more clearly with the class fronts.
The Old and New middle class, differ in their resistance to classification into class collectives. The Old middle class includes farmers, craftsmen, and small traders, primarily motivated by objective factors related to their class position. In contrast, the New middle class comprises white-collar workers and is more driven by ideological factors. This distinction is closely related to the reasons behind their resistance to being categorized within class collectives.
The Old Middle Class (farmers, craftsmen, and small traders) has their roots in the earlier, more traditional class structures of society. These groups retain elements of the previous estate-based social order and are resistant to full integration into the modern class-based society. Farmers, despite urbanization, still exhibit a strong sense of traditional community ties. Craftsmen faced threats to their livelihood due to industrial production's rationalization, but many have adapted to capitalist methods. The small trading sector is the most vulnerable due to both social and economic reasons – it has weaker property-based ties than traditional estate-based ties, and it faces challenges from larger retail establishments and consumer cooperatives. These elements of the Old Middle Class, while objectively situated in small-scale capitalism, are caught in ideological confusion and often resist aligning with either capital or the working-class struggle. They hold onto a past societal form, namely pre-capitalism, and their role in the current struggle is to try to preserve their individual interests rather than forming a united front.
The New Middle Class emerged with the economic transformation of late capitalism and is characterized by its diverse composition. It includes white-collar workers, such as various types of clerical employees, who have grown significantly in number in recent decades (as seen by Geiger in 1930). Additionally, this class comprises individuals from different backgrounds, including former craftsmen and merchants who lost their independence, academics who have taken up middle management positions in the private sector, and women from various social backgrounds, including former civil servants and working-class backgrounds. The breakdown of the traditional caste-like structure of the civil service has also contributed to the formation of this New Middle Class. Furthermore, the expansion of the public administration has led to a significant increase in middle and lower-level civil servants, creating a new type of public employee that closely resembles private sector employment. The self-employed individuals in the liberal professions share some similarities with the upper echelons of the civil service and together represent an educated segment of society.
Despite their objective class positions (the Old Middle Class being predominantly small capitalists and the New Middle Class having a more proletarian objective status), both groups resist fully embracing the subjective consequences of their class positions. This ideological confusion within the middle class contributes to societal complexity.
The Old Middle Class is facing significant challenges in late capitalism. They feel alienated from impersonal mega-structures like corporations and department stores. Furthermore, they sense a disconnection from the large-scale capital held by banks, making them increasingly self-reliant. This group is discontented with the direction of late capitalism, even though this development was an inevitable consequence of the individualistic capitalism that preceded it. Geiger compares them to Jack London's "Machine Breakers" in "The Iron Heel," who hold onto misguided ideologies. The Old Middle Class perceives the concentration of capital as a threat and resists the trend toward a more collective or state-controlled economy. They find it challenging to adapt to the changing economic landscape.
The inadequate ideologies prevalent within the Old Middle Class are reflected in their political stance. This class has been responsible for significant fluctuations in political preferences over the years. Their ideological confusion stems from their inability to find a stable footing in the modern economy. They often complain about the lack of support from any regime and perceive themselves as neglected. Their discontent arises primarily from the economic challenges they face, which are beyond the control of any political regime. The Old Middle Class has struggled to organize politically effectively, with many fragmented interest groups and parties focused on individual interests. The exceptions within the Old Middle Class are farming and craftsmanship. These elements represent the economically viable and salvageable core of the Old Middle Class. Farmers and craftsmen have managed to create effective political instruments for representing their interests, such as the Economic Party and various agricultural interest groups.
Salaried employees or office workers of the New Middle Class exhibit a diverse range of backgrounds and have only recently emerged as a distinct social class. Unlike the Old Middle Class, which had a more established social identity, the New Middle Class is characterized by its variety. A significant portion of this class resists aligning with a proletarian identity, despite their objectively proletarian economic status. Several factors contribute to this resistance, including the historical background of the individuals, their perceptions of themselves, and the fear of being associated with the working class. Those with different backgrounds within this group have varying attitudes and beliefs.
The transformation from an objective proletarian status to a coherent ideological position takes time, and many within the New Middle Class still resist embracing the full consequences of their economic situation. Various reasons exist for this resistance, including the desire to distance themselves from the working class, the belief in the possibility of upward mobility, and the lack of a shared tradition within this emerging class.
The expansion of the lower and middle-class bureaucrats on one hand and public employees on the other serves as a bridge between different societal groups. This expansion facilitates the external homogenization of general education. Siegfried Kracauer criticized Berlin's clerical culture, holding the clerical class partially responsible for the decline in the public cultural life. The hollow and prestigious nature of the educational interests of the clerical class serves as an example of an ideology that is not in line with its social position.
The success of National Socialism (NS) owes much to the middle class, particularly the lower middle class. Even if half of the newly eligible voters in 1928 had voted for the NS, that would account for only about one million votes. Therefore, the NS's success cannot be attributed solely to the new generation of voters. The NS's appeal to the middle class is a significant factor. The NS gained substantial support across different regions, and only a few areas with strong traditional voting patterns resisted their influence. The NS's success is also attributed to unorganized votes, which were most likely abundant in the middle class, particularly those disillusioned with the established parties. Voter turnout was high during this period, with 85% participation compared to 76% in 1928. Many who had abstained from voting in previous elections turned to the NS.
The occupational backgrounds of the NS representatives include farmers, small business owners, teachers, professionals, and civil servants. These numbers indicate the NS's targeting of various societal groups. The NS's propaganda involved elements of antisemitism and anti-Marxism, with different groups associating these ideologies with their own concerns and frustrations. The NS's appeal to nationalism and the desire for a strong state resonated with certain segments of the population, particularly the civil servants who longed for the reinstatement of a powerful bureaucratic state. The NS's rise is a result of the revolt of the disenfranchised and embittered segments of society, who saw the NS as a way to change their situation. The NS offered slogans of change without a clear positive program. The middle class played a crucial role in the NS's rise to power, as it was deeply affected by economic hardships and disillusionment with the established political parties. The middle class, including civil servants, aspired to a strong state where they would regain their status and influence. The NS's ideology appealed to different societal groups for various reasons, including economic concerns, fear of Marxist influence, and a desire for a return to nationalistic values. The NS movement is characterized by its anti-capitalist stance, particularly targeting wealthy capitalists. It resonates with dependent wage laborers who harbor strong animosity towards wealthy capitalists. NS propaganda benefits from portraying exploitation as being primarily associated with Jewish businessmen, directors, or managers. This narrative has found fertile ground among office workers and commercial employees. Many former officers from the old army found employment in the private insurance sector and played a significant role in spreading NS ideology among around 100,000 insurance employees. The NS movement's estate-based socialism finds strong support among middle-class employees who are disillusioned with their positions and receptive to utopian ideals. Women tend to be more emotionally inclined toward radicalism compared to men, and female employees have actively supported the NS movement.
Capitalism of bigwigs is a potent slogan that appeals to various social groups for different reasons, such as rejection of organized structures, romanticism, and opposition to established expertise.
Democracy is not deeply rooted in the German consciousness, and many people feel discontented with the parliamentary system, leading to dissatisfaction and open support for alternative movements like the NS. The NS movement successfully tapped into the discontent of various middle-class groups, but the author suggests that its rise may not necessarily lead to a fascist counter-revolution. The middle class, especially office workers, is attempting to embrace a more revolutionary stance rather than pursuing moderate approaches. The NS movement has attracted a significant following among the youth, particularly those who grew up in the turmoil of World War I and its aftermath. This generation is characterized by confusion and emotional upheaval.
Challenges facing the NS movement include the need to address the economic concerns of the middle class and the importance of socialist policies for workers.
Geiger, T. (1930), Panik im Mittelstand, in: Die Arbeit – Zeitschrift für Gewerkschaftspolitik und Wirtschaftskunde, Berlin: Theodor Leipart.