- The Middle Class:Political, Economic, and Social Perspectives
Three myths haunt the scholarly literature on the middle class in Latin America: (1) the middle class is impossible to define; (2) the middle class is “anxious” because it is endangered, fragile, and maybe even disappearing; and (3) the middle class is the progressive hope for (or the reactionary impediment to) political and economic change. Of course, there is some truth in each of them, as there is in most myths. But they can be misleading and therefore deserve scrutiny.
myth one: the undefinable middle class
This is an old issue. Marx puzzled over bourgeois society’s growing “horde of flunkies, the soldiers, sailors, police, lower officials … mistresses, grooms, clowns … lawyers, physicians, scholars, schoolmasters and inventors, etc.” Vague references to the middle classes, middle bourgeoisie, intermediate strata, and similar concepts abound in his writings.1 A century and a half later, there is no standard definition or even consensus over what to call the mixed bag of people in the middle of the class structure. Among scholars, there are disciplinary differences [End Page 255] in the ways the middle class is conceived and counted. Economists have relied on income ranges; sociologists have traditionally focused on occupational categories; and historians, inspired by the “cultural turn” in the historiography of recent years, have understood middle class in terms of the way groups of people imagine and speak of themselves. Many scholars, including Louise E. Walker and Sebastián Carassai, authors of two of the titles reviewed here, have abandoned the singular “middle class” for the plural “middle classes” to emphasize the heterogeneity they see in this category. The implication is that the middle class is somehow more heterogeneous than any other class. But perhaps it only appears so because we who write about class are typically middle class and, like most people, inclined to perceive finer social distinctions in closer proximity to ourselves.
At the beginning of her book on the Mexican middle class after 1968, Walker defines her subject with list of occupations including lawyers, doctors, teachers, white-collar workers at various levels, technical workers, and small business owners—in short, the people we might think of when we visualize the middle class. In an appendix, Walker thoughtfully compares various twentieth-century definitions and population estimates of Mexico’s middle class, all based on some combination of occupation and income. She is correct in her conclusion that “even the most rigorous quantitative … estimates are partly subjective” (211). Walker’s conception of her own subject matter is expansive, stretching well beyond groups of people defined by jobs and pay. Middle class, she writes, refers to “a set of material conditions, a state of mind, and a political discourse” (2). Reflecting these different concerns and the shifting character of her sources, Walker’s sense of the middle class changes from chapter to chapter.
Carassai, writing on Argentina in the 1970s, draws on Pierre Bourdieu to define middle class as “a theoretical construction based on the objective existence of differences and differentiations that in turn are expressed in different dispositions or habitus. In other words, people can be aggregated together in ‘classes’ or ‘groups’ because, in order to exist socially, they distinguish themselves from others” (7). Whatever the value of this conception of class...