- The End of Middle Class Politics? by Sotiris Rizas
The 2008 economic near-meltdown confirmed what has been in the offing since the advent of neoliberalism and globalization more than three decades ago: universal, adult, franchise-propelled, entitlement-based middle-class prosperity—one of the most visible achievements of the Western economic way of life—was no longer sustainable. For instance, the percentage of Americans who considered themselves middle class declined from 61 percent in 2008 to 51 percent in 2016. Similar trends appeared in Europe as well. The weakened position of the middle class was one of the main issues addressed in the 2016 US presidential election. Fearful of being accused of invoking class warfare, the various candidates avoided the term middle class and instead employed more innocuous expressions, such as “working families,” “hard-working men and women,” or “people working full time.” Donald Trump concentrated his appeal to the middle-class sectors that had suffered the most damage—including industrial workers, fixed-income earners, and those living in rural areas—and promised to restore their sagging fortunes. Not only was he able to accomplish a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, but, to the dismay of most prognosticators, he went on to win the presidency.
Sotiris Rizas’s The End of Middle Class Politics? is a serious and much-needed attempt to shed light on the role and nature of the middle class, identify the underpinnings of its relative economic affluence, and understand the recent and ongoing erosion that has created an environment that no longer “connotes aspirations, but uncertainty and distress since it is identified with a way of life which is not sustainable.” The book seeks to pinpoint the causes and key characteristics as well as the evolution of the middle classes in the Western economic way of life, which began in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, by concentrating on five important Western countries: France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The author considers these countries as the most important in the Western world, for they “set the stage for the most widespread affluence in modern history during the postwar period.” Differences notwithstanding, the key ingredients permeating this success story included universal and expanding adult suffrage, private enterprise, entitlements, and a level of income that “afforded housing and consumer durables, education, health, and a comfortable life in general.” [End Page 99]
The author acknowledges that defining and setting the parameters of what constitutes middle class is fraught with all sorts of objective, subjective, and methodological difficulties. Moreover, the vast array of groups that fall in the middle-class category is far from homogeneous. Instead, there are those whose holdings place them close to the elite upper class and those who are closer to the lower, poor classes. Rizas navigates the various approaches to defining middle class and, with some trepidation, accepts the European Union’s “measurement of inequality,” which compares the income of the upper 20 percent to that of the lowest 20 percent: the remaining 60 percent constitutes the middle. Put differently, “The middle class starts where poverty ends.” By the EU measurement, then, “the boundary is set at 60 percent of the median income.” But mindful of the measurement difficulties, Rizas cautions that “it would be an illusion to look for a tidy middle class.”
Rizas advances and aims to substantiate two theses. The first is that, at the beginning of the twentieth century, middle-class principles imbued the values and institutions of the Western world and “laid the foundations and framework of a democratic polity.” These middle-class values included hard work and a strong and pervasive belief in self-reliance and self-discipline. Apropos to the second thesis, he postulates that, due to changing circumstances, the middle classes can no longer “participate effectively in the politics” marked by the recent crisis “not only because of the weakening of their economic position but also due to the eroded appeal of their values.”
The historical perusal of...