5. The Middle Class
The middle class (petty bourgeoisie) assists the reproduction of capitalist society through the provision of services supporting the extraction, accumulation, investment and consumption of surplus value. However, it does not itself own or control significant productive or financial assets. This class includes the managers of most large and medium-sized private firms, the cadres of the state bureaucracy, skilled professionals offering non-reproducible services (lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, artists, chefs, and so on), independent merchants, small-scale rentiers and commercial landowners, and entrepreneurs hiring a small number of workers, often family members. (However, own-account or subcontracted wage workers producing standardized commodities or providing undifferentiated services, and dependent on a disguised wage, belong to the working class.)
The middle class and the informal proletariat comprise heterogeneous groups connected only indirectly to the dynamic core of capitalism; they do not have the economic power of the bourgeoisie or the political power of the organized workers. However, in contrast with the relatively amorphous informal proletariat, fractions of the middle class have the economic and cultural wherewithal to articulate their demands through the political system, the media, trade unions, NGOs, lobbies and the justice system. Consequently, the middle class can express its economic interests and ideological prejudices very efficiently, even though they may be diverse or even internally contradictory.
The fundamental tension within the middle class is between the economic attraction of joining the bourgeoisie (necessarily on an individual basis) and the political commitment to notions of social justice, which may be inspire by religious ideas, democratic values, or their ideological support to a ‘level playing field’ against bourgeois power. This cleavage can lead to the attachment of the middle class to contradictory and potentially volatile political platforms. On the one hand, the middle class can align itself with the workers and the underprivileged, for example supporting the extension of democratic rights and distributive economic policies, which can also increase the space available to middle class-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs). This alliance may even include instances of voluntarism and ultra-radicalism, especially among students, civil servants, intellectuals and some religious leaders.
On the other hand, middle class groups can incorporate a capitalist ethics of competitiveness, accumulation and social exclusion, typically among managers, small business owners and landowners, leading them to support political authoritarianism in order to secure their property rights and social privileges by political, bureaucratic or symbolic means. These groups can join right-wing parties, demand bureaucratic protection to specific professions (e.g., in Brazil, economics, journalism and psychology, in addition to the more usual cases of medicine, engineering and law), or purchase disproportionately expensive homes, cars, clothes and personal care in order t emulate the bourgeoisie and differentiate themselves from the working class (which may become contaminated by these values and, in turn, seek to emulate the patterns of consumption of the middle class).
The search for exclusivity can lead the middle class to support neoliberal policies, including overvalued exchange rates (which cheapen imported consumption goods and foreign holidays), the liberalization of finance and capital flows (for easy credit), and foreign direct investment (for skilled jobs and easier or cheaper access to fashionable goods). More often than not, then, the middle class gravitates towards capitalist values and the political right, and it often plays an important role securing the ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie through the schools, universities, churches and the media, which are normally managed by middle class professionals.
The attachment of the Brazilian middle class to its privileged status, and its atavistic rejection of encroachment by the broad working class, has fuelled resistance against the expansion of social rights and the redistributive achievements of the PT administrations. This is understandable. The middle class has been squeezed in the last 30 years by the exhaustion of ISI, the growth slowdown, the retreat of traditional occupations after the neoliberal transition, and the low-wage intensity of the recovery since the mid-2000s.
During this decade, 21 million jobs were created (in contrast with 11 million during the 1990s). Around 80% of these jobs were in the formal sector. Significantly, 90% of jobs created in the 2000s paid less than 1.5 times the minimum wage (in contrast with 51% in the 1990s), while 4.3 million jobs paying more than 5 times the minimum wage were lost in the 2000s (in contrast with the creation of 950,000 such jobs in the 1990s). Unemployment fell sharply, especially in the lower segments of the labour markets, reaching less than 10% of the workforce for the first time in decades. In sum, ‘good’ employment opportunities are increasingly scarce, especially for the youth, who can rarely replicate their parents’ social and economic achievements. The middle class desperately wants economic growth, but it remains attached to a neoliberal ideology which prevents growth.
The middle class also has strong ideological objections against the distributional economic strategy of the PT administrations, which has led to the erosion of its relative status because of the continuing prosperity of the bourgeoisie and the emergence of the broad working class. The latter has been fuelled by the new pattern of employment outlined above, and by a rising minimum wage (which is a cost for the middle class, as a net buyer of low-end personal services), means-tested transfer programmes funded by general taxation (which the middle class helps to fund, but cannot claim), the incorporation of millions of workers into formal labour markets, the diffusion of higher education and, more recently, the expansion of employment rights to the domestic workers: while the top becomes increasingly distant, the bottom seems to be catching up fast.
These difficulties have supported the proliferation of SMEs as a potential escape route for the middle class, sometimes in areas in which their owners have neither the appropriate skills nor relevant experience, and requiring heavy borrowing in order to keep them afloat. Since the entrepreneurial route may also offer an avenue for improvement in the broad working class, there can be a large constituency supporting cheap credit, tax cuts and institutional support for SMEs. These demands are often appropriated by the bourgeoisie, both because they help to legitimize a make-believe ‘popular capitalism’, and because the bourgeoisie can reasonably expect to influence the formulation and implementation of these policies, and capture most of their benefits.
These cumulative pressures have led the middle class to abandon almost entirely the PT and move towards the PSDB, even though the neoliberal mainstream has repeatedly demonstrated its political dysfunctionality. What is left is a set of vague but deeply felt demands, expressed through vehement slogans against corruption and for better state management and the rule of law, which do not provide a realistic programme.
These demands, and the ideological gel provided by the mainstream media, have supported the emergence of a neoliberal élite, including the neoliberal bourgeoisie and fractions of the middle class ideologically committed to neoliberalism, or simply alienated from the PT. The frustrations and demands of the neoliberal élite have been aggressively packaged by the mainstream media. Given the weakness of the political parties of the right, the media has often taken up the mantle of the opposition, chasing up the PT and its allies under any pretext.