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The International Writers Magazine
: Modern Lives

DOES MIDDLE CLASS REALLY EXIST?
James Skinner

A symbol of the Middle Class or an aspirant icon impossible for many

‘When I was at college studying engineering, way back in the good old days when Britain was ruled by the Labour Party and industrial strikes were as common as bacon and eggs (or hamburger and fries, if you are an American reader) I recall that the Education Department of the British government decided that all those stupid enough to be studying science subjects needed a certain amount of cultural indoctrination. Our logical brains had to be widened and massaged to interpret art and the likes whilst we tried to figure out Newton’s laws or Pythagoras’ theorems. Apart from mathematics, electronics, we had to pursue ‘social sciences’ which amounted to anything from understanding the ‘imagination’ of modern artists to basket weaving techniques in the Himalayas. As I was, in those days, a militant member of the student union, although not active enough to create sit-ins or other stupid student antics, and with all respect to the Picasso’s and Renoir’s of this world, I refused to allow our department to be subjected to extra useless work. Turner’s unmade bed was decades away.
‘So what’s your alternative, Jim?’ asked the head of the science department. ‘You tell me, I answered. I’m not the government!’ We both pondered for a while and suddenly a light shone back up the tunnel. ‘Economics’, I said, ‘how about that as a social subject? Why can’t we combine our curriculum with useful knowledge such as bookkeeping, accounting and the like?’

And so it came to pass that for the remaining two years we had 4 hours per week on how to read a balance sheet or learn how stock markets worked. Why am I telling you this? Quite simply because during one of the lectures, the tutor explained what is commonly known as humanity’s pyramid of wealth. He made a graphic presentation on how wealth is distributed throughout the world. The bottom layer, or foundation is the absolute essential, which are food, followed by shelter. The peak highlighted the wealthiest person or institution on earth. I remember him saying, ‘everyone needs food to survive and if possible, a roof over their heads. But most people can do without a Mercedes Benz!’ The bulk in the middle is meant to be the satisfied world middle class.
How is that for a good bit of old fashioned Socialism!

A friend of mine recently returned from a holiday trip to India. He was talking to a bunch of us, as we enjoyed a good dinner of lobster and fresh salmon, how out of a population of around 1 billion, only 15 million or so were filthy rich whilst the rest were considered to be poor. ‘The funny thing is’, he went on, ‘that most of the scraggy ones seemed very happy.’ I thought back to the pyramid lecture and concluded that most Indians fitted into the two bottom layers. I am not into the statistics of China but I would imagine that not long ago, about a decade or so, the wealth theory could also apply. In other words, as long as the Orientals in question had enough rice to eat and some sort of a roof over their heads, they were satisfied inhabitants on the planet Earth. (Now of course they are all good consumers doing their duty for commerce.)Ed
But what about the USA?
The United States of America is by far the richest country in the world. Most of its population fit somewhere not far off the peak of my hypothetical pyramid. In fact, if we were discussing the subject back in my student days, the whole figure would have to be placed on its head to represent Uncle Sam’s society. Just think, except for bag people and junkies, most Americans are way above the 2000 per day calorie rate of survival as per WHO (The World Health Organisation) criteria. Yet during the recent US election campaign both candidates emphasised their commitment to eradicate poverty. What poverty? Using what criteria? Bolivia’s, Pakistan’s, Sudan’s elementary figures?

If we move over to Europe, we find the same argument amongst the wealthiest nation’s economic discussions. British society complains about the lack of ‘decent’ social services including health care. Compared to what? Honduras, Bangladesh or maybe Iran’s? Spain says that half the population’s pay cheque cannot meet the end of the month’s consumption demands. Come off it! How does an average Spanish pay cheque compare to that of one from Zimbabwe or the Philippines? When health organisations, non-governmental agencies and general do-gooders around the world raise the rich versus the poor argument one has to compare survival needs against over saturated consumerism.

Wouldn’t the best way to measure a country’s poverty or richness level be to evaluate its percentage of middle class population? What constitutes middle class anyway? Supposing that in an ideal world, most humans had sufficient income to meet basic survival needs with a small surplus to satisfy leisure and other non-essential goodies. Under a democratic system, freedom of choice would exist and therefore a certain variation of expenditure levels per person would be available depending on supply and demand. The general services would be controlled by the state. Would this constitute a society of middle class families? Smells like Marxism, doesn’t it? Maybe. Trouble is it wouldn’t work! Why not? Because we in the West are a greedy bunch of bastards, have grown accustomed to our wealth and are constantly craving for more! The gulf between poor and rich remains.

Take the following scenarios highlighting opposite levels of wealth.
Scene 1. Mrs. Robinson tries to drive off in her Porsche but it won’t start. She lives in downtown Manhattan and is about to attend the Opera. Pavorotti is in town. A quick call on the mobile and a sophisticated engineering agency rushes to the rescue. Within minutes she is on her way to meet up with her concert party.
Scene 2. Pedro Jimenez’s 1953 Chevy parked outside a multiple dwelling in Havana has a similar problem. In this case it is resolved with the use of a simple pair of pliers by one of the family members. There is no money to pay for external servicing. The Cubans still make it to Fidel’s annual ‘Revolution’ speech on the Malecon.
In both cases, a solution was available. Yet if you reversed the roles a different picture would emerge. Do you think the lady would put up with no ‘Jim-will-fix-it’ till the next day? She would probably commit suicide. What about the Cubans? They would simply walk. However, neither would fit my pyramid theory of middle class. One has too much and the other too little. Let’s say we try to break even. The lady catches a cab and Pedro and his family take the bus. Now you have middle class. Get the picture?

But how do you place the above on a universal scale. Taking a snapshot with a wide-angled lens camera of all the different societies and cultures on the planet, what yardstick would you use to define ‘Middle Class’? You can’t! If everyone in this world were allowed to own a house, have a television set plus a car, and do their shopping at a local mall, which is what the West considers as middle class, this planet earth would collapse. It would be the end of humanity. Can you imagine 6 billion people trying to wipe their backsides with proper toilet paper? There aren’t enough forests to produce so much useless paper!
‘Middle Class’ simply does not exist!
© James Skinner. December 2004.
jamesskinner at cemiga.es

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