False Consciousness: The Middle Class Illusion

This author entertains Karl Marx’s interpretation of what can be defined as a class of society and explores how the contemporary American middle class may not exist as a political, socio-economic class.

The American middle class is an ambiguously defined social class. The ambiguity stems from the discrepancy in popular opinion and vernacular language use. According to contemporary sociologists, the middle class may constitute anywhere from 25% to 66% of households [1]. Due to this broad categorization, the middle class is sometimes sub-divided into the upper- and lower-middle class. Dante Chinni, senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, sarcastically wrote: “Everyone wants to believe they are middle class…But this eagerness…has led the definition to be stretched like a bungee cord — used to defend/attack/describe everything…The Drum Major Institute…places the range for middle class at individuals making between $25,000 and $100,000 a year. Ah yes, there’s a group of people bound to run into each other while house-hunting.” [2]

With the middle class squeeze of the current economic conditions, the middle class is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a social class that is economically comfortable and able to weather economic storms. The middle classes are very influential, as they encompass the majority of voters, writers, teachers, journalists, editors, and other roles within the political sphere. Due to this, most societal trends in the US originate within the middle classes. However, the importance of the middle class is mirrored by the destructiveness of its maiming. Some modern theories of political economy consider a large middle class to be beneficial as a stabilizing influence on society because it has neither the possibly explosive revolutionary tendencies of the lower class nor the absolutist tendencies of an entrenched upper class.

As the middle class withers, flakes fall from chipping away at the gilded nationalism known to the 20th century. Will class conflict return in the 21st century? It warrants at least some discussion.

Class conflict refers to the concept of underlying antagonisms which exist in society due to conflicting interests that arise from different social positions [3]. Class conflict can be expressed in both subtle and overt ways.

Political scientists Karl Marx and Max Weber both contributed to the study of class conflict. Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, describes his ideas about class conflict and gives his own interpretation of what can be defined as a class properly so-called. He states that a class is formed when its members achieve class consciousness and solidarity [4]. This largely happens when the members of a class become aware of their exploitation and the conflict with another class. A class will then realize their shared interests and a common identity. According to Marx, a class will then take action against those that are exploiting the lower classes.

Max Weber agrees with the fundamental ideas of Marx about the economy causing class conflict, but Weber disagrees with Marx about the formation of classes [5]. While Marx believes that groups are similar due to their economic status, Weber argues that classes are largely formed by social status. Weber does not believe that communities are formed by economic standing, but by similar social prestige. However, social prestige may no longer provide the social cohesion it once did as many unemployed middle class Americans are now willing to take up work they had considered beneath them. Given that the stratification system is being subverted, Weber’s theory of class formation is inadequate. Unfortunately, applying Marx’s theory of class formation to the modern American middle class yields pessimism.

As previously stated, Marx says that class formation has two requirements: (1) class consciousness and (2) solidarity. Class consciousness is the self-awareness of one’s social class or economic rank in a society. It refers to the self-awareness, or lack therof, of a class in its capacity to act towards its own rational interests and in its implicit historical tasks.

Members of lower classes tend to have a greater class consciousness than do members of the upper class. This is generally true except in societies where class hierarchy is a strict and deeply held tradition.

Class solidarity is stronger at each end of the income spectrum. The lower classes and the upper classes have great solidarity within their classes because one group has something to gain and the other has something to lose. The middle class becomes complacent due to the cognitive bias of system justification. System justification theory (SJT) is a scientific theory within social psychology and political psychology that proposes people have a motivation to defend and bolster the status quo; this is to see it as good, legitimate, and desirable. According to SJT, people not only want to hold favorable attitudes about themselves and their own groups, but they also want to hold favorable attitudes about the overarching social order. A consequence of this tendency is that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be preferred, and alternatives to the status quo are discredited.

In Marx’s view, consciousness was always political because it was always the outcome of politic-economic circumstances. What one thinks of life, power, and self is considered to be a product of ideological forces. For Marx, ideologies appear to explain and justify the current distribution of wealth and power in a society. Ideologies are an expression of SJT. In societies with unequal allocations of wealth and power, Marx claims that ideologies present these inequalities as acceptable, virtuous, inevitable, and so forth. Ideologies thus tend to lead people to accept the status quo. Marx calls this “false consciousness”; conditions of inequality create ideologies that confuse people about their true aspirations, loyalties, and purposes. Thus, Marx claims that the working class is gripped by nationalism, organized religion, and other distractions. These ideological devices, cultural artifacts subject to ideological pressure, keep people from realizing that it is they who produce wealth, who deserve the fruits of the land, and who can prosper.

For Marx, consciousness is a reflection of the political economy. A person’s thoughts tend to be shaped by his or her political and economic circumstances. He famously wrote, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

With the steady disintegration of an ambiguously defined middle class, the absence of class consciousness, and the lack of any meaningful sense of solidarity, in what sense can the American middle class be said to exist?

Works Cited

[1] [2] Dante Chinni (2005-05-10). “One more social security quibble: Who is Middle Class?”. Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0510/p09s01-codc.html

[5] Sullivan, Robert. entry for Karl Marx. The Victorian Web. Aug 27, 2007. retrieved Aug 06, 2010. http://www.victorianweb.org/philosophy/phil2.html

[4] The Philosophy of Karl Marx, The Radical Academy. May 14, 2009 . retrieved Aug 06, 2010. http://www.radicalacademy.com/philmarx.htm

[3] Marxists.org glossary. March 7, 2010. retrieved Aug 06, 2010.

Karl Marx, The German ideology, Part 1

Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, ch.2.

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