THE Oxford English Dictionary has declared Ed Miliband’s phrase “the squeezed middle” its word of the year. Yes, it’s a phrase, not a word, and let’s set aside how tricky writing the definition must have been, given that Miliband’s concept of the middle appears to reach over the whole population except for far extremes of poverty and wealth. The strength this slightly flabby concept exercises in the popular mind seems to show it is getting at a real anxiety, however vaguely. But its passive phrasing misses the point. The real question for the worried middle of British society is not how bruised it feels by the nation’s current economic pinch, but how it confronts that challenge.
There is much current discussion, both here and in America, about the decline of the Western middle classes. Stagnant median wages are often cited as a concern. Elsewhere in the world, a great deal of political analysts’ attention is focused on the emerging middle classes of countries like Brazil, India and China, with large hopes for the democratic dividends that their growth may produce. In both cases, the assumption is that a middle class is an unmitigated good, a key foundation for a free and democratic society.
Such simple and deterministic thinking smacks of Marxism. It forgets that a middle class is a variable, not a constant. There is more than one kind of middle. Although Aristotle wrote in his Politics that “the best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes”, the great liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill had a profound suspicion for the baleful influence of the middle class of his own day, which he saw as bound by stifling conventions of thought, writing in On Liberty that “where there is the strong permanent leaven of intolerance in the feelings of a people, which at all times abides in the middle classes of this country, it needs but little to provoke them into actively persecuting those whom they have never ceased to think proper objects of persecution.”
Miliband’s idea has two critical flaws. The first is to imagine the middle as something good in itself, not capable of or in need of change, and the second is to portray it as a passive entity, squeezed by the state and helpless unless a different tribe of politicians can be persuaded to squeeze a little less hard.
But the beneficial middle class that Aristotle invokes, that theorists of liberty admire, and that sustained, for instance, the economic strength of Victorian England, is a middle class that stretches itself, that turns from closed-minded suspicion to the open outlook suitable for an active force in the world. Its defining characteristics are the entrepreneurship and self-reliance that create its economic autonomy. Such a middle class makes its own fortune and asks the state only to step back and let it work.
Miliband is hoping for another kind of middle class in Britain. One that curls inward, turning to the state to ease its discomfort, latching onto the conventional prejudice of banker-bashing rather than engaging with the complexity of the real arguments. Such a direction may help his electoral chances, but it exerts its own pressure, pushing the great middle of British society away from stretching out to meet the world and exercising its powers of creation, driving us instead down the fork of intellectual weakness and dependency.