By the 16th-century, a few hundred years of humanist Renaissance had laid the intellectual and sociocultural foundations of the Enlightenment throughout Europe. Hand in hand with the transnational Philosophical and Scientific Revolution, societies forced their way out from under the thumb of Church and State monopoly on power. The brutal lineage of feudalism in Europe (and by extension its progeny in the Americas) had no choice but to cede power to new entrepreneurial traditions of self-determination, science over superstition, objectivity over bullshit, advanced education, widespread suffrage, flourishing art and literature, respect for rule of law under justice and individual rights, the list goes on.
The industrious middle class of the 19th-century has been economically, politically, socially and culturally dominant ever since. Until recently, civilised (post-industrial) “Western” meritocracies had driven an almost universal progress by allowing a diversity of creative talent to flourish. Early in the industrial revolution they had evolved (or created) institutions to educate, integrate and facilitate the burgeoning middle class population. The best minds were launched into research universities, traditional and fledgling industries, taking over the ‘professions’ and the highest echelons of governance.
And who could argue against the past 300 years of transformative reality? In a world of 8 billion, the benefits of centuries of human-made science, technology and creativity are impossible to deny. The “West” has blemishes on its record. History is a complex, violent and imperfect progress. But overall, isn’t the simple fact of Anglo-American European models having become the defining paradigm of aspiring nations worldwide an incontrovertible proof of the Enlightenment education-freedom-equity preeminence?
We, the scions of Enlightenment, born into this heritage of education-freedom-equity, take the paradigms of middle class society for granted. It’s supported by every rational analysis of the evidence, recent human history included. To the educated middle class mind the question of ‘what is the best society?‘ was settled long ago: a mixed market economics under rule of law ring-fenced by socialist, democratic and civil libertarian. The exact balance of socialist democratic civil libertarianism may fluctuate from country to country but – in every meaningful sense – it’s arguing over details. The fundamental answers are assumed.
But is that true?
If we’re generous we might place around a third of society in the education-freedom-equity extended middle class family. It’s a significant swathe of the population. But consider the other two-thirds, outside of the independent and sociopolitically empowered middle class: the lineage of post-feudal upper class and the long-term landless and labouring proletariat.
From its nascence in the merchant guild corporations of early Renaissance Europe, the emergent middle class had to fight for its very existence from the start. Feudal aristocrats and their retainers did not give up their plunder practices easily. Their control of the law, taxation, slavery, colonialism, in collusion with Church and State, had been absolute for centuries.
The progeny of mercantilism were more egalitarian by simple self-interest, even without the infusion of Enlightenment humanitarianism of the 17th and 18th century; which served to amplify their interests into universal principles. The middle class supported abolitionism. The middle class opposed wars over territory. By the end of the 18th-century middle class had coalesced distinct liberal-humanist values and its entrepreneurship had established a majority of national wealth in England, France, the Germanic States and in the fledgling United States of America.
Legislation and legal enforcement that had targeted the merchants a century prior now turned its artillery against unregulated, feudal oligarchy. Aristocracy – the upper class – once an absolute authority, was forced into power sharing with the middle class. It was a necessary evil; the only way to avoid the guillotine. Middle class expertise, influence and then dominance of institutions reached its apex in the first half of the 19th-century and the upper class had no choice but to cooperate.
Feudal lineage was not eradicated, however. The disempowered nobility grudgingly became businessmen. The inheritors of wealth and high title flattered (and subverted) middle class wealth by inclusion in the highest circles of good taste and pageantry; and quietly took the long view over protecting their land for the sake of blue blood yet unborn.
The historical ambition (and entitlement) of aristocracy was better marginalised at home than abroad and perhaps the disempowerment over domestic affairs channeled the energies of the upper class into foreign affairs: its violence in the greed of colonialism; its privilege in the pursuit of inhuman commodities and trade including slavery, plantation profiteering, import-export shipping, insurance; its entitlement in the “let them eat cake” insouciance, and the patrician exploitation of the precariat and working class.
In the American colonies (1776) and the Ile de France (1789) the enemy of the people-led revolution was the upper class or aristocracy. American colonists were if anything supported by the average Englishman as having common cause against the King’s mania for taxation. French revolutionaries drew support from worker and merchant alike, united against the rapacious stranglehold of the monarchy and its satellite landowner nobles.
Almost 250 years later the aristocracy no longer holds the reigns of government. Instead professional politicians and civil service mandarins sit front and centre in state power. The relationships between descending layers of class are complex but howsoever the demographics are measured, the working class is the largest and most malleable bloc of voters. This is true in every democracy in the world.
Moreover, most of the working class – from far enough below the middle class mean to depend on a salary from labour, to sufficiently above the line of absolute precarity to have ties to local community (like home ownership, extended family connections) – is at best ambivalent on the values of middle class liberalism. On the contrary, this multi-generational majority cleaves to conservatism – conflating it with tradition, nostalgia, patriotism, jingo, hierarchies of divine right, mass ritual and group identity.
There’s a strange contradiction in the predisposition of the labouring class: great affinity for the upper class and deep-rooted disconnection from the middle class. Nor is the affinity based on some kind of aspirational dream. Quite the opposite. The blue collar labourer tends to be the least upwardly mobile, least ambitious of class migrants. The roots of both the affinity and the disconnection are historical and cultural rather than economic. Whereas the educated middle class is a modern expression of the European Enlightenment, the blue collar working class follows a sociocultural timeline evolving out of pre-industrial serf-peasant feudalism. Despite the greater gulf in status, working class sympathies have a visceral attachment to the upper class, whose feudal credentials are less alien than the middle class world of science, art and academic expertise.
Affinity notwithstanding, the daily struggle of a blue collar citizen is too far removed, too abstracted from the reality of contemporary upper class to associate them with the lived conditions of working class relations to power. By contrast the middle class is ubiquitous and often iniquitous: big capital disputes with organised labour, political duplicity, loss of jobs, displacement by immigrants, breakdown of community and any number of class flashpoints. It’s the middle class managers, technocrats, local government civil servants, corporate administrators, academics, school boards, medical professionals, lawyers and other non-labouring professions blamed for changes – deterioration – in blue collar quality of life.
Lumpen self-identity – the most extreme, coarse expression of blue collar working class culture – has been brutalised by a long history of marginalisation, exploitation and condescension by middle class luminaries of elite power and status. Not without some justification its generalised antipathy – especially in times of stress – turns against the middle class and its corporate-state institutions (academia, courts, legislatures, boardrooms, town halls). As real deterioration of opportunity becomes endemic, proletariat (blue collar) resentment channels against the middle class signifiers themselves: education, liberalism, perceived libertine deviance, globalism, science expertise, cultural eminence and political adversaries.
And while shrieking pearl-clutching about populism dominates the corporate media headlines – coded language designed to vilify the wilful ignorance of the plebeian class – it’s the middle class themselves we must blame for breakdown of the social order. It’s the middle class, entrenched in all the key positions of public influence, with the power and the potential to seek reconciliation. But rather than share a little opportunity, the middle class plutocracy choose short-term parsimony and risk long-term division, directing white collar against blue in an abusive, ultimately self-sabotaging internecine.
Truth is, the glorious vision of every citizen enjoying equal right to education-freedom-equity was never universal. It may be written into the founding ideals of every constitution, taught to every schoolboy and schoolgirl as integral to national identity, but history is clear on the substance behind the rhetoric. It is a story of expansion, retrenchment and squandered opportunity.
Led by British engineer mercantilism in the 1700s and joined by American, Dutch, French and German beneficiaries of Age of Reason learning, an unstoppable wave of ambitious invention crashed against the early 1800s. We live in this wave today because the industrial revolution it caused has changed the world forever. In its immediate wake, society was transformed from stolid post-feudal malaise into a new knowledge-centred hope for free market meritocracy. Aristocracy was pushed out of the way. Institutions were built for long-term safeguarding the growing body of technical, philosophical, economic, scientific, mathematical and sociological progress; and it was understood that the consolidation of meritocracy over aristocracy meant establishing well-defined paths to lifelong expertise and career success. Millions got educated and the entrepreneurial middle class flourished and became pre-eminent.
Then, having taken possession of all the power and all the opportunity, the flourishing period was ended and a new zero sum thinking took over. The middle class had peacefully dislodged the old feudal systems of government and given back a generation of progress, swelling its numbers exponentially. By the middle of the 1800s, however, the new elites looked on the labouring class majority; and chose to exclude them from the paradigm. The economic reality for millions who’d migrated from agricultural serfdom into industrial wage-slavery stopped improving and started devolving. The middle class looked at endemic poverty and declined to engage, instead pulling up the drawbridge on the Enlightenment.
Without economic or social support from the ruling caste, and in lieu of cultural solidarity between the non-landowner classes, the working class was left to gin palaces, communal sports and the chaos of Dunning-Kruger anti-intellectual superstitions. In return, the proletariat political awakening hardened its heart against hope, rejecting the middle class ‘clubs’ that had already refused to let them join.
Without access to inter-generational upward mobility, the lower classes were – and remain to this day – subsumed by a plethora of subcultures of least resistance: demagoguery, alcoholism, faddish fashions, violent penny dreadfuls, fascism, mob-communism, ethnonationalism, placebo mass media, religious fundamentalism, upper class and celebrity worship, destructive greed. Since the start of the 21st-century, as political expediency seeks to rouse blue collar voter blocs and economic exploitation looks for new ways to profit, conditioned bigotry against otherness has evolved from the morass of superstitions to the clarity of faith. Would-be leaders by mobilising lowest common denominators are finding fertile ground; but at what risk, what cost?
The egalitarian message of middle class meritocracy is perceived – for good reason – as condescending hypocrisy by its wilful exclusion of lower class social mobility. It’s a tragic missed opportunity. The different layers of class division were inherited from pre-industrial feudalism and could have been broken down by an expanding, improving, evolving democracy – as a rising tide is allowed to raise all boats – but the reality was an abandoning of the majority. Votes for the landless, suffrage for women, civil rights for racial minorities: propaganda for the middle class mythology but in truth grudging concessions fought against every step of the way and eroded into systemic obstacles where the overt laws no longer kept labour shackled and in its place.
With a few notable exceptions, the history of “Western” meritocracy has been a timeline of unresolved class separatism. Resignation to inter-generational exploitation by middle class “bosses” in the nascent class psyche of the post-agricultural working class was inculcated as early as the first political awakenings at the start of the 19th-century (e.g. communist manifesto, union precursors, labour struggle violence). Because how could it not have been?
Fifty years later the fight for basic human rights had – if anything – intensified, and when the trade unions were integrated into modern working class verities, a long history of unequal struggle ossified long-term class relations. Despite middle class efforts to control the history of class conflict, the divisions remain, the exploitation continues and inequality plays out today just as in 1969, 1919 and 1869.
CLASS CULTURE WAR
Middle class society is the host of what’s become a parasitic postmodern neoliberalism. Its ruling elites are working through the institutions of power and influence to drain opportunity (and wealth) from the lower classes on a population-wide scale. Middle class stranglehold on power and progress, built on a history of meritocracy and individual (albeit selective) autonomy, is calcifying into a uniform engine of violence against the lower middle, working, blue collar and precariat class.
Culture war gives name to the 21st-century assault by middle class of credentialed expertise on the stubbornly uneducated ideological dead weight majority. Backward, reactionary, racist, bigoted, anti-science, anti-truth: the terminology is familiar. In reality, however, the siege is more economic than identarian. Culture war is an opportunist facilitator and a cover story for largely self-serving economic objectives.
As the nature of labour changes with the needs of developing society, the labouring class itself reflects the parochial circumstances of whatever happens to be the local factory or industry. The vicissitudes of employer – as the capitalist plays his capitalist games – become the natural order for the employees. The end result is a resigned fatalism, almost like the mentality of pre-civilisation tribes trying to cope with the trials and tribulations of weather. Bloated on a diet of trending ephemera and captivated by dopamine algorithms, the working class is understandably escapist, but as with every opportunity, the profitable path is pursued to its fullest extent exploitation.
Capital will bleed labour until it’s no longer profitable to do so. Capitalists are not escapist and so life for the lower classes gets worse as the latter’s passivity further stacks the deck against their best interests. Rules grow more onerous, surveillance intrudes further, enforcement backed by state monopoly on violence imposes heavier toll on precarity. Will the serf-peasant patience break? Middle class cynics say no; not unless they are hungry or cold or in physically harmed. If the cynics are correct the culture war won’t end, the lower classes will never organise at scale and the bleeding won’t stop until there’s no-one left to be bled.
Underneath the current dynamics of culture war and exploitation and generations of class internecine is a hypocrisy, a divergence of ideal and real in the fundamental motive forces in society. In short, meritocracy has failed to be inclusive. The defining terms of social contract shifted without most of society noticing the change. Aspiration was atomised, peddled instead by an obsession with winner-loser materialism – as if this ideal was synonymous with universal equality – as the the deck was stacked to favour nepotism. By the turn of the 20th-century, the entrenched middle class elites chose consolidation of generational wealth by hoarding of opportunity over fulfilling the promise of universal merit.
To make matters worse, in the wake of failed neoliberal economics and an end to easy accumulation of wealth plundering people and resources in (primarily) the global south and Asian east, there’s been a paradigm shift in the political strategy of elite capitalist wealth. An ancient enemy has roused itself to engage the enlightened middle class in one last battle for the reigns of power.
FEUDALISM FIGHTING BACK
“Western” cultural progress faces an existential threat. After a few hundred years of retrenchment before the all-conquering art, science and technology of centralised liberal social democracy, the Anglo-American oligarchy and its transnational retainer corps of billionaires are making a play for hegemony.
Restoration of neo-feudal lineage oligarchy cannot happen without the subordination of middle class influence and, in particular, the eradication of its frontline exponents of education-freedom-equity and autonomous NGO organisations independent of current corporate-state hierarchy of power. Oligarch wealth and influence can assimilate corporate capture of government without too much public attention, especially in a society softened up by polarisations and identity bullshit. But political power needs ownership of elected representatives; and votes votes votes.
To this end, urgent upward wealth transfer and the mobilisation of the working class; an uncompromising authoritarian takeover of the centres of governance (by any means sustainable, mostly corruption) and a marshalling of blue collar anger against institutional (i.e. middle class) power. Surveillance tech, mass media conditioning and the continuing of decades frog-in-water worker exploitation is nudging millions of lives into precarity. Anger and energy from threat of poverty and deteriorating conditions looks to answers; and the demagogue steps on stage to provide them: vilify experts, attack scapegoats, expose class enemies, blame social democrats. Any target the oligarchy needs taken down is put in the firing line. Middle class credentialists beware!
The deep-rooted divisions between privileged upper class enablers, merit monopolising middle class dictators, and the brutalised safety-in-numbers labouring class (including the anti-knowledge, parochial conservative, traditionalist blue collar workers) is a perfect incubator for today’s polarised civil lines of battle. Culture war is an overused term and, consistent with the frog-in-boiling-water strategy, its use is partly to desensitise. Civil war hasn’t broken out yet. Violence is not yet an everyday reality. The divisiveness of culture war is psychological more than physical – for now – which makes it harder to fight, trickier to defuse and easier to use as a general amplifier of class (and identitarian) division. It’s part of the arsenal of both oligarchic and middle class credentialist power blocs.
Whoever begins the hot culture war – be it middle class or oligarchy – it will be a war for authoritarianism not idealism. It’ll be strangely reminiscent of past civil power struggles: to consolidate a ruling class. What a depressing prospect. Has human civilisation made so little progress? We know enough to see culture war deploying technology to prosecute its totalitarian vision and inevitably enforcement technology will target middle class and working class alike. What hope for individual merit – let alone citizen autonomy – in the crucible of AI-algorithm judges and mindless automatic enforcement.
There will be no future renaissance for the old education-freedom-equity pluralism. As the middle class takes these ideals for granted – as it pertains to their own education, freedom and equity – but grows selective about large swathes of society cut out of the vision, what were once rights are quietly demoted into privileges. We see this trend already and it shows no sign of abating. It’s almost too cliche to point out the “…and then they came for me” lesson; it should be self-evident.
Enlightenment traditions like independence of body and mind, universal human rights, scientific quest for truth, equality before the rule of law, and – not least – the safeguarding of free-thinking genius (especially if it’s disruptive or disagreeable) are not common in the long timeline of human civilisation. We presume human progress follows the arrow of time but we may be wrong. If the hard won achievements of Western society are eradicated – as culture war for influence escalates into civil war for absolute power – the great gifts of the Age of Reason – liberty, equality and fraternity – will become a mere blip on the long feudal flatline of homo sapiens history.