The Two Middle Classes
Politicians across the Western world like to speak fondly of the “middle class” as if it is one large constituency with common interests and aspirations. But, as Karl Marx observed, the middle class has always been divided by sources of wealth and worldview. Today, it is split into two distinct, and often opposing, middle classes. First there is the yeomanry or the traditional middle class, which consists of small business owners, minor landowners, craftspeople, and artisans, or what we would define historically as the bourgeoisie, or the old French Third Estate, deeply embedded in the private economy. The other middle class, now in ascendency, is the clerisy, a group that makes its living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy.
Standing between the oligarchs, who now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets, and the growing population of propertyless serfs, the traditional middle class increasingly struggles for survival against those with the greatest access to capital and political power. The power of this modern-day equivalent of the Medieval aristocracy, what the French referred to as the Second Estate, seems likely to grow; a recent British parliamentary study projects that, by 2030, the top one percent will expand their share to two-thirds of the world’s wealth, with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated in the top .01 percent. One of the upshots of this concentration of economic power is that entrepreneurship is now declining even in the capitalist hotbed of America.
In contrast, the clerisy has a far less adversarial relationship with the uber-rich, since they operate in large part outside the market system. Like the Catholic Church in Medieval times, this part of the middle class enjoys something of a symbiosis with the oligarchal elites, the main financiers of NGOs, and the universities, and dominates the media and culture industries that employ so many of them. They are often also beneficiaries of the regulatory state, either directly as high-level government employees, or as consultants, attorneys, or through non-profits.
The rise of the clerisy
The term clerisy was coined by Samuel Coleridge in the 1830s to define a class of people whose job it was to instruct and direct the masses. Traditional clerics remained part of this class, but they were joined by others—university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and the heads of charitable foundations. Since the industrial revolution, the clerisy has expanded and become ever-more secular, essentially replacing the religious clergy as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called society’s “new legitimizers.”
Although certainly not unanimous in their views, the clerisy generally favors ever-increasing central control and regulation. French economist Thomas Piketty calls them “the Brahmin Left,” pointing out that their goal is not necessarily growth, nor greater affluence for hoi polloi, but a society shaped by their own progressive beliefs. In this respect, they are, despite a generally secular ideology, reprising the role played in feudal society by the Catholic Church, or what the French referred to as the First Estate.
Today’s clerisy are concentrated in professions whose numbers have grown in recent decades, including teaching, consulting, law, the medical field, and the civil service. In contrast, the size of the traditional middle class—small business owners, workers in basic industries, and construction—have seen their share of the job market decline and shrink.
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Photo credit: Olivier Ortelpa via Wikimedia under CC 2.0 License.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class, is now available to preorder. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin