Class Struggle and the Radicalizing “Middle Class”
By James Matthew Miraflor and Emmanuel M. Hizon
“When political analysts ask, ‘Where are the middle forces, they who triumphed at the two Edsas [people power uprisings]?’ I am tempted to answer: At Starbucks, drinking an iced venti latte."
-Raul Pangalangan, Starbucks and the Class Struggle
Now that another political uprising, on the tradition of EDSA, is slowly gaining ground, brought about by the aborted ZTE NBN deal implicating once more Mrs. Arroyo, the role of what had been dubbed as the “middle class” or the more politically correct term “middle force” in such an upheaval is again slowly entering social discourses. Regardless of how we define the nature and composition of such middle class, its potent capacity to introduce change is already assumed in many progressive and reform-oriented circles, so much so that formations such as the Black and White movement (B&W) explicitly labels itself as a group which has its purpose to organize the disgruntled members of the middle class in its effort to oust the “evil” Arroyo regime.
But how do we characterize the middle class and its members? Usually, they are described as the relatively well-off, well-dressed, wielding relative economic independence and the highly educated segment of society – in short, what the masa is necessarily not. As such, as if a distinct social specie in itself, the middle class as a political force is often contrasted to the more traditional proletarian and peasant class, or, with the worsening of economic destitution and unemployment, the urban poor.
How the forces of the democratic left should treat the middle class had long been subject of theoretical and strategy discourses since the NDF boycott of the 1984 snap elections, which paved the way for the 1986 EDSA people power revolution. Is the move of the left to tap into the potent force of the middle class in recent Philippine political uprisings a return to the pre-Leninist strategy of a bourgeoisie-led democratic revolution? Or is this recent “epiphany of the middle class” (to borrow from Mon Casiple) merely an over determination in the Althusserian sense, with a relatively autonomous and pent-up middle class temporarily taking the revolutionary role of a mal-developed working class, with the working class remaining to be the vanguard force of change in the end?
This brings us to a more urgent question: What is our exact definition and understanding of this particular group?
Defining the “MF”
As members of the democratic left, we hold Marxism not only as tool for social change but also equally, as a tool for social and political analysis. Our Marxist definition of social class is not based on lifestyle, money earned or simple social psychology, but rather on the relation of a specific social class on the means of production of a certain social structure.
It is not true that the left movement out rightly dismisses this group nor is its discourse gravely or consciously avoiding any debate, discussion on the role of the specific social grouping.
In fact, leftists of all shades and students of Marxism vigorously debate the exact composition of the middle class under contemporary capitalism.
Some sections calling themselves as “council communists” say this group is in fact a social class composed of intellectuals, technocrats, bureaucrats, and managers with its own “seizure of power” agenda. Others describe it as a "harmonizing class", a class that is part of the “executive committee for the common affairs of the ruling class” composed of the petit bourgeoisie, professionals and managers. On the other hand, some say, this group refers to the comfortable section of the broad working class population often branded as the affluent white-collar workers.
However, simply put, based on our perspectives coming from the Marxist tradition, the bourgeoisie/capitalists are those who own the means of production, who control economic production and promote wage labor. On the other hand, the working class is the social class that do not own the means of production, and earn their living by offering their bodies, services for the capitalists to extract surplus value in exchange for inadequate wages. The middle class is defined by exception as an intermediate social class between the two, or what we usually call as the petty bourgeoisie.
The petty bourgeoisie is defined as small propertied groups of individuals, which, while contrasted with the proletarian class in as much as they do not entirely rely on the sale of their labor-power, are also differentiated from the bourgeoisie or the capitalist class who own the means of production and buy the labor-power of others to earn profit. Mostly, this includes corporate managers, small property owners and small-scale entrepreneurs, who, while having a degree of control on their income by the virtue of their role in the process of production, are still entirely vulnerable to the dictates of the capitalist controllers of the forces of production.
Therefore, being branded as a member of the middle class is a matter of relation of the individual to commodity, a matter of social relations and a matter of the person’s position in the overall mode of production. You do not classify a person as middle class, for example, just because she or he is usually seen in plush coffee shops, at the Embassy Club or because she or he speaks coňo English. You do not de-class yourself from your true class origins and interests by simply speaking good English, by sheer lifestyle or chić fashion sense.
But unfortunately, the brand “middle class” became a colloquial term which seems to encompass exactly such, the (eloquent, straight) English-speaking minority in contrast with the majority capable at most only of crooked English. In that case, the term middle class is used as a substitute for middle-income – a very wrong substitution indeed.
So how do we characterize the “real Filipino middle class”? The Philippine petit-bourgeoisie in the traditional sense is not even that developed. Mostly coming from the displaced old elite, the real middle class is but a small sub-section of the perceived to be the middle class.
Why didn’t our real middle class grow in the first place? The reason can be traced to the failure of our redistribution strategy. Our agrarian reform program, for example, which is supposed to break feudalism and promote a new and strong middle class through establishing “owner-cultivatorship of economic-sized farms” instead, converted the feudal elite into a nascent capitalist elite, with land and agricultural labor as their base.
So was EDSA I and EDSA II people power uprising really led by the middle class? In practice, neither EDSA I nor EDSA II are middle class events. They were both powered by the working class, only that factions of the ruling class was able to hijack both: on the first instance because the progressive forces by-and-large boycotted it, with the leadership being stolen by the liberal-democratic faction of the elite; on the second instance because the progressive forces are not strong enough to maintain leadership up to the end.
Can it then be perhaps, in our particular case, there is really no third way, no specific middle strata, only an illusory social stratification imposed to us to keep the working class divided, to de-class them and in the end muddle their true class interests? With the “real” middle class defined, where do we fit in this particular group of people who are not necessarily corporate managers, small property owners and small-scale entrepreneurs but are labeled as middle class or middle force?
If we follow this line of thought, what is therefore presented to us is a social grouping wrongly called “middle class” that can either be seen as lesser than the average capitalists or better off than the average worker.
In this case, we go with the latter proposition.
Worker of a New-Type
In actuality, the slow yet determined radicalization of the “middle class” we are witnessing in this particular juncture is in fact the radicalization and participation of an important section of the working class itself. As a consequence of the growing services sector and gradual de-industrialization of the Philippine economy, we are, in fact, witnessing the rise of a new working class whose social definition is not limited to the industrial-factory characterization we in the progressive movement often romanticize.
What we are witnessing is the growing political action of
However, unlike their industrial counterparts, on their own, they wield substantial, albeit latent, political power. There are many reasons for this, but revealing only two will suffice.
First, it is perceived that a large chunk of our country’s revenue comes from such “middle-income” (which is, by and large, above average) “middle class” members, and ever increasingly so. Just look at the taxes levied against professionals, or the high income taxes burdening the highly paid skilled workers. They have the “right of claim” of the government, since they are responsible for a large part of its financing.
Consequently, it is for this reason that they are mostly latent at best as a political force partly because their social mobility aspiration is in loggerhead with their patriotic and progressive values. They are the most reluctant to decide between change and the status quo because they perceived themselves losing their current social status, of being proletarianized in the eventuality of joining a political upheaval. Nonetheless, with proper persuasion, they can become a formidable force for progress, political modernity or of conservatism.
The second source of their political power is their high degree of credibility and objectivity, which stems mainly because of their long exposure in the universities, academic circles and different layers of the government.
In a stratified society such as ours, the ruling class, which in this case is the capitalist class, is the natural subject of criticism. Thus, the rhetoric coming from the ruling capitalist class is received with little appreciation from the working class whose traditional base are the industrial workers. Their class interests are necessarily in contradiction with each other.
Thus, more often than not, this specific layer of the working class often described as middle force serves as the objective fulcrum of change or conservation – the determinant of political direction – because their rhetoric are not perceived as necessarily representative of either the ruling or oppressed class. This is the reason why “middle class support” is highly coveted by both opposing camps, for different purposes.
Either for the purpose of demobilizing their ranks, bending them to conservatism or radicalizing them.
Revolution of a New-Type
Truly, the middle force is proletariat. They may be wielding P180 worth of Starbucks coffee instead of the usual hammer which so symbolized the working class in all recorded history, but nonetheless, they are workers in their own right and are legitimate members of the proletarian movement.
With their entry also comes a plethora of new protest strategies they are introducing, owing much to their exposure to different and often non-traditional faces of production. In the time when the political struggle is more and more becoming a Gramscian battle for position, political blogging, cyber-activism, and other forms of anti-establishment communication which heavily utilize Third Wave technologies (Toffler) are gradually becoming indispensable as tools of mass propaganda to convince and organize.
These new forms of struggle must complement and even amplify existing efforts by the traditional industrial working class to undermine the capitalist state which foundations are anchored not only on political-economic apparatuses of repression but also on the ruling liberal-democratic consensus. The political struggle for democratic space must be complemented with a perception struggle for moral ascendancy, an arena where our “middle force proletariat” thrives.
At the end of the day, the struggle remains to be “proletariat” in its deepest sense – with the real forces behind of the societal system capturing control of the system itself. The traditional base of the working class that is the trade unions must welcome them not with doubt or hesitation but with pride and recognition. Ώ