The barriers to radical politics amongst the progressive middle classes

21 min read

I began this post prompted by what appeared to be the indifference of the progressive middle class. Oh and I had a scrap on Twitter about economics.

The argument went round in circles.

“Oh yes it is!”

“Oh no it isn’t!”

We went on.

I  consider myself a humble person. I aspire to be humble. But in this argument, I was right. I was frustrated by my progressive co-discussant’s unwillingness to engage with radical economic ideas. It puzzled me.

I also wanted to address the point made by Michael Gove in Times article last year, Bourgeois values continue to make us great.

…only when men found dignity and prestige in commercial life, was the revolution in prosperity possible. It was that change in culture and ideas, not any combination of physical factors, which drove the phenomenal transformation in mankind’s prospects for which we have such good reason to be grateful. And that is why the real Promethean spirit, the desire to free mankind from the cave and the shadows so that he can make of this world a place of beauty and richness, is, in its essence, bourgeois .

But when we let the freemarket proceed without constraint, or without recognising the proper role of government, inequality increases to grotesque levels and we provide the conditions for the growth of the far right. While there is value in markets and trade, they can create damaging conditions especially when politicians become overly enthused by them and create markets where they should not be, for example in health, education and prisons. This is the political economy of neoliberalism .

In this blogpost, I consider the impact of neoliberalism on the middle class. Many middle class people, like me, are progressively minded. Many teachers are middle class and progressive. The question I explore here is why does this progressivism not easily translate into radical politics?

I begin with a general consideration of what it means to be middle class. I then consider radical politics in the middle classes. I move on to consider liberal institutions, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. I then introduce theoretical perspectives drawing on Weber, Marx and Arendt. Finally, I conclude that a feature of neoliberalism is the demobilisation of radicalism in the middle classes.

The middle class in the UK

The middle class is a large heterogeneous group of people. Based on contemporary research on class in the UK, the middle class probably accounts for about 50% of the population a . It is difficult to say exactly how big the middle class is, as indeed it is difficult to say what it is exactly. An analysis of the The Great British Class Survey identified three important aspects that define class: economic, social and cultural capital .  This follows the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu. Capital is a kind of asset that can be material, or economic, such as wealth and income. It can also be social where the kinds of people you are connected with afford you opportunities. It is the opening of doors, the friend or family member that might offer an internship or help with access to prestigious groups. Cultural capital is knowledge and familiarity with the arts music, literature, the sciences and humanities, for example. It provides the language and culture to interact using exclusive knowledge and practices. It provides a rich shared intertextual discourse that can develop social capital. And, according to Bourdieu, certain kinds of culture provide social advantage.

Savage goes beyond the traditional three-tier class system of upper, middle and working class, to provide a more finely differentiated seven tier typology of class. These are: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emerging service workers and precariat .

The middle class consist of the established group, the technical group and the new affluent workers. All this is by no means clear cut, since the emerging service worker group typically have high social and cultural capital, but very low economic capital,  so could be considered middle class. But I am going to concentrate on the former groups.

The established middle class represent about 25 per cent of the population . They have internally consistent levels of economic, cultural and social capital but it is much less than the elite. They are closely related to the traditions of middle class, home ownership, university education and professional and managerial work. Their average income is around  £47k . The technical middle class are a smaller group (6 per cent, average income £39k) but have emerged around science, engineering and IT, for example. This contrasts with the established middle class with a tradition of intellectualism around the arts and humanities and the ‘canon’. The technical middle class report a lack of social networks. The new affluent workers (15 per cent of the population, average income £29k), on the other hand, have social networks and capital, but report lower levels of cultural engagement.

The middle class teacher

There has been few attempts to identify the social class of teachers in the state sector in the UK. This is unsurprising as it presents methodological difficulties. A teacher from a working class background enters a profession that is almost by definition middle class. For example, Meg Maguire makes the following observation.

Teaching in the UK is a post-graduate occupation and carries a measure of professional status. Thus, even if (some) teachers originally came from working-class backgrounds, it could be argued that their mobility, levered up through education, has repositioned them as members of the middle class … .

I’m not going to develop an analysis of class politics in state schools here. I wanted to raise some awareness of classness in schools and in education. But I do return to class and schools in the context of capitalism and consciousness shortly.

The radical middle class

The progressive middle class wish to address poverty, are shocked by homelessness and want to ensue that spending is maintained on public services, like health and education. They abhor racism, misogyny and they are in favour of LBGT rights.

They hate Trump, they will go to the occasional protest. They were deeply opposed to the Iraq War.

The are green. They want to protect the environment for their children and grandchildren.

Yet the progressive radical middle class have done quite well over the last thirty or forty years. The value of their house has increased. Their salaries have grown and they have been promoted. There have been, until recent times, plenty of opportunities for the middle class groups identified above.

It is not surprising that some have expressed scepticism about the depth of radical intent within the middle class, especially since capitalism in the form of neoliberalism has served the established, technical middle class and the new affluent workers well.

While once university education and employment in the cultural and service sectors appeared to generate radical dispositions, their power to do so seems to have waned considerably in the present. Recent UK survey findings (Bamfield and Horton 2009) indicate that while the highly educated middle-classes continue to hold permissive views in relation to race and homosexuality, their views in relation to social class are less tolerant. According to Goldthorpe (2007), the middle-classes, despite intraclass differences, will always protect the status quo, and in the twenty-first-century act as bastions of the social order just as much as they did in the past .

This is not a new phenomena. It is no surprise that the middle class in the US also finds itself torn between progressive politics and conservatism. Martin Luther King recognises the problem of ‘moderates’ in the American civil rights movement in the 1960s:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season” .
Many of the radical middle class, the ‘moderates’, are prepared to march and wave witty placards and signs in the air. But this is too often a fake consciousness, that has little authenticity. They are unaware, dumbed by their own day-to-day experience, and are unconnected with any real motivation to act.

A crisis of capitalism

The 2008 banking crisis came as a shock. It affected the middle class, although the poorest in society bore the brunt. It was clear that neoliberalism had been the cause, reducing public spending and transferring it to private debt, then to find that much of the private debt was overvalued. Economist Steve Keen explains it to the Occupy movement in Sydney in the following video.

An anti-austerity anti-neoliberal sentiment and movement began to grow, the ‘progressive’ middle class supported this. But for many, only in principle.

Bill Mitchell, in his most recent blog When progressives become neo-liberals and create a Trump  illustrates the political catastrophe that arises from an indifference and political disinterest in economic reform. That many so-called progressives are not prepared to challenge neoliberalism with its jargon of deficit and austerity. Yet, this form of political economy has been the cause of rising inequality and disaffected and marginalised communities. The consequences of this is the facilitation of the far right. Neoliberalism created Trump and it will invigorate the far right in Europe.

The cause of the Global Financial Crisis was a direct result of the failure of liberal institutions: governments, political parties, banks and university economics departments. As Steve Keen suggests in the video they can’t change because they don’t want to.

Liberal middle-class institutions

The progressive middle class like their institutions. No, they really love them. The places they work, local councils, political parties, Westminster, hospitals, schools, universities and the EU1I have written about my Eurosceptic position here. They work for them and they know how to work within them. It is the very definition of liberal middle-class – being able to make liberal institutions work for them and being able to work within them.

The financial crisis has exposed the failure of many of these institutions. Neoliberalism has morphed them into presidential-led, managerial, hierarchical organisations  They focus on outcomes and results. They suppress the value of process. They lose their sense of participation, inclusion and democracy. There are many for whom these institutions have failed. It is these that will understandably be attracted by the simple anti-establishment solutions of the far right. Yet the liberal middle class look to the same establishment institutions to defend against the rise of the far right.

They can’t and they won’t. They evolve to perpetuate and defend their own institutional purpose, even if that purpose has ceased to be relevant or efficacious. The possibility of change becomes remote. Yet, in times of crisis the liberal middle class look to these institutions for answers and protection. When in fact they are as much a part of the problem as they are of not being part of the solution.

Hannah Arendt’s idea of false politics2I have written about the false politics in Labour party here  characterizes the dangers of middle class liberal institutions. It is a warning from history. False politics can be seen as fake deliberation and debate within an institution, where the realities of the context and real issues are suppressed. Participants focus on maintaining and sustaining extant practices. Even protecting zombie approaches that are no longer relevant to making the institution relevant or purposeful in the outside world. The emergence of false politics was one of the conditions that led to totalitarianism. It is a preoccupation with not doing anything to address the real needs of the community, but the assumption that the preservation of institutions and institutional practices will address those needs.

The Protestant Ethic

This connects with Weber’s perspective on capitalism and the role of Protestantism in its perpetuation. While Marx had previously explained the rise of capitalism in economic and materialist terms, Weber looked at the role of the psyche in this. In his essay, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism ((The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, he argues that Protestantism emphasises individualism and self-discipline, that the individual can be empowered in this life. This promoted hard work and saving, enough saving to significantly expand the means of production. The implications of this are more general. Religious vocation transforms into economic rationality and this becomes an organising principle for individual thought and action. Mechanisation, technologies, audit, accounting and efficiency become rooted in human cognition and behaviour. Through Protestantism consciousness was reformatted to capitalism. Marx saw capitalism as something people do to each other, Weber located it in our thinking .

Economic rationality is at the nub of progressive middle class thinking.

In schools now, it pervades: assessment, attainment, progress, data, curriculum, knowledge and learning are all considered in terms of an economic rationality. We can assess and measure, identify gaps and improve by invoking scientifically evaluated programmes. We bureaucratise. Manage behaviour: zero tolerance, no excuses. We even believe we can address social mobility through economic rationalism within a capitalist system. Paradox.

The middle class is aware of the injustice and inequality but chooses to ignore the real causes. Because as Arendt and Weber observed their psyche is inseparable from the institutions they are in. Challenging those institutions is a challenge to the existence of the middle class. Without those institutions they become proletarianized. Heaven forbid.

Petty bourgeoisie

Petty bourgeoisie is an anglicised form of petite bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels described this group in the nineteenth century as an emergent class, sitting between the bourgeoisie and proletariat . This petty bourgeoisie were both owners, with ownership of limited means of production, in which they would act as labour too. Marx saw this in terms of a divided alliance, in that they had commonality with the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In neoliberalism, where in the public sector and what were previously nationalised industries the petty bourgeoisie is sustained. Existing in a hierarchy, a school head of department, with quasi ‘ownership’, is  also labourer, as a classroom teacher. The difference between this and earlier conceptions is that the department head, the manager, has people, they have to extract surplus value from labour. But it’s not like the old-style factory foreman, because now the instruments of capitalism are handed to the head of department. They have to ensure returns in return for their enhanced status and pay. They are effectively renting the means of production in return for increased pay. A managerial role in the public sector is grande petite bourgeoisie. The foreman was different, a charge hand.

The same divided loyalties must still exist, since the they are still one of the workers and hence proletarian. But also bourgeoisie, as the owners, subcontracting to the trust that runs the academy school chain, for example.

Neoliberalism serves to strengthen the petty bourgeoisie and diminish their potential for revolution. Whereas previously, in a public-sector service, schools and the staff are not conceived of, nor are they engaged as producers, but as citizens engaged in state-funded services.

Interestingly, Poulantzas identifies the dilemma and limitations of the petty bourgeoisie. Their dilemma is a result of not being in either group and that they do not want to be fully proletarian:

Status-quo anti-capitalism. Effective exploitation is hidden here, because it is experienced mainly in the form of the salary. This group therefore aspires to ‘social justice’, through State redistribution of income. They make declarations against ‘big money’, mainly in the form of demands about taxation. There is an ‘egalitarian’ aspect to the demand for equalization of ‘income’, and often parliamentary cretinism comes in too. They fear proletarianization, but above all they fear a revolutionary transformation of society, because of the insecurity they experience through their salaried position. They fear an upheaval which could affect the earnings of non-productive employees, and they often fail to take into account the mechanisms of production, and the exploitative role of ownership of the means of production .

Chris Hedges observes in the US how neoliberalism has effectively demobilised the middle classes, or in what he calls the liberal classes:

But the assault by the corporate state on the democratic state has claimed the liberal class as one of its victims. Corporate power forgot that the liberal class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite. And reducing the liberal class to courtiers or mandarins, who have nothing to offer but empty rhetoric, shuts off this safety valve and forces discontent to find other outlets that often end in violence. The inability of the liberal class to acknowledge that corporations have wrested power from the hands of citizens, that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty have become irrelevant, and that the phrase consent of the governed is meaningless, has left it speaking and acting in ways that no longer correspond to reality. It has lent its voice to hollow acts of political theater, and the pretense that democratic debate and choice continue to exist .

I started this blogpost furious with the indifference of the middle class. Marching without real intent to change anything. I am far less angry having written this and thought about the reasons for middle class demobilization. Rather than being fake radicals, I have more sympathy with the context in which they work and live and how the mechanisms of this experience counter revolutionary thought and behaviour. I am not cross with them anymore. But I do recognise that the institutions within which they work must change. The neoliberal managerialism and economic rationality needs change.

As I have written in a forthcoming chapter for Flip the System UK , there are four dimensions for reform: scholarship (to counter false politics), activism (motivating change), solidarity (a reminder that in capitalism there are two classes, the 1 per cent and the rest of us) and democracy (as opposed to economic rationality in decision making).



Arnett, G. (2016, February 26). UK became more middle class than working class in 2000, data shows. The Guardian.
BBC Radio 4. (n.d.). Weber’s The Protestant Ethic. Retrieved March 3, 2017, from
Crozier, G., James, D., & Reay, D. (2011). White middle-class identities and urban schooling. Palgrave Macmillan.
Gove, M. (2016, December 30). Bourgeois values continue to make us great;  The left’s reflex disdain for middle-class morals shows a profound ignorance of what drives progress and prosperity. The Times, 27.
Hansen, P. (1993). Hannah Arendt: politics, history and citizenship. Polity Press.
Harvey, D. (2011). A brief history of neoliberalism (Reprinted). Oxford Univ. Press.
Hedges, C. (2010). Death of the liberal class. Nation Books.
Maguire, M. (2001). The cultural formation of teachers’ class consciousness: teachers in the inner city. Journal of Education Policy, 16(4), 315–331.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1969). Manifesto of the communist party. Progress Publishers. (Original work published 1848)
Mitchell, W. F. (2017, March 2). When progressives become neo-liberals and create a Trump. Bill Mitchell - Billy Blog.
Poulantzas, N. (1979). Fascism and dictatorship: The Third International and the problem of fascism. Verso.
Savage, M. (2015). Social class in the 21st century. Pelican, an imprint of Penguin Books.
Watson, S. (2017). A manifesto for control: democracy, scholarship, activism and solidarity. In L. Rycroft-Smith & J.-L. Dutaut (Eds.), Flip the system UK: a teachers’ manifesto (pp. 68–75). Routledge.
Weber, M. (2001). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Routledge.
King Jr., M. L. (1963, April 16). Letter From a Birmingham Jail.


  1. This essay by Steve Watson is useful. The question he asks is made relevant by the thesis or argument across which he addresses his own question. Steve extrudes his piece, articulates his sense of things, using terms and across a frame of reference meaningful to him; but it’s then possible to empathise with its fundamental validity across what is meaningful to you the reader.
    I spent a decade working in a private school for “educationally fragile” young people. I saw our students as having ended in our school because they “were autistic” or “were behaviourally challenging”. I found it possible to empathise with our students, ending subscribing to the social model of disability, where the pivotal idea is that it is social and societal arrangements which mediate ‘disability’, where what you then want is a progressive and rectifying address of that mediating circumstance. I was tolerated, but never understood or respected by colleagues and management.
    Steve offers a wire-frame understanding of the dynamics in such a situation where a progressive impulse is lost. I tended to grapple with this same matrix in a short-range manner; a snakes and ladders metaphor often proving useful. A colleague or manager or governor might intellectually agree with what was to me a progressive observation (so our ladder), but then a snake moment would follow where this other would not go with me into progressive action (across the complex social psychological dynamics Steve evokes in his essay)..
    I then applied what was happening to me across the very middle-class order of the School, to understand what was playing out for students, as they attempted to communicate their impulse to a rectifying progression to others. I then think that Steve’s thesis could be extended to consider the situation of those his progressive politics would represent, as they less intellectually than he: firstly come up against what frustrates him and them; secondly attempt to articulate thinking and feeling on this circumstance of stillborn progress, in the terms of existence they find themselves having.
    While some, across the situational societal and political failure Steve speaks to, swing to the right politically, many swing to the left. The question arises as to what relieving resource of analysis and narrative might be useful to this latter group as they seek progressive rectification.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful reading Colin. And sorry for the delay in responding. In response to your last question, from a personal perspective, the thing that has kept me ‘woke’ is through being a student of political economy. First Marx and more recently Polanyi and Modern Monetary Theory. It has given me a sense of how things become so unfairly distributed and how a system of capitalism & neoliberalism defends those inequalities. In fact it creates a mindset in people to defend it. This is indeed middle class liberal conservatism – now there’s an oxymoron.

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