Serfs up . . . Why the middle class matters


The middle class fought its way out of serfdom and into existence so long ago that the story is sometimes lost in the mists of time. But its importance is not. Many scholars now see the emergence of a class between those with everything – the nobles – and those with nothing – the serfs – as among the most important, if not the most important, societal change in world history.

Today the expansion and growth of the middle classes around the world is almost universally seen as a force for good.

Students of international relations believe it moderates aggression. Political scientists maintain the middle class fosters democracy and political stability. Economists believe it modernises and sparks innovation, driving growth. In a 2008 report, the UN made much of the role of the middle classes in spurring development in poor parts of the world.

No one in recent times has offered a more multilayered and erudite depiction of the role of the middle classes in driving progress than the economic historian Deirdre McCloskey, not only in her writings, most notably The Bourgeois Virtues, but also in her own story, which is testament to the transformational nature and capacities of the class she lionises. Christened and raised as Donald, McCloskey was a father of grown children and a well-established academic before changing sex in middle age.

McCloskey makes a rich historical and philosophical case for how the middle class has created a world in which a widening share of its inhabitants are prosperous, and one in which the bourgeoisie has driven ethical advances, from the abolition of slavery and capital punishment to the curbing of cruelty to animals and the smacking of children.

The bourgeois virtues include a desire for self-exploration moderated by self-restraint, acquisitiveness leavened by empathy, commitment to family and public service, and a belief in “education, education, education”.

But a belief in the importance of the middle class has not always been as common as it is today. WB Yeats (below) sneered at the merchant classes who fumbled “in the greasy till”. Stendhal saw small-mindedness in the middle classes. They were, he said, “meticulous in advancing their own little schemes”. Émile Zola said the bourgeoisie in France was “too much the shopkeeper, too deeply sunk in its own fat”. His contemporary and compatriot Flaubert described the middle class as “plodding and avaricious”.

But the middle class is anything but plodding – who else made the modern world? And Stendhal’s “little schemes” are not something to be derided or dismissed. Rather, they are people’s little dreams: starting a business, organising a family holiday, refurbishing a second home or planning for retirement. None may be heroic, but they provide meaning to life and contribute to others’ well-being.

Contempt for the bourgeoisie has its origins in 19th-century romanticism. Marxism fuelled it through most of the 20th century. A class known for its guilt pangs, neuroses and even self-loathing was never very good at standing up for itself.

But, almost despite itself, the rise of the middle class has been unrelenting.

With one of the world’s highest levels of third-level education among younger people, more and more Irish people are buying into the core middle-class value of education. In many ways, we’re all middle class now.

Next week

Ireland’s Squeezed Middle continues each day in The Irish Times


The squeezed middle: the next generation

By Carl O’Brien

PriceWatch’s recession survival kit

By Conor Pope


The true meaning of negative equity

By Carl O’Brien

Unsqueezing your mind

By Maureen Gaffney


The squeezed education system

By Seán Flynn


The health of the nation in modern Ireland

By Carl O’Brien


The squeezed middle: the political solutions

By Paul Cullen