The Middle Classes

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Margaret R. Hunt

"The middle class" is a term widely applied in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to people who occupy the middle position between those who have to labor continually in order to survive, and those who hold ancestral "blood rights" to monopolize political power, economic resources, and social privilege. Historically this "middle class" has displayed great regional variability and much internal complexity and been highly sensitive to fluctuating business cycles. Impossible to pin down precisely, the status of being "middle class" is often assumed to inhere most authentically in commercial people (manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, merchants), though it is frequently applied to more diverse groupings, which might include civil servants, "upper" white-collar salary earners, professionals, teachers and other intellectuals, rentiers (those who live on income from investments), and even (it has been argued) apparatchiks (bureaucrats). Common usage by social historians differentiates between the periods before and after industrialization—a phenomenon that occurred at different times in different European nations. For the period before industrialization there is a tendency to favor terms like "bourgeoisie," "burgher class," or "the middling sort." After industrialization there seems to be a preference for "middle class" or "middle classes."

Because of this imprecision, some historians have called for eliminating the term entirely on the grounds that it is too vague and, due to its central role in marxist polemic, too overdetermined to be really useful. Thus an influential group of historians has also argued that any and all attempts to categorize people, even very loosely, according to their economic role or market position constitutes rank reductionism.

Beyond definitional issues, few people are neutral on the subject of the middle class. And it would be difficult to find a group that has been subjected either to so much hostility or so much praise. Blamed for everything from colonialism to environmental degradation, from sexual repression to twelve-tone music, from facism to urban blight, the middle classes are also routinely viewed as people without whom no nation can rise to distinction: the bulwark of the law, the engine of economic development, and the bedrock of morality and family values.


The germ of the "middle class" is generally thought to be medieval town or city dwellers, often members of crafts guilds, grain or livestock merchants, notaries, moneylenders, and the like. These individuals ("bourgeois," "burghers," or "citizens") could be found most often in those places blessed with a relative abundance of towns, most notably in the late medieval and early Renaissance period, the Italian peninsula, Flanders, or along the north coast of Germany. It seems likely that some of these groups' practices and traditions derived from those of medieval traders, many of them of Middle Eastern origin. Nonetheless, the Italians, particularly, invented a number of practices and procedures, most notably bookkeeping, international banking, and moneylending, as well as a close attendance on the law courts, that were to exert a great influence on later generations. These burghers were also often deeply committed to local civic or guild prerogatives, which they sometimes had to work hard to protect from the depredations of local lords.

The fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries saw a very significant growth in some parts of Europe in the number and size of cities; an increase in the power, complexity, and military belligerence of many early modern monarchies and nation states; the breakup of the old Catholic consensus; a significant intensification of extra-European long-distance trade as a result of the "discovery" of the New World and of new trade routes to the East; and the passing of economic dominance from the Mediterranean states to northwestern Europe. None of these developments was a distinctly "bourgeois" phenomenon. Nonetheless,


"The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part," wrote Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto of 1848. In one pugnacious phrase they set the terms of the debate for generations of social historians to come. Who was (and is) the bourgeoisie? Is it the same as the "middle class"? Has it ever been as unified a group as Marx and Engels seem to imply? What roles has it in fact played in revolutionary times? How much responsibility does it bear for the less dramatic, but in their way "revolutionary" transformations that have created the world we now inhabit, and were those transformation inevitable? Does bunching disparate individuals and collectivities together into so-called "classes" obscure more than it illuminates?

Not surprisingly, historians seeking answers to these questions have lavished a good deal of attention upon the great western European political revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Christopher Hill's English Revolution, 1640 (1940) argued that the parliamentary side was powerfully aided and abetted by urban merchants and bankers and capitalist estate owners, and that the revolution had the effect of making England "safe" for capitalism. Marx himself unequivocally called the French Revolution of 1789 "the French bourgeois revolution" (Marx, Capital, 1984, Vol. I, p. 92), and several generations of French historians, perhaps most prominently Albert Soboul, have labored to expose the lineaments of the historic defeat of feudalism that it is said to have represented. Similar claims have been made for the long, if intermittent, Dutch war of independence against Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the American Revolution of 1776, the (failed) 1848 revolutions, various nationalist revolutions against Ottoman rule, and both the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905 and the first phase of the Revolution of 1917.

Other historians (Alfred Cobban, François Furet, Colin Lucas, for France; J. H. Hexter, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Conrad Russell for England; and many others) have strenuously combatted the notion that any or all of these revolutions represent "bourgeois revolutions." Critics of the "bourgeois revolution" thesis argue that most of these revolutions were actually initiated by members of the nobility, and that they often look more like an "aristocratic reaction" than they do a revolution against feudalism. They note that in none of these revolutions can one find "bourgeois" groups lining up on only one side of the conflict. Moreover, the ideals of most revolutionaries seem far removed from the mundane concerns of bankers, merchants, or industrialists, and have often had the effect of retarding economic growth rather than promoting it. Sometimes it is nobles who espouse "progressive" social and economic policies. These critics have significantly undermined reductionist identifications of class status or "material conditions" more generally with the urge to revolution and indeed with "ideology" more generally.

However, a less desireable tendency of much of their work has been to detach social and economic issues entirely from the process of historical change and to imply that politics and ideology float entirely free of social and economic conditions. Their revolutions often look like chance occurrences within a bland world of consensus, or the outcome of thousands upon thousands of atomized acts of individual frustration.

Later historians undertook a variety of efforts to reinsert social and economic data into a more ideologically nuanced and causally complex picture of the great and small European revolutions. Christopher Hill's writings from the 1980s, far more than did the English Revolution, 1640, acknowledge the political heterogeneity of men of trade, and emphasize the long-term results of the revolution, many of them "unintended," rather than any unconscious, much less purposeful desire to establish a more capitalist society. Lynn Hunt's Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution (1984) replaces the narrow question of the relationship of ideology to "class" with an emphasis on region, occupation, and "insider" versus "outsider" status. She points out, contrary to Marx's opinion, that there was nothing inexorable about the way the revolution unfolded and that it did little either for the health of commerce or to restore political stability. However, she also shows that, after a slow start, "new men," notably professionals, and to some extent merchants and manufacturers, played a very significant role in revolutionary, as well as counterrevolutionary politics, creating, as well as seizing, the opportunities presented by the new political culture of the 1790s. She concludes that "while revolutionary politics cannot be deduced from the social identity of revolutionaries, . . . neither can it be divorced from it . . ." (Hunt, 1984, p. 13). Her account thus cautiously adopts part of the marxist schema, while rejecting historicaldeterminism and insisting that occupation is only one among many variables that influence political ideology and political participation.

Historians of the middle class have, in the 1980s and 1990s, been as much if not more concerned with the differences that divide this class than with the commonalities that occasionally and inconsistently unite them. Few have been able to locate a single, unified middle class. Rather this is a group or groups riven not only by differences of relative market positioning, but also by gender, religion, race, nationality, and age. As a result, some historians have sought to replace the old notion of a single middle class with two or more classes. Thus R. S. Neale argues for both a "middling class" and a "middle class." Among social historians of Germany it is common to differentiate between the middle and upper bourgeoisie, the Bürgertum, and a lower-middle class, the Kleinbürgertum or Mittelstand. The Bürgertum is often further differentiated into the Bildungsbürgertum (professionals, academics, intellectuals, some salaried government officials) and the Wirtschaftsbürgertum (entrepreneurs, capitalists, managers, rentiers). To these debates may be added the large and growing literature on the lower middle class in numerous countries, which often focuses on the way its members pursue divergent political paths from other middle-class groupings.

If the bourgeois revolutionary looks less resolute, less class conscious, and indeed less like a single class than it used to, the notion of a bourgeois revolution has experienced something of a comeback, though in substantially altered form. A particularly influential position is that of David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, as articulated in a number of books and articles focusing upon German history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They argue that, while it is true that the revolutions of 1848 were, in most places, an abject failure in terms of winning the middle class any significant political power, nonetheless Wilhelmine Germany experienced what they call a "silent Bourgeois revolution." There, in Blackbourn's words,

an economically progressive bureaucracy served almost as a kind of surrogate bourgeoisie, leveling the ground on which the capitalist order would stand, as well as undertaking some of the preliminary construction work on its own account. Secularization removed property from the "dead hand" of the church; the peasantry was emancipated and a free market in land confirmed; guild restrictions were pruned away; and internal tariffs to freedom of trade were removed." (Blackbourn and Eley, The Peculiarities of German History, 1984, pp. 176–77).

Blackbourn goes on to point out that after unification, the Wilhelmine government established technical schools and other incentives to innovation, founded a national bank, improved communication and transportation, and reformed commercial law and practice. While the state was clearly key, capitalists were hardly supine in this period. They oversaw the emergence of the public limited company and developed a variety of ways of mobilizing capital and facilitating exchange. Older industries, particularly heavy industry, recorded considerable gains, while a variety of new manufacturers came into being. At the same time modern conceptions of the rule of law gained widespread acceptance and middle-class people flocked to clubs, societies, and philanthropic associations.

If Blackbourn's view of Germany's development is more positive than we are accustomed to, his conception of modernity is more complex than simply "the rise of the bourgeoisie." As he shows, enthusiasm for and commitment to the notion of progress was diffused very widely across society, involving the state, working-class groups, aristocrats, and capitalists. And those who opposed it were similarly diverse, including more traditional small-scale capitalists (small producers) and sectors of the working class, peasantry, and nobility.

If one reconfigures one's vision to see the late nineteenth century (as Blackbourn and Eley seem to be urging us to do) in terms of an embrace of and confrontation with modernity rather than "the rise of the bourgeoisie" it becomes clear why so many middle-class people were deeply ambivalent about and alienated from both capitalism and modernity more generally. Undoubtedly one of the more interesting features of the middle class, particularly in the modern period, has been its enthusiasm for self-criticism, as well as the number of self-proclaimed "class exiles" it has managed to generate. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), the son of a lawyer and the son of a factory owner, respectively, were only two among many. While some among the alienated middle class actually came from declining groups (we need to remember that many middle-class people were downwardly mobile in the nineteenth and early twentieth century), it seems likely that many of them were simply articulating a more widespread and less class-specific anxiety about the pace and unpredictability of modernization—an anxiety to which almost anyone might be prone, but which intellectuals were far more likely to articulate.

Be that as it may, much scholarly work on the middle class(es) written since World War II has focusedon their putative psychic insecurity and the way in whichthey were perpetually "creating" themselves as individuals, families, and classes. This problem has especially appealed to scholars on the left, who have contributed an important body of work tracing the establishment of a normatively "middle-class" culture. Thus, to mention just one among many, Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out the way that the English middle class not only favored particular types of sport (tennis, golf) over others marked as lower class (for example, football) but, in his words, "made amateurism, i.e. leisure both to pursue sports and to achieve high standards at them, the test of 'true' sportsmen" (Hobsbawm, "The Example of the English Middle Class," p. 141).

The problem of how the middle class made itself has been taken up with especial enthusiasm by later scholars influenced by postmodernism, who, while they have perhaps been insufficiently critical of the term "middle class" itself (presumably because the group's fuzzy boundaries and mutability lend themselves so well to the sorts of analysis they prefer), have nonetheless added many new nuances to our picture of the middle class(es). They have also made it harder either to make inflated claims about middle-class hegemony or to engage in what Lynn Hunt calls "a mechanistic deduction of politics from social structure" (Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class, 1984, p. 11).

Particularly important interventions have been made with respect to questions of gender. The output of books and articles on women and gender has been huge, touching on topics as diverse as mistress-servant relations, fashion, shopping and consumerism, marriage and divorce, philanthropy, and the women's rights movements. They paint a complicated picture of a middle class riven by gender insecurity and conflict, but one in which women fulfilled a wide variety of "class" functions, from patrolling racial and other status boundaries to supplying significant amounts of capital and invisible, unpaid labor.

Race has also emerged as a key factor in the formation of a European middle class. In a book entitled Race and the Education of Desire (1995), Ann Stoler argues that in both Britain and the Netherlands "[the] cultivation and unique sexuality [of the bourgeois body] was nourished by a wider Colonial world of Manichaean distinctions: by Irish, 'Mediterranean,' Jewish, and non-European Others who provided the referential contrast for it" (Stoler, 1995, p. 136). For Stoler, too, the middle class is a nervous and unstable entity, which, far from "rising" in any definitive way, is forever trying to create itself at other groups' expense.

In the late twentieth century, at least in western Europe, many commentators argue that the middle classes, have become so fragmented and atomized as to be largely unintelligible. The disruptions of World Wars I and II; the triumph of consumption over production; the rise of mass culture (especially radio, television, and advertising) at the expense of more localized and class-specific cultures; the centrality of forms of identity based upon race, religion, party, and affinities other than social class, and the taxonomic challenges posed by such developments as the sharp growth of a white-collar "salariat"; the expansion of the service sector; and the migration of many manufacturing jobs to underdeveloped countries, have, they argue, made the nineteenth-century language of class and class cultures obsolete. It must be said though that the end of the cold war and the apparent world wide defeat of communism has revived the claim that what we saw in the late twentieth century was the ultimate victory of the entrepreneurial middle class and the installation of a new universalism of pure individual self-interest free of traditional impediments, such as national borders. It may be that the term "middle class" is a sort of semantic fossil that no longer bears any relationship to actual social formations. However, the fact that it remains indispensable in common usage may be a signal that history and historians have not seen the last of this hard-to-define, never-quite-rising, yet strangely persistent body.

all had a significant impact on trade and consumption and hence the growth of an urban "middling sort."

The new cities, with their complex provisioning needs, offered numerous opportunities for trade and commerce, while at the same time providing the locus for a wide range of civic and cultural activities. The new states provided an unending supply of jobs suitable to lowborn but literate men, while its wars helped bring into being a whole new class of army contractors and middlemen. In these years men (and occasionally women) of commerce learned how to work closely, and generally unobtrusively, with city, provincial, and even national governments in a symbiotic relationship that was, more often than not, to both sides' advantage. Not surprisingly, some of the richest commercial families consolidated their wealth as well as their social position by moving up into the nobility, either by marriage alliances or by outright buying of titles, though the percentage of middling people who actually succeeded in doing this was probably small.

Few social historians any longer view the Protestant Reformation as a stealth move by capitalists—or even a development that necessarily favored them. Max Weber's famous claim in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905) that Calvinism, in particular, "taught" its adherents how to be better entrepreneurs, and hence was more positively correlated with business success than Catholicism, has fallen before copious evidence about the entrepreneurial zeal of Catholics. Historians now argue that both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations offered an expanded role in culture and politics for literate non-elites and urban people in general. There also seems to be a guarded consensus among historians that the period saw an increased valuation of work and of secular activities for their own sake, as expressed in the new attention to natural (as opposed to supernatural) explanatory frameworks characteristic of the so-called "scientific revolution," and later the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

At the same time, religious differences (between Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Gentiles, or even, in those parts of Europe under the domination of the Ottoman Empire, Muslims and others) cut a deep cleavage through groupings that one might, based on material considerations alone, have expected to make common cause. This was to be an enduring theme: while economic issues clearly play a role in group identity, they very seldom tell the whole story, and they are often "trumped"—or, quite simply, they disintegrate—before other allegiances.

The intensification of both long-distance and "domestic" trade ruined many bourgeois people while drawing others into the new trade nexus: many of the early shareholders in overseas adventures were members of the nobility, a high-living group that has seldom been averse to making money, particularly if it did not have to get its hands dirty. However, as with most entrepreneurial activity in the early modern period (with the partial but important exceptions of mineral extraction and, in some parts of Europe, some capitalist agriculture), the people who actually did the hands-on managerial work of banking, short- and long-distance trade, manufacturing, and getting the grain to market—those who took on the real risk—tended to be people of bourgeois stock.

Long-distance trade in particular, due both to the high profits that can come from it and its extreme volatility, came in some sense to define the upper reaches of the entrepreneurial classes, men who became veritable merchant princes (and were sometimes ennobled for their pains), but who manifested a certain lack of permanence that was characteristic of their class. These were families who could stand on the pinnacle of worldly success only to fall with a suddenness that seemed to call all human projects into question. In not a few countries these nerve-wracking roles fell disproportionately to "outsiders" of one sort or another: Huguenots or dissenters in England; Jews (particularly the Sephardim) in Holland; Armenians, Jews, and ethnic Greeks in the Ottoman Empire; ethnic Germans in Bohemia; various nonnationals in the Russian Empire. Often these groups were excluded from more traditional occupations or labored under various civil disabilities. Those who could, took advantage of far-flung kinship networks and the presumed solidarity of co-religionists to ensure accountability in a time of slow communication and few safeguards against cheating or peculation.

The prolonged depression that afflicted southern and central Europe from the 1580s on signals one of the fundamental realities of middling life, one that militates powerfully against the vision of these people as a unified whole. At the heart of entrepreneurial endeavor is, and has been, competition—between families, between nations, between regions, between old and new industries. Moreover, this competition is played out within a universe that is highly unpredictable. Economic trends then and now are far easier to discern in retrospect than they are while they are happening. Regions that, in one century or even one generation, are at the heart of a bustling trade, can go into full decline in the next as a result of war, a change of government, trade restrictions, epidemic disease, a succession of bad harvests, or simply a change of taste. A once-vibrant center of commerce that formerly supported large-scale trade in a range of commodities can turn into a depopulated backwater that supports little but barter and a few desultory livestock sales. Centers turn into peripheries, and peripheries become the centers of new economic systems. The European middle classes, like their investments, were constantly rising and falling.

Seventeen-century Holland: a "bourgeois" society. By the mid-seventeenth century the particular alignment of center and periphery that has in some if not all respects survived in Europe to this day was already evident. Undoubtedly, the most significant marker of this was the phenomenal success of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Auspiciously located athwart the main land, river, and sea routes linking east and central Europe, the British Isles, France, and the Mediterranean states, with well-developed connections to the East Indies via the Dutch East India Company and the West Indies via the Dutch West India Company, the Netherlands were well situated to monopolize a gigantic proportion of seventeenth-century waterborne commerce. As a result of their successful war of independence against Spain, the United Provinces also possessed a republican polity, and a laudable, if at times somewhat fractured, patriotic spirit. In a century almost everywhere characterized by economic depression and a declining or stagnant population, the Netherlands stood out as the exception. In so doing it came to represent both for contemporaries, and for many modern-day historians, the quintessential early modern bourgeois (or, to use the Dutch term, burgerlijk) society.

Some of the Dutch provinces boasted local nobilities, but they played a far smaller cultural role and had less political power than in many European nations. Instead, power lay in the hands of civic elites, most of whom had risen via mercantile wealth, and who tended to have strong links to Calvinism. They oversaw a unique culture that came, in its own time, to be the talk of Europe. Contemporaries struggled to define just what made the Netherlands so unusual. By reconstructing what they saw, we can get a sense of how complex the problem of the "middle class" is. By the seventeenth century there was already a well-developed association between middling urban dwellers (generally traders or masters) and traits like a strong belief in the power of work, compulsive thriftiness, an exaggerated attention to time, high rates of literacy and numeracy, and a certain lack of both imagination and martial virtues. Contemporary efforts to explain the "Dutch miracle" by reference to such characteristics can be seen in printed tracts, plays, and other cultural productions of the time in a number of European languages. These characterizations seem to have derived from empirical observation of at least some businesspeople (though adherence to these precepts must have been extremely variable) puzzled efforts to try to figure out why some prospered when others failed, a tendency (to which modern historians are not immune) to identify prescription too closely with actual behavior, and a desire to cut an overweening group (that is, the Dutch) down to size.

These stereotypes have a very long history in relation to "the middle classes." And their sheer ubiquity suggests that they need to be taken seriously at the level of discourse, if less often at the level of behavior. However, as the United Provinces show, they are far too reductionist to stand on their own as a credible description of people's behavior across the board. Thus, as Simon Schama explains in The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987), the good burghers of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and like cities were hardly exemplars of Max Weber's "worldly asceticism"; instead they boasted sumptuous houses (many of which can still be seen gracing the Keizersgracht and Herengracht Canals in Amsterdam), and cultivated a taste for serious eating, drinking, and tobacco consumption. Amsterdam shoppers could find whole streets and districts devoted to bookselling, nautical goods, spices, haberdashery, house furnishings, textiles, flowers, and even pets, those decorative little parasites that were just then becoming de rigueur in respectable homes. They could also tour a well-developed red-light district, roughly coterminous with its present-day location. Seventeenth-century Hollanders' commitment to work was just as likely to manifest itself in elaborate civic rituals, or, in the case of women, in the less-than-profitable activity (in monetary terms) of housecleaning as it was in the mundane activity of making money. While the Dutch certainly preferred peace to war, they could hardly be described as lacking in martial vigor, not only fighting off Spanish imperial domination in the Eighty Years' War (1568–1648), but repeatedly going to war with other European nations in defense of their trade.

And whatever else might have been imputed to the Dutch in the seventeenth century, a lack of imagination was not one of them. Visitors marveled at the way the Dutch East India Company built its own bevy of artificial islands in the midst of the harbor, Amsterdamers' ingenious methods for lifting huge ships over sandbars, the number and variety of the city's philanthropic and correctional institutions, the Dutch distaste for persecuting people on grounds of religion (though they made an exception for Catholics), their penchant for covering their walls with pictures from everyday life, and last, but by no means least, their remarkable ability to wrest huge tracts of land from the sea and turn them into lush farmland.

"Middling culture" in post-revolutionary England. In the seventeenth century Holland's main competitor (and emulator) was England. England's mid-century revolution, as well as the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were, in the first instance, conceived by political elites, not by bourgeois elements, but the period of upheaval gave rise to a number of changes that profoundly affected the climate of commerce and the lives of middling people. A series of bloody wars waged against the Dutch by both parliamentary and royalist regimes significantly reduced that nation's control over waterways and key export commodities, and by the late seventeenth century this had resulted in a significant increase in the British volume of trade. A fairly high degree of religious toleration was instituted under Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), carried through into the Restoration, and then enshrined permanently in the revolution settlement of 1689. England, unlike Holland, possessed a genuine aristocracy and gentry, which wielded real power in the cities and towns, in the rural areas, and in Parliament.

This fact has led historians to ask whether the middling sort in England really differed in cultural terms from their social superiors. The upper echelons of the middling sort undeniably "aped" the gentry to some degree; however, most middling people could not afford to live like the gentry, nor could they contemplate intermarrying with them. These people's lives, as is true of commercial people everywhere in the early modern period, were characterized by a great deal of insecurity and by a close engagement with trade and industry—something one seldom finds among the gentry. At the same time, one characteristic that the middling shared with their betters, but that differentiated them from many of their inferiors, was that by this time the vast majority of urban middling people, both male and female, knew how to read and write. One sign of this, a very advantageous one from the point of view of social historians, is that it became something of a fashion among middling groups beginning in the late seventeenth century to pen diaries and autobiographies. As a result we have extremely revealing diaries from a wide range of middling city dwellers.

This historical trove makes it possible to develope a few generalizations about "middling culture" (it seemed to be much concerned—at least rhetorically—with keeping good accounts; it was quite pious, though not necessarily more than other groups we know something about; it was much concerned about time-management issues), but it also shows how difficult it is to generalize about middling individuals. Thus, some middling diarists were more concerned about the state of their souls than the condition of their businesses, while others seldom went to church. Some were disgusted by aristocratic pretension, and others hobnobbed with them, and so on. Perhaps one of the few things that drew together the middling sort was an acute consciousness of risk: unlike their superiors there was no cushion between them and the vagaries of the market.

Economic differentiation and the middle classes in the eighteenth century. By the end of the seventeenth century, and still more so as the eighteenth century unfolded, a considerable amount of economic differentiation was making itself felt in Europe. It was by no means the case that all of the Northwest was prosperous. Ireland was already manifesting the results of British policies aimed at eliminating it as potential competition in the realm of finished goods. Large parts of Scandinavia were too cold to produce much in the way of agricultural exports. On the other hand, there were zones of very considerable economic strength even in otherwise underdeveloped or stagnant economies. For example, Catalonia, in northern Spain, developed a robust, urbanized economy. Istanbul and other Ottoman port towns, despite having largely lost the spice trade to Holland, still supported a very considerable carrying trade around the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. Parts of the Balkans, notably Bulgaria, would soon develop a fairly significant textile industry, fueled both by the Ottoman army's need for uniforms, and by a growing demand from central Europe and the Middle East. Nations lucky enough to possess large mineral and ore deposits—for example, Sweden and Russia—hastened to exploit them. But many parts of Europe remained or became economically marginal or "trapped" in underdevelopment as the North Atlantic economies' respective stars rose.

Although at the time it was standard to blame what was sometimes referred to as "the productive classes" for the state of affairs (contemporaries often bemoaned the small size of their local middle class or complained about their addiction to luxury and idleness), that is only part of the story. Commercial people did, in certain times and places, move away from trade and hole up in "safe" investments, such as country houses (this is what seems to have happened in the Venetian republic in the seventeenth century). But those traders who could afford it have always done this, particularly when market exposure was very high, the climate of trade unfavorable, or the nature of commerce undergoing alteration. The case of Venice is, in that sense, instructive, for there were many external factors influencing the health of the economy. As Jan De Vries succinctly puts it in Economy of Europe in an Age of Crisis, 1600–1750:

Beginning in 1602 a rapid succession of new problems overwhelmed [the Venetian republic]. The spice trade was lost for good to the Dutch and English who had now begun their penetration of the Indian Ocean; the textile industry suffered from high costs and withered away in the following half-century; the city's position as an international center of book publishing became untenable because of the rejuvenated Catholic Church; the Thirty Years' War deprived Venice of her most important market while the debasement of the Turkish currency sharply increased the cost of cotton and silk up to the Venetians.

In an economy like this one it would have taken a very great innovatory capacity indeed—multiplied many times over—for the economy to sustain itself at anything like the levels of the previous century. And it is very likely that even that would not have worked. In such an environment, commercial people make choices, and typically they choose safety rather then risk. (De Vries, 1976, p. 26)

It is also undeniably the case that some regions actively discouraged commercial endeavor, and hence the growth of a self-sufficient urban middling class, and in some cases any urban centers at all. In Spain the social hierarchy was top-heavy with nobles, who disdained commerce, and members of the clergy, whose profits, at least in theory, were measured in souls rather than in réals; economic policy-making through the second half of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was famously obtuse. Grazing policies led to soil deterioration. Rivers were allowed to silt up. The crown decided to expel Jews and Muslims—both relatively industrious minorities. The bloated ranks of the clergy, in particular, must have attracted many a promising youth who, in the Netherlands, would have turned to commerce; the purchase of noble status, which in Spain was particularly difficult to combine with commerce, must have claimed many more.

In the case of the Ottoman Empire, merchant and banking activity tended to be left to ethnic minorities, while Muslims monopolized official state and military positions. Different confessional groupings often lived segregated lives, under largely distinct legal systems; each millet, as these communities were called, was overseen by a small, self-perpetuating group generally heavily dominated by the clergy. Though some millets were open to outside influence (the Greek and Jewish communities in particular tended to cultivate connections to western Europe, particularly from the eighteenth century on), the system encouraged insularity, inflexibility, and a lack of integration between the imperial bureaucracy and the main economic actors, as well as between different sectors of the economy—since particular ethnic groups tended to monopolize each trade, manufacture, commercial, or financial sector. These problems were exacerbated by the devastating wars of the eighteenth century, followed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the social upheavals and political repression that accompanied the various struggles for independence against Ottoman rule.

For its part, eastern Europe carried on a booming but lopsided trade with the northwestern European powers. By the seventeenth century a significant portion of western and southern Europe's food needs were supplied by importing—generally on Dutch ships—grain grown in the gigantic estates of eastern Europe. The turn to monoculture for export and the progressive "enserfment" of much of the peasantry made for an immobile, impoverished labor force and a small, often absentee landowner class. This caused a marked decline in consumer demand and the result was that towns in the area east of the river Elbe declined in number, population, and degree of economic diversification. Middlemen—the tiny nascent middle class—tended to be west central Europeans (especially ethnic Germans), Huguenots, or Jews, but the latter particularly were often subjected to popular and state violence, exclusion from certain trades and professions, special taxes, and confinement to ghettos or delimited territories, such as the Pale of Settlement. Eastern Europe, in economic terms, entered into a relation of economic dependency with western Europe.


The role of the middle classes in industrialization. Economic historians disagree as to whether the technological and productive breakthroughs (of which factory production was only one part), which began in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, warrant the term "industrial revolution." But even those who do accept the term agree that this was an extremely protracted revolution, whose social effects on the owners of capital, workers, and consumers came slowly and in very unpredictable and diverse ways. Most social historians date the onset of a full-blown middle-class in England from the period approximately 1780 to 1820 and use the term "middle class" loosely for those who owned the means of production (factories), displayed patterns of consumption "typical" of middle class people, or had middle- or upper-level managerial or professional positions.

Predictably, there has been much debate about the extent to which industrialization, and indeed, the whole process of modernization of which industrialization was only one part, was "bourgeois"-driven. Certainly in the case of England, members of the nobility invested in infrastructure improvements, such as canals and later railroads, just as they had purchased shares in slave-trading voyages. In some other parts of Europe economic development had a very dirigiste character, planned and controlled by the state. State interventions in the economy were already habitual in Russia and the Ottoman Empire by the eighteenth century, and most European states, in both the west and east, engaged in practices designed to nurture national industries and penalize foreign competition, and indeed continue to do so into the twenty-first century. European modernization did not happen in a laissez-faire universe.

However, despite the involvement of political elites (whether by outright government intervention or via noble investments), it seems fair to say that the vast majority of people who oversaw the processes of modernization and who benefited most directly from them were middle class. These men and women invested their capital in (and shouldered the risks of ) the new factories, came up with the technical innovations that transformed production, managed the ever-expanding networks by which new commodities were spread across Europe, brought in raw materials from the colonies (sometimes, as in India, after taking steps to stamp out indigenous manufacturing), and learned to exploit the labor of much poorer Europeans (many of them recently arrived from the rural areas) more efficiently.

As the numbers of the middle class grew, they formed a key group of consumers. Though the middle-class people were not the only audience for the new commodities (urban working-class demand, at least in countries that supported such groups, was also significant, and so was that of older elites), they adopted lifestyles that allowed them to showcase new fashions, new styles of architecture, and new patterns of leisure behavior. At the same time, patterns of behavior and consumption associated with the more developed parts of western and central Europe began to be imitated in other parts of Europe. This process was, however, very uneven. Thus, in the less integrated areas of the Balkans, eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century mercantile elites still tended to emulate the style and tastes of Turkish elites. It was only in the early- to mid-nineteenth century that they began to imitate central European (particularly Viennese) middle-class tastes, and display in their homes such items as chairs, glassware, and candlesticks of Czech and Saxon manufacture. Similar patterns could be found throughout the more far-flung, inaccessible, economically underdeveloped regions of Europe, while the nineteenth-century discovery and valorization of regional difference also exerted a countervailing influence on the forces of cultural homogenization.

Politics and the middle classes in the nineteenth century. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a number of profound changes in the political and social landscape. The French Revolution was not a bourgeois revolution in the sense that Karl Marx (1818–1883) imagined, but it did clear away some of the tangled system of privilege that characterized the ancien régime. In England, the so-called Great Reform Bill of 1832 had more warrant to be called "middle class," at least in terms of impact, though it is notable that it had to be voted in by an electorate of gentlemen and aristocrats. It doubled the number of men entitled to vote from perhaps one in ten to one in five, but ensured through a property qualification that men of the laboring classes and probably large sections of the lower middle classes would continue to be excluded.

By the first half of the nineteenth century, many European nations supported growing intelligentsias. Especially in central and eastern Europe and within the Ottoman Empire, these were often partially (though never slavishly) Western oriented: many of their members had been educated abroad; they were disdainful of traditional elites (and especially of the entrenched power of the clergy and ruling dynasties) and anxious to modernize. This tendency overlapped with a series of newly militant nationalist movements, most of them organized and led by students, intellectuals, and professionals, though often in the face of widespread hostility, not least by other sectors of the middle class, (in some cases their own older relatives). These movements, often more cultural than political, displayed many common features. Thus, in a number of the Balkan lands, by the early nineteenth century movements had arisen that stressed national education, tended to adopt romantic conceptions of the national spirit, and were much given (in good bourgeois style) to gathering together in clubs, cultural organizations, and subversive societies. This movement of the young tended to be highly critical of older, traditional elites and often the clergy (thus, in Bulgaria many nationalists objected strenuously not just to the Ottoman establishment but to what they viewed as the excessive power of the Greek Orthodox Church). Similar nationalist movements made up of young, generally middle-class people, were active throughout the first half of the nineteenth century and often beyond in many of the old imperial regimes of Europe.

In the face of this sort of pressure many of the most tradition-bound governments made concessions that, in the long run, favored the growth of a middle class, such as, in the case of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, freeing the serfs and partially reforming the law courts. Some governments took steps to open their bureaucracies to new men; the Ottomans, in their dwindling empire, began permitting non-Muslims to hold government office. Governments everywhere became more efficient, and many took up issues of public health and education—long popular among middle-class people. Some (largely western) European nations had by this time extended suffrage far enough down the social scale to cover virtually all middle-class men.

However, it would be wrong to view these signs of change as a "rise of the bourgeoisie" in any simple sense; rather we should probably see them as complicated, and in some countries rather tense attempts at co-existence. Traditional elites, often aristocrats by blood, continued to wield huge amounts of political power and cultural prestige well into the twentieth century in many European countries, and they were often quite reluctant to share either commodity. Sometimes they looked down even on the richest industrialists. And middle-class groupings were themselves highly differentiated in terms of income, rank, and prestige, though not so differentiated that they could not at times pull together with lightning speed in the face of challenges by newly militant working-class groups.

Middle classes and separate spheres. By the mid-nineteenth century, a middle-class culture with some at least partially distinctive characteristcs had been established in western Europe, and there were numerous other middle-class enclaves throughout Europe, some of which emulated what they conceived to be the lifestyle of western Europeans; others of which charted their own course. But what was this lifestyle? A key criterion often used to distinguish "middle-class culture" was the existence of the privatized family, withdrawn from the boisterous street or village culture of earlier days, and supporting women who, ideally, did not work for pay. In the case of England, an important marker of this has been said to be the tendency for manufacturing families to move their homes away from their factories or place of work. The equivalent in the case of city dwellers was to move to the suburbs then springing up around most major towns. There is no doubt that this did come to be the pattern in a number of places and among some occupations and income groups. However, even in England, professionals were much more likely to combine home and workplace, as were small retailers. And in many other parts of Europe, middle-class people, particularly the urban lower-middle class, seems to have had neither the money nor the inclination to withdraw from traditional patterns of local sociability. To this day, particularly in southern European towns, but also in the smaller urban centers of northern and central Europe one can see patterns of visiting, public ritual, charitable activity, and public sociability (for example, public drinking) that belie the claim that the middle-class family has withdrawn from the public sphere.

Later historians, moreover, tended to reject the theory of "separate spheres," which long held such a prominent place in women's history. Critics argue that "separate spheres" was always more of an ideological construct than a representation of reality, and that the more injudicious uses of this theory have had the effect of diverting attention from the important ways in which the sphere of women and the family supported and intersected with the sphere of work and politics. Recent research suggests that middle-class women's capital and their unpaid labor in and outside the home was crucial to the maintenance of their class. Women and men often pursued common class or group aims, and they shared broadly similar belief systems. While some middle-class Englishmen were seeking to apply scientific management techniques to factory work, some middle-class women were seeking to rationalize the labor of charity-school children so as to make "social welfare" turn a profit. And no sooner had some middle-class women left paid employment than others began agitating for the vote, seeking to break into male professional monopolies, such as medicine, and trying to turn women's philanthropic activities into paid employment opportunities for themselves and other middle-class women. If there ever was a "golden age" of separate spheres, it was short-lived, at least in the English case.

Middle class associational life. The nineteenth-century middle class is often associated in people's minds with ostentatious religious faith, and much has been made, especially in Protestant countries, of middle-class attraction to evangelical and pietistic movements. Religion, for many groups, became a vehicle to greater personal discipline; a bulwark of family patriarchy; the seedbed for other kinds of cultural, philanthropic, and reform organization; and the basis from which to criticize—as well as to convert—traditional elites and the poor. There is no doubt that the nineteenth century saw a number of movements for spiritual renewal within a variety of denominations (Catholics, Jews, and others).

However, it does also seem to be the case that, in a large number of European countries, piety came to be more and more the province of women, either because more women than men continued to see religion as a source of strength, or because secular and anticlerical (and, in the case of Jews, assimilationist) tendencies seemed less disturbing when confined to men. Whatever the reasons for it, this newly secular mood contributed to the burgeoning of more rationalist and scientific approaches to a variety of "modern" problems, including town planning, public health, education, communications, transportation, the organization of factory work (for example, the adoption of the assembly line and of scientific management techniques), and more efficient methods of mobilizing capital.

Societies and clubs became a central feature of middle-class existence in the nineteenth century, though the roots of this went back quite a bit further in many countries, and they were never uniquely middle class. Both men and women entered into these societies, which many commentators have viewed both as a crucial stepping-stone to full participation in civil society and as an indication of the expansion of civil society as a site of independent community life. The scale and range of these groups was very wide. They included freemasonic and other semisecret fraternal associations, literary societies, chambers of commerce, societies for suppressing criminals, drama groups, prayer groups, missionary societies, and both temperance and philanthropic enterprises.

By the late nineteenth century and earlier in some places, middle-class people were also involved in a dizzying range of political clubs and societies. Some of these were broadly "liberal," perhaps the posture we associate most readily with the middle-class; however, middle-class people also flocked to confessional parties that were often—if not always—deeply conservative and respectful of traditional elites and to nationalist parties that were frequently both nativist and racist. Moreover, a not insubstantial number of them turned to radical or even revolutionary groups endorsing positions as diverse as anarchism, communism, bohemianism, and free love. It should also be noted that the nineteenth century also saw a very significant growth in working-class clubs and political organizations, and, in not a few areas, societies that sought to appeal to both middle-class and working-class groups, either by appealing to common confessional or national loyalties, or by taking up common moral concerns, such as temperance or prostitution. A great many largely middle-class organizations also actively sought out aristocratic patronage.

As all this suggests, there no distinctively middle-class politics in the nineteenth (or for that matter the twentieth) century. Affiliations varied according to town, the sector of the middle class from which one came, religion, nationality, and individual preference, among other factors. That having been said, there probably is a case to be made that a less ideological middle-class politics were to be found at the local level. Again, it is not to be expected that middle-class people have always agreed, or ever will. However, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that middle-class people were heavily involved, throughout Europe, in efforts to bolster local culture and commerce. This might involve gaining concessions from city governments in favor of assembly halls or other meeting places, lobbying for covered markets, better roads, new bridges, or better public health precautions, banning the running of livestock from the center of town, and attempting, with municipal assistance, to suppress popular customs that were deemed destructive of property. In eastern Europe, in particular, middle-class groups often lobbied for tax or trade concessions, or protection. This was particularly a problem for Jews who, whether rich, middle-class, or poor, were often the object of violent attacks or attempts—both legal and extra-legal—to limit their mobility, confine them to a narrow group of occupations, or extort money from them. Civic improvement with its close links to community policing and—in the case of some minority groups, community defense—was never the monopoly of middle-class people, but it was something they made peculiarly their own.

Middle-class education and its impact. Education has long been closely linked to middle-class status. Middling town dwellers were already highly literate even in the late sixteenth century in many parts of Europe. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw a significant increase in middle-class women's literacy. Historically, middling or middle-class education had tended to have a more functionalist thrust than the education their betters received. There tended to be a good deal of emphasis on skills, such as bookkeeping (often for both boys and girls), and the preferred foreign languages were more likely to be commercial languages, such as French and German (or, sometimes in the Ottoman Empire, Arabic), rather than Latin and Greek. Literacy, as well as accounting skills, were routinely required of clerks and middle-class apprentices in the nineteenth century. Other skills that middle-class parents and teachers sought to inculcate into the children under their care might include better use of one's time, careful oversight of expenditures, a good writing hand, close attention to detail, and sexual restraint. None of these was unique to middle-class people, yet one does get the impression that middle-class parents and teachers went to unusual lengths to teach their children these various "prudential values." This tendency was perhaps attributable to the strains and insecurities that characterize this stratum of the population in most European countries, as well as to perceived need, in some places, to combat the continued appeal of aristocratic patterns of leisure and conspicuous consumption.

One very significant result of the high level of education accorded to women was the emergence of several middle-class women's occupations dependent either upon literacy or on a fairly high degree of education. The eighteenth century saw the establishing of purpose-built schools for girls, often, at least in western Europe, owned and directed by middle-class women entrepreneurs. In some countries such schools were run by aristocratic women and designed for aristocratic girls. In the eighteenth century, and even more in the nineteenth, significant numbers of women began penning novels and other literary productions for a living. Women journalists, newspaper impresarios, political controversialists, and feminists (such as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin [1759–1797] in England, Olympe de Gouges [1748–1793] in France, or Eleanora de Fonseca Pimentel [1752–1799] in Naples) began to emerge, though the fact that Wollstonecraft died in childbirth, Gouges under the guillotine, and Fonseca Pimentel at the hands of a Neapolitan anti-Jacobin mob suggests something of the obstacles in the way of radical women. By the end of the nineteenth century there were women physicians in a number of European countries, virtually all of them of middle-class stock, and middle-class women also began to make inroads into government service (particularly within the emerging welfare or health sector), teaching, and even—in a few countries and in a very small way—the military officer corps. By the first decade of the twentieth century, there were small or large women's rights movements in almost all the European nations—in not a few cases several separate movements, broken down (as in the Czech lands) by ethnicity and religion, or, in Germany and some other places, by class and religion. Middle-class women's exuberant entry into the world of paid work and politics in country after country further undermines the claim that "separate spheres," if they ever existed in the full sense of the term, were as fundamental a feature of middle-class culture as has sometimes been claimed.

Middle-class morality and sexual behavior. Sexual restraint had long been a central part of middle-class people's self-definition, though up through at least the seventeenth century, it had to compete in some countries with claims about the out-of-control sexuality of citizens' wives. Typically, in the early modern period, this ideal was linked to a vision of well-ordered, pious patriarchal households, in which women, children, and servants deferred happily to the authority of the male head; both women and men respected their marriage vows; and no woman went to the altar pregnant. Even a brief perusal of contemporary court records, middling people's own writings, or parish records confirms that middle-class people were not appreciably more likely than any other group to adhere to these admonitions in practice, and this may partially explain why they were so commonly accused of hypocrisy with respect to sexual morality.

A potentially greater problem for social historians is the great diversity across Europe in terms of the way institutions like the household, or marriage were defined. Thus, in some parts of Europe a middle-class family, particularly within what is sometimes called the rural bourgeoisie might include three or even four generations (historical demographers call this the stem family), while in other parts of Europe it might look more "nuclear," along what is sometimes thought of as the northwestern European model. Similarly, in some parts of Europe and in some classes, both men and women tended to marry in their mid- to late twenties with only a slight gap in ages, while in others they did so at younger ages; or women might marry substantially older or younger men. In some areas, and within some classes or religious groups, middling or middle-class marriage alliances came, at some point in the early modern period, to derive from the individualistic choice of the bride and groom. In other areas, classes, or religions, they continued, in some cases into the twentieth century, to be arranged by intermediaries. Because so many of the assumptions about what constitutes middle-class family culture have been based on the model of northwestern Europe, and specifically England, many questions remain about the ways other middle-class groups organized sexuality and family life.

One pattern that seems to have been widespread after the early twentieth century, though again this occurred at greatly varying speeds, was the early resort by middle-class families to the use of birth control. This occurred in part because of the greater likelihood of children surviving to adulthood, something that presumably was easier to achieve in the relatively clean, well-fed homes of the middle-class than in the squalid and starved habitations of the poor. Many commentators also attribute this phenomenon to a desire to invest greater educational resources in a smaller number of children, and in some countries it was bolstered by advocates of sex reform, and by feminists—as well as, in the post–World War II period, by some national governments. Again, we need to know more about how this trend spread historically, and how it conflicted and intersected with different religions, occupations, regions, and classes.

By the eighteenth or, some have argued, the nineteenth century, a well-developed discourse had arisen to the effect that middle-class people were the most moral, the most industrious, the most ingenious, and the most orderly of citizens. They were superior both to their feckless, idle, and self-indulgent superiors, and their crime-disposed, dirty, and riot-prone social inferiors. Against this there also developed a strong strain of criticism that identified the middle classes with greed, philistinism, narrowness, and hypocrisy. Karl Marx's Capital probably induced relatively few people to adopt dialectical materialism in toto (though the notion of the rise of the middle class did become an ineradicable part of most people's conception of the West). But it did revive certain older notions of middle-class philistinism and greed and present them in a new, modernized form. This posture of self-doubt became, over the course of the nineteenth century, very common among middle-class people themselves. Dynamic groups often excel at self-criticism (a tried-and-true form of narcissism), and the middle classes have always made time for self-examination.

At the dawn of the twentieth century one of the most interesting new developments in this vein came via the theories of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Psychoanalysis, based largely on clinical studies of middle-class Viennese girls, promised a whole series of new insights into sexuality, gender, unconscious drives, and the process of modernization. And it turned a spotlight on the whole problem of bourgeois hypocrisy, newly universalized and partially valorized as "sexual repression." In the 1930s members of the Frankfurt school, first in Frankfurt and then in exile in the United States, developed a series of syntheses of Freudian, Marxian, and Weberian thought that helped carry this strain of critical middle-class self-reflection into the twentieth century, emphasizing, among other things, a critique of enlightenment rationalism and technologism, and a new interest in the imprisoning (and occasionally liberating) possibilities of culture and consumerism.

The middle classes in the modern era: a balance sheet. As we have seen, though the nineteenth-century middle classes at times displayed certain common characteristics, many factors militated against their developing a common consciousness. The middle classes were constantly fragmenting. Middle-class Protestants disliked the Catholics and winked at or participated in the persecution of Jews, while middle-class Jews were often riven by disagreements over assimilation and regional identity. Groups defined as "foreign" (for instance, Sudetenland Germans in Czechoslovakia) often saw themselves having little in common with countrymen of their same class. Middle-class women and middle-class men were, in many places, divided over women's education, the entry of women into the professions, religion, and sexuality. More than anything else it was this divided character that was bequeathed to the twentieth century.

Looking back from the vantage point of the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can see that the project of making the world safe for business has had mixed success in the twentieth century. If it ever had been a distinctively middle-class project, if there really had been a middle-class ascendancy as complete as some people assert, and if trade had been the only things on most people's minds, neither World War I nor World War II—both of which did untold damage to trade and infrastructure, as well as causing the deaths of millions of people—would have happened as they did. Clearly the turn to socialism in Russia after 1917 and of large parts of east central and Eastern Europe after 1945 did little for private enterprise. It did much, however, to build up an extensive class of apparatchiks, many of them thoroughly imbued with recognizably bourgeois tastes and managerial ideals, committed to ideals of universal education and better public health, and much occupied with infrastructural development.

Still, the world is undoubtedly safer for some middle-class people and their investments than it once was. In the twentieth century, and especially in the post-1945 period, generations of incremental improvements in commercial law, insurance, management efficiency, worker-management relations, education, infrastructure, communications, and medicine, largely overseen by middle-class people and offering an opportunity for many more to attain that status, have given rise to an unprecedented degree of prosperity over large parts of Europe. Even the former Soviet bloc has not been immune to these changes. There has been an unprecedented unlocking of consumer demand, unlike anything seen in previous centuries.

However, one result of this has been to render the term "middle-class" even more problematic than before. The vast majority of the population of many European countries would now be considered middle class if one went by levels of consumption alone. Universal education, democracy, welfare states, and relatively cheap goods have revolutionized the ways people live and think. Aristocracies and monarchies have largely disappeared; where they do survive they enjoy largely ritual functions. To a far greater degree than was true in previous centuries, there is now a common mass culture in which most people participate (or in which they aspire to participate).

At the same time, modernization has led to increasing inequalities in income, while the need for cheap labor during the postwar economic boom (exacerbated by the fact that rising expectations had persuaded many Europeans to refuse the dirtiest, least prestigious, and least remunerative jobs) led to a major influx of people from the former colonies and less prosperous parts of Europe, such as Greece and Turkey, into the more dynamic economies to the north and west. Some of these immigrants have raised several generations in their adopted countries and have themselves succeeded in achieving a level of success that might be called "middle class." Key players in the new global economy, the more prosperous parts of Europe now benefit hugely from cheap goods manufactured in less-developed regions, while an "investing class" supports global free-trade initiatives, multinational mergers, and expansive advertising campaigns that decimate local industries and already fragile middle-class groupings in formerly protectionist Third World economies. Of course, in some fundamental sense, this is not new.

Social historians often call for the abolition of the term "middle class," but it seems to have a life of its own. The many contemporary projects intended to overcome the heritage of socialism in east central and eastern Europe routinely decry the absence of an entrepreneurial middle class. Few discussions of economic development in the Third World can do without a plea for policies designed to build up or offer support to the "middle class"; with the advent of globalization these voices have grown shriller but, if anything, louder. Western European politicians routinely seek to appeal to "middle-class" groups. Social critics still blame them implicitly for much that is wrong with society, though there is a trend toward pointing the finger more precisely at "multinational corporations," "polluters of the environment," "the World Bank and the IMF," "The European Union," "NATO," or the "energy-wasting First World" rather than the old "middle class." Already claims are being made to the effect that Europeans (along with North Americans and a few others) now constitute a new kind of aristocracy, that, in the way of the old aristocracies, monopolizes the world's resources, interferes disproportionately in its politics, and seeks to define its culture, all by virtue of "blood rights" based upon race, geography, and history. It remains to be seen to what extent the passing of the critical torch to developing nations and their own intelligentsias will result in entirely new conceptions of individuals and collectivities, and to what extent it will end up recapitulating the old antinomies in a new context.

See alsoThe Industrial Revolution (volume 2);Urbanization (volume 2);Suburbs and New Towns (volume 2);Nationalism (volume 2);Gender and Work (volume 4);Gender and Education (volume 4);History of the Family (volume 4);Sexual Behavior and Sexual Morality (volume 4);Psychiatry and Psychology (volume 4);Middle-Class Work (volume 4);Schools and Schooling (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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