Always Emerging, Never Arriving: The Middle Class

middle classI am going to share a tip with you, a tip that thus far I have managed to keep to myself but that will benefit you enormously, whether student or amateur sociologist or writer for The Economist.

No matter what time period you are referring to, no matter what country or region of the world you are referencing, there is a single claim that you can make that will always be true and will never be challenged, not even by Malcolm Gladwell himself: the middle class is always in the process of emerging. Like a shivering, fluffy clutch of chicks poking their heads out of the membraneous shards of a newly-cracked shell, the middle class is in a constant state of emergence.

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Want to sound like an authority on growing third-world markets, whatever those are? Talk about the increased influence of the emerging middle class.

Writing a history essay about the policies of Louis XIV? Don’t forget to include a paragraph or two about the checks on his national authority by the newly influential middle class.

What was the middle class doing during the Victorian Era? Emerging.

What is the middle class doing in China right now, this very moment? Emerging. Oh, look, what’s that over there? It’s the middle class, just down the road in India, and they’re emerging all over the place.

What couldn’t you stop the middle class from doing in medieval and then again in Renaissance Europe? I’ll give you a hint. It rhymes with “flemerging.” Which, incidentally, is how scholars describe the very specific emergence of the Flemish middle class.

What was the middle class doing immediately before the time period you’re talking about? Hush. Don’t ask so many questions, my sweet darling. They were asleep, or plowing, or too busy being part of the working poor/fourth estate/Druids.

The global middle class? They’ve been growing lately. Before that, the educated middle class was popping up like crocuses on a Swiss hillside in spring. Students, open your history textbooks to a page at random, and odds are good that the first subsection you see will start with Europe’s Emerging Middle Class and The Rise of the Guild System. You can’t keep a good guild system down.

What’s the middle class doing? Number one: spending capital on consumer goods. The middle class loves consumer goods almost as much as it loves emerging. Growing things. Buying houses. Breaking into affluence. Boosting economies. Paving the way for a nationalized educational system. Giving up subsistence farming. Leading to tax reform, somehow. Influencing social norms and values. Penetrating new markets. After that, active and open rebellion against kings is a pretty safe guess. Then it’s back to emerging for a while.

What does the middle class do once it’s finished emerging, you might ask? Trick question. The middle class never emerges all the way. That’s a fool’s game. At most, the middle class will emerge for sixty or seventy years, then retreat into dormancy and give emerging a miss for at least a generation. Italy’s middle class has emerged at least nine times in the last 400 years. Between the Battle of Hastings and the War of the Roses, England’s middle class emerged so many times they finally had to make a rule against it. Brazil’s emerging middle class emerged so far they finally wandered off to Ghana, where they emerged again.

Remember, getting there (WHERE IS “THERE”?) is half the fun.

It works every time, I promise you that. Go ahead and start practicing now. “Well, in many ways I think the emerging middle class of [INSERT LOCATION IN TIME AND SPACE HERE] led directly to [PICK LITERALLY ANYTHING]…”

You may pick up your prize at the door. Thank you for your time.

[Image via Ibiblio]

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