The Middle Class Illusion

In my urban intervention class the other day, we were talking about poverty and inequality in cities. The general assumption that you have of the “middle class” is the majority of the population that lies in the middle with incomes usually defined between $2 to $10 per person per day (in PPP terms). Hence, you would imagine the bell curve.

I would guess that most people would define themselves as belonging in the middle class, but are you really?

I mean, if you have a car, a smartphone, you eat out a lot, you hang out with your friends in cafes (though not necessarily expensive), are you not living above the middle class line? The definition of the middle class is indeed tricky, and us wonks sometimes have high hopes with the “middle class” as the harbingers of change (with the assumption that they are sufficiently educated and demands better government services with the taxes they pay).

However, the “true” middle class may lie largely just above the poverty line hence they are struggling to stay above it and thus most of the middle class are ignorant and largely only care about themselves (i.e. caring about policies that will benefit them), as any self-maximizing individuals should be. I guess there are exceptions of the good Samaritans, but how many of them are really there?

Then there are those who say that they are the middle class, but in fact they live pretty much well-off compared to the rest of the population. They are in the illusion that they belong to the middle class because they still see people who are wealthier than them, while the truth is they’re pretty much upper class.

To quote Sedláček in his interview with Der Spiegel:

We are clearly not communists by nature, but we are definitely communitarians. Only a truly egomaniacal person can live happily in a society in which he is the only rich one. Man has a need for fairness and, therefore, for a fair distribution of wealth.

It’s okay to be rich, seriously. But let’s just be honest and say that you are, instead of pretending that you’re middle class and sneer about others not having the same consciousness as you are. If you do, you’re not trying to build equality but instead you’ve distanced yourself from the masses and have become the new elites that you’ve despised.

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6 thoughts on “The Middle Class Illusion”

  1. you got an important point here, bahwa pendefinisian kelas menengah itu luas sekali. Bayangkan perbedaan gaya hidup dr org yg pengeluarannya 20ribu per hari dgn yg 100ribu. Yang lebih menarik adalah apakah ukuran itu cukup akurat untuk merefleksikan keadaan ekonomi bangsa dan ngambil kesimpulan2 yg berkaitan dengannya?

    Mungkin juga hashtag kelasmenengahngehek harus diganti dengan kelas menengah hampir kaya? Hahahah just a thought.

    I think what most people really want is tanggung jawab negara buat menyejahterakanrakyatnya.Mereka marah sama pemerintah, dan menuntut “kelas menengah” ini utk sadar kalo bukan salah rakyat, bukan salah mereka sendiri mereka jadi hidup pas2an. Harusnya itu tanggung jawab pemerintah nyusun anggaran, mikirin semua bisa sejahtera sama2..

  2. Middle Class is fuzzy indeed. A basket concept comprising both pretty poor and very well to do people.

    Anglo-Saxon literature on the matter may have influenced our thinking too much: middle class defined by economic terms only. Probably the mindset is a much more determining factor. Once people manage to make ends meet at a minimum level ( a roof over the head and sufficient food to survive) often start embracing perceived middle class attitudes and values ( well my parents did 🙂 or :(), and Gods knows, I did). Once they grow a middle class mindset in statu nascendi, they tend to react against the working class to which they often socio-economically still belong and imitate as much as possible their perception of upper middle class manners.

    By stressing difference with those you want to leave behind while climbing the social ladder, little room is left for solidarity and equality. On the other hand the history of left wing movements shows their leaders more often than not came from very obvious bourgeois background.

    So there always remains hope :).

  3. Is one middle-class because of one’s income, consumption, expenditure and/or habits?

    I would submit to you that in a hierarchical societies (such as Indonesia) where social expectations, conformity, deference to authority and age trump income, spending power and accumulation, it is not economic class what is paramount, but rather social status.

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