Us Vs. Them (part 3): The Irrational Middle Class

(Wordcount: 2,225) At the inaugural meeting of the Consultant Entrepreneurs Forum held Friday, Nov 4th, 2005, their was a topic addressed that I hadn't really thought about since grammar school: the middle-class. The purpose wasn't to define them, nor justify their existence (they just exist and everyone else has to cater to them). The purpose was to discuss the true purpose of the war in Iraq; this war is a crusade not dissimilar from those 900 years ago, where one ideology again is attempting to stomp out another. To the victor, go the spoils (upper-class-dom), while the loser (lower-class-dom) breeds so much contempt as to unleash another Hitler. Our current American national ideology is a very victorious middle-class, accustomed to getting its way. So if you're poor, (or a distinguished member of the intelligentsia), you're angry about going to war, since it is you who will most likely fight this war and pick up the pieces after. If you're rich, you couldn't care less, (unless it's how you make your money).

My original reaction to this thinking was one born out of a lower-class upbringing in a free-market system I've learned to exploit: "screw the middle and their conformist ways; screw the lower and their ignorance; I'm headed right for the top, baby!" But since last week, I have projected myself as a member of different classes to understand them and how things ended up the way they have. The following thoughts are as old as human existence, but since I don't watch TV, haven't read all the histories, and don't believe to be easily influenced, I will claim the following as my own views. Please monitor your blood pressure as you continue from here.

The largest portion of a population, the middle class is one that historically must be placated at all costs in all types of governments. Anyone not part of this class is naturally excluded from taking part in "the middle-class" lifestyle, and consequently, thought of as undesirables (or, as the French say, "le scum"). What's fascinating is how these undesirable classes (or lower-classes; anyone undesirable is historically on lower economic rungs since they're excluded from the economy altogether, and not surprisingly, what's out-of-sight is out-of-mind; and when left to their own devices) rise up to overpower and displace the middle-class, becoming "middle" themselves. It should not be found peculiar, then, that the lower-class's claim of injustice and unfairness is the result of their not being treated as "middles/uppers", evidence that they themselves haven't defined their own identities and determined their own destinies, and can only emulate ones that they didn't choose, leaving them without input into their society or, worse, without an internalized sense of self-worth (an unfortunate by-product of one's inability to historically move between classes).

The lower classes are barely capable of self-assessment (unable to determine for themselves what satisfies them or what gets them angry). On a primal level, they realize that there's been a violation of their sense of justice, without having a fair standard of that justice. Also, they realize that they're "happy", but don't understanding why. In fact, they receive virtually all of their social cues from the next highest class. So, existing in an environment designed to cater to the highest possible class leaves anyone not part of that class feeling as though they've been treated unfairly, particularly those at the other extreme; the base ingredients for civil unrest.

The middle is also content being defined and told what to do by the upper-classes. Their sense of fairness and standards are set for them by the upper-classes. The main difference is that the middle chooses this existence, for they possess the faculties and internal self-worth (limited as it may be) to define themselves. And by choosing this existence, they're choosing to be lead by the upper-classes who, in their view, define "society" by providing the means to exist in it.

So who defines and determines for upper-classes? They do, in fact, by existing in a "free-market system" of their own creation. (This is why the uppers are believed to get away with anything. They get away with it because they are self-governed, meaning, they set societal standards, and thus, what they do isn't explicitly right or wrong. Note that throughout the history of law, a behavior or act that had been carried out previously for years only became illegal when uppers got affected.)

The conclusion, then, is that free-markets are indeed equitable and fair to those willing, capable, and knowledgeable enough to exploit it; to all others, socialism and even protectionism is preferable. This is why all others need to be lead, (they even seek out leaders), while the upper-class "haves" (primarily composed of the individuals who have succeeded in a free market) prefer self-governance; with this perspective, it's not difficult to understand why uppers feel that all middle-/lower-class grunts have limited, narrow perspectives, and want to control everything due to their inability to succeed in a free-market system.

Whether you realize it or not, the lowest class will always displace the next highest class, ultimately becoming that which they hated in the first place and also breeding their own lower-class. This cycle is undeniable and inevitable - it will occur every time a society's differences become extreme in order to balance itself out. There are three ways to artificially prevent a balancing out: 1) do everything possible to integrate the lowest class into the same lifestyle (not automatic welfare programs, but empowerment initiatives, so they themselves learn to exploit the current system willingly); 2) segregate and ignore them long enough to outlive them, hoping the ills of the lower-classes never touches everyday life of the majority class, and pass any possible problems onto the next generation. This can manifest as neighborhood steering on one end and incarceration on the other; or 3) kill them, and they will cease to be a problem (but by killing them, who'll do the grunt work?)

It's personally hard to accept that the middle-class existence - a good job, a good home, good family, and good life - is the ideal existence. In fact, it's personally frustrating to accept that such a large majority of any population is without the drive, ambition, and motivation to do anything other than exist in the middle. (Perhaps the royal conundrum of centuries past has more to do with lower-class citizens who did possess these ambitions and still couldn't overcome their class status all the while the blue bloods possessed the most desirable existence without ambition. In a free-market society, there are still those who have without ambition, but there are more who have as a direct result of their ambition).

Accepting this as the state of things naturally divides all populations into classes. But accepting that those in power will always try to mold society to their liking, while those not in power will always try to steal that power, leaves just two types of people: leaders and grunts. The whole of human existence has been trying to figure out the best state of existence for all. The great irony is that the best state - cooperative - can't ever exist because we all have the ability to hate, fear, and envy, even without cause or reason. Thus, ideology is formed, and the class-displacement cycle is perpetual. This explains why in every expectation of "utopia", human emotions are suppressed or eliminated, machines rules, and the few that are naturally unhappy start the cycle all over again. But there is a solution.

To Understand Class Warfare, We Must Understand Wealth-Inequality

What is wealth? Is it knowledge, social standing, family, access, or cold-hard cash? And how do we know we've succeeded in achieving wealth if we have no definition for it? Has there ever been a common form of wealth through time that anyone can acquire? Wealth is that thing (material or intangible) upon which an individual stores his/her sense of value. That sense of value has to be agreed upon by another in order for that wealth to ultimately be transformed into another valuable thing. So, if wealth is merely the possession of things with stored value, with value commonly agreed upon by more than one person, then wealth can actually take any shape or form.

The upper classes are "wealthy" because they possess or can possess wealth in any form. The more limited your ability to acquire different types of wealth, the lower in class you are. But an ability to acquire isn't a variance in resources, but a variance in the individual's ability to value different things. To put this argument in tangible form, a "lower-class" person defines their value by how many hours they can work for $8/hour. If they're not manually producing something tangible during that time, they're wasting their time. (In a service economy, their own sense of worth is diminished since fewer and fewer things are produced, while their time is spent on intangibles like "customer service" and data processing, from which they neither recognize value, nor can truly benefit from).

An "upper-class" person can define their value in the same way, but if they, for example, read a book for two hours, the information acquired would have some value that they can ultimately transform (by selling, possibly) into another valuable thing. Thus, the lower-class person has a limited ability to acquire wealth in more than one direct and obvious form, while the upper-class person has a greater ability to acquire wealth.


This scenario doesn't have anything to do with what's right or wrong or fair or not; it's entirely about the ignorance of the lower-class individual. If your perspective is that ignorance was forced upon the lower-classes by the upper classes, that argument is ignorant itself because of the nature of the shapes and forms of wealth. The core of this argument is that wealth isn't merely gauged in the number of tangible things an individual can make per hour, and if a lower-class person cannot decipher this and how "wealthy" they may be, that is not the concern of the upper-classes.

Naturally, however, the lower-classes, in their infinite ability to envy, loath, and blame, feel entitled to similar wealth that the upper-classes possess without first acquiring the aptitude to possess it. Their typical reaction is to blame the upper-class, not for having what they previously didn't desire, but for preventing the lower-classes from acquiring that which they now desire. Though accurate, as explained below, this reaction against preventing achievement doesn't change the fact that blaming is often an inefficient waste of potential - potential that can be utilized to gain the abilities necessary to acquire similar wealth.

In other words, just seeing a big home is enough to make a lower-class person feel that they should have one, too. Their standard of wealth has been skewed by their own ignorance. If the owners are of the upper-classes, they now have someone to blame for their own undesirable existence. It escapes them completely that the possessor of this desirable home was once part of a lower-class, too (in a free-market system), and they learned to measure their wealth in more than just the size of their home. Had they recognized that acquisition of wealth was within their means too, they'd be busily acquiring it instead of coveting someone else's.

The Solution to Class Warfare

This is a generalized (and maybe obvious) overview of something you probably already know. But what you may not have recognized (and this is the end-result of this analysis) is that there is no right or wrong answer to class warfare; the only way to make "have-nots" understand and benefit from the same conditions that leftists benefit from is to shape "perspective" at its origin, the education and learning ability of the entire society. By empowering everyone with the same ability to learn - an overwhelming challenge, since we all learn differently - they can determine for themselves their own definitions of success, satisfaction, fulfillment and wealth.

There's just one catch - humans are all the same, no matter what class they're in. So throughout history, the upper-classes - every class, actually - hasn't liked sharing what they possess. The upper-classes don't want to share their wealth, hard-won and/or rightfully theirs, with lazy, unambitious scum. So why would they want to empower them to someday displace them? Yes, there will always be class wars, and the wealthier you are, the greater your chances of survival. This is why large fortunes (the top 1%) have been around for decades or even centuries. The more ignorant you are - even if you're a do-gooder or genuinely part of the class - the greater the likelihood you'll be embroiled in the war until you reach an untimely death and are quickly forgotten. Therefore, once perspective is addressed through education, the final obstacle to social equilibrium must be the willing restraint of the natural human impulse to hoard wealth. By willingly sharing wealth in all its many forms and in perpetuity, it's a fair conclusion that the entire society will do the same, and ultimately benefit. Examples of cooperatives or communions like this aren't alien and exist even today. So why hasn't it become the prevalent social order? Not because the lower-class is merely ignorant, and the upper-class unwilling to surrender their authority over society, but because the middle class, the majority, is of narrow perspective; in a word, irrational.

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., an innovative strategy consulting firm advising leaders on the impact of human behavior on their strategies and on how to change their organizations to address the behavior. Write to Consumer Strategies Report at

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(c) 2005. al berrios & company, inc.