Vital Signs

Will the Middle Class Survive?

Ever since human societies became a clear and definite field of inquiry, which for Westerners means ever since Greek antiquity, current wisdom holds that the best of imperfect, nonutopian—i.e., viable—human societies have always been those in which predominated what came to be dubbed a “middle class.”

Though commonly used, the content of the term remains rather vague.  What is the specific virtue of being in the middle?  I don’t see any particular virtue in the greatest possible number of citizens being moderately intelligent, educated, or ethical, no more than moderately criminal or evil.  Or should sheer mediocrity be a voucher for good citizenship?  And what are the two extremes between which one finds the middle class?  It makes sense to believe a society is healthier when devoid of extremely powerful or powerless citizens, but this amounts to hailing a society in which political power is more or less evenly distributed among its citizens, therefore nullifying the very notion of a middle class.  Does it make more sense to understand the word in economic terms?  It is often argued that one of the most permanent features of human society is for it to comprise richer and poorer members, and that most civil unrest results from continual strife between those two classes.  It seems reasonable, then, to imagine that the greater the number of neither rich nor...

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