11 December 2020

A Dying Class: The Traditional Middle-Class in Britain 2020

By Alex Maguire


All classes die eventually, the material reality of society shifts as quantitative changes become qualitative changes. Some classes fade away, others are actively removed by an opposing force, for instance the dismantling of Britain’s industrial proletariat under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. Thus, changes in society’s class structure and the fortunes of each class provide a valuable insight into the nature of specific historical moments of capitalist society. The British traditional middle-class has elected to “die in silence”.  This article aims to examine the increasing decline of the traditional middle-class after the 2008 financial crisis. For the purposes of this article, the term traditional middle-class must be clearly defined. However, as Edward Thompson noted, “the finest· meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or of love”.1 Class is a fluid relationship, not an ahistorical construct, and no definition will ever be perfect. The traditional middle-class is a fraction of the wider largely incongruous middle-class, but it is still possible to apply some general identifiers when defining it.

Before identifying the specificities of the traditional middle-class, it is necessary to outline what constitutes class. While no definition of class is perfect, and there will always be exceptions to codified rules of what constitutes class, it is possible to provide an outline of what is fundamental to constructing it. I suggest that class is shaped by the combination of an individual’s relationship to the means and processes of production and consumption as well as cultural practices. Furthermore, a class is also partially shaped by its relationship with other classes, as no class exists in a vacuum. As Thompson notes, class is not static, it is a collection of relationships that are constantly happening.2 It is evident that many of the relationships that maintain the traditional middle-class are changing, whether it is its relationship to capital, the labour process, cultural consumption, or its relationship to other classes within British society, as its relative privilege is being eroded. Alberto Toscano and Jamie Woodcock have explained how the important interventions of Thompson and, later, Mario Tronti highlighted the importance of interrogating the “processes of composition and decomposition that are continually taking place”.3

I define the traditional middle-class as being predominantly constituted of individuals (and their families) who work in old professions, meaning that most of these professions existed, in some form or other, in the nineteenth century. As a result of this longevity, these professions traditionally offered long-term job security and a high level of renumeration. These professionals have a particular cultural status and respect associated with their title, for instance the trusted position of doctors in society. This cultural status, often associated with a level of intellectualcapability and professional qualification(s), is an integral part of this class’ identity. Furthermore, to be a working member of this traditional middle-class, one must be in a profession that has a clear progression to a job which would place someone within the top 10% of earners in the UK (£54,900 per annum for the 2017-18 tax year).4

While material circumstances are not the only shaper of class, they are not insignificant, and wealth and privilege are an integral aspect of this class, transmitted from one generation to the next. Not everyone in this class will reach this level of income, though many will, but the opportunity for them to do so is a realistic aim, for instance progressing from junior doctor to consultant, or university lecturer to professor. It is the longevity of these professions and the consequent cultural status that gives this class its identity. Borrowing from Alex Callinicos’ distinction between the “old middle class” and the “new middle-class”, my traditional middle-class is historically “not subject to continuous surveillance and control at work”, and therefore has more freedom in how it exercises its productive processes.5  The members of this class may seldom own their means of production, but they often direct them. Although there will be other classes that meet some of these criteria, there are none that meet them all. 

Another way of helping to define this traditional middle-class is to say what it is not. It is certainly not proletarian, meaning those who trade their work for wages and, with their employment characterised by insecurity, are therefore inclined to socialism.6 It is not the traditional landowning British aristocracy, nor is it part of the emergent financial class that are increasingly central to Britain’s economy. Equally, it is not the “traditional petty bourgeoisie of shopkeepers and artisans”, nor is it the small capitalist class that own the means of production.7 As well as this, the traditional middle-class is not the professional managerial-class/new middle-class that rapidly grew in the post-war period and was the subject of much debate amongst Marxists in the 1970s and 1980s and exists primarily to manage the relationship between labour and capital.8 The traditional middle-class predates the professional managerial-class; however, there is an increasing overlap between these classes, as the managerial-class grows in size and the children of the traditional middle-class join its ranks as they enter the job market.

This leaves us with a fraction of a class largely constituted of professions such as doctors, academics, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and senior civil servants. These professions would all be ranked in the AB social grade as is used by the National Readership Survey. Although they share this category with managerial jobs, these professions are distinct from high earning managerial positions as they have a different relationship to the processes of production.9 While not all of these professions were originally members of the traditional middle-class, by the end of the twentieth century they were inarguably part of it and, while there are exceptions, they would largely conform to the above definition.

This class fraction is something that has historically been an integral part of British society and used to receive a greater level of analyses than it currently does.10 However, most analyses of the group deemed the “middle-class” focuses on the managerial class that emerged in the 1970s or those who are deemed to earn a middle income. Although most of Marx’s analyses of capitalism focussed on landowners, capitalists and the industrial proletariat, this class is by no means immaterial to studying the capitalist process, and the nature of its decline provides valuable insights into the nature of

capitalism in Britain in the 21st century, and is deserving of study.11 In the years following the 2008 financial crises, this class, specifically the status and prospects of its young members have declined to the extent that this class now appears moribund.

We can trace the processes of decomposition of the traditional middle-class by examining its changing income, the changing nature of workplace dynamics and relations to capital, the increasing geographic fragmentation currently being experienced by this class, and the deterioration of its cultural institutions. Although none of these criteria themselves define class, they are useful indicators of the relationships that constitute class and its historical fortune. For instance, the deteriorating income of the traditional middle-class is a consequence of the increasing fragmentation and casualisation of labour and the resultant change to their relationship to the processes of production. Furthermore, although income alone does not define a class, it is an important consideration when analysing class because of whatit facilitates or prevents a class from doing. With their higher income, the traditional middle-class have previously been able to pay for a level of education, cultural consumption, and a better standard of living compared to most classes. Effectively, the consciousness of aclass informs how a class will spend its income, but different levels of income influence the extent to which this consciousness can be manifested and reinforce its own existence. Thus, income, and how it is used or not used, is an important consideration when analysing the relationships that give a class its meaning. For instance, the geographic fragmentation of this class is a result of its incomes’ inability to keep up with house prices, meaning that the many members of the traditional middle-class now have a distinctly different geographical relationship to their own and other classes. For when any class is geographically fragmented it loses a vital institution of class that helps it to physically demarcate class membership and socialisation: the neighbourhood.

Throughout this article another important demarcation line is age, as the young who were born into this class largely have different material experiences and relations than their parents as a result of the changing nature of this class. This effectively raises the question of whether age itself is becoming a determinant of class. I do not think it is, as while the material conditions of one generation may be grouped together these generations have not made themselves into a class per say. They have not undergone the necessary process, outlined by Thompson, of identifying common experiences and interests between themselves and against others, therefore they do not act as a group for itself although they can be observed to be acting as group in and of itself.12 Therefore, I suggest that analysing the state of different generations within a class is a useful portent as to the future trajectory of that class. While the majority of people born into the traditional middle-class cannot hope to have the material advantages associated with this class and the professions that constitute its productive processes until their mid-thirties, they are imbued with the consciousness of this class from birth, often articulated through education. They are raised with the expectation of achieving at least parity with their parents and enter professions that have a clearly charted course of material and cultural progression, subconsciously considering themselves immune to downward social mobility.

Thus, while age is not a perfect facsimile for class, it is important to examine the prospects of the young members of the professional middle-class, as it appears that they will not achieve the same relations to production and consumption that the older members of this class did; consequently, it is possible that a new middle-class is in the process of being made, one with a dysphoria between the expectations it was raised with and the material processes to which it is subjugated. When the older members of this class die, the distinct social positions and relations that define their class may well die with them. However, there is a slight complication here as when they die their offspring could inherit their assets, with inherited wealth being an engine for class regeneration.

Towards Death

The eventual result of the global supremacy of markets was the 2008 financial crisis, as the internal contradictions of the market negated themselves causing it to short-circuit. The aftermath of this had a severe impact on the traditional middle-class and was the collapse of the specific variant of capitalism that was the unsustainable compromise of social democracy and unregulated marketisation; as Brecht observed, capitalism is permanently revolutionary.13Since 2008, capitalism has morphed into something less restrained and more brutal, and spawned the gig-economy. In this sense, it more closely mirrors the economic system contemporary of Marx that was fuelled by the insecurity of the proletariat. The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis exacerbated an existing trend underpinned by Thatcherite economics and ideology. Deregulation of the marketfacilitated deregulation of the professions so Boots or SpecSavers could subsume opticians, ‘no win no fee’ lawyers undercut solicitors, jobbing traders replace stockbrokers etc. From the early 1980s, attacks on professional ‘monopolies’ increased substantially, and the bargaining power of professionals increasingly diminished as did their cultural status. This decline began to alter the relationship that the traditional middle-class had with the rest of British society, as its expertise became less valuable, both culturally and economically. As professional monopolies were undermined, so too was the importance of professions to maintaining important services in society. Thus, a fundamental difference between now and the capitalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is that the traditional middle-class, on a material level, is no longer secure and shielded from the worst of capitalism’s vicissitudes. It is this exposure and insecurity that is undermining the material base of the traditional middle-class. The consequences of this are being born by Generation Y/Millennial members of the traditional middle-class (those born between approximately 1981 and 1996), and it is they who are living through the death of their class.

The declining prospects of the young is not unique to Britain, an OECD study of multiple developed countries reported that the quantity of young people, Millennials and Generation Z, in the middle-income bracket (defined as earning between 75% and 200% of the median national income) is declining.14 Although this group will typically earn less than the traditional middle-class, in Britain both are experiencing the same economic pressures. In order to qualify for the top 10% of income earners in Britain (the bracket in which most of the traditional middle-class reside) one would have to earn £54,900, per annum which is still less than the £58,000 that is 200% of national median income. Even though many within the traditional middle-class would expect to, and do, earn more than this, earning £80,000 per annum, and therefore being in the 97th percentile of UK earners, would still put someone closer to the 90th percentile than it would the  99.5th percentile which would require an income of £236,205 per annum.15 Thus, the young members of the traditional middle-class are subject to the same fall in prospects as those from classes just below them. In the future, the current children of the traditional middle-class and other less privileged classes may have a closer material relationship than their preceding generations did.

In the south of England (typically seen as the traditional middle-class heartland) house prices have dramatically increased, which has left many people, in rented accommodation, resulting in the rise of a rentier class. This means that, for the millennial members of the traditional middle-class, home ownership, once an important signifier of middle-class security, is now a distant ambition. A recent study of the ONS reported that in 2017 35% of 25-34-year olds live in the private rental sector. The increase in rented accommodation is largely due to a rise in house prices. The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that mean house prices were 152% higher in 2015-16 than they were in 1995-96, while in the same period net family incomes of those aged 25-34 only grew by 22%. 16 Unless house prices significantly fall, members of the traditional middle-class will continue to be priced out of areas they would once have taken for granted. Thus, the class is becoming increasingly spatially fragmented, as its younger members move further afield to find affordable housing, and therefore it is losing its geographic centre. Daniel Dorling has examined the decline of the suburbs as an area of hope and prosperity that were previously home to an aspirational new middle-class, there is no reason to suppose that this geographical dislocation has not trickled up and affected the traditional middle-class also.17

While the cost of living rises, the labour dynamics of the professions that gave the middle-class their status, are themselves coming under attack, as the terms and conditions of employment – for instance, pay, time-off, and pensions – become less favourable. The gig-economy has well and truly arrived, and doubled in size in 2019.18The traditional middle-class are not immune from this proliferation of casualisation. For instance, there has recently been a rapid growth in ‘platform’ lawyers, with a 29% increase in 2018.19 Equally, many new university academics are on temporary, fixed-term, or hourly-paid contracts, the precariousness of which has been highlighted by the current pandemic, which has put approximately 300,000 jobs under threat. At the turn of the century this level of precarity in the academic profession would have been unthinkable.20 A consequence of increased precarity is that members of the traditional middle-class, robbed of the protection of a substantive salary, are forced to actively bargain over the selling of their labour power and navigate the working day in a manner that was previously alien to this class. This is a fundamental change in this class’ relationship to the process of production and therefore its essence.

The fall in professional incomes is not unique to Britain, the 2019 OECD survey from April 2019 claims that “skill levels are increasingly failing to yield entry into the income class with which they are traditionally associated. Highly skilled workers, for example, are less and less likely to belong to the upper income class in most countries”.21 What is undeniable is that, while traditional professional jobs may still bring with them a level of cultural capital, their material rewards are rapidly declining.22 As the conditions of employment decline, so too does the class’ relationship to capital and production. Insecurity of employment and falling renumeration decrease the level of autonomy that can be asserted over the labour process.

The gig economy may offer significant benefits for established older workers within their chosen field, as they are in a good position to sell their labour power and negotiate the working-day on a freelance basis. However, it is detrimental to the long-term interests of the young members of this class. The short-term and flexible hiring of proven experience and skill will only serve to limit the advancement of young professionals as there will be less of an incentive to develop and promote them. As well as this, because the professions typical of the traditional middle-class are not physically intensive, the working-life of the its members can often be longer, meaning that younger members of this class have to wait longer to move into a more secure and lucrative position.

The damage done to the traditional professions on a material level is demonstrated by the increased labour militancy in these professions. In 2016 Junior doctors launched an unprecedented wave of strike action over their new contract. In 2018, academics struck over a change to their pension scheme. While in 2019 Ryanair pilots in the UK went on strike, while British Airways pilots only climbed down at the last moment. Labour militancy does not manifest out of thin air, it is provoked.

Although labour militancy is not new in some parts of this class (for instance university lecturers engaged in industrial action as members of the AUT in 2006) what drives the current militancy is new and signifies a reaction to the changing relations of employment and production.

The 2018-2020 Higher education strikes were a direct result of the increased casualisation of labour and deteriorating terms of employment that are symptoms of the marketisation of higher education that came into existence in 2011 with the trebling of tuition fees and removal of government grants to universities. This was not the case in 2006. Currently UCU is taking strike action in an increasing number of universities against redundancies and pay cuts. As well as this, the civil service seems to be on a collision course with the British government over reform and safe working practices during the pandemic, with the First Division Association recently threatening strike action. Essentially, the government want the civil service to act as though they are members of the obedient professional managerial-class, instead of the traditional middle-class which has traditionally exercised greater autonomy in the workplace. This is a distinct development in the nature of civil service labour militancy, as the FDA’s only previous national strike action was the 2011 strike over pensions, meaning that it was about conditions of pay and employment and not obedience to the state and a loss of workplace autonomy.

That labour militancy, provoked by decline in employment conditions and workplace autonomy, has become increasingly common in professions that were previously antipathetic to it, is an indicator of the severity of the situation that the professions of the traditional middle-class now find themselves in. This is close, though not identical, to the proletarianisation predicted by Marx.23 For while the working-conditions of the traditional middle-class decline, and they experience increasing insecurity in their employment and diminishing renumeration, they still exercise a substantial (though decreasing) control over their processes of production, at least in comparison to other jobs. In addition, their distinct cultural capital still separates them from the proletariat, for the moment at least. However, it is evident that the traditional middle-class is now in desperate need of the “white-collar revolution” advocated by Clive Jenkins.

Accelerating the decline of the traditional middle-class has been the rise of the aristocracy of finance, by which I mean those who work in Britain’s financial services and banking sectors. It is a class born as a result of the latest manifestation of capitalism and raised to prominence as a result of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries’ reliance on financial markets. It is now central to Britain’s economy  and society.24 Although these two classes are not mutually exclusive, and many of the initial members of the financial aristocracy will have been drawn from the ranks of the traditional middle-class, the material conditions they operate in are increasingly stratified. It is partly the injection of new levels of wealth from the financial class that have undermined the material base of the traditional middle-class. It is this money that has contributed to soaring house prices and squeezed the professions in other ways, such as rapidly rising private school fees pricing the middle-class out of schools that became a viable alternative to state provided grammar schools as grammar schools decreased in numbers.25 The importance of the school to the maintenance of a class, as a cultural and physical location, cannot be understated. Gramsci observed how “each social group has its own type of school, intended to perpetuate a specific traditional function, ruling or  subordinate”.26 Since the decline of grammar schools in Britain, private schools have proven an important space for the children of the members of the professional middle-class to socialise almost exclusively with their own class, and to be advantaged in the pursuit of educational and professional qualifications. This privileged education has also, from a young age, culturally separated them from other classes in society, allowing them to maintain a social relationship with other classes that is characterised by distance and relative isolation.

The rise of the financial sector in Britain has dramatically changed the country’s means of production. It is at this point that some of Marx’s reflections are most apt. In The Civil War in France he observed how the rise of the financial aristocracy, supported by the July monarchy, meant that “the same unbridled assertion of unhealthy and viscous appetites broke forth, appetites which were in permanent conflict with the bourgeois law itself”.27 Essentially, an economic system which concentrates too much power in the hands of banks, for instance the significant proportion to which they fund the rest of the economy, will always tend towards excess, and chafe at any restrictions. The financial aristocracy should be anathema to the traditional middle-class as they are in direct competition with it. As Marx wrote, the financial aristocracy earns its wealth “not from production but by sleight-of-hand with other people’s wealth”. Thus, by its very existence, it challenges the relations of production and consumption that underpins Britain’s class structure.28  Rowland Atkinson et al. have explored how “by the late 1990s, London had become a city of the ‘middle-classes’ now it is a space increasingly made by, and in response to, the raw power of supremely monied individuals”.29 This observation further indicates the extent to which the traditional middle-class are becoming geographically fragmented.

Furthermore, as Atkinson et al. note, this new elite class of financiers is international, and its precise membership is opaque, as we know relatively little about it, however, its impact on the middle-class is evident:

“For the middle-classes the emerging story is of a kind of victimization from increasingly financialized forms of ‘gentrified gentrification’. This has produced a re-scaling of class changes in local neighbourhoods so that rather than the middle-classes displacing the working-classes it is often now the super-rich who are set against the local, long established, patrician elites in areas like Chelsea, Kensington, Highgate and so on”30

This geographic dispersion is most pronounced in the south of England due to the proximity to London which has the largest concentration of professions and is the heart of the financial services sector, thus this is where the new financial aristocracy are typically based and their expansion most rampant. However, this does not mean that the traditional middle-class will only be priced out of urban areas in the south, only that London is perhaps a sign of things to come. Manchester house prices are rapidly increasing and are projected to have increased by 57% between 2018 and 2028. The city is currently undergoing a radical transformation, not too dissimilar to the one experienced in London at the start of this century.31 There is no reason to suppose that this substantial urban redevelopment and rapidly increasing house prices will not exert a similar squeeze on the traditional middle-class in the North.

Indeed, the significant rise in house prices in towns near Manchester, for instance, Bolton, Sale, and Wilmslow indicates a rise in demand that could well be caused by people being priced out of Manchester itself.32  I think that this will be an observable occurrence across the country as more cities are redeveloped and shaped to the interests of capital and the new dominant class. The consequence of geographical dislocation and decline in employment conditions for the traditional middle-class is mainly born by its young members, as they have been brought up to expect a better quality of living and employment than many of them can now realistically expect to claim. The growth in homeworking caused by the current pandemic poses an open question as to whether this geographic fragmentation will continue. It is possible that some of the traditional middle-class will no longer feel the need to be as close to the city as their income allows. However, it is too early to attempt to answer this question, although I suspect that homeworking will not prove as prevalent once it ceases to be a necessity.

Just as the traditional middle-class is undermined materially, so too is it undermined culturally. Current indicators are that the pandemic will substantially damage Britain’s cultural and arts sector, as the government elects not to adequately support it, thus dismantling important sites of cultural production and consumption. Culture, including music and art, has always been an integral cornerstone for bourgeois society (of which the professional middle-class are an integral part,  as is demonstrated by Hobsbawm’s analyses of the role of the piano, and what it represents as physical and cultural capital, in the bourgeois household).33 A class’ culture is a fundamental part of its formation and continued existence, as it informs not just a class’ relationship with other classes but also its relationship with itself, as it engages with, and learns its own cultural and historical references.

Brecht was adamant about the role art plays in directly shaping society, as it changes “the means of pleasure into an object of instruction”.34 Equally, Lucien Goldmann claimed that culture raises a class’ “collective consciousness to a degree of unity toward which it was spontaneously oriented but might never have attained in empirical reality”.35 Historically, the traditional middle-class, because of their relatively high disposable incomes, have engaged in copious cultural consumption. Therefore, the deterioration of the material base that produces this culture (the pandemic induced closure of theatres, museums, art galleries etc.) robs this class of vital outlets for the production and consumption of its culture, and consequently its consciousness. The high cost of cultural consumption also demonstrates the importance of income as a means by which a class maintains its collective consciousness and exclusivity.

As well as this, the status-quo that many would, rightly or wrongly, associate with the traditional middle-class in Britain, suffered a serious blow with the result and aftermath of the Brexit referendum. The result of the referendum was speciously presented as a victory for the neglected working-class of the north against the metropolitan elite of the south. While this is far from true, and many working-class people voted for remain and middle-class people for leave, the hegemonic nature of this myth, which has hardened in the last four years following the referendum result and the 2019 election, has increased hostility towards the traditional middle-class, by creating a caricature that is easily animated by populists. As a result, society is more divided and the traditional middle-class more isolated.


Above, I have attempted to provide a sketch of a particular fraction of the middle-class that has not received that much attention in recent analyses. However, the changes it is undergoing are significant for our understanding of the changing nature of society and capitalism in Britain today. The declining fortunes of the class’ young members demonstrate the extent to which the material reality of future generations from different classes is becoming increasingly similar – indicating that perhaps age in itself is starting to become a significant indicator of class. Were this to be the case it would call for a fundamental reanalysis of class relations and how the material conditions of different generations are able to react to changes in patterns of production and consumption. However, this particular rabbit warren is beyond the scope of this article.

Furthermore, the geographical dislocation being experienced by this class in the south of England, when analysed in conjunction with the similar displacement experienced by its neighbouring classes, is indicative of the spread of the new elite within urban centres and the extent to which they shape urban geography to their needs. As well as this, the increasing casualisation of labour and the resultant militancy in middle-class professions is symptomatic of the malignant spread of the gig-economy and the extent to which most of society has been left vulnerable to this new form of capitalist exploitation. That these processes can clearly be seen to affect a class whose members typically reside within the top 10% of earners, and have significant cultural capital, is a demonstration of the extent to which a new form of capitalism, supported by a compliant state, is adversely transforming British society.

Ken Roberts, when defining social class sets out three criteria for defining a class: that common positions in employment must be sustained, members of a class should have characteristic and distinctive social origins in classed families and education, and that a class’ children should enjoy class-characteristic life chances.36 Although this is perhaps an excessively schematic construction of class, it provides useful guidelines for assessing the transformation of the traditional middle-class as changes in these criteria are demonstrative changes in a class’ social relations and productive and consumptive processes.  No longer does this class have consistent common positions in employment, on account of the gig-economy. Work has become casualised and workplace autonomy has decreased. While it still has distinctive social origins, the cultural base that supports these origins is gradually being eroded, as cultural establishments deteriorate and members of this class are increasingly priced out of private schools and homes that it would previously have found affordable. Finally, and most damningly, because of the changing nature of employment and rising cost of living, the children of this class no longer enjoy the same life chances.

That this class’ privilege has fundamentally changed shows the pernicious effects of contemporary capitalism. Indeed, Breman and Van der Linden have argued that the “Standard Employment Relationship”, constructed on a history of collective action and secure employment is a historical anomaly that is rapidly being eroded as capitalism returns to its normative state.37 While the decline of the institutions of labour and collective bargaining has been well documented, the decline of professional institutions and occupations has not. The erosion of the power and stability of the old professions within the traditional middle-class (a class in which, previously, unlike the working-class, precarity was largely unknown) is a sign of the extent to which stable employment relations, formerly considered as standard, are disappearing. It may well be the case that, without concerted collective action, the majority of generations Y and Z within the traditional middle-class, and the classes around it, will not experience stable employment relationships throughout the majority of their working life. This has the potential to fundamentally change class relationships in the future as deprivation squeezes more people into the same class and the conditions of their working life become increasingly similar.  

With its material and cultural bases decaying, depravations that have been intensified by the current pandemic, the traditional middle-class’ fate appears sealed: it is in terminal decline. The relationships that underpinned this class have been fundamentally altered. Its younger members cannot hope to have the same security that their parents had, in the form of home ownership, secure jobs, and good pensions, while its cultural supremacy is rapidly eroded. Taking its place is a more ruthless class who are riding high on a newly invigorated form of capitalism, that benefits from a compliant state and the resultant insecurity in society.

While the professional middle-class will not disappear entirely, just as the industrial proletariat has not, it will only continue to exist as a parody of its former self haunted by the tradition of dead generations, as the perception of what it should be drifts further from the reality of what it is. Thompson claims that it is impossible to “locate and classify a class” because what is important is “not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works”.38 This is true. Were time to be frozen, it would be impossible to locate any given class in its entirety. However, one could still locate various institutions of class. The institutions of the traditional middle-class that would previously have been locatable are the profession, the neighbourhood, and various material manifestations of culture. All of these are now in decline and exhibit the extent to which this class is in decline.

The traditional middle-class is complicit in its own decline, it enabled the state to undermine the material and cultural foundations of its class. In the last twenty years of the twentieth century, many of its number embraced legislation that curbed the power of organised labour, which beforehand had provided a check on capitalism’s excesses in the workplace. Equally, many, if not always consciously, embraced the products of burgeoning zero hours contracts across the economy in the 2010s. The result of this is now born by the young members of this class in their respective professions, as labour continues to be artificially fragmented and casualised. In the workplace, the traditional middle-class is being dismantled, just as the industrial working-class was. In the last ten years, successive British governments have disassembled the remaining institutions of the British welfare state, removing another check on capitalism. These governments would not have obtained office or legitimacy without substantial votes from the traditional middle-class.39   

Although the passing of this class may not necessarily provoke sympathy – the middle-class does not benefit from the associated romanticism of the proletariat – its death is a clear indicator that the wheel of history has turned again, and once the wheel has turned, it cannot be turned back.40 As capitalism’s wheel turns, it appears as though the traditional middle-class is joining the proletariat beneath it.

Image “nothing hill” byAdriano Agulló is licensed underCC BY-NC 2.0


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Van der Linden, Marcel 2014, “San Precario: A New Inspiration for Labour Historians” Labour (2014) 11(1): 9-21.

Willet, John 1997, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, New York: Hill and Wang.

Willet, John 1993, Bertolt Brecht Journals 1934-1955, Methuen: London.

Wright, Erik Olin “Varieties if Marxist Conceptions of Class Structure”, in Politics and Society, 9:3, pp. 323-270.



  • 1. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, p. 9.
  • 2. Ibid
  • 3. Alberto Toscano and Jamie Woodcock, “Spectres of Marxism: A Comment on Mike Savage’s Market Model of Class Difference”, The Sociological Review, 2015, available at:, (accessed 29 November 2020)
  • 4. Percentile points from 1 to 99 for total income before and after tax, available at: (accessed 1 November 2020).
  • 5. Alex Callinicos, ‘The “New Middle Class” and Socialist Politics’, in International Socialism, 2:20, summer 1983, pp. 82- 119. P. 98.
  • 6. Marc Mulholland, “Marx, the Proletariat, and the ‘Will to Socialism’”, in Critique, 37:3, pp. 319-341, p. 328.
  • 7. Erik Olin Wright, “Varieties if Marxist Conceptions of Class Structure”, in Politics and Society, 9:3, pp. 323-270, p. 340.
  • 8. Ibid, pp. 326-327.
  • 9. Social Grade, available at: (accessed 1 November 2020).
  • 10. As Richard Evans note, during the nineteenth century “urbanisation, industrial growth, the expansion of the state, the rise in population, all demanded the services of doctors, lawyers, engineers… as knowledge became more complex, training and validation became more important”, thus, the traditional middle-class were integral to the development and regulation of British society’s economy and culture and their professions became more significant. The Pursuit Of Power In Europe 1815-191, pp. 320-321.
  • 11. Abram Harris, “Pure Capitalism and the Disappearance of the Middle Class” Journal of Political Economy, Jun. 1939, Vol. 47, No. 3, pp. 328-256, p.334.
  • 12. The Making of the English Working Class, p. 4.
  • 13. John Willet, Bertolt Brecht Journals 1934-1955, (Methuen: London), p. 43.
  • 14. OECD (2019), Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class, OECD Publishing, Paris. (accessed 9 October 2020)
  • 15. Stuart Adam, Robert Joyce, and Xiaowei Xu, Labour’s proposed income tax rises for high-income individuals, (accessed 25 October 2020).
  • 16. Jonathan Cribb, Andrew Hood, and Jack Hoyle, 2017, The decline of homeownership among adults, available at: (accessed 10 October 2020)
  • 17. Daniel Dorling, “Dying Quietly: English suburbs and the stiff upper lip”, Political Quarterly, 2019, Vol.90, pp. 32-43.
  • 18. Richard Partington, Gig economy in Britain Doubles, accounting for 4.7 million workers, available at: (accessed 8 November 2020).
  • 19. The ‘gig economy’ for lawyers continues to expand, located at (accessed 13 November 2020).
  • 20. Jo Grady, Around 30,000 jobs may be on the line at universities. We have to fight back, available at: (accessed 14 November 2020).
  • 21. OECD (2019), Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class, OECD Publishing, Paris, available at: (accessed 9 October 2020)
  • 22. This increase in precarity can be also be placed in a global context, as Marcel van der Linden has demonstrated that “the standard employment relationship in the global North is now being broken down” and that “standard employment is becoming scarcer in advanced capitalist countries”, “San Precario: A New Inspiration for Labour Historians” Labour (2014) 11(1): 9-21, pp. 17-18.
  • 23. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, (New York: Modern Reader Paperbacks, 1968) p.48.
  • 24. Sami Fethi and Salih Katirciogly, “The role of the financial sector in the UK economy: evidence from a seasonal cointegration analysis”, in Economic Research-Ekonomska Istraživanja, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp. 717-37, p. 737.
  • 25. Marianne Curphey, 2017, The spiralling rise of private education fees, available at: (accessed 29 September 2020) and Sian Griffiths, 2016, Private schools price out middle class, available at: (accessed 29 September 2020)
  • 26. Harold Entwistle “Antonio Gramsci and the School as Hegemonic”, in James Martin (ed.) Antonio Gramsci: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers: Volume Three Intellectuals, Culture and the Party, pp.251-256, (London: Routledge, 2002), p.259.
  • 27. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, (London: Electric Books Co., 2001), 1977, p. 33.
  • 28. It may be that Brexit significantly damages the British financial sector; however, it will probably not damage this sector as much as it will other sectors, meaning the financial aristocracy should remain the apex predatory class.
  • 29. Rowland Atkinson, Simon Parker, and Roger Burrows, Elite Formation, Power and Space in Contemporary London, Theory, Culture and Society, 2017, Vol. 34 (5-6) pp. 179-200, p. 179.
  • 30. Ibid, p. 191.
  • 31. Kayleene Isherwood, Manchester house price growth top in UK for five of last six years, available at: (accessed 29 November 2020), and This is Manchester: What’s behind the city’s building boom? Available at: (accessed 29 November 2020).
  • 32. K. Isherwood, North-west led the way in 2019 with strongest house price growth, available at: (accessed 29 November 2020).
  • 33. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital 1848-1875, (London: Routledge, 1992), p.272.
  • 34. John Willett, Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1997) p.42.
  • 35. Lucien Goldmann, Cultural Creation in Modern Society, trans. Bart Grahl, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1976), p.78.
  • 36. Ken Roberts, “Dealignment: Class in Britain and Class in British Sociology Since 1945”, Societies 2020, 10(4), 79. Available at: (accessed 12 November 2019)
  • 37. Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden, “Informalising the Economy: The Return of the Social Question at a Global Level”, Development and Change, Volume 45, Issue 5, Forum 2014, pp.920-940, p.921.
  • 38. The Making of the English Working Class, p.807.
  • 39. How Britain Voted in 2015, available at: (accessed 4 November 2019).
  • 40. The Communist Manifesto, p.20.