What is ‘middle class’?

I’ve recently watched the three episodes of ‘In the Best Possible Taste’ in which Grayson Perry, a British artist, spends time with each of the different ‘taste tribes’ of the classes in Britain, trying to determine what defines each class. The result is a series of tapestries inspired by William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress and various pieces of religious art. (More about ‘The Vanity of Small Differences’ here.) After living in the UK for four years, I’m still negotiating what it means to live in a country that actually has a class system. When you say someone is ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’ or ‘upper class’, you mean something specific. But no such class system exists in the United States.

Which makes me wonder: What do American politicians mean when they say they are ‘standing up for the middle class’? More specifically, who are they talking about?

The term ‘middle class’ assumes that there is something for it to be in the ‘middle’ of: presumably a lower and an upper class. Do such classes exist in the US, and who are they?

I want to know by what we are defining ‘class’. Is it income? Education? Taste? It seems that pretty much everyone seems to identify themselves as ‘middle class’ in the U.S. Therefore, it can’t be defined purely by economic status, because people of different incomes reflect similar tastes and identify as ‘middle class’. According to Grayson Perry, class is defined by taste more than anything else: not how much money you have, but how you spend your money, what you spend it on, how you display your wealth. Middle class in Britain, according to Perry, is mostly defined by angst, a concern to prove oneself, that one belongs to the middle class and deserves to be there, to define oneself against the working class.

Perry’s argument that taste is what defines class is a convincing one, however, I don’t think the British middle class concern for defining oneself as not working class quite translates across the Atlantic. There is not quite the equivalent to a working class. We have ‘blue collar’, but again, what does that mean? What defines ‘blue collar’?

And, thinking of all these questions about class, when politicians say they are ‘standing up for the middle class’, I want to ask: ‘But who are the other classes? Who are standing up for them?’ Particularly the ‘blue collar/working class/lower class’. Do they exist? Who are they?

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