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The ever-rising Middle Classes

We are many, you are few

I passed my 11 plus exam and got into the local grammar school, Henrietta Barnett School. It was an all-girls school, we wore a spectacularly ugly uniform at first (gym tunics, look it up), followed by a spectacularly ugly and impractical uniform (a white jumper, really?) wished on us by the HBS Students’ Council, and then a compromise which was practical and fairly ok – navy blue skirt and jumper with a sort of rainbow at the neck.

Anyway, I was mostly unhappy there, certainly for the first three years, after which things got a bit better. It wasn’t the school’s fault: I think I’d have been unhappy at any school because I just didn’t fit in. I was messy and disorganised, my locker desk was always in chaos and if I got bored I tended to go to sleep. Some teachers found this offensive by itself. I was also clumsy and rubbish at games, never did any homework and was capable of spectacular rudeness.

The only sanction the teachers had was to give me detention, which they did. These took place on Monday afternoons for an hour and a half after everybody had gone home, invigilated by a teacher who didn’t want to be there. You had to take a piece of paper home to warn your mother that you would be late, to make sure you got it in the neck from her too.

I felt it would upset her less if I simply told her I had an extra lesson after school on Mondays and “lost” the bit of paper. I had “lost” epic amounts of homework and I felt sure that the detention information sheet would not be missed either. And it wasn’t.

At one stage it got to the point where I could proudly tell an irate teacher that if she wanted me to do a detention for her, she would have to book a Monday in the next term because I was booked up until then.

I quite enjoyed the detentions because you had to write an essay on some dull subject like “Why I must not stand on a desk and loudly sing rugby songs in class” and I took great pleasure in twisting it so that this was obviously the right thing to do.

How I escaped secondary school unstrangled is a mystery to me.

There were two places in the school which I liked. The library of course, which was quite good and one classroom which had a whole bookcase full of history textbooks. You were supposed to have the first one in the first year of secondary school, the second one the next year, and so on. This took you to the mindboggling tedium of the Industrial Revolution and the 19th century by the time you were doing your O levels (now called GCSEs) at 16.

I read the first one in my first year. Second one in my second year. Third one… and then I  discovered a thing which was rather exciting. So I stole the other books. I read each one again in order, from the Norman Conquest, in 1066, through to the 18th century and the American Revolution, French Revolution, and Industrial Revolution (oh god). When I’d finished them, I put them back, honest.

Each textbook was written by a different historian of the period and it was clear nobody had read the whole series through.

Every single book from Dark Ages to Industrial had a chapter entitled something like “The Rise of the Middle Classes.” And in every single chapter, the story was about how in this particular time, the 7-11th, 12-13th, 14-15th, 16-17th and 18-19th century the Middle Class was on the rise. It hadn’t been before but now it was. And then they explained why – different reason each time.

I sat and looked at the pile of books I was going to have to smuggle back to school and thought about this. How strange! If there had actually been a Rise of the Middle Class, when had it happened? I spent a lot of time wondering about this and was probably even more infuriating than usual. I don’t remember exactly when the thing clicked, but I know I somehow got a bolt of inspiration.

There never was a Rising Middle Class, I thought. The Middle Classes were simply the people and families who were rising or falling through society. If you were a peasant, you stayed put in poverty. If you were an aristocrat, you normally also stayed put in that class because you had enough land or money to defend your position (land is still best). But if you were making the long slow 4 to 5 generation climb from peasant to gentleman, then you were Middle Class. Similarly if you were falling spectacularly from Nob Hill then your children were also Middle Class. Mind you, it was rare for the ex-nobles to fall all the way to peasant. Mostly they got executed for treason.

The Middle Class was what you called the people who were rising or falling. What mattered was how many of them there were.

When you said “the rising Middle Class” what you meant was that there were more people rising through society than falling. If you said “a shrinking Middle Class” what you meant was that there were more people falling, becoming poorer. A stable Middle Class meant the same number of people falling as rising.

It was a bit like a pot of soup on a stove, I thought, having been introduced to the concept of convection by the wonderful physics teacher. As it got hotter, some molecules of water would rise and at the top they might cool and sink again, setting up convection cycles.

Wow! I was charmed by this thought and explained it at length to anyone who would listen – funnily enough they didn’t seem to want to listen twice. I did my best to explain my revolutionary idea until I got distracted by something else, probably writing fan-fiction for “Alias Smith and Jones,” a popular TV cowboy series with two incredibly dishy stars (Pete Deuel and Ben Murphy).

I still think I had a point.

The Middle Classes – sneered at as bourgeois by the Communists – are absolutely essential. Intelligence, ambition and enterprise are normally distributed in a population – which means that if say 20% of the population are enterprising, that’s not the upper 20% as some of the elites kid themselves. That’s 20% of the whole population. Intelligence regresses to the mean. In other words, 20% of the children of the upper classes, will have enterprise. 20% of the children of the middle classes will have enterprise. And the same for the children of the lower classes, 20% of them will have enterprise. And there are a lot more poor people than rich people. That 20% of enterprising people in the lower classes will be profoundly disruptive, might turn to crime or political agitation, if there are no ladders up out of the gutter. Social mobility isn’t the icing on the cake. It’s a matter of life and death to a society.

This is why smart people are so worried about inequality. Inequality shows that something has going badly wrong with social mobility, with the convection cells in a society: people are staying stuck in the classes they were born into or falling into poverty. The class system is turning into a caste system. A rich experience-bubble and a poor experience-bubble are forming so that it becomes even harder to rise: the people in the rich bubble don’t know why the poor are so anxious all the time and the poor are genuinely starting to hate the vulgar rich.

Pressure is building in the lower classes because able and ambitious people can’t escape the gutter.

What normally happens in that situation?


Why is that a problem?

Well there were plenty of slave revolts, peasant revolts, city revolts all through history in which the people rose against their rulers but were bloodily put down and their leaders pursued and executed.

The first successful revolution in history was the Dutch Revolt in 1566-1648. After that there was the English Civil War, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution (1791) the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution – all successful by their lights.

Why didn’t the revolts before the 16th century succeed – not even the Hussite revolt in Bohemia in 1419, though it came close – and why did the revolts after that date succeed?

Very simple. Firearms. Cannon took down the aristocrats’ castles and cities. Arquebuses, muskets, rifles shot down the noblemen themselves.

Before that date ordinary people fighting the aristocracy were normally doomed. The noble classes had more experience, better weapons, horses, food and a great deal of organisational ability. Aristocrats were intended for war and trained continuously for it – which was expensive. But after gunpowder truly arrived, all bets were off.

Before that date it took five years to build up the muscle and skill of the best-known projectile weapon practitioner – the longbowman.

After that date, muscle power was replaced by chemical power in the gunpowder. Eventually in the Netherlands, William the Silent’s son, Maurice of Nassau developed a system for training new soldiers which turned them into arquebusiers in six weeks.

And as Washington later proved, you could lose a battle, recruit and train and have a new army ready in months.

For the first time since the days of the hunter-gatherers, the poor majority could defeat the well-armed well-trained minority.

That was truly revolutionary.


Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you–

Ye are many — they are few.

“The Mask of Anarchy” Percy Bysshe Shelley

1 Comment

  1. Robin McLennan says:

    I loved “Alias Smith and Jones” too. Had a crush on Jones, and wrote my own episode.

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