Can There Be a Subaltern Middle Class? Notes on African American and Dalit History
The history of the middle-class idea has been elaborated for the most part in the light of the western European and North American experience — the “classical” cases, as they say.1 This essay asks whether the burdens and expectations of the middle classes have been qualitatively different in the Asian and African colonies of Europe, and in postcolonial societies generally, once middling strata in these societies come to be recognized as a distinct entity, with the historically assigned task of carrying their people into modernity and a regime of human rights and equal opportunity. It then analyzes the particular political and psychological challenges that come with the emergence of an ex-slave or exuntouchable middle class, such as the “black bourgeoisie” in the United States or the dalit (ex-untouchable) elite in India.2
In the following pages I trace the idea of the middle class or “middle-classness” as it travels, and mutates in its travels, from the earlier examples of western Europe and North America in the nineteenth century to the Asian and African colonies of the European powers in the twentieth century, where powerful anticolonial movements were led by the self-described “Western-educated middle classes.” I mark the differences that emerge in the history of middle-classness in its journey between these two points and then examine certain “subaltern” middle classes (middle-class groups that emerge from, and remain in various ways closely tied to, long-stigmatized lower-class and underclass populations) in India and the United States. I note the unexpected convergences and parallel conundrums that characterize the struggles of the subaltern middle classes in both locations, in spite of the markedly different histories of the two countries and of the diverse subaltern groups in them.
A word of clarification is necessary. This essay does not seek to compare the African American and dalit experience writ large or to establish some sort of equivalence between them. Nor does it attempt to trace the interconnections between the African American and dalit movements and the ideas, inspirations, and symbols that may have flowed either way. Again, it is not primarily concerned with “minorities” and their exclusion from national mainstreams: otherwise, Muslims in India and Latinas/Latinos and others in the United States would have a larger presence in the following pages, as would Barack Obama’s election as forty-fourth president of the United States in 2008. What the essay focuses on, instead, are specific assemblages that are seen historically (but also, somehow, “inevitably,” “by definition”) as communities of lower-class and underclass individuals and families; and what happens to members of these “communities” who inhabit, or come to inhabit, not the positions of the down-and-out — where they allegedly belong — but those of the more comfortable, educated, often professional middle classes.3 Thus it asks what the history of their struggles tells us about the limits of the middle-class idea and about the conditions necessary for the consolidation of particular groups as middle-class, modern, and unmarked.
The middle class or classes have been something of a privileged category in modern society, precisely because the people so described remain unmarked, supposedly nonpolitical, and in significant ways even invisible — “a class paradoxically bound together by its ‘common embrace of an ideology of social atomism’ and prone to ‘express its awareness of its common attitudes and beliefs as a denial of the significance of class.’ ”4 Consciously or unconsciously, the middle classes are often regarded as the quintessence of “modern,” “respectable” living, with the absence of an explicit (or “vulgar”) collective politics being taken as one sign of respectability. These are individuals and families who supposedly pursue their private interests quietly in well-designated public and private spaces, while the task of organizing and ordering the society is taken over and managed by “experts,” themselves ordinary middle-class individuals in another capacity.
This privileging of the middle-class idea flows at least in part from its claimed universality. At times, as in England in the nineteenth century or India in the first half of the twentieth, the term middle-class referred pejoratively to upstart bourgeois, the uncultured and frequently migrant nouveaux riches, who attempted to mimic upper-class practices and manners. In the longer run, however, middleclassness came to be seen as the wave of the future and the middle classes as the makers of their own (as well as of the wider, modern society’s) destiny — a destiny made through an individual’s, as well as a people’s, own unaided efforts. To be middle-class could even be described as the common aspiration of all “modern” groups and individuals. The ideal society would be a society in which no one had the benefit of aristocratic wealth or the afflictions of inherited poverty. The emergence and strength of the middle classes appeared to be the measure of human equality, of the possibility of self-fashioning, of individual achievement and capability — the very signs of the modern.
It is merit, not inherited wealth or privilege, or sectional loyalty or networks, that counts in the making of the middle-class world, we are told. It is improvement, and self-improvement, through education and moral reform, individual effort, and sheer determination that brings advancement for society, family, and individual. The rags-to-riches tale, great men building fortunes out of nothing, is a staple of the middle-class fable not only in the United States but also in Victorian England and colonial India. Anyone can be middle-class, and in a sense, everyone should be. Those who do not make it are simply not determined or talented enough. The urge to “make it” and the promise of its possibility are the transparent, evident signs of the modern and the good society.5
At the same time, middle-classness — like the modern — has always been defined by a series of exclusions: in other words, by what it is not. Central among these, although not always recognized as clearly as they should be, have been exclusions based on ideas of race, gender, and religion. In eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury England, the emerging middle classes marked themselves as distinct from the nobility by the fact that they earned their wealth and position through hard work. By contrast with the old aristocracy, obsessed with questions of heredity and blood, the “assertive new middling orders” of this rapidly industrializing, turbulent, and profit-seeking society were deeply concerned with what they saw as their health and fitness, both physical and moral.6 Similarly, in the context of new and increasingly successful imperial ventures, sections of the English middle class lined up against other “degrading” and “immoral” practices — against slavery, for example, and for temperance, and even in a kind of “feminist” challenge, in the form of an “enlightened” middle-class stand against sati, child marriage, and so on — thus constituting and claiming a new sensibility and a new political position in the nineteenth century.7
On the one hand, the middle classes were distinguished from manual workers by the professions they entered (occupations in which they did not soil their hands through labor), the houses they lived in, the language they spoke, and their temperate behavior.8 On the other, and this was as critical, they were distinguished by a notion of malehood in which the man was the breadwinner and presided over a household with a clearly separated private domain inhabited by “nonworking” women and children. Middle-class men claimed political rights and the status of citizens: the exclusion of workers and women was long seen as being entirely natural. It was only in later discourses of citizenship and middle-classness — such as those represented in the women’s movement — that this kind of exclusion came to be challenged.
The housewife as the linchpin of domesticity and the private sphere was largely a creation of this new middle-class world and thus was integrated into it. Along with laboring peoples and the aristocracy, “nonwhites” and the “Third World” in general were, however, seen to lie outside the domain of new middle-class life. Catholics, the Jews, and the Irish, to take a motley crew, would not be recognized as middle-class in England for a long time, nor would Jews, Italians, or Irish in North America. Native Americans and African Americans in the United States and dalits in India are not always easily accommodated in the category to this day.
These exclusions are not explicable in terms of the “common sense” middleclass proposition that these latter groups — “immigrants,” “Negroes,” “natives,” “untouchables,” “criminal castes,” “Red Indians,” and adivasis (the last two applied to the indigenous communities of North America and South Asia, respectively) — were inherently poor, disorganized, and lazy, culturally unsuited to middle-class modernity. To make sense of them, we need to recall not the middle-class fable of liberal advancement in lands of the free but the destruction and alienation that attended the establishment of modern industrial society and imperialism, along with the economic and technological advances and promises of unprecedented opportunity and wealth that came with them.9
The effects of this dislocation and alienation have been marked among the working classes and immigrant populations, themselves made up in the main of uprooted working people. They may be seen in the history of several immigrant groups in western Europe and North America from the later nineteenth century to the present. And they have of course had long-lasting consequences in Europe’s Asian and African colonies and in the condition of the internally colonized (indigenous peoples in Australia and North America, African Americans in the United States, dalits in India, etc.): that is, among populations marked out as subordinate on the basis of race, religion, or other inherited social condition and denied access for that reason to a whole range of public economic and cultural resources. How do these exclusions and dislocations affect the history of middle-class elements emerging from these groups?
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- See, e.g., Peter Stearns, “Middle Class: Toward a Precise Definition,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 21 (1979): 377 – 96; Stuart M. Blumin, “The Hypothesis of Middle-Class Formation in Nineteenth-Century America: A Critique and Some Proposals,” American Historical Review 90 (1985): 299 – 338; Jürgen Kocka, “The Middle Classes in Europe,” Journal of Modern History 67 (1995): 783 – 806; Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790 – 1865 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780 – 1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Dror Wahrman, Imagining the Middle Class: The Political Representation of Class in Britain, 1780 – 1840 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
- I need hardly say that I use the term ex-slave here in a figurative rather than a literal sense. Obviously, not all members of the African American middle classes come from a slave background; many are descended from families of free and even middle-class black immigrants. Equally, the dalit groups whose middle-class elements I write about were rarely slaves in a technical sense. For my purposes, it is important to note, however, that an increasingly popular account of the foundation of the United States is built around an acknowledgment of the “original sin” of slavery, the recognition and overcoming of which underscore the story of American democracy and liberty. There is a parallel story regarding untouchability in the received narrative of Indian democracy. For important general statements on the African American and dalit middle classes, see E. Franklin Frazier, The Black Bourgeoisie (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957); Bart Landry, The New Black Middle Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987); Harold Isaacs, India’s Ex-Untouchables (New York: Harper, 1964); Sacchidanand, The Harijan Elite: A Study of the Status, Networks, Mobility, and Role in Social Transformation (Delhi: Thomson, 1976); and Nandu Ram, The Mobile Scheduled Castes: Rise of a New Middle Class (Delhi: Hindustan, 1988).
- It is necessary to stress that the “educated, professional middle class” position was in the twentieth century the major aspiration and avenue of advancement for the widest sections of the lower classes, American blacks and Indian dalits included. As E. Franklin Frazier put it, “Education is the chief means by which the Negro escapes from the masses into the middle class” (The Negro Family in the United States, rev. ed. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966], 331).
- Amy Schrager Lang, The Syntax of Class: Writing Inequality in Nineteenth-Century America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), 10, quoting Blumin, “Hypothesis of Middle- Class Formation,” 305, 309.
- “In democracies,” as the sociologist Akos Rona-Tas puts it, “the middle class is the nation proper. The typical member of a national community is a member of the middle class” (“Post Communist Transition and the Absent Middle Class in Central East Europe,” quoted in Sam Vaknin, “Russia’s Middle Class,” December 18, 2002, samvak.tripod.com/brief-middleclass01.html).
- See Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, 22; and J. V. Pickstone, “Establishment and Dissent in Nineteenth-Century Medicine: An Exploration of Some Correspondence and Connections between Religious and Medical Belief Systems in Early Industrial England,” in The Church and Healing, ed. W. J. Sheils (Oxford: Blackwell, 1982), 169 – 70.
- See Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865 – 1915 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); and Davidoff and Hall, Family Fortunes, 433 – 34.
- It is ironic, then, that in some countries today, like the United States, and more generally among groups I call the subaltern middle classes, anyone, working-class or professional, who holds a steady job and even temporarily occupies a position of intellectual, civic, or political leadership, can be thought of as middle-class.
- For a few important commentaries, see Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Colonialism (Moscow: Foreign Languages Press, n.d.); Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin, 1982); Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1963); Jean Suret-Canale, French Colonialism in Tropical Africa, 1900 – 1945, trans. Till Gottheiner (New York: Pica, 1971); Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); and Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990).