The Middle Class and Russia
The Ideological Subtext for the Consideration of the Problem of the Middle Class in Contemporary Russia
After making these necessary methodological refinements, we can finally raise the question: what is the middle class for Russia? What are its prospects? Is it important for us or, on the contrary, are discussions about it optional and secondary?
It is impossible to answer this without turning to one of the three classical ideologies (including the versions contained in each through the polarities of left and right).
If we take the position of right liberalism, the answer is this: we should not pay attention to the middle class; the most important thing is to secure maximum economic freedom (complete removal of government from business, taxes approximating zero, etc.), and everything will fall into place. Right liberals and consistent globalists are convinced that the growth of the middle class in Russia cannot be the goal, but will become a consequence of its integration in the global economy, the opening of internal markets for external competition, and the prompt dismantling of the strong national state.
If we take the position of left liberalism, then our attitude changes substantially. The broadening of the middle class is the number one task for our society, since the successful establishment of capitalism in Russia depends on precisely this, as does its integration into the international community, as a result. A small and weak middle class facilitates the degradation of society to lumpens and oligarchs and indirectly helps nationalistic and socialistic anti-liberal tendencies seize control over the minds of the population. Social injustice in access to starting possibilities, the volume of the underclass, and the slow growth of the middle class demand special attention and the execution of goal-directed policies, since the fate of capitalism in Russia depends on it. Hence, the struggle for the middle class is a slogan of left liberals. They are the ones who most likely raise this topic, since it is the core of their ideological positions.
If we are contemporary Marxists by inertia or conscious choice, then any mention of a middle class must evoke our rage, since this is the ideological platform of the sworn enemies of communism, bourgeois liberals. For communists, the following is correct: the narrower the middle class, the sharper the social contradictions and the more acute the imperative of the class struggle of proletariat against bourgeoisie. Thus, a large percentage of lower social strata and underclass against the background of prospering oligarchs is for communists the ideal social picture. For communists, the middle class is a lie, an evil, and its absence or underdevelopment is a chance and window of opportunity for revolution. If some “communist” thinks otherwise, then he is not a communist, but a revisionist and compromiser with the bourgeoisie.
If we are nationalists, then the middle class acquires for us an additional dimension. It is thought of as the skeleton of national society in opposition to the “immigrant underclass” and “foreign-born oligarchy”. This is the peculiar notion of the middle class in the nationalist framework. And the cutting edges of this conception of the middle class are directed against oligarchs (the upper class) and immigrants (the lower class and underclass), and the middle class itself is regarded as the national class, i.e. as the Russian class, Russian entrepreneur, Russian proprietor, Russian bourgeois, etc.
It is entirely apparent that it is impossible to speak of the middle class as such, without adhering (consciously or not) to an ideological position. But since in Russia, according to the constitution, there is no state ideology, theoretically we can interpret the middle class however we want to.
The fact that this concept has become the center of discussions attests to the fact that in contemporary Russia, by the inertia of the 90s and early 2000s, precisely a liberal paradigm prevails. In the absence of a state ideology, liberals nevertheless strive to impose on us their paradigm as dominant.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment: a discussion about the middle class is taking place in a socially significant platform, for instance on one of Russia’s major television stations. Representatives of all possible ideologies of modernity are participating: Russian liberals, Russian communists, and Russian nationalists. The first (Russian liberals) say: “the growth of the ‘middle class’ and elevation of the level of wealth for the citizen of Russia is the main task of our society”. The second (Russian communists): “illegal privatization in the 90s put national property in the hands of oligarchs; look how our people live in the provinces; there is utter poverty there”. The third (Russian nationalists): “illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Russians, and they’re all led by Jewish and Caucasian oligarchs. That is a catastrophe for the Russian middle class”. Despite the fact that the viewers might like all three positions, the jury and “respected experts” will, undoubtedly, grant victory to the liberals. This means that we still find ourselves in the condition of the ideological dictatorship of liberalism. This despite the fact that society, recognizing the right of liberal discourse, fully and persistently denies it supremacy and absolute right; in contrast with the political elite, for whom liberal dogmas (optional, as are all ideological constructions) remain sacred and unshakeable.
From this we can draw a conclusion: the middle class and discussion about it reflects the ideological order of liberals in Russia’s political and economic elite. If we do not share liberal axioms, then we will either not consider this topic at all or will give such an interpretation (Marxist or nationalistic) that liberals themselves will vigorously deny it – further from sin (in order to avoid atonement for the social and national crimes of the 90s).
The Fourth Political Theory: Beyond Class
In conclusion, we can conduct an analysis of the middle class in the context of the Fourth Political Theory. This theory is built on the imperative of overcoming modernity and all three political ideologies in order (the order has tremendous significance): (1) liberalism, (2) communism, (3) nationalism (fascism). The subject of this theory in its simple version is the concept “narod” [roughly: Volk, or “people” in the sense of “peoplehood” and “peoples”, not “masses”], and in its complex version the Heideggerian category of Dasein. We can say as a certain approximation that narod must be thought of existentially, as the living, organic, historical presence of Russians in a qualitative spatial landscape, in the expanses of Great Russia. But if the subject is the narod and not the individual (as in liberalism), not two antagonistic classes (as in Marxism), and not the political nation (as in nationalism), then all the obligatory elements of the modern picture of the world change. There is no longer materialism, economism, recognition of the fatefulness and universality of the bourgeois revolutions, linear time, Western civilization as a standard, secularism, human rights, civil society, democracy, the market, or any other axioms of modernity. The Fourth Political Theory proposes solutions and horizons knowingly excluded by liberalism, communism, and nationalism. More on this is found in my book “The Fourth Political Theory” and my new book “The Fourth Way”.
On the whole, The Fourth Political Theory, when applied to the problem of the “middle class” says the following.
The transition from caste to estate and from estate to class is not a universal law. This process can occur as it did in modern Western Europe, or it can fail to occur or occur partially, as is happening even to this day in non-Western societies. Hence, the very concept of class as applied to society has a limited applicability. Class and classes can be identified in modern Western European societies, but whether they replace the caste inequality of the soul and human nature is not at all obvious. Western societies themselves are confident that classes do so. But an existential approach to this problematic can call this into question.
The most important thing is how the human relates to death. There are those who can look it in the face, and those who are always have their backs turned to it. But the origins of the social hierarchy, the fundamental distinction between people and the superiority of some to others consists in precisely this. Material conditions are not decisive here. Hegel’s interpretation of Master and Slave is based on this criterion. Hegel thinks that the Master is the one who challenges death, who steps out to encounter it. Acting in this way, he does not acquire immortality, but he acquires a Slave, one who runs from death, lacking the courage to look it in the eyes. The Master rules in societies where death stands at the center of attention. The Slave acquires political rights only where death is bracketed and removed to the periphery. So long as death remains in society’s field of vision, we are dealing with rule by the wise and heroes, philosophers and warriors. This is caste society or estate society. But not class society. Where class begins, life ends, and the alienated strategies of reification, objectivation, and mediation prevail.
Hence, the Fourth Political Theory thinks that the construction of society on the basis of the criterion of property is a pathology. The fate of man and narod is history and geography, but in no way economics, the market, or competition.
The Fourth Political Theory rejects class as a concept and denies its relevance for the creation of a political system based on the existential understanding of the narod. Even more so does it reject the concept of the “middle class”, which reflects the very essence of the class approach. The middle class, like the middle [average] person, is a social figure situated at the point of maximal social illusion, at the epicenter of slumber. The representative of the middle class corresponds to Heidegger’s figure of das Man, the generalized bearer of “common sense”, subject to no verification or examination. He is the greatest of illusions.
The middle [average] person is not at all the same as the normal person. “Norm” is a synonym for “ideal”, that to which one should strive, that which one should become. The middle [average] person is a person in the least degree, the most ex-individual of individuals, the most null and barren quality. The middle [average] person isn’t a person at all; he is a parody of a person. He is deeply abnormal, since for a normal person it is natural to experience horror, to think about death, to acutely experience the finitude of being, to call into question – sometimes tragically insoluble – the external world, society, and relations to another.
The middle class doesn’t think; it consumes. It doesn’t live; it seeks security and comfort. It doesn’t die, it blows out like a car tire (it emits its spirit, as Baudrillard wrote [Symbolic Exchange and Death]). The middle class is the most stupid, submissive, predictable, cowardly, and pathetic of all classes. It is equally far from the blazing elements of poverty and the perverted poison of incalculable wealth, which is even closer to hell than extreme poverty. The middle class has no ontological foundation for existing at all, and if it does, then only somewhere far below, beneath the rule of the philosopher-kings and warrior-heroes. It is the Third Estate, imagining about itself that it is the one and only. This is an unwarranted pretension. Capitalism and modernity are nothing more than a temporary aberration. The time of this historical misunderstanding is coming to an end.
Thus, today, when the agony of this worst of possible social arrangements still continues, you must look beyond capitalism. At the same time, we must value and take interest in both what preceded it (the Middle Ages) and in that which will come after it and which we must create (a New Middle Ages).
Translated by Michael Millerman.