This blog post will discuss the logic and the factors behind the current dual class structure, characterised by increasing lower and upper classes and declining middle classes. In this class structure, the upper and the lower classes, i.e. the rentier and the lumpen tend to have similar aspirations of speculation and consumption. From a psychological approach, the relationship between the lower, upper and middle classes can fit into a Freudian framework of id, superego and ego. In this framework, id corresponds to the animal inside a person, which needs to be satisfied, like sexual libido, hunger and thirst. Superego is the human part above all, corresponding to the narcissistic personality, which sees the self above everything and separates the good from the bad. Ego is in between the two, the suppressed part of the human personality. In this current society, superego is the rentier, free to do anything; id is the lumpen, who is unable to control basic instincts and to be satisfied; and ego is those in the middle, pushed from all sides, living in constant debasement. In this context, it can be argued that the rentier (the superego) and the lumpen (the id) vote for the same political parties, and share the same political and ideological ambitions and sexual fantasies. However, the ego, those in the middle, is pushed from both sides, envied and debased at the same time: ridiculed for being ordinary and conservative and isolated from mainstream life because of the power of the new rich and other parasitic forms of life that are seen to deserve the high life as the result of their material and symbolic wealth.
How have we ended up here? This psychosocial context fits into the political economy, which emerged in the 1980s, all over the world. This era has many names, such as “neoliberal”, “consumer”, or “global”, along with many more beginning with a “post-” prefix, although all these terms may have alternative meanings in different theoretical paradigms. During this period, particularly the developed countries restructured their economies through post-industrialisation, and shifted to service-based economies in which innovation and high technology became very important for any economy to be considered successful and competitive. The membership of the conventional working class has declined due to the impact of outsourced production to developing countries, a process accelerated by “globalisation”. In this process, the conventional working classes have transformed into people dependent on ‘ready’ money which prevented them from forming class consciousness. This led to the erosion of class solidarity among them, and the decline of trade unions and class-based politics. The offspring of the working classes became stigmatised through terms such as “benefit scroungers”, “chav”s or “asbo”s, which refer to the underclass or lumpen, or people with neither class consciousness nor solidarity who live in an era of consumption, celebrities, football superstars and tabloid newspapers. They become symbolised through long-term unemployment, low levels of education, and an attitude towards life which can be summarised as “no future”. Their situation is legitimised by political actors and those who profit from such a political context. In this new class structure, the conventional middle classes have also experienced a decline both in numbers and prestige, best represented by public sector workers stigmatised for their perceived “non-job” jobs. Their declining status corresponds to a declining sensitivity towards accumulation and planning for the future, since a more differentiated consumer market with many products necessitated a throwaway society, with an apathetic attitude towards the environment, people and the future. The middle classes correspond to an ordinary, conventional and boring way of life, restricted in 9-to-5 work shifts and two-up two-down households consisting of a married couple with two children and pets.
However, there are also the winners of this new economic system. Despite their small numbers in the workforce, they had a high social status and important symbolic power in society: they are the “new middle classes”, i.e. people working in financial, real estate or various service or creative sectors. Within the new middle classes, new groups emerged, such as “yuppies”, “bohos”, and “hipsters”. Their lifestyle is characterised by an urban buzz around nice neighbourhoods, independent cafes, boutiques, small restaurants, art centres, and luxurious retail, residential and business complexes. At the same time, the “new rich” emerged, corresponding to a lifestyle characterised by spending sprees, luxury brands, and seven-star hotels in cities like London, New York, Istanbul, and Dubai, which created by world-known architects became highly standardised. The new rich create money out of thin air and can be regarded as ‘rentiers’, people who derive income primarily from speculation.
These changes have created a more polarised and unequal class structure. However, many have become fascinated by the power of money and lifestyles of celebrities. And in this context, there is a symbiotic relationship between rentier (the upper classes or superegos) and the lumpen (the lower classes or the ids). In this relationship, the rentier eats most of the cake made of easy money based on a principle of profit. Meanwhile, the lumpen lives with a hope of one day catching up with the status of rentier. This continuous hope, fueled by the promise of continued consumption, kills the lumpen day by day without them ever noticing. In this relationship, while the rentier is free to do anything they want behind closed doors, the lumpen feels free to do so in streets. Because of that, we see people who we would never expect to find together in a photograph, such as aristocrats of various ranks, rentiers and celebrities who are regarded as national treasures in their countries.
By Basak Tanulku (Independent researcher based in Istanbul)