The middle class doesn't exist

8 May 2013
Only in en
Arena and Fronesis show class is back with a vengeance; New Eastern Europe fleshes out a definition of solidarity; Dublin Review of Books discovers that the German language is not so bad after all; dérive writes of rats with wings and other urban species; Index on Censorship watches free speech take a beating as economic crisis kicks in; Il Mulino berates Italy’s hybrid and infertile brand of capitalism; Revolver Revue is concerned at the post-communist order of things; Host announces the arrival of David Foster Wallace in the Czech Republic; and Magyar Lettre warns against using the Velvet Divorce as a model for dismantling Europe.


Twenty years ago, class was not in the vocabulary of Swedish pundits and mavens. Class was something that belonged to the past. Today, however, it is back with a vengeance. Recently the Swedish Occupy movement “Allt åt alla” (Everything for Everyone) organized a bus “safari” through exclusive Stockholm suburbs to take a look at the millionaires’ villas there and “fuel class hatred”. Every leading newspaper has already had its own “class debate”. Class is simply everywhere in Swedish society.

“Anyone who wants to understand both the age in which we live and the future will have to talk about class,” write editors Malena Rydell and Mikael Feldbaum in Arena. But not just any class. The cover of the new issue spells it out: “The middle class doesn’t exist.” The slogan is from poet and pundit Göran Greider’s “54 theses for a new class awareness”, a manifesto for a new Left packed with sound bites such as: “Treat the very word class as a teenager: it grows; it’s unruly; it doesn’t obey; it stuns you.” Or: “Today’s working class is mainly female.”

The thesis of the death of the middle class is simple and not peculiar to Sweden: every time you try to define the allegedly most important contemporary social formation, this “middle class” breaks into two, writes Greider; one part that serves the economic power and another that has more in common with blue collar workers and unemployed, with the sans papiers and the precariat.

The precaritat: The new issue of Fronesis, Arena‘s somewhat more theoretical Swedish sibling, also focuses on class: an ambitious 300-page perhaps-not-for-beginners-guide for those who want to think class anew. Here Guy Standing forges a new vocabulary capable of describing class relations in the global market system of the twenty-first century. Thus the “precariat” is “a class in the making”:

“Besides labour insecurity and insecure social income, those in the precariat lack a work-based identity. When employed, they are in career-less jobs, without traditions of social memory, a feeling they belong to an occupational community steeped in stable practices, codes of ethics and norms of behaviour, reciprocity and fraternity. The precariat does not feel part of a solidaristic labour community.”

The full table of contents of Arena 2/2013 and Fronesis 40-41 (2013)


Carnivalesque eruptions of solidarity are all well and good, writes Zygmunt Bauman in New Eastern Europe (Poland), but it’s when the quotidian returns that fraternité really matters.

With the demise of the “factories of solidarity” that encouraged identification among neighbours – class struggle, trade unionism, the welfare state – all that’s left is the individual pursuit of personal aims, bemoans Bauman:

“In a society of consumers treating the world as a repository of potential objects of consumption, the recommended life strategy is to carve out a relatively comfortable and safe niche for exclusively private use within the public space, which is […] incurably inhospitable to people, indifferent to human troubles and misery, riddled with ambushes and booby traps. In this world, solidarity is of little use.”

Nevertheless, the spirit of solidarity may “return from exile”: “In multiple ways the word ‘solidarity’ is patiently looking for flesh which it could become.”

Polish cinema: Film is now the medium through which Poland talks about its past, writes Lukasz Wojtusik. He draws attention to new releases such as 80 milionow (Waldemar Krzystek), in which Solidarity activists siphon off money from banks in Wroclaw; Róza (Wojciech Smarzowski), about a survivor of the Warsaw Uprising who takes up with the widow of a German soldier; and, above all, Poklosie (Wladyslaw Pasikowski), which concerns the Jewish pogroms. But controversy can easily become sensation, warns Wojtusik. Indeed, he can hardly wait to see how that fine line is negotiated in Antoni Krauze’s upcoming film about the 2010 Smolensk plane crash that killed dozens of Polish senior officials, including President Lech Kaczynski.

Also: When, on 1 July, Croatia becomes an EU member state, it will be a victory for “hard sell”, writes novelist Miljenko Jergovic. And Evgeny Kaprov assesses Belarus’ underground music scene: fans can only see bands play live abroad and even the legendary ethno-folk trio Troitsa, having toured worldwide, is blacklisted.

The full table of contents of New Eastern Europe 2/2013


With German-bashing established as a European Volkssport, Dublin Review of Books editor Enda O’Doherty turns to the semi-barbarous German language – and finds that in the right hands, or expressed through the right vocal cords, German is indeed a very beautiful language:

“There are still those who think it an unattractive language, but one suspects that many of them have been too influenced by watching films in which the only German dialogue is ‘Halt!’. ‘Raus!’ and ‘Papiere bitte!'”

Judith Butler and Israel: Geographer Gerry Kearns deals with Judith Butler’s recent turn toward Israel/Palestine. Her acceptance of the Adorno Prize on 11 September 2012 rekindled debate over Butler’s support for the international cultural and academic boycott of Israel – support that, as Kearns acknowledges, “raises questions about recognition that go to the heart of Butler’s philosophical testimony and political activity”.

Having traced how Butler’s analysis of US foreign policy segued into that of Isreal’s policy of occupying Palestinian lands, he observes how in her most recent book, Parting of Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Butler “turns Jewish thought against the racism of Israeli colonialism”.

More on the Dublin Review of Books


“Animals are always there, even if you can’t see them”, write guest editors Fahim Amir and Christina Linortner in the Viennese journal dérive on “The urbanization of species”.

And then there’s the pigeons: On 22 June 1966, New York City commissioner for public parks Thomas P. Hoving published an outcry on the lacklustre state of parks in the New York Times. It was here that he made a lasting contribution to the vocabulary of urban species, coining the term “rat with wings”. Following the discovery of a new method for producing ammonia, dove droppings were no longer required as a valuable raw material for fertilizer. The dove came to be perceived as a menace to human health and architectural heritage. The symbol of peace, beauty, purity, gentleness and fertility became the pigeon. Fahim Amir elaborates upon the emergence of this new urban symbolic order:

“‘Dirty’ was the attribute indicating subjects that must be eliminated in accordance with a logic that operated in the same way as rural opinion but in reverse. It was not because the pigeon was dirty that it had to be removed from urban areas but because the pigeon upset the modern spatial matrix that it appeared to be dirty.” In these disciplined urban spaces, “it was not only pigeons but also punks, beggars, junkies, graffitists and the homeless who were perceived as parasitic and useless”.

We have never been Earth: Ralo Mayer relates the spectacular failure of “Biosphere 2”, a gigantic terrarium in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona. It was intended to mirror the Earth’s ecosystems in order to test life in a future space colony, complete with human test persons. In 1994, after just two years, the experiment closed down. Biosphere 2 now leads a relatively peaceful life that is only occasionally disturbed by a University of Arizona scientist: “We don’t know if the whole thing will turn to green slime, but as scientists, we’d be fine with it anyway. I’m afraid the investors won’t be, but we will. (Tony Burgess, Bio2 desert ecologist, 1990)”

The full table of contents of dérive 51 (2013)


Index on Censorship (UK) assesses the impact of the economic crisis on free speech, with articles on police brutality amid rousing protests in Spain and Greece, the resounding silence of the financial sector and cuts in funding that affect all forms of media, from newspapers to the BBC World Service.

Indignados: Juan Luis Sánchez traces the emergence of the movement in Spain from the occupation of plazas and streets in 58 cities on 15 May 2011. It was then that a range of civil society groups united in their response to half of all 25-year-olds being unemployed and over 150 home evictions per day:

“Social movements give validity to the rearguard, to the intellectual construction of a model that resists both attacks and criminalization. The network has confidence in itself as an underground labyrinth, well adapted to slip loose from the reins of power.”

Codes of silence: Given that “the roaring financial crisis has produced a legislative mouse”, Nick Cohen ponders “the refusal to challenge the secretive, hierarchical culture that imposed such calamitous cost on society. (And will do so again.)” For when citizens in Western democracies go to work, “the moment they cross the threshold, they leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship”.

In an era when risk managers are fired for warning of risk and whistleblowers risk their professional reputation, not to mention that of their colleagues and institution, Cohen proposes that:

“We need to go with the grain of modernity and move to open, equal workplaces, where managers who insist on surrounding themselves with cronies, who punish those who speak out, and who put the protection of their status before all else are treated as a public menace.”

Also: On World Press Freedom Day (2 May), Index on Censorship CEO Kirsty Hughes laments the lack of concern shown by EU leaders as press freedom comes under attack in member states and candidate countries:

“EU leaders are starting to worry about the vertiginous loss of political trust in the EU across most member states, but showing little concern for a key element of European political systems, a free press.” (For more on this issue, see Jan-Werner Müller‘s recent support for EU intervention in member states.)

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 1/2013


“A hybrid and infertile capitalism” is the outcome of incoherent measures taken by the Italian government from the 1990s onward, writes Marco Simoni in Il Mulino (Italy). The new model is neither liberal, like the Anglo-Saxon one, nor state-coordinated, as in the German case. Reforms implemented without logic or consistency have caused Italy’s economy to lose much of the dynamism of the 1980s.

The small and medium-sized companies that had contributed so much in the way of innovation, providing the Italian economy with its hallmark, were hardest hit during the takeover of local banks. The pillars of the Italian district banking system crumbled in the hands of multinational giants. Simoni regrets the lack of reflection devoted to this paradigm change, as a result of which “any kind of organic discipline in a liberal sense” is sorely lacking.

Italy’s economic decline has taken a severe toll on the labour market, affecting the younger generation most: among European countries, Italy boasts “the highest number of young people who are neither studying nor in the labour market”. The political aim in the 90s was to promote flexibility on the one hand and to regulate collective contracts on the other. But labour flexibility became a “synonym for precariat”, as companies missed opportunities to valorize the capacities of “flexible workers” and the “incentives to maximize short term results” passed them by, writes Simoni.

Youth precariat: Lorenzo Forni traces the roots of the decline in prospects for young people back to the 1960s. A detailed statistical analysis of wealth distribution among different age groups leads him to call for “political and social powers that act on a long-term view” and for stronger political representation of the interests of young people.

The full table of contents of Il Mulino 2/2013


The spring issue of Revolver Revue features two public figures who continue to be a thorn in the flesh of the authorities long after the fall of communism.

Out of order: The 86-year-old painter Pavel Brázda explains why in early 2013 he decided to return the Order of Merit in the Arts that he received from Václav Klaus in 2008, thus taking the shine off the Czech President’s final days in office.

Brázda had his works banned under communism but is now regarded as one of the most outstanding Czech artists of the second half of the twentieth century.

Revolver Revue reprints his letter to Klaus in full: “Lately I have realized that I was never really attached to this toy of a decoration, devalued by the hands from which it was received […] and I would have to be ashamed if I hung on to this useless and discredited thing.” In particular, Brázda objects to Klaus’ eurosceptic and pro-Russian policies, his anti-environmental views and his public criticism of his predecessor, Václav Havel. According to Brázda, Klaus has destroyed the international reputation that the Czech Republic won under Havel, and is now “a deterrent and warning example of the sort of president this country should never have had”.

Courage, faith and persistence: Adam Drda pays tribute to another troublemaker, the Christian dissident Augustín Navrátil (1928-2003). In 1987, he circulated the Moravian Appeal, a 31-point petition demanding religious freedoms that attracted 600,000 signatures and led to Navrátil’s incarceration in a psychiatric institution. Navrátil, a simple joiner and self-taught legal expert, is largely forgotten today.

However, Drda insists that he “ought to stand out a mile, particularly these days, as certain historians and writers have begun to reassess the normalization regime in order to denigrate and trivialize the courage, faith and persistence of the likes of Navrátil – now that cowardly pandering, to put it mildly, is commonly presented as the acceptable ‘civic norm'”.

The full table of contents of Revolver Revue 90 (2013)


After his premature death in 2008, the influence of David Foster Wallace has crossed the Atlantic. For years already, he has been a favourite reference for Scandinavian writers. So Host‘s (Czech Republic) introduction to “DFW” is not original, but it’s thorough.

Wallace pointed, writes George Blecher, “a way for American fiction out of the doldrums of postmodernism”, and “offered a valuable critique of how modern technology, both in the form of all-pervasive distractions like film and TV, and linguistic systems like pop psychology and advertising, can diminish people, detach them from themselves, yet can’t quite stamp out their longing to connect with each other”.

Blecher identifies the collection of stories, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (1999), as “Wallace’s fictional breakthrough – his progress from a love/hate relationship with irony to a more mature, sincere voice”. In Host, Czech readers can, for the first time, read three short stories from this volume – “The Devil is a Busy Man”, “A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”, and “Death Is Not the End” – plus, from Consider the Lobster (2005), an essay on Kafka.

The full table of contents of Host 4/2013


Magyar Lettre (Hungary) devotes its latest issue to “Visegrad seen from the inside”, featuring contributors from Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia on Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Poland, past and present: Tomasz Zarycki searches for a past on which to base an indigenous, post-communist middle-class identity, while Marcin Król explains how “the regressive quality that characterizes our country […] is making a positive contribution to development”. Król cites two key reasons for Poland’s economic stability: Leszek Balcerowicz’s reforms, which “made people believe in the meaning of money, the running of businesses and economic enterprise”, and the fact that “thankfully, farmers do not believe in narratives or postmodern fables”. He continues:

“The impulse provided by Balcerowicz, alongside good initial government, the lack of any sense of lost contact with reality – indeed the very firm grip on reality which the peasant tradition has given us – all this has located Poland in a different world.”

After the Velvet Divorce: Martin Simecka, who leads a “dual Czech and Slovak life”, asserts that “the Czechs and Slovaks themselves have surprisingly little insight into their differences”. And differences there are aplenty. Yet Simecka was no cheerleader for the Czecho-Slovak split and makes short shrift of claims that it serves as a blueprint for the dismantling of the EU:

“The happy ending of the story of Czechoslovakia’s disintegration, that might serve as an eurosceptic textbook for the peaceful dismantling of the European Union, is purely illusory. People tend to forget that the only reason these two nations parted so smoothly was that they shared a common desire to be reunited within the European Union.”

The full table of contents of Magyar Lettre Internationale 87 (2012/2013)

Published 8 May 2013

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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