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The demise of the middle class

It has been pointed out that collapses are hard on ruling classes. It is a fact that they are far more dependent upon the continued existence of a complex society than the average subsistence farmer and when the said complex society unravels, they tend to be brutally replaced by people more adapted to the new situation. That is why the Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Germanic warlords, not by sub-roman aristocrats. The burned down temples of Teotihuacan and the toppled statues of Easter Island show that thing go really bad, it is the patricians' heads which end up on a pike. This is why there is nothing more stupid than the conspiracy theories about some malevolent elite leading the world to its ruin. Why would anybody want to destroy the very system that feeds them. There is, however, another, less talked about, casualty of collapses : the middle class.

The large, affluent, middle class of modern western society is something of a novelty in world history. There certainly was a class of reasonably well-to-do craftsmen, merchants and bureaucrats in traditional societies, but it was tiny by today's standards. Even the richest empires could not afford more than an handful of them and the bulk of the population remained made up of peasants with a thin overlayer of priests and nobles.

This, by the way, had to be expected.

All human societies are based upon work specialization. The problem is that specialists, even though they don't produce any energy, need as much of it as your average peasant. This means that to keep a permanent body of specialists, whether they be clerks, blacksmiths, soldiers or ladies-in-waiting, whoever produces energy – that is food until very recently – in a particular society had to produce enough of it to feed them without starving himself – at least most of the time. In virtually all pre-modern societies, this put drastic limits to the development of the middle class.

Before the industrial revolution and the advent of chemical fertilizers, agriculture was very labor-intensive and produced barely enough to feed the nobility, a relatively small middle class of servants, craftsmen and clerks and the peasants themselves – in that order, by the way. The discovery of fertilizers – first guano then the Haber-Bosch process enabled us to greatly increase the productivity of agriculture and create enough surplus for a middle class of civil servants, small entrepreneurs a intermediate managers to emerge. This middle class became larger and larger as the number of people directly involved in energy extraction shrank and their productivity increased. Today, it does encompass the majority of the population of developed countries... as well as myself.

There is a catch, however.

This was made possible only by our using fossil fuels, an energy source more concentrated than anything available before. Without them, the productivity of agriculture would have remained what it was during the XVIIth century and most of our society's manpower would have been locked down in the fields. The supply of fossil fuels is finite, however, and bound to decline in the near future – it has already begun to do so for oil – and this will have tremendous consequences for the social structure of our civilization.

As the net energy available to society declines, so will of course the amount alloted to each social group. The poor will suffer, of course. The working class in European countries has already lost of what it had won during the sixties and the seventies as employers turned to the mass use of interim workers and renewable fixed duration contracts. Even the administration is no longer the stronghold of workers' right it used to be. The bulk of civil servants are still protected by law in France, but many low rank jobs are now taken by temporary workers. This, of course, will become more and more common as the current generation retires, no matter who is in office in any particular township or minister. It is just a resource problem.

There is more, however. As we slide down the descending slope of the Hubbert's Curve, the complexity of our society will begin to go down. Many professional niches will disappear, simply because an impoverished civilization will no longer be able to afford them – the advertising and marketing sectors come to mind, as well as the entertainment industry. Even the administration will eventually cease to provide a shrinking middle class with a living as catabolic collapse forces us to revert to simpler and more local forms of government.

That is where we enter the foggy realm of politics, for even though politics are not entirely class-based, they still have a strong relationship with them. The fact is that, even in Europe, where they are far more powerful, the greens are still overwhelmingly upper middle class, that is the social category which will suffer the most from the coming crisis. This means that the social basis for that unlikely mixture of liberalism and environmentalism that are green politics is bound to dwindle as catabolic collapse progress.

This does not mean, of course, that environmentalism will cease to to be a concern – the resource crisis and global warming are too big problems to be shuffled back underground. The liberal part of the green agenda, is however, likely to be quickly forgotten. Both struggling working classes and failing middle classes tend, almost naturally, to turn to authoritarianism. Historically it hasn't be the same authoritarianism , mostly because not being a worker has always been a major element in middle class identity. Middle classes therefore supported fascism rather than communism when times became really hard during the early thirties, at least in Europe.

Fascism is dead as an ideology and even in France, hard line communism is down to a few fractious sects. The programmed death of the middle class, will however open the way to new radical ideologies, of which Jay Hanson's War Socialism is but a foretaste, an unholy combination of anti-capitalism, nationalism , pseudo-egalitarian authoritarianism and environmentalism. The BNP is undoubtedly moving in this direction, even though its white supremacist roots – and Nick Griffin's definite lack of charisma – will probably – and fortunately – keep it far away from any kind of power. The danger can also come from the left, however, and the adoption of the "degrowth" ideology by some sections of the French hard left – the so called "Left Front" for instance is definitely bad news in that matter.

Developed countries on the other side of Hubbert's peak might look like debt and shortage ridden early eighties Poland. If we don't manage well the demise of the middle class, it might also have the same kind of politics.

Editorial Notes: Jay Hanson's war socialism is a controversial topic. Kurt Cobb has written a good explanatory analysis of it here, followed by ED co-editor Bart Anderson's comments. There is also a good discussion on the Oil Drum. -KS

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