From the vault: Class

I wrote this for The Baffler back in 1998. A little old, but still full of truth. This is what I submitted; the published version was edited modestly.

On the first page of his awful book, One Nation, After All, Alan Wolfe writes, “According to the General Social Survey, at no time between 1972 and 1994 did more than 10 percent of the American population classify themselves as either lower class or upper class.” He says this to prove that the rest, 90%, are middle class. But they’re not. Wolfe forgot to say that over the same period, half the unnamed rest called themselves, quaintly, working class.

But Wolfe is a man on a mission — to probe the middle-class American mind and find it largely free of alienation and bigotry, and to pronounce the Culture Wars largely the figment of politicans and intellectuals. Wolfe’s Americans are tolerant (except for the queers), open hearted (except for the wrong kind of immigrants), striving, and utterly depoliticized. To take the measure of middle-class thought, Wolfe and his “Middle Class Morality Project” assembled a sample of 200 people drawn from 10 suburbs, and polled and interviewed them. And since America is a suburban nation, these thoughts, such as they are, become what “we” think — a “we” as spurious as USA Today’s, and no more sophisticated.

It’s not very fruitful to kick around a bad book unless it’s representative of something, and Wolfe’s crystallizes the stupidity of so much of American political discourse. In both this book and our public speech, class almost never appears (except maybe as a lifestyle choice). Everything is framed as a “moral” issue rather than a political one, an individual question of right and wrong rather than a matter for collective action. Politics becomes a cuss word. For Wolfe’s middle-class moralists, religion is marvellous as long as it’s not “political”; ditto multicultural education, even. How can those things ever be anything but political? Don’t they involve issues of social power and prestige, of who belongs to a society and who doesn’t? But, no, Wolfe and his subjects drain both religion and multicultural education of all their interesting content, rendering each just another consumer preference, another marketing niche. After all, a little multiculturalism, says one of Wolfe’s interviewees, can help you pick the right global mutual fund!

Technically, Wolfe’s Middle Class Morality Project is a joke. His 200 respondents are meant to stand for about 50 million suburban households; his 24 black respondents get to speak for the entire “black middle class.” He scores the interviews impressionistically; there’s no way to control for, or even second-guess, his bias in drafting the questions or inventing the categories. But even if his picture of “middle-class” suburbia were accurate, it’s a stretch to call that representative of the way a mythic unitary “America” thinks. Suburbanites are less than half the U.S. population, and affluent suburbanites of Wolfe’s sort are still less. Just 1.5% of his sample has an income under $15,000, compared with almost 10% of the U.S. population; people with incomes between $15,000 and $50,000 are greatly underrepresented, and those with incomes over $50,000, well under half the population, are two-thirds of his sample. Over three-quarters are married, compared with just over half of U.S. adults, and just 1% appear to be gay.

For Wolfe, the book is an act of penitence for having rejected middle-class suburbia as a youth. Now, as a grownup, he’s discovered its charms. Wolfe has taken quite a political journey over the years. Once a radical, Wolfe moved to the right starting in the late 1980s (around the time he moved to Scarsdale). In 1989, he published a book denouncing Swedish social democracy as harmful to family values — around the time he was dean of the New School and purged the Marxists and other troublemakers from the economics department and replace them with big-name mainstreamers. Though he’s long gone, New Schoolers still use phrases like “damaging and rotten” to describe the Wolfe years. It takes some repressive effort to produce the blandness that Wolfe reveres.

Of course, Wolfe didn’t invent the middle-class thought he portrays; you do hear manifestations it all over the place, even among people who should know better (including Wolfe). These Americans are “religious,” but their religion makes no particular demands on them. It doesn’t matter what religion you are really, as long as you’re something (except an atheist, or presumably a Satanist, but that doesn’t come up). Wolfe’s people seem tolerant less out of conviction than out of indecisiveness; as he helpfully writes: “Ambivalence — call it confusion if you want to — can be described as the default position for the American middle class; everything else being equal, people simply cannot make up their minds.” No wonder politics is a bad word in their lexicon; it does require some making up of the mind. People believe contradictory or nonsensical things — they love capitalism, but hate the fact that it destroys “community”; affirmative action would be fine if it were for “everybody” — without feeling any urge to think through, much less resolve the contradiction.

Tolerance finds its limits in Wolfe-world on one topic: homosexuality. One respondent refused even to talk about the issue, while “others responded with nervous laughter, confusion, or expressions of pity.” On most issues, says Wolfe, his people feel that differences can be “talked out.” But not this one. Why? Is this good or bad? Wolfe never says; mulling this one over might get in the way of his reconcilation with suburbia.

Wolfe’s people do complain about overwork, a lack of time. Though the reasons for this are, to use that cuss word, political — a direct consequence of what the New York Times’s Germany correspondent Alan Cowell (approvingly) called “the American approach of working longer for less” — Wolfe & Co. seem to accept this state of affairs as natural, if unfortunate, like a nasty heat wave or a killer tornado. Unions are nice, but in the past, as an object of “nostalgia,” appropriate for the day when you had twelve-hour days and child labor; those things are back, but Wolfe didn’t interview too many Chinatown garment workers. Besides, “solidarity can become counterproductive,” once you understand “the need of business to adapt to changing economic circumstances.”

Wolfe fautously interprets the harried situation of his middle class as “a moral squeeze rather than an economic one,” because “to politicize family issues” would “run against the grain of middle-class sensibility.” But the amount of time people have to work and the expense and availability of child care — forces that shape “family issues” — are political from the start, and only the status quo is served by blinding yourself to that fact.

No, the American middle class, or at least Wolfe’s version of it, isn’t interested in the big questions. Their religion is tepid; their tolerance, contentless; and their taste in virtues is decidedly “modest,” “writ small.” “Virtue, like religion, cannot be equated with politics, for that would lead to division and discord.” The horror! Better to stick to the safe ground of mediocrity and mere decency.

If the American middle really is this blandly tolerant, who keeps electing all those yahoos to public office? Can’t be the downscale — they don’t vote; can’t be the upper class — there aren’t enough of them. Maybe behind the apolitical contentment lurks a lot more alienation and rage than Wolfe can see. But on the face of it, it’s amazing how much his middle America sounds like, of all things, the USSR in its heyday, post-Gulag and pre-Gorby. Here’s Henri Lefebvre’s description of the moral code of Homo sovieticus from the early 1960s:

This code can be summed up in a few words: love of work (and work well done, fully productive in the interests of socialist society), love of family, love of the socialist fatherland. A moral code like this holds the essential answer to every human problem, and its principles proclaim that all such problems have been resolved. One virtue it values above all others: being a ‘decent’ sort of person, in the way that the good husband, the good father, the good workman, the good citizen are ‘decent sorts of people….’”

Change “socialist” to “American,” and you’ve pretty much got it. Oxygen, please!

“In a nutshell,” Wolfe summarizes, “what middle-class Americans find distinctive about America is that it enables them to be middle class. Unlike India or Japan, the very rich and the very poor are smaller classes here, and opportunity enables those with the desire and the capacity to better their lot in life.” He is, of course, wrong. India is poor in absolute terms, but, according to World Bank figures, the country’s distribution of income isn’t all that different from the U.S. (The poorest fifth of Indians actually have almost twice the share of national income as the poorest share of Americans). And of all the First World countries, the U.S. has the most polarized distribution of income, the smallest middle class (measured relative to average incomes), an average level of mobility overall, and and a terrible record on upward mobility out of the income basement.

Objectively speaking, then, the U.S. is one of the most class-divided societies on earth, a fact that has faded from public discourse, though it hasn’t completely gone from consciousness. As Wolfe says (only to drop the point), “In 1939, while America was experiencing a Great Depression right out of Karl Marx’s playbook, 25 percent of the American people believed that the interests of employers and employees were opposed, while 56 percent believed they were basically the same. By 1994, when unions and class consciousness were in steep decline, the percentage of those who believed that employers and employees had opposite interest had increased to 45 percent, while those who thought they were the same had decreased to 40 percent.” Class consciousness, or at least identification, hasn’t completely evaporated.

In 1949, Richard Center asked a sample of Americans to place themselves in one of four classes — middle, lower, working, or upper. (In that order. Things listed first have an advantage.) Just over half — 51% — said working class. In 1996, the General Social Survey (GSS), a near-yearly inventory of what the masses own, think, and feel, asking substantially the same question as Center (but in order going from lower to upper), 45% said working class — after decades of farewells to the working class. An equal share said middle class; 6%, lower; and 4%, upper. Two ABC polls that year asking people to place themselves in either of two classes found 55% working class, 44%, middle. A New York Times poll that year found 8% lower class; 47%, working; 40%, middle, and 3% upper.

A look at occupational distributions suggest that some people may be flattering themselves. If you assume that the middle class, in strictly labor market terms, consists of middle managers, professionals, and the upper reaches of sales, service, and production workers, then it accounts for about 28% of the employed population. Senior managers account for an upper class of 3%. (If you want to include lawyers and doctors in the upper class, shift 1% up from the middle.) That leaves a balance of 69% working class. In the government’s monthly survey of private employers, over 80% of workers are classed as production or nonsupervisory.

Where do myths of near-universal middleness come from? In their very useful book (useful, among other things, as an antidote to Wolfe’s idiocies), The American Perception of Class, Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Weber Cannon argue that the Wolfe-ish tendency to assimilate the upper reaches of the working into a broad, prosperous, and generally content middle class is a habit of the more upscale among us. People at sub-elite levels tend to draw the major social division between the upper class and everyone else, while the elite sees a broadly prosperous middle with a small underclass beneath them. Vanneman and Cannon, working with their own original research as well as crunching the raw GSS data, show surprisingly little regional or even ethnic/racial difference in these fundamental class perceptions.

They also show that people name their class based on some rather simple criteria — one’s supervisory role at work, and, not unrelatedly, the prominence of mental rather than manual labor on the job. So a building superintendent may supervise others, but since the work still dirties the  fingernails dirty, it’s basically a working class job. And while data entry may be clean, indoor work, it still involves little thought or discretion, so it too, though some might call it white collar, is still a working class job.

Vanneman and Cannon quote a steelworker from a 1940 study who put the class divide very succinctly: society is divided into the “figuring-out group” and the “handling things group.” Within those groups, he conceded, “there’s a lot of divisions too, but those aren’t real class divisions.” Further, he said, “sometimes, you know, a man who’s a real skilled artisan will be getting more money than that [figuring-out] fellow, but it isn’t always the money that makes the difference; it’s the fact that you’re figuring out things or you ain’t.” Few intellectuals who spend their life studying social organization could hardly outdo this formulation in both its precision and nuance.

So, to define “middle class” using these guidelines, you’d have to take the middleness seriously: the middle class stands between the big owners and the line workers — giving orders, yes, but also taking them, filling in the operational details for corporate strategies decided upon several notches up the executive ladder. And even the most senior executives of the biggest companies — CEOs of Fortune 500 companies — who in many ways are the embodiment of the upper class, still have to answer to their shareholders. If the shareholders have to answer to anyone, I haven’t found out who yet.

For the moment, though, we’re too busy pretending we’re all shareholders now to talk about divisions between Wall Street and almost everyone else — though it’ll be very interesting to see how that changes when the great bull market finally dies. (Will masses of dispossed mutual fund speculators take over Fidelity headquarters, demanding restitution?) But underneath the apparent placidity of American class relations, there still lurks plenty of awareness that some of us work for others of us, and that even “middle class” prosperity can be a very tenuous thing. The usefulness of books like Wolfe’s is to try to keep all that potential trouble buried under a dense layer of constructed amity and narcotic cliché.

One Comment on “From the vault: Class

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