• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Cutting Classes

The Political Economy of Social Class

by Charles H. Anderson
Prentice-Hall, 340 pp., $10.95

Ethnicity in the United States

by Andrew Greeley
Wiley, 347 pp., $14.95

Two classes were enough for Marx. “Lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, patrician and plebeian.” We now make finer distinctions, like upper middle versus lower middle. Shoe salesmen must not be confused with brain surgeons. We also distinguish more finely among oppressions. Jewish lesbians form a special caucus, believing that unique problems separate them from their gentile sisters. But to admit you belong to a class means admitting you share the same boat with others. Most Americans would rather swim.

Our forefathers knew things were simpler. James Madison put first things first. “The most common and durable” division, he said, was between “those who hold and those who are without property.” The Federalist antedated the Manifesto by sixty years. In fact, the framers saw a class struggle coming. That’s why we needed a constitution. Better to gear politics to “special interests”; the more the murkier. Causes like Gay Liberation, Save the Dunes, and Truth-in-Labels are just what Madison ordered. It was best to play down property and replace it with pluralism.

For both Madison and Marx property was crucial. And they meant the real thing. They wouldn’t count a car, a country cottage, a cabin cruiser. Nor would they be impressed by a pension plan, professional credentials, or even the average portfolio. If property is to be central to a class system, then we must mean holdings of some substance. The United States has approximately 25,000 propertied families: people with $1 million or more in assets, over and above hardware like houses, jewelry, and art objects. They are our upper class; but as a bourgeoisie they are rather inert. Their money helps to sustain the structure of power; still it is not indispensable. Investing institutions easily outweigh their influence in boardroom seats, proxy contests, and shaping policy.1

Subtracting 25,000 families from 55 million leaves a lot of people. Even if we agree to put everyone else in Madison’s category of “those who are without property,” there remains the question of subsidiary distinctions. The easy availability of statistics makes the enterprise tempting. The Census publishes several volumes of information on income. A typical table will offer twenty gradations running from “under $1,000” to “$50,000 and over.” The Internal Revenue Service goes further, telling how many returns it received between, say, $200,000 and $500,000. Naturally the government agencies leave it to others to mark off the class boundaries. Some people rise to the challenge, but seldom from scientific motives. Every choice of classes has an ideological purpose behind it. For example, where should the middle class begin? (Show the table on page 16 to your friends and ask them to agree on a line.)


Ben Wattenberg, in his book advocating a new Jacksonian democracy, puts 74 percent of the population in the middle class.2 He manages this by including every family with a 1973 income of $7,000, or about $9,000 today. Each such household, he says, can afford “a small television set.” He never mentions a working class. The lower 26 percent are not given a name, and so in his scheme of things coal miners and truck drivers mingle with architects and accountants. A theory that makes so many people middle class or better directs grievances downward. Better to have the majority grumble about welfare chiselers than to question corporate profits. Richard Nixon won with this strategy last time around. It has yet to be discredited.

Those who believe there is a working class, and a large one at that, have found support in Andrew Levison’s The Working Class Majority. 3 Levison also draws on the Census tables, but this time for occupations. By his reading of the figures, less than 40 percent of the labor force does what he defines as middle-class work, i.e., involving more mental work than physical. Many white-collar titles conceal working-class jobs. The “clerical” and “sales” headings include letter carriers and milk routemen. Most in so-called “service” positions are working at such jobs as barbering and bartending. Women office workers often have blue-collar husbands and tend toward that class and culture at home. Levison concludes that as many as 62 percent of employed Americans are still working class, and not particularly affluent at that.

Class divisions based on occupation are related to the productive process, so they should tell us more than income.4 Even so, it is worth noting that Levison allows almost four people in ten into the middle class. Do all those schoolteachers, dental hygienists, and computer programmers deserve the label simply because they spent several years at school and don’t get their hands dirty? The answer seems to be that liberals feel compelled to claim that there is a fair-sized middle class, if only so they can claim that their policies created it. After fighting for a redistributive state, they can’t very well say that the country still has the same class structure as in 1932.

One special report of the 1970 Census singles out 50,907 men, all of whom earned between $15,000 and $17,000 that year. However 27,031 of them were schoolteachers and 23,876 were truck drivers.5 Equivalent incomes notwithstanding, something tells us we should not put both in the same class. Schoolteachers may spend their spare cash on books or ballet tickets. Truck drivers buy more beer. So the question of style enters into the definition of class; and style is what sociologists usually end up talking about when they speak of “stratification,” the term they prefer to class. Hence their emphasis on attitudes and values, especially on subjects like sex, religion, and child rearing. As one best-selling textbook puts it:

If a middle class boy comes home with a bloody nose or a black eye, his parents are likely to lecture him about fighting, and encourage him to make friends with his opponents.6

(Presumably middle-class parents also show their sons how to get back at the bully without leaving marks.)

Such discussions of style lead to a sociology of manners, with much attention nowadays to sex habits, and on the whole it is harmless. Every epoch encourages the activity it calls scholarship, whose main function is to divert attention from issues of privilege and power. Just as the notion of pluralism defused a class-based politics, so the social sciences have softened up the intellect. Other ages contended over angels instead of counting the diocesan’s holdings. Too sophisticated for seraphim, we prefer to enumerate “parameters,” which we then pass through mathematical models, “autocatalytic processes,” and “envelope-curve extrapolations.” Capitalism need have no fear of radicals who talk of social science as a tool for revolution.

Charles Anderson, a bright and unabashed Marxist sociologist, is a different case. To begin with, he proposes a “moratorium on research in areas…such as social status, prestige hierarchies, non-economic cultural attributes, and life-styles.” All such research simply diverts attention from the real fulcrum of class: property, and the power it carries to exploit. “We have two major classes,” he writes:

the propertied capitalist class which owns and controls the means of production; and the propertyless working class which sells its labor power. Our contention will be that…all members of the society can be classified as either capitalists or working class.

Let us assume that Anderson is neither naïve nor blind to facts that the rest of us can see. He knows that there are people who have professional and administrative titles. He realizes that approximately six million Americans have incomes between $20,000 and $25,000, which makes them rather too rich for the working class but not wealthy enough to be called capitalists. Anderson is of course proposing that we remove the middle class altogether, including its “upper middle” stratum. The proposal runs parallel to Wattenberg’s erasure of the working class, and is no less ideological in intention. The question is whether it makes more sense. I believe it does.

Take all those people who call themselves executives, the well-pressed men one sees at airport Avis counters. As Anderson sees them,

The large majority of managers are relatively humble both in property and income…. The majority of managerial personnel are themselves the objects of exploitation.

There is much truth to this observation. Most so-called executives never get anywhere near the top. The typical college graduate who enters a large corporation reaches a $30,000 plateau in his late thirties or early forties. For the rest of his time he will remain an assistant sales manager, a deputy comptroller, or a coordinator of minor projects. That in return for a quarter century of travel, transfers, and work carried home; of business golf, liquid lunches, and postponed vacations. In short, such people are used by the organization which employs them, ending up closer to clerks than to captains of industry. Ironically, they haven’t even the option of hating the system which pinched their personalities, ruined their digestions, and deadened their marriages. Radicalism isn’t possible for them; so they blame “the kids,” the blacks, and the reds.

Why pity someone making $30,000 a year? Surely he knew what he was getting into when he enlisted at General Electric. And he could always have quit early with his integrity intact. Perhaps. Or, if exploitation is the issue, then put the emphasis where it really matters: on the owners of sweatshops, grape fields, and other beneficiaries of cheap labor. Or on people like Siegel and Shuster who were not allowed the “Superman” copyright, with the consequence that Warners could dump them on the street and keep on making millions. By citing exploitation of managerial employees, Anderson hopes to show that an above-average salary is no evidence of immunity from exploitation: a company can still get $60,000 in value from a man it pays $30,000. It is at this point that Anderson could have extended his analysis.

Traditionally, exploitation meant that owners made a surplus on each of their workers. Part went for mansions, yachts, and other equipment for luxurious living. The rest increased the capital of the owning class. In today’s economy, large slices of corporate earnings go not to the stockholders but are retained by firms so they can expand their activities. In such a situation, extra cash drawn from the minds and muscles of workers benefits an inanimate organization. Moreover, an increasing share of interest and dividends goes not to rich people but to even richer investing institutions. If workers are exploited, it is more likely to be for the benefit of an incorporated entity than to enrich a class of their fellow citizens.

This approach applies even more to people employed by public agencies and private nonprofit organizations. They too are vulnerable to exploitation even if no person in particular profits from their labors. It may be noted that simply being underpaid, as hospital orderlies are, does not make you exploited. The question is whether there is siphoned-off cash which could be going to you. If your hospital is about to go broke, you may not be exploited. But in fact, most nonprofit organizations engage in capital accumulation to enlarge their empires. Witness the Port Authority’s World Trade towers, New York State’s Albany Mall, and the Defense Department’s super-carriers.

  1. 1

    This argument was developed at some length in my article, “What Rules America?” NYR, May 1, 1975.

  2. 2

    The Real America (Doubleday, 1974). See Sheldon Wolin’s review, NYR, February 6, 1975.

  3. 3

    Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974. Richard Hamilton gives detailed occupational breakdowns in his Class and Politics in the United States (Wiley, 1972).

  4. 4

    As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” The German Ideology.

  5. 5

    Occupations of Persons with High Earnings, US Bureau of the Census, Final Report PC(2)-7F (US Government Printing Office, 1973), Table 14.

  6. 6

    Melvin L. DeFleur, et al., Sociology: Human Society (Scott, Foresman, 1973), p. 158.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print