The Political Economy of Social Class
Ethnicity in the United States
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.