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.
Even in socialist societies capital must be accumulated, thereby reducing workers’ wages. Socialist planners claim that such exactions are not exploitative if enterprises are commonly owned and benefit the entire community, or at least that’s the way it will work out in the future. (The extra benefits and power now enjoyed by executives and some intellectuals are presumably a transitional necessity.) In capitalist countries we are reluctant to face the fact that much of what goes on today in nonprofit hospitals, universities, and transit agencies is not for the sake of the patients, students, or patrons but is rather institutional aggrandizement. While this kind of accumulation is not strictly capitalist, it still means property is subject to a kind of corporate ownership. (The Pharaohs built their pyramids not out of their personal pocketbooks but with wealth inhering in their dynasties.) Thus exploitation affects nonprofit labor in so far as the organization has imperial aspirations. The same holds true of taxes levied for alleged public benefit. Most Marxists will argue that, in a capitalist society, nonprofit enterprises invariably become corrupted in this way, and so exploit people for extraneous ends.
Anderson’s entire study adheres to his original premise that “property is the central variable of social class.” He shares G. William Domhoff’s beliefs that a capitalist ruling class holds the important power in America, and that wealthy families maintain major control in most corporations. To see those institutions as autonomous entities would weaken his vision of a class struggle pitting people against other people. I have argued that such an approach sacrifices accuracy for ease of analysis. Discussions of power do become more vivid if one believes in a ruling class made up of wealthy families. Unfortunately they have only a marginal influence in modern corporate life. At the same time, however, Anderson’s stress on property helps clarify social conflict. In his view, issues of race and ethnicity, for example, should be seen as either expressions or evasions of property relationships. This leads to the issue of how to characterize the poor.
Poverty is a condition; some call it a culture as well. But should the poor also be considered a class? Being poor nowadays is less a matter of low wages than subsisting outside the employment system altogether. We have millions of addicts, alcoholics, and indigent aged, along with hustlers, muggers, and one-parent families who stay alive by a combination of charity, theft, and public stipends. On the whole, Americans have been reluctant to call the poor a class, for that has too final a ring. How much better to take the position that poverty can be eradicated: there is no point in creating a class if the condition is only temporary.
Most writers on the subject couple poverty with racism. We do this partly because black and Hispanic Americans preponderate among the poor. So we allude to the prejudice, unfairness, and discrimination that keep those races at the bottom. What goes undiscussed is the fact that for every black who rises out of poverty because he over-comes discrimination, a white person must take his place so long as the number of decently paid positions remains the same. It used to be argued that “economic growth” would levitate those on the bottom out of poverty. However the 1960s showed that an expanding GNP can actually augment the unemployable sector of the population. Talking about race and poverty in the same paragraph suggests that we can bring an end to poverty by lifting blacks out of it. But it won’t work that way. The United States would still have poor people, the same proportion as now, even if the population were entirely white.
Our kind of capitalism can create only a determinate number of jobs, even at the level we call “full employment.” Put another way, the economy, as it is now run, has only so much real money available for wages and salaries, with those already on the payroll absorbing all of that cash. All the rest are superfluous citizens, at least from a productive standpoint. They are people the system neither wants nor needs. Obviously there are useful jobs they could do. However they would only receive payment for those labors if everyone else agreed to a wage reduction: either by acquiescing to higher taxes (to create “public service” jobs) or taking salary reductions (so private employers could take on additional people). Neither of these eventualities seems very likely. So we will have a large pool of poor people around for quite some time to come. Are they a class?
Marx devised the term “lumpen-proletariat,” (We tend toward politer usages, like “underclass.”) Lacking experience in the productive process, they could be counted on for neither the discipline nor the consciousness needed in mobilizing a class. To Marx they were little more than scum, rabble. Above all, he did not want the true proletariat contaminated by lesser sorts. (After the revolution they would be given a chance to shape up.) So in Marx’s view, modern society contains only two classes. The lumpenproletariat is a category, but not a class. The common condition of deprivation is not enough: if it were we would have seen revolutions in a lot more places by now. Marx saw nothing inapposite in calling certain people classless if the lives they led kept them in a permanently disorganized condition.
At this point Anderson parts company with Marx. True to the sympathies of the American left, he sees the poor as victims who must not be blamed for their behavior. So he promotes them to the working class, even though most poor Americans have never had steady work and it seems unlikely that places will be found for them in the future. (They are certainly not a “reserve army.”) For all his harshness, Marx came closer to the truth. It makes little sense to include them within the working class on the grounds that they may eventually take up jobs. That hope has some weight in countries with expanding economies, or where the government can legislate or require full employment. But the United States faces stagnation until at least the end of this century, while the current direction of American politics is to ignore the unemployed poor.
The experience the poor do have in common with others is exploitation. Because few of them work, they are not of much help so far as capital accumulation is concerned. Nor is their purchasing power of much interest to industry. Supermarkets no longer find it worth their while to locate in the slums. The poor are objects of exploitation in a much crueler sense. At full employment, the American economy only wants the services of about 43 percent of the work-age population. It is not profitable to take on more than that. Some of the unnecessary 57 percent become house-wives, college students, or retire on moderate pensions. Others, however, must settle for a lifetime of poverty because the system offers them no alternatives.
Poverty is a form of exploitation because the US economy has to define a portion of the population as extraneous to its own well-being. By becoming poor, a person helps the system to maintain its equilibrium of production and consumption. No one ever argued that capitalism could provide a good life for everyone. But it used to be assumed that it could achieve full employment, either on its own or with governmental assistance. Now we know that it can’t even manage full employment. Having poor people makes life a little bit better for those fortunate enough to belong in the work force.
The so-called “ethnic revival” began about a dozen years ago, when Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan decided to describe the people of New York City according to their racial and national backgrounds.7 There was nothing evidently wrong with their writing such a book; after all, awareness of ancestry figures somewhere in the lives of most people. Even so, the book had an ideological intention. If you cut the cake ethnically, classes become less apparent.
Since that time a fair-sized industry has emerged, arguing that ethnicity remains alive and well despite all opportunities for assimilation. Andrew Greeley writes on the Irish, Richard Gambino the Italians, Michael Novak the Slovenes. Their books, articles, and conference papers follow a fairly consistent pattern. The melting pot never really melted. People still cluster in neighborhoods based on nationality where they are proud, patriotic, hard-working. They have community, camaraderie, a simple but authentic culture. All they want is to be left alone. Instead, they feel anxious, threatened, forgotten.
Universities, foundations, editors bow to the argument that neglected ethnics deserve equal time. Not least of the weapons used by ethnic promoters is the charge of elitism, the hint that someone at Harvard, CBS, or the Ford Foundation was once overheard laughing at a Polish joke. As penance, McGeorge Bundy must fund three more programs in Lithuanian-American studies, while Mike Wallace hauls a camera crew in for yet another look at ethnic Buffalo.
It isn’t easy to write critically of ethnicity. If Anglo-Saxon, you are obviously unfeeling. If assimilated, you are trying to escape your antecedents. The critic doesn’t live in Astoria (Greek), Woodside (Irish), or Benson-hurst (Italian), so how can he know the depths of the ethnic experience? No one denies that people think of themselves as Greek, Italian, or Jewish on a daily, or even an hourly, basis, but that is not really the issue raised by ethnic literature. Left-handed people think about their left-handedness.
The issue, rather, is whether ethnic identities determine where people stand in society. Herbert Gans has remarked that “talk of an ethnic revival…is a wishful extension of the nostalgia for simpler times that is gripping many Americans as their contemporary society becomes more conflict ridden.8 In fact, encouragement for the “revival” goes further. For to define a person as, say, “Polish-American” is to regard him primarily as a cultural performer rather than as someone involved in a system of power.
It is no coincidence that the publicists of ethnicity all tend toward the conservative side in their politics. Most happen also to be Democrats, of the Richard Daley-Henry Jackson variety. They would prefer not to have wage-earning Americans define themselves as working class, for that has hostile overtones toward management. For the stability of the economic system it is safer to speak of “white ethnics” rather than “urban working class.”
Two recent collections of essays show how academic writers handle ethnicity.9 Nathan Glazer’s and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Ethnicity: Theory and Experience comes out of a conference underwritten by the Ford Foundation and conducted at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Prominent in the collection are various Cambridge colleagues, who have nothing particularly striking to say on ethnicity but agreed to prepare papers anyway. Talcott Parsons tells how Harvard more or less invented the subject, or at least one gets that impression, for most of his references are to people in nearby offices. His own conclusion is that we face “powerful incentives toward commitment to ethnically pluralistic national societal communities.” Daniel Bell discusses his notion of post-industrial society, which, he finds, is really too rational to countenance something so primordial as ethnicity. Stressing origins, he says, is “a strategic choice by individuals who, in other circumstances, would choose other group memberships as a means of gaining some power and privilege.” This is fair enough, but it would have been interesting to hear more about what keeps those “other circumstances” from eventuating. Can it be that some centers of power prefer ethnic bickering to more threatening tensions?
Andrew Greeley’s Ethnicity in the United States brings together about a dozen of his studies. Almost all are statistical, interpreting survey data with regression equations and other mathematical methods. Greeley’s main aim is to show how people of varying origins differ in their political attitudes, their degree of “alienation,” and their choices of career. Comparing German Catholics with Irish Catholics shows that the Germans have 17.9 points more “trust” but only 11.3 points more “anxiety.” Still, the tables seem remote from the class standing of those being described. For example, the figures Greeley uses do not yield a clear picture of how many people in his various ethnic groups fall into what we ordinarily think of as the upper middle class. We are told much of diversities in diet, drinking habits, even father-daughter relations. Yet nowhere are we shown where the groups stand in property holdings or economic power.
Moreover, we are given no measures of how deeply ethnic identities may be felt, even on those neighborhood streets so hailed by local politicians and academics. During the past several years I have spent most of my working hours teaching the sons and daughters of Greek florists, Irish firemen, Jewish cabdrivers, and Italian construction workers. Not one has expressed a desire to remain in the neighborhood where he or she was raised. Rather, they want to get as far as possible from places they find constricting. Nor can they be charged with “elitism.” These students went to local high schools like Mater Christi and Monseigneur McClancy in Queens. Many major in applied subjects like accounting and most hold part-time jobs. The women are particularly scathing about the lack of understanding they face from friends, neighbors, and their much-applauded “extended family.” I will not claim that these young people represent all of their generation. Some of their high school classmates are truck drivers and secretaries, and have settled for a more limited life. But they too show little interest in matters of history or heritage. They seem more interested, for example, in pro football and other spectacles they see on television.
But there is more to this matter than personal observation. At no point have the ethnic writers presented a persuasive analysis of what differentiates an Italian sheet metal worker from an eighth-generation American holding the same job and earning a similar salary. As a matter of fact, the most recent Census figures show that 77 percent of white Americans with blue-collar jobs are native-born citizens who had native-born parents.10 The average steelworker or bus driver one meets in Seattle or Denver or Dallas will very likely turn out to be an Anglo-Saxon Baptist. E.E. LeMasters’s Blue Collar Aristocrats, recounting several years of afternoons in a Wisconsin working-class tavern, provides a convincing picture of how a life of physical labor affects attitudes and aspirations.11 It is a carefully observed account, in the vein of Harvey Swados and Clancy Sigal. There are many occasions where Le-Masters could have underscored the ethnic orgins of the people he came to know, most of whom were German and Scandinavian. But he resists that temptation—which means his book won’t make any “ethnic studies” reading lists—and he refrains from discovering influences where none exist. Le-Masters wants his people to be seen for what they are: wage workers, whose anxieties and insecurities stem chiefly from the nature of their jobs. To emphasize their ethnic backgrounds not only would be unfair but would make them into instruments of an author’s ideology.
While euphemisms like “blue collar” and “hard hat” call attention to the kinds of work people do, they stop short of characterizing a class. What, after all, are the essential differences between a $12,000 assembly-line worker, a $20,000 programmer at Honey-well, and a $32,000 copywriter at Young & Rubicam? Obviously it is more punishing, degrading, and grueling to work on the assembly line and to be obliged to punch a time clock; but surely earning an income in an office rather than a factory is not decisive for class purposes. Most of us will continue to use terms like “working class” and “middle class” for conversational clarity, as I have done here. Yet when it comes to questions of freedom and power, it is hard to show that people with white collars have appreciably more independence and immunity from being bossed than do workers on the factory floor.
About twenty years ago the phrase “mass society” had a brief flurry. Those were the Eisenhower years of “organization men,” “lonely crowds,” and interchangeable suburbs. The phrase was always used loosely. Erich Fromm, C. Wright Mills, and Irving Howe spoke of a homogenized citizenry manipulated toward an affluent acquiescence. “Man becomes a consumer, himself mass-produced like the products, diversions and values that he absorbs,” was the way Howe put it.12 Dwight Macdonald worried more about “mass culture” with its leveling of taste and assaults on civility. This was also the era of Joseph McCarthy and the watchword of “conformity.” At that time every college student was assigned to read Tocqueville, with particular attention to the parts on the “tyranny of the majority.”
However, talk about “mass society” had a short life. Within weeks of John Kennedy’s inaugural it had pretty well lapsed. For the phrase stressed sameness, an image upset by civil rights protests, the “discovery” of poverty, and rising radicalism on campuses. Yet in retrospect we find that all manner of conflicts—racial, ideological, economic—can split apart class. Indeed such civil wars have dissipated popular emotions and energies throughout most of human history. Only occasionally can classes be led to an awareness of their interests. Pelted with the usual questions on busing at a recent political meeting, Fred Harris remarked to an observer, “See, they’re trying to make a race deal out of it, when all along it’s been a class deal.”13
All along…. All through the tumultuous Sixties, which may have been tumultuous about the wrong things. (Even on a legitimate cause like Vietnam we made McNamara, Rusk, and Nixon into the principal villains rather than asking how our technology and forces of production also push us into foreign adventures.) But it would not be especially helpful to revive the notion of “mass society.” We are a class society and have been laden with too many circumlocutions already. If it’s a “class deal” as Harris says, then who belongs to that class? The answer, of course, is just about all of us. While we live along a continuum of comforts and are not all equally exploited, in major particulars the overwhelming portion of the population serves the system on the system’s own terms.
To be a class, Marx said, “millions of families must live under economic conditions that put them in hostile opposition to….” To what? Gone are the lords of the manor and hard-faced millowners. We have moved on to a system of rulership without a class of easily identifiable rulers. Power has become incorporated, institutionalized, impersonal. Workers of the world unite, but against what? To begin with, our own illusions, which sustain the new citadels of power.
March 4, 1976
This argument was developed at some length in my article, “What Rules America?” NYR, May 1, 1975. ↩
The Real America (Doubleday, 1974). See Sheldon Wolin’s review, NYR, February 6, 1975. ↩
Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974. Richard Hamilton gives detailed occupational breakdowns in his Class and Politics in the United States (Wiley, 1972). ↩
“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. ↩
Occupations of Persons with High Earnings, US Bureau of the Census, Final Report PC(2)-7F (US Government Printing Office, 1973), Table 14. ↩
Melvin L. DeFleur, et al., Sociology: Human Society (Scott, Foresman, 1973), p. 158. ↩
Beyond the Melting Pot (MIT Press, 1963; revised edition, 1970). ↩
Foreword to Neil C. Sandberg, Eth-nic Identity and Assimilation (Praeger, 1974). ↩
See also Richard Gambino’s report, “Ethnic Studies,” with a preface by Michael Novak (Rockefeller Foundation, 1975). ↩
National Orgins and Language, US Bureau of the Census, Final Report PC(2)-1A (US Government Printing Office, 1973), Table 13. Almost half (48.4 percent) of all “foreign stock” men had white-collar occupations by 1970. ↩
University of Wisconsin Press, 1975. ↩
“Mass Society and Post-Modern Fiction,” Partisan Review (Summer 1959), p. 426. ↩
The New York Times, December 27, 1975. ↩