Saturday, February 1, 2014

Are there no Social Classes in America?

Photo: Dorothea Lange

Until the 1930s, the prevailing myth was that unlike Europe -  from which America descended -  this country had no social classes. We were the land of opportunity, of the American Dream,  of Horatio Alger, of American exceptionalism.

Then, shortly before World War Two,  sociologists such as W. Lloyd Warner “discovered” social class in America. This was a first. Perhaps the sociological study of social class was one manifestation  of America’s  increased   social consciousness resulting from the Great Depression.

For the following half century, common sense prevailed:  The scholarly literature,  the  mainstream media, politicians  and public opinion all felt comfortable discussing social class.

The study of social stratification and social inequality  became  one of Sociology’s core areas.

There was no consensus as to how many social classes there are. There were many different models and approaches.  In his pioneering study “Yankee City” Lloyd Warner  divided the population into six social classes: Upper, Middle and Lower, and each of these further divided into upper and lower.
A different approach was Marx’s conflict theory, which recognized only two classes.  This perspective contributed to the great American sociologist  C. Wright Mills’s concept of the Power Elite.  Later, Edward Banfield proposed  four classes: Upper, Middle, Working and Lower. There was also the work of Michael Harrington (“The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” 1962).  More recently, Dennis Gilbert divides the population into “Capitalists,” “Upper Middle Class,” “Middle Class,” “Working Poor” and “Underclass.”

About one thing everyone agreed: Social classes are REAL.  Words such as “upper class,”  “working class” and “lower class” were in everyday usage among professionals and laymen alike. The most widespread conception was that there were three classes: upper, middle and lower.

Strangely, the meaningful discussion of social class has now unraveled. There has been a concerted effort by the plutocratic brainwashing machine to deny the existence of social class in America  and to suffocate its discussion. It is as if we were back to pre-Lloyd Warner days, a century ago.

It is at the level of our  VOCABULARY that the right-wing propaganda machine has fought the  battle and largely won it:

1. Today, if you raise the issue of  inequality, conservative and crypto-conservative people like George Will, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker accuse you of envy and  class warfare.

2. Words such as “redistribution” are viewed as evil.

3. So is “Socialism,” which is no longer distinguished from “Communism” and Marxism.

4. Many people are so ignorant that they  - absurdly -  equate Socialism  with Fascism, which is its very opposite.
(See my  Jan. 24 '13 post: Are Fascism and Socialism the Same? Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and Other Ignoramuses Believe so)

5. Saddest of all is the fact that even the  media and the politicians who claim to be centrist or progressive - the Washington Post, MSNBC, Democrats, syndicated columnist E. J. Dionne, President Obama himself!   - have been intimidated.  They are simply AFRAID  to use words such as  “lower class,” “working class” or “social class.”

When was the last time you read or heard these words in public? Did you hear President Obama use them in his State of the Union address?  No. It is only permissible to speak of the “Middle Class.” The Right has succeeded in  making social class once again a taboo topic.
This is amazing, as it comes   at a time of unprecedented and growing inequality, a time when there is less upward mobility here than in Europe - a tragic reversal for the “land of opportunity.”

Not only are social classes, including a  working class and a lower class,   starker realities in America today than ever, but one could  go so far as to posit the existence of CASTES - that is, social classes from which it is impossible  to exit, even from one generation to the next;  social classes into which  you are  born and in which you die, social classes in which people are trapped, generation after generation. Ask the people in the South Bronx, in Appalachia and in the San Joaquin Valley!

Why does the President only speak of the Middle Class, when dozens of millions of Americans live from hand to mouth, even though they work full time?  That is called, at best, the  WORKING class.And what about the millions  below those - the people  who live on a monthly  $900 welfare check  for a family of four, the homeless, the migrant workers? This is called the LOWER class.

And then of course there are the other folks, the 1%. They can be called all sorts of things (Veblen called them  the Leisure Class), but the correct term is simple: UPPER class - another label rarely used any more.

So let me remind you of what the American class structure looks like:

Social Class:                        Percentage of all households:        Annual family income:
1. Capitalist  Upper Class:                           1%                               Over a million    
2. Middle class and Upper Middle Class:    40%                             $50,000 and up
3. Working Class and Working Poor:          44%                             $13,000 - $50,000
4. Lower class:                                          15%                             Under $13,000
                                                   (Partially based on Dennis Gilbert’s The American
                                                   Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality

Do you know what your social class is? My guess is that most of you are in groups #2 and #3, and that none of you are in group #1.

© Tom Kando 2013

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