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Friday, August 21, 2020


Before I continue my multi-day reflections, I thought I would say just a word about the phrase “middle class” which in recent years has played a central role in Democratic Party rhetoric. In the feudal era, the distinctions among the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners was marked by law, by custom, and by immemorial tradition. Each group had its own law courts, for example. In England, members of the House of Lords were tried for crimes before their peers, not in the courts that tried the cases of commoners. In France, there were three estates and it was a revolutionary moment when first the representation of the third estate was doubled in the National Assembly and then all distinction among the estates was eliminated.

When Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and their lesser fellow political economists developed the first systematic economic theory of the newly emerging capitalist order, they divided the population of England into three classes defined by their functional relationship to economic activity: landowners, entrepreneurs, and working men and women. Land, capital, and labor are the three elements of the economic order and they recognized that the most important fact about any individual was his or her relationship to that order. The story is a great deal more complicated, of course, and in France, for example, a centuries long three cornered struggle took place among the rural land-based aristocrats, the king, and the merchants and artisans living in the walled cities. The cities were called “bourgs” and so the merchants and artisans were called “bourgeois.”

The clear implication of this mode of analysis was that the interests of the capitalists, workers, and landowners were ineluctably in conflict, a conclusion that was uncomfortable for the economists of the later 19th and 20th century whose task it was to justify, not to anatomize, capitalism. Drawing on the work of Max Weber, whom they somewhat misunderstood, 20th century sociologists and economists began to substitute a different form of classification: what was sometimes labeled socio—economic – status or SES. Thus was born the familiar classificatory scheme with which we have been living for a century or so of lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle-class, and upper-class segments of a modern capitalist society. The purpose of this classification, at least ostensibly, is to take account of non-economic aspects of a person’s social position. How a person was viewed by others was determined not only, or perhaps not at all, by the relationship he or she bore to the capitalist economy but rather by such things as his or her housing, clothing, and other possessions; whether his or her employment was paid hourly, or weekly, or even monthly; how much formal education he or she had completed; and even what sorts of amusements he or she preferred.

My favorite example of this sort of classificatory scheme was the old joke that when two couples went out for an evening together, if they were working-class the men rode in the front of the car and the women in the back; if they were middle-class one couple rode in the front and the other couple rode in the back; while if they were upper-class the husband of one couple rode in front with the wife of the other couple while the husband of the other couple rode in the back with the wife of the first couple. In the great old black-and-white prewar movies, the toffs always seem to be dressed in evening clothes, the middle class men wear suits and the women wear dresses with fancy hats, and the working blokes wear working cloths.  All the men wore hats – that didn’t stop until Jack Kennedy took his celebratory walk from the capital to the White House in 1961 hatless and overnight it no longer was the in thing for men to wear hats.

In the decades after World War II, during a time when many working Americans saw significant improvement in their economic condition, “middle class” came to mean “owning one’s own home, having a family car or even two, being paid monthly, not hourly, having paid vacations, sometimes even owning a vacation home.”  The term “middle class” also acquired another meaning that is peculiar to the particular history of the United States. After the postwar migration to the suburbs, with black Americans left in the inner cities, thanks to the deliberately and officially discriminatory policies of the Federal Housing Authority, “middle class” took on the special and very important meaning “not black.”

It is useful to add a few facts to this impressionistic account. In 2019 the median weekly wage of persons employed full-time was roughly $950. Forty years earlier, in 1979, the median weekly wage of full-time workers in 2019 dollars was roughly $880. In short, in two generations there has been almost no improvement in the welfare of the bottom half of the American population.

In the next part of these reflections I will try to add to this story some facts about changes in the educational credentials of Americans.  As should by now be clear, I am simply trying to assemble facts and thoughts that I think need to be woven into a coherent analysis of our present circumstances, even though I do not yet see clearly how that process of weaving is to take place.


LFC said...

In contemporary Dem Party rhetoric, the phrase "middle class" seems to mean something like "everyone [or every household] who is not poor [w the definition of poverty left vague] and whose net wealth is below, say, 15 million [an arbitrary number but it seems as good as any]." So in Dem Party rhetoric "middle class" is an extremely broad category, making the phrase completely useless as a tool or category of analysis but politically appealing since it encompasses a sizable majority of the population. In short, it has basically no substantive or analytical content but is simply a political catchphrase. References to the "hollowing out" of the middle class become a convenient way of referring to growing economic inequality, which as everyone knows has skyrocketed in the US over the last 40 years or so, without having actually to use the word "inequality." Of course these two political usages pull against each other: on one hand, "middle class" as a v broad category, and on the other hand the notion that this category has a "core" that is shrinking or being hollowed out. As a matter of strict logic there is no contradiction here but these usages do tend to make the whole thing, even on the level of rhetoric, something of an incoherent mess.

Btw I listened to a lot of the Dem convention (on radio, mostly) and I heard no reference whatsoever to "the gig economy," the participants in which must compose a not-tiny fraction of the voters, esp the young voters, that the Dems need to turn out in November.

s. wallerstein said...

I believe that men stopped wearing hats before JFK's inauguration in 1961. I use my memories of my father as my index, but I'll look for a 1960 movie to see if I'm right.

s. wallerstein said...

I tried La Dolce Vita, which is from 1960 and Mastroianni does not wear a hat. I picked that one because at that time, as I recall, fashion came from Italy.

R McD said...

A lot of people I know not only talk about the middle class they also, to my dismay, talk about "the lower class." When I arrived in this country a long time ago, after growing up in a place and a community which was matter-of-factly "working class," I could never figure out what middle class was supposed to mean. I still haven't, though I do know I don't want to belong to it.

Eric C said...


In the first entry in this series of reflections, RPW uses the term "Latinx." I wonder whether readers are aware that that term is proving contentious in a number of circles in the US, particularly among some on the left who are of Latin American descent. Take, for example, Annette Taddeo—a nominally progressive (for Florida) Colombian-American Democratic state senator representing Miami, who owns a Spanish-English translation service. During the Democratic primary debate season back in October she tweeted, "#LatinX (LatinEquis in Spanish) is a bastardization of the Spanish language & an insult to those of us who are proud of our Spanish heritage." That was in response to a tweet from a local reporter (I believe himself a Cuban-American), who was expressing agreement with a USA Today op-ed that declared: "Hispanic Americans face plenty of challenges as it is. The last thing we need are English-speaking progressives 'wokesplaining' how to speak Spanish."

Pew published national survey results just this month that suggest the majority (76%) of Hispanic/Latino adults have not heard of the term, and only ~4% have not only heard of it but also prefer it over alternatives. The majority (61%) prefer "Hispanic," with 29% preferring "Latino" and 5% something else. Of those who have heard of "Latinx," when asked to describe what the term means in their own words, 12% said that they disagree with its use or dislike it. The group of respondents most likely to say they have used Latinx to describe themselves (14%) was Hispanic women ages 18-29; only 2% of all other respondents said they have used the term to describe themselves. (Pew did not report results broken down by sexual orientation or non-binary gender identification.)

I might note that there also seems to be some confusion in the wider community about how this term is intended to be pronounced. Merriam-Webster online added the term in 2018, describing its most common pronunciation as being "the same way you would [pronounce] Spanish-derived Latina or Latino but pronouncing the 'x' as the name of the English letter X. So you get something like \luh-TEE-neks\". But all of the media broadcasters, politicians, and others I have heard using the term pronounce it like Latin-eks (stress on the first syllable of Latin, not the second)—examples of this being Amy Goodman and Juan González (Democracy Now), Julián Castro, Eric Garcetti, María Teresa Kumar (Voto Latino), Prof María DeGuzmán (UNC). (I've tried to find an example of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's pronunciation of "Latinx," but in a cursory search I've only been able to find her using "Latino," even in her responses to questions that explicitly used the term "Latinx.")

LFC said...

For the way class and social status were thought about (in societies at large) in late 19th-century industrial capitalist countries, one might start w Hobsbawm's chapter on the bourgeoisie in The Age of Empire.

It's a pretty short chapter, though I've only dipped into it. On p.170 he can't resist a dig at sociology: "Sociology, as an academic discipline a product of the period 1870-1914, still suffers from endless and inconclusive debates about social class and status, due to the fondness of its practitioners for reclassifying the population in a manner most suitable to their ideological convictions." This is a probably a little unfair, overlooking that some sociologists have done worthwhile work in this area -- C. Wright Mills and E.O. Wright, just to mention two, though I must caveat that I haven't read their work on these issues. I've read Mills's The Sociological Imagination but not White Collar (doubtless v dated now but might still be of interest).

The stratum referred to in a previous thread as UMCP (upper middle class professionals) was also, iirc, the subject of some debate under the heading of "the new class" some years ago. This stratum isn't "new" anymore, if it ever was. Of course there have been professionals as long as the professions (law, medicine, etc etc) have existed in their modern forms, but the growth in numbers and social/political clout of these and roughly kindred occupations (in media, govt, academia, organized philanthropy, some sectors of business, technology, etc.) is what attracted attention.

Jerry Fresia said...

I've also heard it said that St. Jack killed off the hat industry although it was probably more likely that he just put a big nail in the coffin.

"The hatting industry looked upon JFK’s hatlessness with near panic."

I think he killed off the "wet head" too, at least until St. Ronnie arrived.

Here's a related trivia question: when did Americans discover vodka? Ans: when Khrushchev visited the US in 1959.

And the blog....I love the history of the transition from feudalism to capitalism that you often provide.

s. wallerstein said...

It's weird how these characters become saints.

If you think about how almost everyone will lie to get a minimum wage job frying burgers at MacDonald, then it stands to reason that to get the job of the most powerful and prestigious person in the world and then to get re-elected for the same job, people are going to lie about everything and are going to make whatever deals are necessary to get the campaign contributions from the rich which enable them to finance the campaigns which get them elected to the most powerful and prestigious job in the world.

That goes for the new candidates to sainthood, Biden and Harris.

Matt said...

Some people here might like the essay by the sociologist Eric Olin Wright, "What is middle about the middle class?", in the volume _Analytical Marxism_, edited by John Roemer. It's been a long time since I read the essay, but I remember thinking it was pretty interesting. (Most all of the essays in the volume are quite good, although fairly old now, as it came out in 1982, and a lot has been written on the topics since then. It's not an area where I am "up on the literature", so I can't comment on that directly, but I did find them useful and interesting.)