Sunday, January 22, 2006

Liberals--meet the working class!

American Prospect Online - Just What Is the Working Class?

[F]ully 29 percent of voters have some college education but no degree, slightly outnumbering those with a bachelor’s degree or more. The “some college” group was, according to 2004 exit polls, the educational cohort in which Bush achieved his best performance. Thus, the conservative inclinations of the educationally defined working class are largely attributable to the sentiments of its best-educated members...In whatever sense working-class conservatism is real, it is a phenomenon of middle-income -- or slightly richer -- whites, with attendant consequences for political strategy. People in this range don’t benefit from Republican economic policies oriented toward tax cuts for the very rich, but neither have they felt the sting of Republican budget cuts that have been targeted at the truly poor. Consequently, winning their votes will probably require something beyond crass appeals to alleged economic self-interest, whether or not these are coupled with moves to the right on other issues.

Vance Packard got it right about class in The Status Seekers. I read the book about 30 years ago but it left a lasting impression because it was one of those books you read when you are very young which, in a striking way, explains life and leaves you with a permanent template for fitting in all future experiences.

According to Packard's taxonomy there were 5 classes in American society. At the top a small ultra-rich, ultra-elite; at the bottom a small underclass consisting of people who were in one way or another dysfunctional and either living on the street or close to it. In the middle, the interesting part, there were: the lower class (working poor), the lower middle class (working class) and the upper middle class.

The great divide was between the Upper and Lower Middle Class which, Packard compared to the bright line between officers and enlisted personnel. The lower classes could aspire to the lower middle class but only an exceptional few could make it across the line. The divide wasn't one of income either because, on Packard's classification lots of Lower Middle Class people were earning lots more than lots of Upper Middle Class people--these were the days when unionized blue collar jobs were plentiful and paid well. But everyone knew where the line was--it was the line that's now marked by the divide between college graduation and some-college-no-degree.

Packard's characterization of the Lower Middle Class, it's folkways and distinctive virtues was dead on. The characteristic virtue of the class system's "noncoms" as he called them, was discipline: following and enforcing the rules, keeping their noses clean and maintaining order. That was how they rose through the ranks to get where they were. They were the steady workers, the churchgoers, the sober, self-disciplined family men who didn't blow their paychecks on drink, gambling or cheap women and the housewives who diligently saved money, supervised their children and ran orderly households.

Discipline, order, cleanliness, obedience, thrift, hard work and diligence were their success strategy. And they were wedded to these virtues because they were painfully aware of what was for them the alternative: poverty, debt, squalor, insecurity--the vices and miseries of the social layer immediately beneath them who played Gin Alley to their Beer Street. They believed in self-reliance and desert because by their own efforts, they had achieved all the success for which they could hope. Their great fear was disorder because they were painfully aware that their position was both privileged and precarious: slacking off, letting go, taking to drink or disobeying the rules would get them busted to private.

These social noncoms, understandably, hated us, life's junior officers. They had worked their way up through the ranks by hard work, self-discipline and sacrifice; we, in virtue of inherited wealth and privilege, got in a notch above them. We had everything they had and more without working or sacrificing for it. We could get away with virtually anything. We didn't follow the rules but weren't punished. We didn't work. We went to fancy colleges, used drugs, dreamed, played at revolution, broke the rules, screwed up in every way that would land them in the gutter but were bailed out at every turn. Even worse, we made no secret of despising their most fundamental values--self-discipline, obedience and order--and were intent on undermining the social practices that kept chaos at bay. Worse still, we admired the layers below them, the trailer trash and slum-dwellers, and pushed for policies to benefit the undeserving poor at their expense.

Now Matthew Yglesias notes, correctly, that these are the people liberals need to win over--not the true working poor who are more solidly democratic than ever. But I cannot imagine how. Even if conservative policies that benefit the ultra-rich don't help them, the classic liberal-socialist economic agenda geared to promoting the interests of the underclass and working poor will not help them either. Contrary to the Thomas Frank thesis they are not voting against their economic interests and they are not rabid Fundamentalists intent on establishing a theocracy. They want Beer Street--a clean, disciplined, orderly, safe world where hard work and good behavior pay off. Who doesn't?

Reflecting, I ask myself why I don't--or at least why I don't go with their program. And my answer--which would never fly politically in the US--is that by knocking a little wealth off the top we can make everyone upper middle class.

I suppose what drives me morally isn't either compassion or guilt but outrage at arbitrariness, inefficiency and waste. It was a arbitrary that I got pulled out of the office where I worked after high school and sent to college where I could take classes that interested me, argue about politics and philosophy in the coffee shop, lie on the grass writing papers and doing logic problems and ride my bike while the other girls in that office were trapped there all day doing repetitious, mind-killing drudge work. It was inefficient and wasteful that their lives were so crumby when creaming a little off of the top, where it would hardly be missed, could make their lives so much better. They weren't the underclass or the truly poor: they were the respectable lower middle class--girls only a year or two older than me but married, working to help save for down payments on houses before they could quit to have babies, older ladies who'd gone back to work to help put their kids through college. I listened to their conversation and got a sense of how perfectly awful their lives were--how constrained and dull, without aspirations, without any possibility of real achievement, without even any serious interests--just working hard, saving money and following the rules.

It isn't lives of the truly poor that make this whole system offensive. They can do better and someone should probably give them a kick in the pants. What makes it offensive is that, realistically, if you are not born into the officer class and are not spectacularly smart--much smarter than I am--the best you can do is the life these lower middle class women lived.


MikeS said...

A fine analysis - but I am from the UK working (conservative) class, and I have one or two caveats. The first, and this will come as no surprise, is the contention that 'spectacularly smart' is required to escape the lower middle class fate; unless is it is spectacularly smart to suck up to rich people.. which you may well believe. I think much of this comes down to motivation. If I want to be a rich influential faecal mass, I will do whatever is necessary to gain influence and power. I think it is arguable that low density shit floats around on top. I do not want that. I am half-content to be poor, insignificant and authentic. Having said which, I am transfixed by your honesty and concern, and I harbour notions of emancipation - and, truth be told, so do you.

Unknown said...

Thanks! I guesse being Amuhrican I'm a little less cynical. If you're really, really spectacularly smart you can put yourself through school while working full time and get a degree in engineering or some other math-intensive technical area--then you will get into the upper middle class and be ok. But I--and most other people--are just not that smart.

It's very unlikely that someone who has to work their way through school, who doesn't have lots of study time, could get a degree in engineering or any scientific area where you have to spend lots of study time or lots of time in labs. It's just ridiculous to suggest that people of ordinary normal intelligence who are working full time or even half time to keep body and soul together can go to school at night and get degrees in engineering, computer science or any other scientific or technical area--you'd have to be terrifically smart to do that. And to do spectacularly well in a non-technical non-math-intensive area which is the only other way to get a decent job is also too time-consuming to be accessible to people of ordinary normal intelligence who have to work more than say 15 hours a week.

The bottom line is that to get the academic credentials that will get you an upper middle class job and an upper middle class life you have to have the leisure to be a full time student--and that's something that most Americans don't get. This is in part cultural: many families simply don't see being a college student as a full time job. When you turn 18 or graduate from high school, which ever comes first, you're a grown-up and go to work and--oh yes maybe you go to college in your spare time. That's very different from the way upper middle class families see it--where when you graduate from high school you're still a kid and go on for more schooling: your full time job is still being a student. There is also, forgive me, the gender issue: guys may have shot accessing informal career ladders and rising through the ranks--particularly if they're willing to suck up to rich people--but girls don't. If you're female and don't have the formal credentials--either any degree in a math-intensive technical area or a spectacularly good degree in a non-technical area + graduate or professional qualification, your only realistic options are secretarial and that is where you will stay.

I am, in any case, responding to a popular American myth--the idea that anyone with gumption, however poor, can "work their way through school." Yes you can get the qualifications to get a pretty good secretarial job rather than a minimum wage job at Walmart and yes you can qualify to be a medical records clerk or an auto mechanic. But no you cannot the kind of credentials you need to get an upper middle class job unless either your parents put you through or you're are a spectacular, flaming genius and can get that engineering or computer science degree in your spare time.

MikeS said...

I think you are missing the alternative route to fortune. If you ain't smart, just smile at people with power. I would be intrigued if you could show me a country not ruled by a cabal of people who have grown through the same social circles, or tribe if you will. Smart has not much to do with it. I am aware that you are addressing 'upper middle class, not ruling elite, but I would contend that the ruling elite come from the 'upper middle class' (for lots of complex and easily understood reasons)and that we need to understand social mobility in terms of sociobiology as much as liberal politics.