Skip to main content

Offering an opinion of a definition of "middle class" America is like explaining what's going on in an inkblot: the answer will say a great deal about you and little to nothing about the object. Mitt Romney stated that he worried about tax cuts for "middle income" who make between $200,000 and $250,000 a year. Median income for the U.S. is $50,000, according to the Census Bureau, but a median is not an average, and an average is not a wide percentage. According to Market Place, the conservatively-tinged market show on NPR syndicates, there really is no data for the middle class.

Conservatives say that "90% of Americans believe they are middle class" (widely stated, but I saw it in an L.A. Times op/ed), while Gallup indicated only 66% did. However many are mistaken, many are mistaken, from an economic point of view. If the income of the U.S. were divided into thirds, then 66% could not be in the middle 33%, much less 90%. Further, there is the question of mid-way in the range of incomes or numerically half-way up or down versus in the middle of the people earning a wage.

The very concept, "middle class," is bankrupt, as it derives from a very primitive analysis of economies, where there were aristocrats, artisans, and peasants (upper, middle, lower). It lodges in our brains from elementary school or high school history books, not descriptors of American society. The nearest it has come to reality is the U.K., where it was intended merely to describe a collection of professions.

Otherwise, we call the middle class the bourgeoisie, who, as Tom Lehrer said, just keep rising. (The triumphant, teleological history of the 20th century always explained that phenomena occurred because of the "rising bourgeoisie," no matter when.) The problem is that American middle classes have never fit the profile of town folks, burghers -- self-satisfied, patrons of good causes, and stiff morality. The American middle class is typified by Babbitt, and that tells us much. Sinclair Lews got to the scene of the accident first in many respects, and he was the first one to describe an American type in Elmer Gantry. So, too, with Babbitt.

The American middle class engages in ostentatious display like European courtiers, and the class has a faith in progress made visible, demonstrated by material advance. More, though, "middle class" in America, even more than other nations, is not an economic fact. It is a behavior. Anyone may be middle class, at any level of income, by simply behaving according to middle class codes and believing as the middle class does. It is an inverted ideology, where the belief about the self's position in production creates the position in production. It is like swimming without water: the gesture takes priority over the environment.

Louis Althusser is no particular hero of mine, but his definition of ideology as "the representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals with the real conditions of their existence" is an important advance over the more literal understandings of older Marxists who saw it as a stamp on the hand or an uniform that each worker donned. Althusser allows Marxists to speak of what was otherwise obvious: in some places (more as the late capitalist model moves), people create their class from their beliefs rather than have it created by an obvious and delineated economic position. A person's class is not a person's income -- especially not in places where legal and explicit signifiers of class are gone -- nor a person's profession, but, rather, a person's habits, which derive from, presumably, the inner person.

Union Square Park, New York City, public art.
So say we all.
I am not interested in how controlled we are. If Althusser's model is right, there isn't much hope. If it's wrong, there still isn't. (Post-war French neo-Marxist and neo-Hegelian stuff is pretty much doom and gloom.)

If there are no signs saying, "No blacks or Jews," and if there are no laws saying, "No tradesman may wear a sword," then how does a person know from birth, or from upbringing, what class she belongs to? She isn't going to be told by the outside markers, and in the U.S. the "ideological state apparatus" (bleh!), in the form of school curricula and print and television, discourages any talk of class at all. "The United States has no classes, and any poor Black child can grow up to be Famous Amos," the encountered narratives will say (pay no attention to the patronizing tone in the NYT article).

"Axiome: la haine du bourgeois est le commencement de la vertu." -- Gustave Flaubert, The Dictionary of Received Opinion
When I was a teenager, I hated the bourgeois, alright. I was a punk rock musician, and the only thread that united Talking Heads with The Dead Kennedys was a hatred of corporations and corporate control of music. We hated the predictable and the averaged -- the averaged emotional response robbed of its highs and lows, the averaged aesthetic that would neither shock nor provoke, the averaged learning that would perpetuate itself under a banner of pragmatism, the averaged religious that kicked out the mystical and the fundamentalist in favor of the nice.

However, all the authors I read for inspiration were just as mad as I was and yet were, just as much as I was, the children of the middle class. In fact, it was a criticism punks wielded against themselves as an accusation and which the outsiders wielded against them (and which the old folks had used against the folkies, and which the factory bosses used against the leftists who organized in the 1920's, and which the ministers used against the late 19th century reformers). In other words, realizing that hating the middle class is a marker of the middle class's children is not a realization of hypocrisy. It should be something else.

Do the children of the wealthy grow up hating the values of their parents? Do they grow up wanting to get rid of etiquette, "culture," dialect, and codes of dress they grew up with? Do the children of the poor do so? Do the various Wallingford Horsetooth III's of the world shy away from saying who their parents were or where?

The rich in America are measured by wealth. There are hyper-wealthy prospectors, hyper-wealthy shop keepers, hyper-wealthy stock players, hyper-wealthy bankers, hyper-wealthy inventors, etc., and they were born wealthy, middling, and (sometimes, but rarely) poor. They do not live in one place nor speak in one way. They have some common concerns, but only some. However, they know that they are wealthy and are conscious of the restrictions this places upon their identity. The poor, too, are measured by wealth. America's races have come dangerously close to classes, but "poor" is spread out across the nation, across professions.

The middle class, though, is not marked by anything except a set of beliefs about itself. These beliefs, for their part, are not conscious stipulations of political ideology, but apolitical ideology. The middle class's values: Smart? Not too! Crass? Not too! Tolerant? Some! Generous? Realistically! Art? Understandable! Religion? Sometimes! Politics? Ain't it a shame!

Hand made community anger in The Bronx, Pelham Bay neighborhood, 2002. The grammatical mistake is nothing compared to the blood-red paint.
The middle class is the averaged, the clipping of the highs and lows as disharmonious. It is the peaceful and Babbitted, where progress can be determined by who has the iPhone 5, whose television has throbbing Earthquake surround-o-sound, and whose lawn is nice. These external, observable markers are projections to assert a class position. They are, collectively, the ink blots.

When a person answers a pollster with "middle class," the person is not saying that he is unaware of his salary, but saying, "I'm normal. I don't stick out. I have nothing extreme." Further, it is a claimed normal, and the desire by two thirds of Americans to be normal, average, and what they are supposed to be allows politicians to manipulate them. . .

until they say something like middle class is $200,000 - $250,000 a year.

Originally posted to A Frayed Knot on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

Poll

What disqualifies someone from being middle class?

5%5 votes
4%4 votes
5%5 votes
4%4 votes
10%10 votes
12%11 votes
1%1 votes
8%8 votes
47%43 votes

| 91 votes | Vote | Results

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  For a classless society, there sure are a lot (13+ / 0-)

    of people obsessed with class.

    Personally, I'd be content if the Republican nominees for public office just showed some class and stopped lying.

    We organize governments to provide benefits and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 08:06:55 AM PDT

    •  Notice the obsession only with the M.C.? (10+ / 0-)

      We talk about "middle class" endlessly. A Lexus/Nexus search would probably show it popping up like adjectives. On the other hand, "upper" and "ruling" class, as well as "working" and "lower" class are words only used by economists, pinkos, and politicians talking in a Circle of Privacy.

      The compulsive blather about "middle class" alone tells us that the word does not refer to class. It refers to "normal" or "acceptable" or "consumer" or some other title of anonymity.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 01:10:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Or maybe not (5+ / 0-)

        Maybe we always talk about the "middle class" because it's an accepted way to talk about all other classes by comparison.

        For example, if we want to increase taxes on the upper class, we often argue this in terms of not overtaxing the middle class.  When plutocrats want to cut benefits for the lower class, they talk about redistribution and its threat to the middle class.  Targeting one of the ends just comes across as more palatable when described as protecting the middle.

        Also, it's not necessarily wrong for 66% of people to think they're in the middle third, if you use a scale with a nonuniform distribution.  IQ, for example, has a supposedly  Gaussian distribution with a mean of 100 and standard deviation of about 15.  That means that if you take a 90-point interval between 55 and 145, that should capture around 99.9% of the population, and about 66% fall within the middle third of the scale.

        My head says "No" but my heart says "Yes". And then my liver says "What?" and my butt's all like "Farrrrrrt" --jbou

        by Caj on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 03:34:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Percents are vexatious; other point yesbut (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Thestral, bigjacbigjacbigjac

          I don't want to get near the "really middle class." We need to know what the scale is, and no one will mark out the field. We then need to know if we're defining middle by numbers of people or numbers of dollars (by # of people, they can't exceed 34%), and even then we're not getting any meaningful picture of anything, which is why I argue that the term is bankrupt by itself.

          Your other point is well made, but I think it testifies to the point that I was making as well. It is the "normal" and the "not unusual" and "not particular" in those discourses as well. The reason a politician would say, "We need to stop taking money from the middle class, like Mitt Romney's friends, and giving it to the poorest of all the people, who don't even pay into the system" is that they don't want to say who the friends are or the poorest are. They don't want to say anything about income or representative sampling. The same is true going the other way. "Middle class" functions as "average person" and "normal person" in ideology (the belief people have about themselves) and therefore acts as cover politically (the coercion and deception of leaders).

          If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

          by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 04:43:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  My definition... (7+ / 0-)

    ...for what it's worth has to do with working.

    If you can buy the necessities of life without working, then you are rich. Rich people live off of dividends, rents, and interest payments.

    Even if you can only afford beans and rice, a studio apartment, second-hand clothes, and healthcare, then you are rich if you can have these things without working.

    We talk a lot about income, but we neglect the importance of wealth.

    •  Class has lost its meaning, though (5+ / 0-)

      If we say "middle class," we are stipulating class -- a group that has common cause through ideology. Wealth is difficult to discuss because of how well it hides and is hidden, and the person who can get a plate of beans without going to work may be someone with simple savings, and that is very different from Mitt's ability to go years selling stocks from his portfolio occasionally when the dividends did not pay sufficiently to keep him in a happy manner.

      How people think they are is important. If you believe that you may be on the street at any moment, then you are working class or poor, whether you have a buffer enough for a few months or not. In this sense, our middle class has, indeed, all but died in truth, for the housing crisis struck at the central tenet of faith of the middle class: the inescapable, indestructible bank of wealth that was the house and lot.

      Now, all feel themselves to be on the wage and bank mercy, and that is fear. I think we are very, very early in this, and the effects are going to be profound. (A change in the base shows up in the superstructure much later, and in a mutated form.)

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 01:52:34 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  My very idiosyncratic understanding (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre, llywrch

    of the term: In America, you are middle class when you are disdained by 50% and envied by the other 50%. It has nothing to do with Bourdieu's, or even the American idea of Distinction.

    "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

    by northsylvania on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 02:22:14 PM PDT

    •  Really? (3+ / 0-)

      Really really?
      Really really really?

      I see Thorstein Veblen's description of the wealthy at the turn of the century transmogrified into the middle. In a place where birth and accent and clothing will not give one the upper crustiness, STUFF will, but only if it is displayed.

      The wealthy stopped with ostentatious display some years after Veblen described them, but the entire U.S. economy structure in an inverse pyramid so that staple goods (#1 housing, #2 food) are expensive in relation to luxury goods to enable the continual display which is a mark of the middle class for one set of cultural commodities and the lower class for another.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 04:47:51 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Oh absolutely. (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bigjacbigjacbigjac, The Geogre

        You are absolutely correct about people self-identifying through the accumulation of stuff, or people wouldn't collect things like Longaberger baskets, for example, which are seldom if ever used but are stacked around in unattractive piles. Longaberger baskets, while well made, are no better than other attractive baskets, but do have the obvious advantage of a specific value.
        As I said, my understanding is quite personal. I don't do "stuff",  not from an ideological standpoint but because it needs dusting. However I self-identify with the middle class because around 50% of my friends in America seemed concerned with the lack of the accoutrements in our old and obviously pre-owned home. Approximately another 50% thought the large rooms and high ceilings were a waste of space and fuel.
        It ran around 50/50; therefore, anecdotally, I am middle class.

        "There's a crack in everything; that's how the light gets in". Leonard Cohen

        by northsylvania on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 01:12:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  sounds like class consciousness is the divide (5+ / 0-)

    You're middle class (and higher) when you start thinking about what is (and isn't) middle class and choosing your actions accordingly as far as you can afford to.  You're upper class when you don't have to choose; whatever is expected of you or whatever you expect of yourself, you can go right ahead and do no matter how much it costs.

    When a blue collar worker can make more money than a college-educated white collar professional, but the professional would never consider taking the higher-paying blue collar job - that's middle class.  The status of the job is more important than how much it pays.  The upper class begins where pay starts rising with status.

    When the blue collar guy lives in a semi-rural area and/or in a red state where a dollar can go farther than the downtown of a big city in a blue state, but the professional would never consider moving - that's middle class.  The prestige of the location is more important than the quality of life.  You're in the upper class when you can have the acres, the big house, and the toys despite living in an expensive area.

    When the blue collar guy's wife does all her shopping at Wal-Mart, but the professional wouldn't be caught dead there or owning something from there - that's middle class.  Again, image outweighs either quality or affordability.  The upper class begins at the point where image and quality become affordable.

    To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

    by Visceral on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 02:31:43 PM PDT

    •  You've mapped it (6+ / 0-)

      I'm (surprise!) a professor. I get paid less than half of what a long haul trucker gets paid, and I have far less job security. I get prestige, which is inedible (I've tried) and cannot be exchanged for goods and services (tried that, too).

      I shop at Mal*Wart because it ate the town, and because I can make more green choices there, sadly, than elsewhere (viz. Force of Nature). I have most definitely driven by the trade school and looked intently at their LED sign: "Consider a career in HV/AC repair." I do.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 04:51:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm an adjunct, again. (3+ / 0-)

        I know just how you feel.  My mother thinks it is still 1962 when a man like my father could support a growing family, buy a new car every two years, take a vacation every year, and put his kids through college all on a single blue collar income.  Here I am with multiple degrees from two public ivies which aren't as prestigious as those from the Ivy League.  I worked as an adjunct until the mid 1990s when I left to take a job in the private sector from which I was "downsized" in October 2008.  I went back to school to get certified to teach high school, but with austerity in the state and local budgets, there hasn't been a job I was interested within 80 miles.  So I substitute teach and in the last 10 days, my main source of income (bartending) ended when the owner shut his doors with no warning.  So I am stuck in the middle of the hollowed out industrial midwest in the middle of Methland looking for stable work at age 50.  Maybe if I am lucky I can get a job for $10 an hour working at a proposed hog "processing" plant and have the stench blown into my home from the prevailing winds.  Lord knows I am not making ends meet teaching one class at a local college for two grand.

        Sorry about the rant, but my economic life wasn't the one I thought I was getting all though years ago

        "The working class mind is strange and unpredictable" -- Ty Lookwell

        by Illinibeatle on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 07:26:26 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  sounds like my parents (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          The Geogre, Illinibeatle
          My mother thinks it is still 1962 when a man like my father could support a growing family, buy a new car every two years, take a vacation every year, and put his kids through college all on a single blue collar income.
          That's the world they started out in, and even when they can recognize that things have changed, they don't have any workable ideas for how to deal with it.  

          Way back when the real estate market started softening (I was in architecture school at the time), they dismissed my concerns with the argument that since I'm young, healthy, and single, I've got nothing to lose by taking big risks and will have plenty of time to bounce back from catastrophe.  Since the bottom fell out and especially when things didn't get better, they've basically been advising me to get desperate and settle: treading water until things magically get better because it's just the business cycle and greed and ambition will win out in the end.  Life is too damn short to tread water!  I don't worry about them retiring in today's economy, but that just makes their example seem even more irrelevant to my situation.

          To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

          by Visceral on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 09:23:40 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Tolstoy has a reply: (0+ / 0-)

            The Death of Ivan Ilytch: Postponing happiness in favor of achievement means having no life at all.

            If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

            by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 09:51:25 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  happiness also costs money (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Illinibeatle, The Geogre

              Every time I see or hear about something cool - be it a possession or an action - I have to ask myself two questions: "Can I afford it?" and "Can I take time off from work to do it?"  Look at it this way: being happy and fulfilled are the very things that I think I'm doomed to be either too poor or too busy to ever have.

              To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

              by Visceral on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 10:03:40 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

        •  Brother, Sister, we have the same pain (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Illinibeatle, peregrine kate

          Public ivy, hanging on by a cuticle as my college begins going Bible pounding. It announced exig... (won't say... don't want to say bad things) two years ago, and my department went from eight faculty to two. The good news is that I'm one of the two, probably because I'm cheap and work like a galley slave.

          If they put a "faith statement" on us, it'll be something I'll have to be a non-juror for. Fortunately, they haven't done that. I read the Bible every day, just about, have the faith, etc., but the statement calls for the Bible being the "inerrant" (ok) "literal" (not ok) "word of God." (No one, no one at all, has ever read the Bible literally, and they don't either. Furthermore, they're all hung up on James Ussher's Chronology, when they don't know who he was, that there were lots of guesses, that he was an archbishop, or that people made fun of him in his own day.)

          Adjuncting is not wage slavery. It's worse. It's slavery with insults. (Many won't pay adjuncts a penny until the end of term, so as to keep them from running off.)

          If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

          by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 09:49:40 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I feel for you (as another adjunct). Good luck. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          The Geogre

          Please stop by my tribute diary, RIP alliedoc, so that the messages to her family can include yours.

          by peregrine kate on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 11:14:11 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  A big problem with defining middle class now (3+ / 0-)

    is that it incorporates what used to be working class, but with the downfall of organized labor those folks regard themselves as middle class...and at the same time lower-rung wealthy continue to consider themselves middle class if they can't afford to buy their own politicians. A quarter million is quite a comfortable living, but not enough for a personal superPAC.

    "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." --I.F. Stone

    by Alice in Florida on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 02:35:09 PM PDT

  •  You need to look at the idea of middle class and (3+ / 0-)

    the reality of middle income.  Middle income is a measured and reported satistics.  Demographers divide income into quintiles.  Clearly the lowest income quintile is low income and the highest income quintile is high income.  Middle income falls somewhere in those 3 quintiles in center.

    Class is much more abstract and only tangentially related to income.  

    •  Agreed. (3+ / 0-)

      The diarist seems somewhat disingenuous in trying to make his point. I agree with your definition of the middle 3 quintiles as middle class. Or even one standard deviation of a Bell Curve (around 68%).

      As you note, class is only tangentially related to income. Not to mention that class is a perceived notion rather than a measurable fact. Paris Hilton is wealthy but is she classy? I think not.

      What's that sound you hear when Mitt Romney walks? Oh, yeah. Flip-flop flip-flop.

      by edg on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 03:11:17 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Poor, poor Paris. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bigjacbigjacbigjac
      •  Oh, my! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        bigjacbigjacbigjac

        Disingenuous? Gosh.

        I cited my sources. Perhaps you should go tell all of them to stop talking about "middle class." I'll hold your coat and cheer you on.

        As for me, I would say that the middle three quintiles mean boo diddlee. They are the center of the income distribution, but that is merely getting at a median again. Joe makes $8,600, and Mitt makes $20,000,000, and the middle brackets, with an even division of quintiles (((20,000,000-8,600)/5)=$3,998,280 sized quintiles; so a person making $12 million is middle income) may have exactly nobody in them.

        From the start, I was talking about class. From the middle, I was talking about class. From the later, I was talking about class. Dollars are irrelevant to the coercion politicians exercise with this hollow term, and income is meaningless in the political discourse.

        If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

        by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 05:04:41 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  If so ... (0+ / 0-)

          you need to learn to write better. Many of your readers did not grasp what you were talking about. That is an indictment of the writer, not the reader.

          What's that sound you hear when Mitt Romney walks? Oh, yeah. Flip-flop flip-flop.

          by edg on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 10:59:15 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  I would, but (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bigjacbigjacbigjac

      My interest is in class.

      Americans claim to have no classes. That is part of the ideological state apparatus of the U.S. We have, in reality, many classes, although the language we use for them comes from a prior century. Our old words come from an era when feudalism was transforming into capitalism and the nation state was non-integrated.

      My argument, above, is that the middle class exists precisely as a claim and belief in non-class status. It exists as a consciousness of non-participation in production and consumption, rule and obedience. The class exists by denoting a negative, and therefore the only way for a politician to fail to manipulate with it is by actually stating an income level, as the Romneylan did.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 04:55:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Of course we claim there are no classes (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        peregrine kate

        Except there always have been. And I expect there always will be. (I hope that's not my innate pessimism speaking there.)

        Class structures in America is one of those things we just don't talk about in polite conversation -- even though they exist -- like we don't talk about sex or money. (Don't believe me? Imagine asking a friend for advice about a sexual technique. Or how to bargain for a raise. Do you get embarrassed, find yourself at a loss for the right words? One can find a lot of information out there on the topic -- most of it either obvious BS/pornography or suspect -- while useful information is rare.) However, these topics are very important to us; we all want more, but feel guilty about wanting it.

        For many years, the primary attraction of being a Republican was that the "respectable" people were Republicans: successful businessmen, hard-working people who had made it. Democrats were "those people" who had that connotation of not being entirely respectable: blue collar workers, immigrants,  Southerners. People who hadn't finished school -- or had too much schooling & spent their time arguing over fancy books & long-haired music instead of mowing their lawns & raising families. Then the 1970s came along & the Republican party was overrun with right-wing crazies, & the Democrats turned out not to be so declasse; party affiliation stopped being an important marker of class division, & began to be one of political leanings.

        Of course, many signs remain of class affiliation remain in the US -- which we otherwise ignore. Liking Country music often is seen as not being Middle class, while a knowledge of Opera proves one is Middle class or better. (I suspect the primary reason Opera still exists is primarily out of class perceptions: if a city has no Opera company, it obviously lacks Middle or Upper classes.) The products we buy or where we shop are other ones. Religion is another: belonging to an Episcopal church is far more respectable than to an Evangelical one where they speak in tongues or handle snakes. (Yes, that is an overgeneralization for effect.) And then genealogy is far too often only an attempt to prove class status rather than to learn about how history defines one. (My stepmother is a prime example of that.)

        Maybe we Americans will rid ourselves of this need for class distinctions, & the US will ever truly be a middle-class society. But from what I've seen, & from what I know of human nature, I doubt it: there have always been the cool kids & the outcasts in high school, & their equivalents can be found in greater society.

  •  Great description of the appeal of punk. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre
    We hated the predictable and the averaged -- the averaged emotional response robbed of its highs and lows, the averaged aesthetic that would neither shock nor provoke, the averaged learning that would perpetuate itself under a banner of pragmatism, the averaged religious that kicked out the mystical and the fundamentalist in favor of the nice.
    I knew that feeling all too well from about the age of twelve until. . . hmm. Actually, it makes me feel like a perpetual adolescent, but I still feel that way.

    However, I do have to argue that I knew more than a few working class punks.

    Good diary. Thoughtful stuff. I'm not recc'ing it because I agree with it but because I don't know if I agree with it and I'm going to have to think about it a bit. Thanks for posting it.

    •  Poor punks galore (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FourthOfJulyAsburyPark

      You bet there were poor punks. They weren't always the ones you'd think, either. Joe Strummer was a diplomat's kid, while Mick Jones was poor. However, the early CBGB's bands had that strong streak of intellectualism from the Bohemian side of poverty.

      I knew tons of punks who got poor, but most I knew in the Athens scene had good homes. I pointed to "Repo Man" because I wasn't going to search You Tube for the kid getting shot robbing a convenience store and saying, "I blame society," only to have Emilio Estevez say, "What are you talking about? You're a middle class punk, same as me."

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 05:09:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You're absolutely right. I've spent much of my (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        The Geogre, llywrch

        life in and about New York City and not a few nights of my youth were spent lying drunk on the banquettes at CBGB's, but I'm just a few years too young to have been there in the early years. By the time I moved to NYC the East Village was already too expensive for me to live there. I knew at least one former squatter who was the son of a multi-millionaire, a secret he let me in on only when he wanted to take me home to meet his mother and father.

        Just as a point of accuracy, I was never "a punk." This is totally irrelevant unless you're a certain age. But back in the day, the one thing you didn't want to be called was a "poseur." This little candyass likes heat and hot water and three squares a day.

        •  Ah, the punks and the punks (0+ / 0-)

          There is a sizable argument about the term. I was always a wide meaning advocate, because the music was wide. If SST and IRS records were punk rock, the social codes of tuff enuf had to go (esp. since they seemed to be a back door to cock rock, to me).

          Was the term used to describe the audience first? The only people in the Bowery on a Sunday night at 2:00 AM were junkies and professional boys (slang for male prostitute, "punk"). Or did Richard Hell alone inspire people to think that the musicians were toughs and hoodlums (slang term of a briefer duration, "punk")? Was it music for punks, or by punks?

          The other reason I hated the self-destructive side was that it smacked of Malcolm McLaren re-importation, and I thought the American underground was less faddish. Then again, I was part of the Athens scene, so I can be safely dismissed as a lightweight anyway.

          If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

          by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 03:04:01 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Middle Class by The Grogre (3+ / 0-)

    The comments about middle class attitudes -- and attitudes toward the middle class -- as the author suggests, reveal more about the writer than the subject. And a discussion of attitudes can be fascinating, but not terribly productive. The writer and most of the comments I think have missed a key point. The "middle class" in America is a critical concept for economic analysis to guide political choices. And my suggested definition is not statistical, but behavioral: A group of families in the middle ranges of income who have enough money to house, clothe, and feed their families, with enough left over to give themselves some degree of satisfaction and security. The result of having a large enough middle class is enough buying power to fuel the economy and thus keep unemployment at reasonable levels. The shift of income AND wealth from those middle ranges to the upper end of the spectrum has been going on for several years now (that's measurable) and is a key reason why the recovery has been so slow.  Yes, this is a mark of a consumer society and whether you like it (I don't very much) or not, that's where we are. And the only way to successfully reduce consumerism is through  gradually changing society's attitudes. Reducing consumerism by simply making more people poor, which is where Romney's leadership would take us, is a recipe for disaster.

    •  You speak of Middle Income (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hlsmlane

      I have nothing against your political calculus, but you are missing the means of control, because class is not income.

      For once, I wanted to write with the footnotes suppressed, the name dropping spare.

      What I was speaking of was based on the continued observations from Sinclair Lewis onward, that American middling sorts have responded to the lack of overt indicators of status by creating their own, in the form of display. If I needed to slow down and lengthen, I would point out that the "lawn and leisure" model of apolitical ideology is not merely the result of an Althusserian ideological state apparatus, but the result of the rapid transportation revolution of the 1960's.

      The transportation boom hit the "middle" more than the poor or rich, and it resulted in individual families moving from one economically constructed place to another (Littleton, CO to Matthews, NC to Glenelg, MD). These places put people of many origins cheek by jowl and disallowed former regional identity.

      When we add the loss of region for the corporate worker, in the 1960's to 1970's, the loss of extended family for the middle income citizen and for the migrating poor, and an parallel scientific paradigm of hyper-empiricism, we have the ground conditions for a group that may not express a traditional cultural attachment.

      Prior trends -- the materialist democracy of Babbittry, the display as status -- exaggerated and became the only viable means of identification aside from church islands.

      I'm not sure I was being as idiosyncratic as I tried to appear.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 03:16:56 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  You've pretty obviously studied this, so I just (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        The Geogre

        want to offer this as a modest suggestion, not a well considered argument, but I would be tempted to but the start of the transportation boom and decline of regional identity a bit earlier, in the post-war period.

        Also, have we considered the significant change to the self-identification of the middle class that must have come in the post-war period when the ranks of the middle class, or at least the ranks of the people who considered themselves middle class, swelled?

        I haven't read Babbit since high school, but in my fuzzy memory the world of Babbit is quite different from the world of the The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

        •  You're right (0+ / 0-)

          I located the transportation boom in the 60's, but I shouldn't have called it that. I was thinking about upward mobility, and morning brain said "transportation" instead of "social mobility." The extraordinary expansion of American corporations in the 1960's and the enlightened human resources approach that had corporations test for abilities and move people across country to where they were needed meant that a great many people lost a region as they gained a wealth.

          The post-war is gigantic, though, for the growth of the myth of the middle class and for the architecture of the aspiration. During the war, the mythical farm boy served with the mythical city tough and the blue blood, and so an idea of non-landed, non-regional merited place and class was already bred in the services. Just as the civil rights movement got cranked up by returning vets, so the corporate and entertainment concerns helped to fashion the contours of what life was going to be.

          The suburb itself is post-war, but the interchangeable suburb of only 3-5 years habitation was a 1960's - 1970's creature. The point I was hoping to make is that to have "middle class" denote a sack of nothings, the other ideological elements have to be lost (land, region, speech, education, profession).

          My apologies if I bristle. FTS.

          If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

          by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 09:58:57 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Do you want to consumption or consumerism? (0+ / 0-)

      And why?

      •  Sorry, I forgot the word "reduce." nt (0+ / 0-)
      •  (Looks around) Me? (0+ / 0-)

        Both, really. However, by themselves they're not indicative. I would like to see the U.S. economy with inexpensive staple goods and expensive luxury goods. Let the X-station-Live-Kinnex cost $20,000, but let rent be $80/month. Let Fat Lip lip gloss by $100 a tube, but let electricity be $25/month.

        There is no way imaginable to reverse the value marker that people have placed on accumulation of goods. Few people win the Yard of the Month sign for having the most books or the least environmental impact. No: that award, organized by citizens for citizens, goes for display and for the disposal of leisure hours on display.

        I would really like for us to not want to be better than each other, but, of course, that will not happen in the vale of tears.

        If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

        by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 10:03:51 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Then there are people who ... (3+ / 0-)

    ... think that populations of people are composed of unique individuals, who may fall into categories but who do not form homogeneous classes, as the classes of elements in the 19th century experiments.

    In which case the middle income categories broadly speaking ought to be the second through fourth quintiles of households.

    That income range is currently $20,000 to $90,000, with median household income of $44,000. IMV, the fact that the bottom of the second quintile is under half the median income is a marker of the erosion of the "middle" income class and the recreation of a substantial "working poor" category between "the poor" and "the middle class".

    We have long had a substantial "high income but not wealthy" group, and the top quintile but not the top 2%-1% is a perfectly reasonable "upper middle class", between $90,000 and about $220,000 (or 2x to 5x the median income).

    One of the markers of the loss of social cohesion in the US is a declining affiliation of the upper middle class with being "part of the middle class".

    Support Lesbian Creative Works with Yuri anime and manga from ALC Publishing

    by BruceMcF on Sun Sep 23, 2012 at 07:44:20 PM PDT

    •  No problem, but... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FourthOfJulyAsburyPark

      I am more pessimistic than that.

      If individuals are individual, they are still acted upon by forces that apply pressure evenly and insidiously. These pressures come from upbringing, and they come from media, and they come from cultural narratives (and the power of a story is not to be trifled with). Indeed, the idea that we are all special snowflakes is part of a narrative.

      Classes emerge in group action and group inaction, in failure to be outraged and in being outraged. They also emerge in strikes and violence and placid compliance.

      Since I'm Marxissant, I think that there are ideological classes, but I think that the economic classes are less and less meaningful. The story that the "upper middle" and "lower middle" are both alike enough to have a common denominator is either a confession that our economic inequality is catastrophic or that the common element is, as I describe it, denial of participation.

      All the folks coming back with economics are fine, and I wish them well, but the mystery of mysteries is the self-identification of Americans as "middle class" and the power of the concept. There is nothing inherently good about the term. Heck, there is inherent bad in it. So, how come? Economics won't be able to answer that, I think.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 03:24:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This is funny, I was just arguing with a friend (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        The Geogre

        the other day that the differences between the "upper middle" and "lower middle" were sufficient to constitute different subcultures and that communication between people belonging to each group is seriously impeded by differring underlying assumptions.

  •  At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    it seems to me there are only two classes,
    the upper and the lower.

    The upper class are those who truly
    do not need to worry about money.

    The lower class are those who always worry about money.

    The problem we have in modern USA,
    is that politicians
    constantly refer to the middle class,
    convincing millions of voters
    that they are middle class,
    and that the particular politician speaking,
    is working for them,
    so they vote for him.

    In truth,
    the voter has not clothes,
    but the politician tells him
    he's wearing a nice,
    middle class suit.

    If all the lower class folks
    understood how naked they were,
    they would all become communists,
    in spite of the murders of Stalin,
    and the famines of Chairman Mao.

    •  Politicians are symptoms, not causes (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bigjacbigjacbigjac

      The story of stories we tell is the result of many craftsmen and unconscious selection. The story that we're all middle class, that we don't belong to "class" at all, that each individual can be Steve Jobs (who has now passed all other exempla), is the product of many portions of cultural work.

      The result, though, is the politician cynically or naively speaking of a nothing.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 04:39:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  My own thoughts on middle-classness (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    are here. I agree that it's an obsolete concept, based on social structures that have little or no bearing on American life.

    "The great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is the first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk. Every state is totalitarian at heart; there are no ends to the cruelty it will go to to protect itself." -- Ian McDonald

    by Geenius at Wrok on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 04:33:31 AM PDT

    •  We agree politically (0+ / 0-)

      If we were going to speak of the economic divisions of the nation, we would need to do so without reference to the canards of "middle class," and yet we see in these comments a pale reflection of what is in bold elsewhere: an instinctive, passionate desire to retain the title. It has an affirming meaning, and that's what we need to understand if we want to understand the way the term has denoted class (the imagined position of a person to the mode of production).

      We should, similarly, analyze the use and function of the ideological state apparatus investment in the term. Why is it good business, good politics, and good penology to have a universal middle class?

      The political argument was that mercers and burgers would not vote by landed interests nor be as flammable as the poor, and therefore that a middle class was the key to a representative democracy's success. This doctrine can still be heard in Washington D.C. From Dean Rusk to Hillary Clinton, there is a belief that gentry avoid the excesses of greed and instinct.

      The problem, or a problem is that the base has shifted -- our productive model doesn't even allow this 1964 upward climbing meritocracy. The TEA Party should have told us that our "middle class democracy" wasn't any such thing by itself.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 06:52:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Folks who fling figures around... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    tend to consider, for economic purposes, the Middle Class those American Households earning in the 2nd to 4th fifths of Pre-tax incomes, i.e. the 20th to 80th percentiles of incomes. However, economists note that the extraordinary success and accumulation of wealth enjoyed by the 1% and especially the 0.1% at the very top, have skewed both the average and the median upward over more or less the past 30 years. Most of my working life, as it happens.

    It's the Inequality, Stupid. Eleven charts that explain what's wrong with America. - Mother Jones
    In the recent noise concerning the 99% versus the 1% a lot of hot air has been blow about pegging various economic policies to the $250,000/year mark, which some say is the "natural" upper boundary of the Middle Class. But that's a political determination, intended to pit the well-to-do versus the lower 80% - but versus the 1%, the folks living at the 81st to 98th percentile actually have more in common with the bottom 80% than the top 1%.

    That said, if it's belief and attitude that makes one Middle Class, what qualifies upper class? It's it wealth? Or is it attitude? If so, what attitudes qualify as Upper Class, is it Noblesse Oblige*, a sense of responsibility toward the greater society, or it is being a cynical self-serving Plutocrat?

    Noblesse oblige is a French phrase literally meaning "nobility obliges".

    The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française defines it thus:

            Whoever claims to be noble must conduct himself nobly.
            (Figuratively) One must act in a fashion that conforms to one's position, and with the reputation that one has earned.

    The Oxford English Dictionary says that the term "suggests noble ancestry constrains to honorable behavior; privilege entails to responsibility". Being a noble meant that one had responsibilities to lead, manage and so on. One was not to simply spend one's time in idle pursuits. - Wikipedia

    I wouldn't necessarily know, I'm a frackin' tradesman.  

    Used to be a "professional" - and my lawn ain't all that nice. Careeers that were considered "Professional Class" in 1999, are now effectively the "working poor." My income as a web and graphic designer has been essentially flat since the crash, but my costs of living across the board, have been steadily climbing. But I don't feel particularly picked on, as this is the case for just about everybody I know personally and professionally.

    What th' heck do I know, I work for a living...

    by SamuraiArtGuy on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 09:04:31 AM PDT

  •  Babbitt wasn't exactly middle class (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    George Babbitt, the eponymous hero of Sinclair Lewis' novel, was fairly wealthy, although he was acutely aware that he was not quite up to the level of the upper crust.  In today's terms, he would be a member of the 0.9%.

    •  In his town... (0+ / 0-)

      He doesn't start and end in the same position.

      Would it have been better if I had gone to Main Street, when babbitry is the very well observed philosophical move behind the American middle class. (The substitution of external markers for internal ones, which is criticized by the old money and unobtainable by the poor. It moved from 1920 - 2010 to become a character of the middle.)

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 10:52:29 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting topic, though the diary is a bit (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Geogre

    dispassionate. (My frequent failing too, as an academic who likes facts & figures, and has some discomfort trying to blend the personal with the larger whole.)

    I realize you've deliberately avoided name-dropping and citation-loading, but I think that a discussion of class in the U.S. is generally well-served by having Paul Fussell's Class available for reference. Fussell, who died in May of this year at 88, was a curmudgeon, a misanthrope, and an elitist, and his world is almost completely a white one, but his analysis of divisions on the basis of status markers and attitudes is very insightful and often funny, albeit harshly so. (I am leaving completely aside his groundbreaking work on WWI, which is worth reading for different reasons, and his literary analysis, which apparently is brilliant as well.)

    Almost 30 years after he wrote Class, many of his observations in it are still apt. Here I think they would help clarify rather than obscure the ground upon which a discussion of social classes in the U.S. could profitably be based. Might be an interesting project to compare Fussell's perspective on the topic with Carlin's; there's a lot of commonality despite their radically different vantage points.

    Please stop by my tribute diary, RIP alliedoc, so that the messages to her family can include yours.

    by peregrine kate on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 11:48:37 AM PDT

    •  Haven't read "Class," have many others (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      peregrine kate

      Fussell's is THE book to teach students how to understand poetry (Poetic Meter and Poetic Form). It easily defeats Hollander, who is the next best, for readability and depth and coherence.

      His The Augustan World View is one of the best overviews of the early 18th century. His Augustan Poetry and Meter is fascinating. In fact, I never read a word by him on literature that wasn't piercingly perceptive.

      Fussell had a serious gift for writing clearly and making the complex clear.

      - My concern about contemporary cultural studies of class would be that they have the dangers that I, too, fall to: by being within the system they describe, they can be unable to see beyond it.
      - That said, I'd put Noam Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, which has discussions of class and coercion, and I'd add Studs Terkel's Working as a primary source.

      The gag of my diary, or the insight, was in the last line: Mitt managed to fail to manipulate the masses by talking about the middle class, and that's hard to do. He used the magic words, and there was no flash grenade that went off. He managed to make the universal solvent stick. He did so by saying exactly what constituted "middle class" of $200,000 - $250,000. That makes the middle class the opposite of Bloody Mary: it's there until you say its name.

      If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

      by The Geogre on Mon Sep 24, 2012 at 04:50:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site