So if class isn’t directly tied to wealth, what is it tied to?
Attitudes. Beliefs. Behavior.
When I was growing up in my nice middle-class suburb this didn’t really register, because I didn’t see much of anyone who wasn’t middle class. There was a range from lower middle class to upper middle class, with a few aberrations (like my own family) in the mix, but it was a pretty narrow range.
Then I went off to college and met honest-to-God members of the upper class, like the Vanderbilt girls, and the kids of nouveau-riche arrivistes, like Wendell Colson (Chuck Colson’s kid, before and during the Watergate scandal), and European aristocracy, like Jan Stoeckenius, and ghetto kids, like Iago (whose real name was Joachim, but he had passed for Hispanic in order to survive on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant), and old-line Southern aristocracy — damn, what was that guy’s name?
Anyway, it was an eye-opening experience — but still limited, because after all, this was Princeton. These were all Ivy Leaguers, regardless of their backgrounds — they were all bright and motivated and believed in the value of education, in one form or another.
Then I flunked out and lived in the slums of Pittsburgh for a year and a half — in South Oakland, to be exact, near Panther Hollow. Where I got to meet lots of traditional working-class folks, the kind of people who would never think of sending a kid to Princeton. And I also got to meet slum kids who weren’t bright and ambitious, like Iago; instead they included thieves and drug dealers and hustlers, and welfare cheats and day laborers and assorted others. No actual pimps or whores, though — a gap in my education that still lingers.
After that I spent nine years in Kentucky — six in Lexington, which was midwestern suburban with a definite class structure unlike anything I’d seen in New England, and three in Dry Fork, up in the hills. Hill folk weren’t quite like anything else I’d seen.
And finally we wound up in Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington, where the accepted wisdom is that it’s all race that matters, not class — which is bullshit.
And somewhere in there, it registered that it’s attitude that matters, not money.
Specifically, I think it’s attitudes about money, about work, about possessions, about status, about displays of wealth, and about class that define class.
So let me consider those attitudes.
First, about money: Is it important?
If you’re lower class, money is important, but it’s a transient phenomenon, one you can’t control; sometimes you have money and sometimes you don’t, and it’s better to have it than not, but you can’t really do anything to ensure you’ll have it. You can work, but that’s really slow, and eventually you’ll get fired or laid off or the paycheck will bounce. You can steal, but you never know how much you’ll get, and it could get you jailed or killed. Sometimes money will just come to you out of nowhere — a lottery win, an unexpected high-paying temp job, a generous friend — but it won’t stay, because it’ll all go for rent or clothes or utility bills or medical expenses.
Money’s untrustworthy stuff. You know that some people seem to be able to accumulate so much of it it’s not a problem for them, but you don’t understand how that works. Money is luck.
If you’re working class, money is why you work. It pays the bills. You save a little when you can, put it in the bank, and hope it’ll cover retirement — or at least car repairs and medical bills. It’s important, but you don’t really like it or care about it all that much. It’s fuel.
If you’re middle class, especially upper middle class, money is desperately important; you usually have enough, and when you don’t you have credit, but you’re always in debt and have to watch out not to go too far into debt, because you need to spend money to maintain your lifestyle and that spending doesn’t always match income. Money is how you keep score.
If you’re upper class, money doesn’t matter. It’s nice to have, but it’s not anything to worry about. You’ll always be able to get more if it runs out, and of course you know how to save and invest, so it probably won’t ever really run out. Money gets you things you like but don’t need. Money’s a toy.
If you’re an intellectual, money’s a tool. If you’re a pseudointellectual or a social climber (which are two faces of the same coin), it’s a weapon.
There are other categories, other classes, but I think that’ll do for now.