The Class Project 7: Playing by the Rules

What everything I’ve said up to this point comes down to is that different classes play by different rules, and a good deal of class conflict, and interpersonal conflict, results from this.  Members of one class will look at another and brand them either losers or cheats.

The middle class looks at the working class and considers them losers because they have less money.  The working class looks at the middle class and considers them losers because they’re so obsessed with money.  The lower class looks at the working class and considers them losers because they’re so risk-averse, tied down to jobs and family.

A lot of people misjudge class conflicts because they fail to recognize this difference in rules.  Marxists often assume that the working class must and should hate the upper classes because the upper classes have an unfair share of the world’s wealth, but this simply demonstrates that such Marxists are middle class in their attitudes — neither the working class nor the upper class considers money to be the most important thing going.  A lot of working class folks are perfectly happy letting someone else have all the money and power as long as they use it well and treat people with respect.  We are, as I said, hierarchical animals, and not everyone feels any great need to be at the top of the hierarchy.  There’s no need to squash the pyramid into a plane; people like feeling there’s a structure and that they fit into it.

Of course, you can go too far the other way, telling people they should know, and stay in, their place.  The problem there is that you don’t get to decide someone else’s proper place.  People find their own place, through a combination of choice and circumstance.  If someone rises above his station, well, good for him!

If someone plays by different rules than yours, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

So when that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses suburbanite with thirty grand in credit-card debt looks at the working class folks in their little old house with the hand-me-down furniture and considers them losers, he’s wrong.  They aren’t losing at his game; they aren’t playing his game.  They’re playing a game where he would be a loser.

Sometimes people can switch from one game to another; people do move from one class to another, and I don’t just mean making more or less money.  Ambitious lower-class or working-class folks may move into the middle class and start using money to keep score — and burned-out middle-class folks may drop out of the rat race and find a slower-paced job where they’re more concerned with self-respect and a sense of accomplishment than with money.  Class isn’t inborn, it isn’t destiny, and it isn’t just money.  It’s attitude, belief, and the rules by which you determine your status and decide whether you’re a success or a failure.  Most people learn those from their families while they’re growing up, and never fundamentally change.  Others rebel against their upbringing, with varying degrees of success.

And that, except for a footnote about race and ethnicity, is pretty much everything I have to say on the subject.

As for that footnote — certain groups are disproportionately represented in certain classes.  The lower classes in the U.S. come in all colors, but are disproportionately black and Hispanic.  This has often resulted in a confusion between class prejudice and racial prejudice.  If you ask me, this has muddied the picture horribly, and trying to sort it all out is far beyond anything I want to tackle in a blog.  If you, dear readers, want to discuss it among yourselves, feel free, but I don’t think I have much to say on the subject.

The Class Project 6: The Status Civilization


Human beings are apes.  We’re social animals, prone to creating hierarchies.  We do this a lot, and we have several ways of looking at it.  We have formal and informal structures and terminologies; we talk about rank, pecking order, social position, alpha males, dominant and submissive, corporate pyramids, and on and on.  There seems to be a desire to keep it all simple, to reduce everything to, “I’m at THIS LEVEL, and she’s above me, and he’s below me, and I want to move up.”

Except that it isn’t really simple at all.  We don’t each have a single level.  Even in formal hierarchic structures like the military, there may be complications.  My father was a TSgt in the U.S. Army during World War II — that’s “Technical Sergeant,” and I suspect that would be some sort of Specialist in modern terminology — which theoretically meant that he had to obey the orders of any commissioned officer in the chain of command, except where those orders conflicted with other orders.  In practice, it didn’t work that way, and more than once he found himself giving orders to a full colonel and expecting them to be obeyed, with the full weight of Army regulations saying they had to be obeyed.  Humans specialize, and that conflicts with simple hierarchies.  In a life-or-death situation, a doctor gives orders; in cosmetic surgery, the patient does.

But we still want to know where we rank in our hierarchies.  We want to define our status.

There are lots of ways to measure status:  money, education, birth, occupation, manners, formal rank, popularity, accomplishments, awards, accolades, appearance.  In relatively primitive societies these tend to bunch up — the right birth gives you rank and access to education, bestows wealth, keeps you well fed so that your appearance isn’t marred by malnutrition or disease, gives you the time and training to learn formal manners, etc.  In modern society this is less true — not gone, certainly, but less definite.

This is the change that led some folks to proclaim the U.S. a classless society — we no longer had all these status markers concentrated in one small group at the top of a social pyramid.  Instead they’re strewn about all over the place.  It’s very confusing.

Some people, when considering the issue of class, simply choose one scale of status markers and use that to define class — wealth and birth are the most common ones, I’d guess, though occupation and education are in there.

I don’t think that works.  Remember, I’ve said before that I think class is defined more by attitudes than anything else, and those attitudes are influenced by all these factors, but not determined entirely by any of them.

The attitudes themselves don’t work well as status markers because they’re not immediately obvious enough, by the way, but I think they do influence how people respond to you and perceive your status.

And how do the members of various classes look at the various status indicators?  Well, that’s where this series of essays bogged down when I first wrote it, six or seven years ago, but let’s take a look.

For the lower class, it seems to me that the major status markers are clothes, style, and success with the opposite sex.   If a man’s got it goin’ on, got the threads and the looks and the ladies, then he’s a success, even if he can’t hold a job or pay his rent.  Being seen as dangerous, as someone people don’t mess with, is also a plus.

For the working class, I’m not sure.  For some people it seems to be a matter of character, of playing by the rules — if you’re seen as a solid citizen, a good spouse, a good parent, a good worker, someone who does his duty, then you’re respected and recognized as having high status, but is that it?

For the middle class, it’s money.  Money is how you keep score, and you show how well you’re doing by buying expensive stuff.  You buy the biggest house you can, in the best neighborhood you can, to show how well you’re doing, how you’re climbing up the status ladder.

For the professional class, it’s education and peer recognition of professional success — which is often reflected in money, but not always.  For the professoriate, publications are as important as pay.  Degrees count — if you have a doctorate, you’re higher status than someone with a mere master’s.  For a lawyer, the prestige of your firm is a marker, and you can collect status points by handling high-profile cases.  Addressing the Supreme Court bestows more status upon you than a mere raise in pay.  Awards and honors, speaking engagements — these are all ways to count coup.

And for the upper class — well, you get to choose.  You’re already in the top bracket, just by being who you are, and you can decide how you want to compete — or if you want to compete.   Some people do it with family connections, some by going into politics or philanthropy, etc.

Me, I decided to write.

The Class Project 5: Mine!

Possessions.  Property.  Things.

This is actually the subject that first led me to believe that my attitudes are not middle class, but upper class.

It’s also a category where upper-class attitudes that have functioned well for centuries sometimes run into problems nowadays.

I believe that one’s class — mental class, not current economic situation — strongly affects what you buy, what you keep, how you treat it.  This is hardly news.  What I find interesting, though, is just how perverse some of the attitudes are.

Specifically, the lower class tends to buy what they want, rather than what they need, and to do so on availability, rather than quality or price.  Nutritionists and social workers often bemoan this, and attribute it to ignorance.

I’m not sure it is ignorance; I’m not sure just what’s going on, but it seems as if it’s not a lack of knowledge so much as a lack of belief.  If you want a Big Mac now, maybe you know that it’d be healthier and cheaper in the long run to buy some groceries and make something at home, but damn, you’ve got five bucks in your pocket and here’s Mickey D’s and it’s not like saving a buck is ever going to matter, or like being healthy is important, because you know that you’ll never save enough to matter, it’ll all get ripped off somehow, and your health isn’t important because you can’t afford a doctor and someday you’re going to catch a stray bullet or some stupid virus or some toxic chemical from the scrapheap you live in anyway, and it won’t matter if you’ve taken care of your heart or your colon.  So you buy the Big Mac and live for the present.

If you ever have money, you want to show it off, so you buy something trendy and expensive.    You buy what you want while you can.

The working class, on the other hand, understands savings, and will buy cheap.  Clipping coupons and hitting the weekly sales at K-Mart, stocking up on bargains, etc.  You buy when the price is right.

The middle class buys what it can afford.  “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”  Possessions confer status.  A car is a statement of who you are, your personal style and your current level of wealth.  You replace things when better ones become available — new-model cars, software upgrades, etc.

The upper class buys quality, and keeps it.  Price is irrelevant.

This was the point I tripped over sometimes as a kid.  Friends would notice something odd about our household and comment on it — for example, that we ate all our meals with antique sterling silver flatware.  We would shrug; it’s what we’d always done.

“But this stuff is worth money!  You could sell it to an antique dealer for hundreds of dollars!”

Yeah, but then we’d have to buy new flatware; what’s the point?  We don’t need the money right now, and we do need forks.

(Later, when I went to college, and eventually bought my own stainless steel flatware, I finally discovered the point — I like the taste of steel better than the taste of silver.  But that’s just me.)

In fact, here’s a clear-cut example of class attitudes.  Let us suppose you discover that the fancy china Grandma gave you is rare, collectible, and valuable.  What do you do with it?

If you’re lower class, you sell it.  If you’re bright, to a respectable antique dealer, after dickering; if you’re stupid, you pawn it.

If you’re working class, you get it appraised, then pack it up very carefully and set it aside somewhere, figuring it’ll appreciate and you can sell it for even more someday when you need the money.

If you’re middle class, you put it on display somewhere in your home, probably safely behind glass, and point it out to visitors.

If you’re upper class, you shrug, say, “That’s nice,” and use it to eat your meals, same as before.

This is where the distinction between nouveau riche and upper class becomes obvious; the nouveau riche think that money is for showing off, for establishing status, and will therefore buy the most expensive goods and display them prominently, while the upper class think that you buy things to use, and will therefore buy the best stuff, regardless of price, and use it.  Nouveau riche buy Rolexes; upper class buy whatever watch looks good and keeps good time.  Which might be a Rolex — or a Timex.

The nouveau riche build huge ostentatious mansions.  The upper class live in whatever’s comfortable for them.

The Class Project 4: On the Job

Work — what’s it good for?

For the lower class, work is one way of getting money and keeping the Man from hassling you.  It’s not necessarily the best way, but it works.  Taking pride in one’s work is not likely.  Jobs are transitory.  Work is an option.  Your job is no part of your identity.

For the working class, on the other hand, taking pride in one’s work is important.  In fact, pride is generally a very significant thing for the working class.  Making money is important, and that’s a solid reason to work, but turning down added money in order to be proud of what one does is perfectly normal.

It doesn’t matter all that very much what the work is.  Oh, it’s best to have a job you enjoy, but whether you love your job or hate it, it’s important to do it well.  If you’re a plumber, then by God you want to be a good plumber.  If you’re flipping burgers, then you want them to be good burgers.

And this pride in one’s work is one of the major divides between working class and lower middle class.  Some people make no distinction between those two classes, and economically they’re pretty interchangeable, but behaviorally they’re not.  Working class people work to survive, because it’s what people do, and they try to do it well; middle class people work to get ahead, and if they try to do it well, that’s usually to impress someone so they can get a better job.

Generally speaking, the middle class hates work.  Work is necessary to acquire money and status and all the other good things in life, but work itself sucks.

The fact that an awful lot of middle-class jobs are mind-numbing pointless crap may have something to do with this.  It’s hard to take pride in pushing paper.

In the middle class you choose your job on the basis of how much it pays and where it is and who you’ll be working with, not generally on what you’ll actually be doing — because for one thing, you expect to be doing something different a few years down the road, because you’ve been promoted or downsized or gotten a better offer elsewhere.

But then when you get to the professional class, work is once again something you take pride in — but you may still have the middle-class obsession with getting ahead, moving up the ladder.  You work in one field, and you want to be the best in that field — law, medicine, programming, teaching, whatever.  (Some teachers are professionals, some are middle class.)

And for the upper class, work is an option.  It’s something you do when you need money, or want to please your family, or are bored.

You may notice a certain symmetry here.  Ask people, “Who are you?” and the answers will depend on class:

Lower class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I live down on Howard, ‘cept when my old lady throws me out.”

Working class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I’m a welder.”

Middle class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I work for IBM.”

Professional class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I’m a lawyer.”

Upper class:  “I’m Joe Smith, of the Philadelphia Smiths.  The cadet branch out of Upper Darby.”

Notice, also, that the middle class is made up of employees — people who work for other people, or for corporations, not for themselves.  Working class and professionals are a mix of employees and proprietors.  Upper and lower class can be anything, depending on their exact circumstances at the moment, but the default is unemployed.

I could have a lot more to say about attitudes toward work, actually — one attitude in particular:  the fear of unemployment.

The lower class isn’t afraid of unemployment; that’s their natural condition.  They’ll often just stop showing up for work because they’re bored or got a better offer or hell, it was too nice a day to sweep floors.

The working class doesn’t have too much trouble with unemployment.  It’s rough, but layoffs happen and they’re not a reflection on anyone’s personal worth as a human being, and there will be other jobs.  Skilled, dedicated workers are always in demand.

The middle class is largely terrified of unemployment.  Losing a job is a horrible stressful event to be avoided if at all possible — you may never find another one as good, you’ll lose all your seniority, all your contacts and the network you’ve built up to handle the office politics, your benefits will be endangered, you might miss a car payment.  It’s a vicious blow to self-esteem.  When you’re working, you’re somebody, you have a place in the world; when you’re downsized you’re just wastepaper, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The professional class doesn’t have too much trouble with unemployment.  Oh, it’s a blow, but educated, experienced people are always in demand.

The upper class isn’t afraid of unemployment; why should they be?

The Class Project 3: Attitudes & Money


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.

The Class Project 2: Who I Am


When I was a kid, I didn’t think much about class.

This was partly because I was growing up in a quiet New England town where it wasn’t much of an issue. Pretty much the entire town was white middle-class folks.

I think I was also just a little slow to pick up on some of this stuff. I was in high school before it really registered that there were any ethnic divisions in town, for example. (The major division was Catholic/other; the Catholics then subdivided into Irish and Italian, and the others mostly into Armenian and Yankee, with a scattering of Jews, blacks, and other oddities (like an Argentine family I knew) who usually-but-not-always got counted with the Yankees.)

(If you’re not from New England it may seem weird that the small minorities got counted as old-line Yankees, but they did. Hard to explain if you aren’t familiar with New England attitudes, but it basically comes down to Yankees thinking of themselves as “everybody else,” the default, not part of a specific group, so that any isolated families, too small to constitute their own group, got included.)

(And all the divisions were very low-key, in any case.)

Anyway, I didn’t think about it much, and more or less accepted the “classless society” contention. In the 1950s that was more or less the official doctrine, at least in New England. That was what Sheckley’s story was mocking — and really, it was reading that story when I was about thirteen that I first began to understand that the U.S. is not classless, that even my hometown wasn’t. There’d been evidence before that, but it hadn’t really registered with me.

I was a little slow.

I’d known that my own family was considered a little weird, but I hadn’t thought of it in terms of class. In fact, I still didn’t think of it in class terms for years; if you asked me what class we were, I’d have said middle class without giving it much thought; going by income and status, that’s more or less correct. Going by other markers, it isn’t.

When I read Fussell’s Class — well, when I skimmed it, really, as I didn’t read it through — I concluded that we were “X-class.” After all, my father was a college professor, which seemed to fit, and we were all a pretty brainy bunch.

Except that when I was at Princeton I met some real X-class people. Again, it took me awhile to realize this, and to notice that the fact that they were not much like me and mine, and to draw any conclusion from that.

I also met real upper-class people.

It took awhile, but it eventually sank in that in a lot of ways I fit better with the upper class.

Oh, not perfectly. For one thing, my family didn’t have enough money anymore for me to have the full set of upper-class attitudes. But it began to seem as if any time I heard a discussion of class attitudes, I’d react to the upper-class position with, “Well, yeah, of course,” and the others with, “That’s dumb.”

I dunno, maybe I’m just a poseur. This is one of those things where it’s really hard to say; class is so nebulous in America. But there are things that I’d just thought of as normal that, well… aren’t.

Like the fact that we owned a mansion.

I mean, it’s not a very big mansion, and because of where it is it’s worth less than the suburban split level I live in now, but still, it’s a mansion. My great-great grandfather built it around 1840. It’s been rented out since 1939.

And there are other legacies still in the family. I have books on my office shelves that have been in the family for 150 years; there’s an Oriental rug in the basement that’s been in use for ninety. There’s a set of eighty-year-old hand-blown Carder Steuben dessert ware in the kitchen.

That’s just some of the stuff I walked off with; most of the family heirlooms wound up with my younger sisters.

And then there’s the fact that I went to Princeton. Which was not accomplished on the basis of grades; mine were okay, and my SAT scores were excellent, and I had some other stuff going for me, but the reason I was accepted is that my father went to Princeton, and his father.

It took me the longest time to realize that most people’s grandfathers didn’t go to college anywhere, let alone the Ivy League.

Let alone grandmothers. Mine went to Smith. Seven Sisters, rather than Ivy League, but for the Class of 1901 the Ivy League was all-male.

So it gradually sank in that my family had been upper class once.

They weren’t fabulously wealthy or anything; the family fortune was about a million and a half at the start of the 20th century. Uninflated 1900 dollars, so that was definitely rich, but we were never in Rockefeller’s league. Most of it went in the 1929 crash, though, and then when my father was orphaned he blew a big chunk of his inheritance putting himself through Princeton, getting a doctorate from Harvard, and buying a house straight out of grad school. Raising six kids took care of the rest; my share, when my mother died, came to about forty grand and a few shares of GM stock — and the mansion in Pennsylvania and a bunch of books and rugs and china and old photos and stuff.

So we weren’t rich. And for a long time I took for granted that that meant we weren’t upper class.

Except now I’ve reconsidered.

The Class Project 1: Defining Terms

So just what do I mean by “class”?

No, I don’t mean wealth, though there’s certainly a correlation between money and class. I don’t mean ancestry or connections, either, though that, too, often comes into it.

Mostly, I see class as a collection of attitudes, values, and beliefs that determine part of both one’s own behavior and people’s reactions to that behavior.

Most of this is stuff learned in childhood, but some people do adopt as adults the attitudes and behaviors of a class other than the one they were born into. Interestingly, the people who deliberately try to do so often fail, and become objects of scorn — the nouveau riche, the gauche arriviste, the poseur…

(Hmm. Why are all those terms French? A question I might want to pursue later.)

There are those who maintain that the United States is a classless society. Shyeah, right. They’ve obviously never owned rental property, or worked in a factory, or pursued any number of other activities where one’s nose is rubbed vigorously in the class distinctions built into our culture.

Marxists don’t strike me as being a whole lot more in touch with reality, with their simplistic division into workers, rulers, and bourgeoisie and the traits they assign to those groups.

Someone named Paul Fussell wrote a book entitled Class back in the ’80s that described a pretty straightforward scale, top to bottom, not unlike the Marxist model, but acknowledging that there are finer gradations than Marx included. Unfortunately, he kept tripping over exceptions, people who didn’t fit his standard scheme, and he lumped these into what he called the “X-class,” roughly equivalent to what Marxists called the intelligentsia. All in all, I think his scheme has some problems.

And there was a Robert Sheckley story written back in the ’50s (when Sheckley was really good) set in a satirical American future where everything was suburbanized, and everybody was middle class. Of course, some of them were upper middle class and some were middle middle class and some were lower middle class…

Anyway, I don’t have a nice clear description of neat categories that everyone fits in. The lines get very blurry, and there are exceptions everywhere — you can’t point to any occupation and say, “Everyone who does this job is working class,” or whatever. You can’t define a class in terms of money or background without stumbling over a zillion exceptions.

But there are traits I see as upper class, others I see as middle class or working class or lower class. I want to address some of those.

And I want to discuss my own background as my first example, so that’ll be in Part 2.

Class is in Session

Back in 2001, I posted a bunch of mini-essays about class in the United States in my newsgroup on SFF Net — six of them in all, though I’d originally planned on seven to nine; I got distracted before I finished.

I’m planning to repost them here, somewhat edited and updated, as much for my own amusement as anything else, but I welcome comments.

I don’t have a hard and fast schedule for when they’ll appear here, but I thought I’d let any readers know they’re coming.