A Study of Social Class in America
by Will Skinner
For full enjoyment and comprehension, readers should familiarize themselves with the works of Thorstein Veblen, Paul Fussell, Nelson W. Aldrich, C. Wright Mills, and others, specifically the following books:
Theory of the Leisure Class
Class by Cooper
Class by Fussell
Old Money by Aldrich
How to Meet the Rich
How to Marry the Rich
Rich Kids by Sedgwick
Bobos in Paradise
The Power Elite
and innumerable other texts that can be found online and in the library.
What is the upper class?
The upper class is an element of society that is made up of people who all have the same training, the same goal and the same "occupation." In that way, it is like any other social segment.
The upper class man or woman is one who has been trained -- generally from birth, or at least from a very early age -- to be, first and foremost, a representative of the prowess and acumen of someone who has lived in the past. It is by this relationship with the past that the upper class is differentiated from the lower orders.
Simply put, the upper class is a living representation of the power of an earlier age. This concept will help one understand the behavior of the uppers as well as how they differ from others.
An upper class person has a duty to his forebears to paint them in as grand a light as possible to anyone who would care to notice. As Veblen showed, there are two ways of doing this: conspicuous consumption & conspicuous leisure. I will not rehash the two here other than to point out the following:
With the rise of the middle classes in the 19th and especially 20th centuries, it has become relatively easy for a man to acquire a vast fortune in a short span of time. Thus, the ability to consume is no longer the perquisite of a select few. Conspicuous consumption has since fallen out of favor by the "true uppers" for showing lineage (see Fussell), and has been taken up by the "new rich" (generally represented by the upper-middle, middle, and even a lucky few of the lower classes called lottery winners).
Conspicuous leisure, on the other hand, is still as powerful a motivating factor for the uppers as it has always been, because it still has the ability to distinguish them from new money. A "self-made" man usually has limited time for non-productive endeavor for two reasons: first, quite often the only reason he stays rich is because of continuing gainful employment. Second and more importantly, it is often drummed into the lower orders from an early age that they are to work hard and be productive. Even when they reach a socially acceptable and potentially self-sustaining level of wealth, that early training is hard to overcome (cf. Freudís "superego") and usually drives them to some sort of productive labor whenever they get a spare moment. It is only the upper orders who feel no sense of shame when doing nothing productive.
In this case we're using Veblen's definition of the term "productive," since even uppers regularly engage in work. Their "work" usually consists of learning new things, making art (or crafts), traveling, amateur sporting, philosophizing, political activism and the like. True enough, there are those who don't even do that, and merely use their lives to spend money, party and use drugs. And there are some who vigorously reject their role as foil to an ancestor's might and "descend" to productive work.
Understand that the vast majority of the upper classes, and all classes for that matter, have no conscious idea that any of these things are happening. Uppers merely feel an instinctive disdain for productive labor, they know not why. If circumstances arise that put them in dire financial circumstances they very often fall into serious and problematic "impecunity" and become part of the "spurious leisure class" a la Veblen.
Different people and institutions categorize the classes and indeed the term "class" itself in different ways depending upon personal and political goals. Marx defined class as a relation to the production of material goods and thus in his mind there existed only two classes. And while this is perfectly valid, it is also exceptionally dull. I find it helpful to generalize American social classes in the following way, the "232+1" approach, a takeoff of the classic 9-tier sociology approach:
232+1 Traditional Upper-upper | Lower-upper | "Upper class" Upper-middle | | True Middle | "Middle class" Lower-middle | | Upper-labor | (The Great Middle) | "Working class" Lower-labor | | "Lower class" Underclasses |
"232+1" refers to the fact that the upper classes are divided into 2 subsets, the middles into 3, the labors (working) into 2, with a "kicker" Underclass that is separated from the others and is akin to the Hindu "untouchable" caste.
You'll notice that classes within the 232+1 model frequently overlap when compared to traditional thinking. That fact, along with the classes themselves, will now be discussed.
Before we go into them, let's make it clear that, since this is a model of reality, it's not completely accurate because it's simpler than reality. It is a 'digitization,' a compartmentalization of reality, not reality itself. Therefore, obviously, some of the following generalizations will be inaccurate. However, they serve as an enlightening, and fairly specific, way of looking at society, especially American society.
The Upper-upper class usually has an income that is 90% or more inherited. They run the gamut as far as education, sophistication, and the middle-class concept of "manners" go. They generally do NOT behave in a way that the Middles think of as "upper class." Table etiquette, gentlemanliness, cleanliness and other modes of behavior, held in high esteem by the middles, can be nonexistent in the Upper-uppers. While the stereotypical Upper-upper, driving an expensive car (or being driven in one), living in a swanky abode far from the masses, etc., certainly holds true for many of them, quite often Upper-uppers live in what has been called "poverty chic" -- driving beat-up cars, dressing shabbily, living in run-down quarters, etc. Some Upper-uppers are even quite insane, driven mad by the fact that they are outside the realm of understanding of most other humans. If their family wealth has deteriorated to the point that it cannot support them, they descend to Lower-Upper status, but can drop no further. Once bred to be upper class, one cannot be any other. Even when they are down-and-out and living in the gutter, as a surprising number of Upper-uppers find themselves, they are still upper class.
Otherwise, the Upper-uppers can be found doing their own thing far from everybody else, or attempting to make a difference in the world through philanthropic activities. A remarkable few of them are ever in the celebrity spotlight, though many could be if desired.
The big question for the Upper-uppers is: What now? Their lives are lived day-to-day almost in the same way the lower class' are, since they have essentially no long-term goals. But while the lowers have no goals because they're sure they'll never reach them, Upper-uppers have no goals because fulfilling them is so easy. They display all the decadence, licentiousness and decay one might expect from a group that has no place to go and nothing to strive for.
Upper-Upper is frequently called "Old Money" because its wealth has been around for awhile. This comes from the days when money begat money and wealth grew generation after generation. With the advancement of crushing death taxes beginning in England around a century ago the ability of personal money to span generations became limited. This is also the case in the US. However, it is true that the children of self-made men can't really be members of the Upper-Uppers, because only an upper (Upper-Upper or Lower-Upper) can raise an Upper-Upper, and self-made men are, by definition, not either, as we will see.
Lower-uppers are the children of the newly rich or Upper-uppers who have descended due to poverty or personal choice (see Part II). The children of the newly rich have been bred in childhood, not usually at birth, to be upper class. Hence they have some remnants of the middle-class "work ethic" in them and have a better time finding goals to strive for. They also have a better sense of money than the Upper-uppers, since their parents instilled some memories of poverty in them. And, with the exception of a few children of tech-boom, entertainment or pro-athlete new money they're not as rich as the Upper-uppers. They usually have a fairly high level of education, but generally never strove very hard in school and probably got "Cs" across the board, much to their middle-class parents' chagrin.
That's not to say that the children of ALL new money will be Lower-upper class. Middle-class new rich sometimes effectively train their kids to remain productive, middle-class citizens. In fact it has become very trendy for Upper-Middle and True-Middles to leave very little to their children, with the purpose of making the kids work for a living just as the parent had to. And very low class people who have, for example, won the lottery, usually will not have the social wherewithal to give their children an upbringing that will allow them to reach Lower-upper class status. Generally the children then will fall somewhere in the middle orders in values and style.
And please do not confuse the Lower-Upper class with "New Money," as many people do. "New Money" itself can NOT be part of the upper classes, and is by definition anything other than the uppers. Your own personal wealth does not lift you into the upper classes. In fact -- with the exception of marriage, which traditionally and troublingly can raise a middle-class person into the uppers -- nothing you can do can make you upper class, your parents had to have done it.
The Upper Class in General
Again, a child's parents being rich doesn't ensure the child will be upper class. There has to be an intention, conscious or not, on the part of the parents (or guardians appointed by the parents, or grandparents, or whomever) to raise the child in that way. Parents who were themselves raised to be upper class will almost assuredly, by instinct, raise their children (directly or through a nanny) to be the same.
One can feel a certain emotional distance when near an upper-class person. This sometimes comes off as a "snobbishness" to the lower and middle classes. And while, yes, there is always an air of superiority inbred into the uppers, there is another, more interesting reason for the perceived distance as well. The interpersonal distance one feels is a result of the upper class person being raised in a relatively large space -- separated from others both physically and emotionally. Upper class folks can almost immediately recognize this distance in other upper class folks and it makes them feel extremely at ease, whereas the lower classes seem to psychologically "crowd" them. Let's look into these physical and social distances further.
An example of physical separation would be the large house and grounds an upper class person is raised in. At least comparatively large to the small suburban tract homes and apartment complexes of the middle and working classes respectively. Vacationing on a ranch, sailing on the seas far from others, shopping and dining in places that few can afford to be... all these are examples of the physical isolation that uppers grow up with.
Socially and emotionally, uppers are separated from others through manners. Manners, not to be confused with etiquette, are an attempt to ritualize common social interactions. This makes them more routinized, more predictable, more homogeneous and hence less personal. These manners are deeply bred into uppers, and do far more than the middles think they do. They aren't an attempt to be "nice" and to make social interactions run smoothly (though they end up doing so), they are really an attempt to remain psychologically separated from others, even when physically close to them.
Etiquette, on the other hand, is the middle-class idea of doing what is least likely to make others despise you. While there is some overlap of etiquette and manners, the intent of each is rather different. We'll talk futher about etiquette in the middle-class section.
Uppers who are conscious of their higher status in life say "How do you do" when meeting so as to be recognized by other uppers as such. Others have unconsciously aped the standard middle- and lower-class greetings, which are discussed later. And some simply do not wish to be identified as part of a class and/or think the above greeting to be overwrought, outdated and affected.
C. Wright Mills' hierarchy (as well as many others) lists CEOs of large corporations in the upper classes. But truly, CEOs are most definitely NOT "uppers" and are profoundly middle class. The ability to generate a profit (though not found in all CEOs) is a very middle-class ability. Make a real born-and-raised "upper" CEO and more often than not he'll run the business straight into the ground. With few exceptions, uppers have little understanding of how a production process works. They do not understand it at a gut level like the middle class does, because the ability to make money through productive enterprise is a result of the need for money, which an upper did not grow up with and doesn't fathom. He was raised, on the other hand, to shun productive labor at a gut level (see Veblen) and to look down on "trade" in all its manifestations.
Leaving the ranks of the upper class, which usually grows up with and inherits a good deal of money, one encounters the middle class, which doesn't. Upper-middles may be as rich or richer than uppers, but they have generally worked for it. Profession and education are important to the Upper-middles. They are the true "professionals:" doctors, lawyers, professors, and the like. They are "successful" in the middle-class definition of the term. They are also the most cultured of society and are the major frequenters of the symphony, avant garde theater, and lovers of foreign film. More than the other classes, an Upper-middle will know who Rodin or Pollack were. He also would be most likely to know the implications of the Diet of Worms in modern society and understand the second law of thermodynamics though not an engineer.
Some CEOs may be considered Upper-middle because of their power and influence, but frequently CEOs are so intent on the "bottom line" and running their business that they never become cultured or mannered. They remain stuck in the True-Middle class and raise their children to be the same (see chapters on Bill Paley in Aldrich's Old Money). True-Middles don't have the style of the Upper-middle, which is best exemplified by the "Bobos" in Brooks' Bobos in Paradise.
Education is vitally important to the Upper-middles, and one truly cannot be ranked a member without at least a 4-year degree from a tier-one school, and preferably a post-graduate degree. They are often better educated than the uppers and advertise their alma mater freely with bumper stickers, license plate frames and tassles hanging from their rear-view mirrors (see Fussell). They remain interested in whether their school's football team wins or loses even into old age.
The True Middle
True Middles are at the fulcrum, at the turning point, between the lower and upper orders, between the high and the low, and they receive the ire of both. Uppers dislike them, lowers hate them, and for essentially the same reason: they remind each of the other. A True Middle is the combination, in one individual, of upper class and lower class. The resulting psychological indesiveness and insecurity, caused by being truly stuck smack in the middle, is obvious to all.
True middles are the quintessential strivers of the world. The money and status seekers. The salesmen and their entourage. The entrepreneur, the real estate agent, the insurance agent, the car salesman, the stock broker, the local politician, the mid-level accountant, the middle manager. They dream about fast cars, big houses and beautiful women. They are the people that America enshrines and who reached their pinnacle in the mid-1980s.
Bud Fox in the movie Wall Street is a specimen of this class. Note, his father (from whom Bud wants to distance himself), a Lower-middle union leader (a step above Upper-Labor due to the managerial position), Gordon Gecko (whom Bud wants to be like), a borderline True-Middle/Upper-Middle wannabe. The movie is a fantastic study about the trauma that this class experiences.
True-Middles' social and, hence, psychological instability is exemplified by their assiduous devotion to etiquette and "correctness." Correct behavior, correct dress, maintaining their cars and homes in a neat, polished, correct way. In this vein, True-Middles are apt to ape the uppers and look silly doing it, as discussed by Fussell and others. But they are often and reliably uncovered by the first words they utter upon meeting a new person, namely, "Nice to meet you." This differs from the upper- and lower-class introductory declarations as discussed below.
Note on greetings and introductions:
Greetings, namely the first words that you utter when meeting someone new, are an interesting and specialized form of human recognition. They are designed to identify members of your social circle to you, to identify friend or foe. Let's look at their unique character.
Two people meet. "Nice to meet you." "Nice to meet you." They have said the same phrase to each other. It is a code phrase, to be echoed exactly the same way back to the original speaker to show that one belongs. More notable are the upper- and lower-class versions of the same, "How do you do" and "How ya doin'/How's it goin'/What's up" respectively. While posing as questions so as to deceive, these code phrases are, again, meant to be echoed back rather than answered.
Also note, these forms of recognition can be easily fooled, by simply knowing that one is not to answer the questions posed. However, this can be surprisingly difficult when one hasn't been raised in the corresponding way. Non-working class folks frequently find themselves instinctively saying "Fine, thanks, and you?" when a laborer greets them with "How's it going?"
The Lower-middles are a fairly small class of folks. Generally they are white-collar, but extremely low-level white collar. The door-to-door salesman, the local restaurant manager, the foreman or overseer of blue-collar workers. Also included in this class are waitresses, bartenders, checkout clerks, etc. While some studies drop these folks even lower in the social hierarchy, they are in fact not lower, because in dealing with the public on a regular basis they require at least a little sophistication and psychological understanding of people and the world. Far more than, say, a working-class machinist.
Lower-middle class workers often find themselves doing their non-working class jobs in close proximity to working-class folks and thus can be (and frequently are) classed in with them. The shift manager at the local auto-parts shop, for example.
The Lower-middle class is the meeting place and transition area of the blue collar and the white collar. No heavy lifting is involved and no hands get soiled, but just barely.
The Middles in General and the "Great Middle"
The middle class is characterized by striving and wanting, "want" being derivative of "lack." Upper-middles strive to be upper class through "culture," because Upper-middles assume that uppers spend their lives drinking champagne in Paris and reading Proust. True Middles mimic the Upper-middles by trying to obtain money and an education, which they see as elevating themselves above their working-class forefathers. Lower-middles ape True Middles by trying to get a decent job, which they imagine separates the highs from the lows.
Interestingly, what we experience as Americans is largely dictated by the middle class, since there are so damn many of them here. As a group they have a large purchasing power and pretty much all American culture is aimed at them along with the Upper-labor class. When the middles and the Upper-labor classes are lumped together in this way for marketing purposes I call the resulting mass the "Great Middle" because it encompasses probably 85% of the American population.
All major newspapers, radio and network television and most cable TV is aimed at the Great Middle. Even if one is raised in another class, it is essentially impossible to avoid the cultural, hence psychological impact of the Great Middle. And this makes everybody more or less a part of it or at least a corollary to it, unless one grew up and lived without television, popular books, radio, Internet, or any contact with the society at all. Even when one rejects the Great Middle, as many Uppers and Underclass do, one's point of reference is still it.
In fact, many of the Uppers do their best to vigorously avoid being lumped together with the Great Middle, and their entire essence and all of their behavior is a result of that desire. Much of the upper class, then, defines its entire persona as a rejection of the mass of the Great Middle. Vanderbilt's line, "The public be damned," is echoed, at least in private, by many of the uppers.
What I call the "Labor class" has traditionally been called working-class, but since even white-collars and professionals "work," I've chosen to use the term "Labor" to connote the physical nature of their work.
Though as we've seen they're often lumped in with the middles to form the Great Middle, Upper-labors are really not. They may have as high or higher an income as the middles, as great or greater a political pull, but they generally lack the refinement, the people skills, in short, the education. The broad education. That is, they may be extremely trained in a certain special occupation, but their overall knowledge of the world and, yes, of "culture," is less.
So even more than the fact that they use their bodies rather than their minds to make a living, it's the lack of education that socially separates the Upper-labor from the middle. Upper-labor usually has more of a regionally based accent than the middles. In the UK, the "cockney" and other localized accents determine the laboring classes while the broader and rapidly expanding "Estuary Accent" determines the middles and the regionless "Received Standard" identifies the uppers. Regional dialects identify social status less in the US, but still to some degree.
Oddly enough, the uppers can frequently mix better with the labors than they can the middle. The labors know they're uneducated and make no pretenses about it, whereas the affectations of the middles tend to turn off the uppers. It's usually the Upper-middles, with their educations that are superior to the uppers, that have the most problem with the Labors, and Labors with them.
The Labors see the Lower-middles as kiss-ass company men, the True Middles as greedy money hungry cheats, and the Upper-middles as over-refined, snobbish homosexuals.
Lower-labor consists of poor whites ("white trash") as well as immigrants from poor countries and downtrodden ethnic minorities. Also inner-city blacks with fairly steady employment frequently belong to this class.
Lower labor is differentiated from the Underclasses by actually having a regular job. It is differentiated from Upper-labor because the job is unskilled. And, though sometimes Lower-labor jobs can be somewhat akin to Lower-middle class clerical jobs, the difference between the two is that Lower-middles have some sort of upward mobility, while Lower-labors do not.
One's social class hinges upon situational aspects other than one's job. So while a white girl from an average family working the counter at McDonalds during summer break would probably be considered Lower-Middle, a, say, poor Mexican immigrant who can barely speak English doing essentially the same job to support her 4 kids would be considered Lower-Labor. Sadly for the Spanish-only speaker, her prospects of furthering herself in American life are nil, and this differentiates her from the Anglo and prevents her from being considered Lower-Middle.
So again, and this point should be taken to heart, occupation alone does not differentiate the classes in the US, but rather lifestyle, ancestry, values, race, language spoken, and many other things too numerous to mention.
For the Lower-labors, money is tight and they often live with extended family in cramped quarters to make ends meet. Everyone is forced to work, young children, grandparents. Life is lived always under the poverty level and hope and religion play a large role in this class' culture, because that's really all it has.
Alcoholism is rampant and "living for today" is also, since tomorrow brings nothing better. Frequently the end-of-week paycheck is spent on booze or drugs with little left for real necessities. This is sad, because this class also generates a disproportionate number of children, and these kids turn out undereducated and with serious emotional problems, frequently preventing them from leaving the class in a vicious cycle of poverty and distress. This class, more than even the upper class, perpetuates itself.
Lower-Labor is often combined with the class below it to form the "lower class."
The Underclasses are actually many different types of people, but the one thing that defines them as a class is that they have essentially no money, little prospect of ever having any, and their parents had little if any money either.
The Underclasses are made up of lunatics, wanderers, petty criminals, drug addicts, recently arrived illegal immigrants, jailbirds, etc. They generally have little means of social support.
The most interesting aspect of this class is the lengths that the Upper-upper and even Lower-upper classes will go to be a part of it, at least for awhile. It's almost as if, in the great wheel of being, the social classes touch at their extreme points. Take, for example, William S. Burroughs, whose rich family put him through Harvard. His grandfather invented the adding machine and founded Burroughs Corp. (now a part of Unisys), his mother was descended from Robert E. Lee. After school and a stint in the military, William S. Burroughs plunged into an "alternative lifestyle" that included living in squalor, becoming addicted to heroin, shooting his wife in the head and general behavior that is more appropriate to the Underclasses.
Of course Burroughs could never truly be lumped in with the Underclasses because of his breeding. It's more appropriate to consider his waywardness as an attempt to experience a different side of life, a life perhaps more interesting than he was raised to be a part of. This behavior would be unthinkable to the middles, whose sole desire in life is to join the ranks of the uppers. And it would be undesirable in the labor classes, who want to put as much distance between themselves and this class of people as they can.
There are many factors that differentiate the classes: breeding, manners, occupation, values, money, ancestry. Ginie Sayles gives an excellent breakdown of "class factors" in her book Meet the Rich which I won't reiterate.
The funny thing about the classes is that each thinks that what differentiates it from the class below is the same as what differentiates it from the class above. Thus, Lower-Labor class folks, who are above the Underclasses essentially because they have a job, think that the Middles are superior simply because they have an even better job; and while yes, the middles do have better jobs, they also have a more cosmopolitan understanding of the world and that is the larger factor in the class difference. The Upper-Middles think that because they're above the True-Middles due to education and understanding of culture, the upper classes must have even more education and cultural knowledge; and this is usually very untrue.
To give a very simple summary, the difference between the upper and middle classes is primarily one of upbringing: the uppers are raised to be uppers, the middles raised to work and breed and hopefully someday create uppers. To paraphrase Ayn Rand, the upper class are a nation's past, the middle, a nation's future. The primary difference between the middles and the labor classes is that of education, culture and refinement. And the difference between the labor and lower class is generally one of money and steady employment.
Generally, one cannot move more than one class up or down in a lifetime, and one can't really move into (or out of) the upper classes at all; since their major criterion is that of breeding, one is either "bred" into them or not (marriage being a historically troublesome exception).
The reason one can't move up very far is the socioeconomic capital required to do so, if present, would have lifted one's ancestors there already. One's social capital can only increase or decrease slightly in a lifetime.
I think the fundamental point of class is that, yes, it comes down to money, but it comes down to how money and its effect on childrearing has formed a person. That is, the money he or she grew up with/in/around. His pecuniary milieu. From money (or a lack of it) springs refinement, education, manners, distinguished speech, wisdom, licentiousness, decay and everything else that is indicated by the word "class" (or a lack of it).
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright ©2003-2009 Will Skinner All rights reserved.