Seven writers, editors, and thinkers discuss how class divides Americans today and what we can do to fix America's inequality problem.
Image from Flickr via glennshootspeople
In anticipation of our next themed issue, Class in America, we asked some of our favorite writers, editors, and thinkers about how class divisions affect Americans, what policies might help solve the problem, and what books, news stories, and songs might best help us understand the ways that class shapes the American experience.
Enjoy, and stay tuned for the full themed issue on June 16.
What, if anything, uniquely characterizes how Americans experience and are affected by class, whether historically or currently?
Americans uniquely experience class largely by ignoring it as an organizing principle. Ostensibly we rejected an aristocratic order in favor of a democratic order—see Tocqueville—but this theory has never been our practice. The U.S. has always operated within a class structure, and with class struggle, but we excel at downplaying, or outright rejecting, the role of class in our society. This false perception is now being challenged with a vigor that feels sustainable. It’s interesting to hear how we talk about the Occupy movement for all of its failures after it showed so much promise. Yet we still talk about it! And the issue of class struggle, and thus income inequality, has remained center stage since we filled Zuccotti Park nearly three years ago. Since then we have experienced actionable class struggle via the broader Occupy movement (how many homeowners have been permitted to re-enter their foreclosed homes because of Occupy efforts?), strikes for increased wages, and various other efforts. Currently—and at last—it seems as though we are finally confronting the importance of class in the U.S.
—DW Gibson, author of Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Todays Changing Economy.
In the U.S., raising class as an issue is often seen as illegitimate in public debate. There is a fiction that people have equal opportunity even though that is not even remotely close to being the case. The opportunities afforded the children of the richest 5 percent (this includes most professionals, like doctors and lawyers) are worlds apart from those offered the middle class, which in turn are worlds apart from the opportunities to those in the bottom quintile. It is crazy to imagine that someone going to elite private schools, with professional parents who can help with homework and provide tutors, has no more chance than someone with a single parent with limited literacy, who must dodge bullets on the way to school.
—Dean Baker, Co-Director, Center for Economic and Policy Research
Despite living in a highly unequal society with low inter-generational earnings mobility, most Americans cherish their belief in meritocracy.
There is nothing unique about how Americans experience class. To believe this is to fall prey to the fallacy of American exceptionalism. It’s often said that the U.S. is a young country with no feudal past, and so it carries none of the aristocratic legacies that shape class mentality in older cultures than ours. Yet, the U.S., as a sovereign entity, is much older than most of the nations in the world, and each successive wave of immigrants has brought with them sedimented perceptions about class. It’s also often said that the legacy of slavery has skewed income distribution and access to social goods around racialized lines. There’s no question that class leans upon race in the U.S., but there are many other countries, and not all of them with a history of chattel slavery, where this is also the case.
Native-born Americans and many immigrants are socialized by the myth of a meritocratic society, and that belief has some undeniable impact on their perceptions. But a cursory look at the dismal statistics regarding social mobility would show this to be pure fiction. Among the major developed countries, only in Italy and the United Kingdom is there less economic mobility. So, too, the much-scrutinized evidence about the yawning income gap opened up by the infamous 1% have lent credence to the more sober reality that the U.S. is a functional creditocracy, whose elites increasingly form an oligarchic creditor class, enriched by unearned income from economic rents.
—Andrew Ross, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU
Race. More accurately, racism. It’s something so divorced from the conversation on class, yet it’s critical to understanding it. Capitalism operates on all of us, but being white and poor/”middle class”/rich is different from being black and poor/”middle class”/rich. That can’t be ignored.
—Mychal Denzel Smith, Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute
Where once a machinist and an accountant would live on the same block, drive the same cars, vacation at the same places, and eat at the same restaurants, over the course of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the once blurry boundaries of class crystallized into sharp, distinct lines. As the earnings of the working class declined significantly and public policy constrained upward mobility, the trajectories of individuals with and without bachelor’s degrees diverged significantly—and so did the trajectories of their children. Quality of life—access to health care, good neighborhood schools, the ability to save for retirement—sharply fell for all but the best educated workers. This hardening of class hierarchies means that those who shape our public debate—journalists, policymakers, public intellectuals—are increasingly unable to relate to the lives and struggles of the majority of their fellow citizens. Today, those who make policy and shape the news are overwhelmingly drawn from privileged backgrounds, attending elite private colleges on the two coasts that bracket the nation. This homogeny has resulted in a skewed understanding of working life in America—and a lack of consciousness about the very real challenges facing a new working class.
—Tamara Draut, Vice President of Policy and Research, Demos
The power of class to determine life chances operates in a relatively similar fashion across the globe. However, as Richard Weiss argued long ago, there is a robust, peculiarly “American” myth of success that permeates U.S. culture across space and time. This popular ideal tells us that we all have the freedom and power, regardless of our beginnings and circumstances, to mold our own lives and achieve success. Despite living in a highly unequal society with low inter-generational earnings mobility, most Americans cherish their belief in meritocracy.
—Nicole Aschoff, Editor, Jacobin Magazine
Just give everyone a check for being alive. Eliminate poverty.
“There is no doubt that the concept of class is foreign to American thinking,” Sartre wrote in 1945. The judgment more or less stands. Historically, the causes of this American peculiarity included both attractive features of national life, such as the absence of a hereditary nobility and comparatively high social mobility, and very ugly ones: above all, the white supremacy that covered over class relations even as it largely constituted them. Class-unconsciousness may no longer be so distinctively American. Part of this is that galloping inequality makes the illusion of classlessness harder to sustain, and we may be a bit more awake to class than a decade or two ago. A larger part is that many countries now resemble ours. Formal aristocracies have sunk away; social mobility often approaches or exceeds American levels, which topped out around 1980; racialized exclusion applied to “immigrants” native-born or otherwise both accomplishes and obscures much class domination (without any country rivaling the US in mass incarceration); and Socialist parties, never important here, have elsewhere become socialist in name only. But class is not less real where the concept is lacking.
—Benjamin Kunkel, Senior Editor, N+1.
If you could enact one policy to change the state of class divisions in the U.S., what would it be?
Since there isn’t one policy that would do away with class divisions altogether, I’ll say a place to start would be a universal basic income. Just give everyone a check for being alive. Eliminate poverty.
—Mychal Denzel Smith
Transformational policy change is desperately needed to address the widening class divisions in our society, but it is sorely unlikely to happen without serious campaign finance reform. Until we undo decades of Supreme Court decisions that conflate campaign spending with free speech and provide the wealthy with nearly unfettered political influence, our nation’s policy agenda, priorities, and outcomes will be overwhelmingly set by the donor class. As a result, our nation will continue to underinvest in public goods such as child care and infrastructure, and our state university systems and corporate interests will continue to trump the public interest in the realms of banking, environmental, and labor regulations.
All kinds of immediately plausible measures for reducing class divisions can and should be proposed. But eyes on the prize: abolishing social class altogether. Nothing would do more to bring this about than common ownership of the means of production, in the traditional Marxist idiom, or, what amounts to the same thing, socializing all large-scale capital. The details of the policy would be up to a society in a position to enact it, but its broad outlines can be imagined. The bulk of society’s pooled savings aka finance capital might be channeled through publicly owned banks and mutual funds, operated at cost, to individuals and firms needing loans and enterprises seeking investment. Most shares in large companies would be transferred to the public, with the remainder belonging to employees. Mature smaller firms would be workers’ co-ops, though in the start-up phase ownership and management might be private in recognition of the real if limited virtues of entrepreneurs. None of this would rule out either the continued operation of markets, on the one hand, or the gradual decommodification of the economy, on the other, should citizens want to conduct more and more production and distribution outside the market.
One policy would have a limited impact, but a small cluster of policies would be transformative. The combination of a guaranteed minimum income, a single-payer, national health system, and free higher education would significantly reduce inequality and poverty. These policies would also create breathing room for people to develop ideas and projects that radically re-imagine class relations in the U.S.
The obvious—but best—answer here is reducing income inequality, which can be accomplished with a fundamental restructuring of hourly wages, since 59 percent of U.S. workers are hourly wage earners. If we restructure wages to be commensurate with the cost of shelter, food, healthcare, and transportation then we will go a long way toward addressing class division. Workers have been forced to wrestle with the question of how to survive in a world with decreased wages and increased workloads; it is the employers’ turn to wrestle with the challenge of a new business model that will allow them to pay all workers a living wage.
Parents have to process all the creeping signs of class privilege and class mentality in their offspring. How do we combat that without putting our kids down? It’s a delicate business, and we confront it on a daily basis.
I would require the government to run a high employment policy that keeps the unemployment rate at or near 4.0 percent. This would hugely increase opportunities for low-income people and allow for real wage growth at the middle and bottom of the income distribution.
Taxation is the most obvious route, but free public education from kindergarten to the doctoral level might carry more weight. Given how tied income distribution is to educational attainment, and given the disproportionate socio-economic impact of student loan debt, making public education tuition-free would result in the biggest long term changes in class composition. And it wouldn’t be all that costly. Everyone knows how expensive college has become, but it is not well known how little it would cost for the federal government to cover tuition at every two- and four-year college.
According to our Strike Debt estimate, if you strip away all of the tax exemptions and subsidies that currently apply to the federal loan system, and eliminate all the GI monies and federal subsidies to for-profit universities (Wall Street’s colleges), as little as $12.4 billion in additional funding would be needed. That’s all it would take to deliver a tuition-free system, and put the U.S on the long list of countries (none of them as affluent) which manage to treat education as a citizenly right rather than a privilege.
How do issues of class affect your own life or work?
As the first and only member of my family to attend and graduate from college, my class background is somewhat a rarity in the world of think-tank researchers and writers. My family background has provided me with an understanding of how economic opportunity and security have declined in America, and the many ways in which public policy has driven or facilitated this change.
I’m a product of a black “middle class” household, born to two parents who grew up poor and were never more than two steps away from poverty. It’s why I understand blackness to be a class almost unto itself.
—Mychal Denzel Smith
Issues of class are central to my work. Over the past ten years I have been keenly interested in how the intersection of neoliberalism, financialization, and globalization have transformed class relations in the U.S. These days I am finishing up a book that examines how the American myth of success is being reformulated and reinvigorated in the wake of the Great Recession.
I’ve already quoted Sartre, not because he’s a special influence but because I’ve been reading his essays and his words are in my mind. He introduced the leftwing journal he founded with an admirably frank acknowledgement of his “bourgeois origin” and the temptation of bourgeois intellectuals to picture themselves outside of society, “just as an experimenter remains outside the system of his experiment.” No critic of class society doesn’t occupy a particular place within it, on the basis of which he’s capable of special insights and liable to special distortions. It seems vital to admit this to myself, but I can’t claim to know how explicitly to deal with my own class background in my work, where it must be implicit everywhere. Still, I may as well admit what it is: my college-educated parents at times had little money, but by the time I went to college I came from one of those households Americans call “privileged” instead of “bourgeois.” Relative freedom from money worries has meant I’ve often felt able to write what I wanted instead of what would pay, a security and freedom that would need to become general before my particular experience could cease to be somewhat corrupt.
We have this idea now that the ascension to the “middle class” is solely the result of hard work and education. We’re delusional.
As an economist, I consider my work to be largely about ensuring that people from all classes have a decent chance in life.
My academic field is American Studies, and I teach labor studies and urban studies, so class is absolutely central. As an activist, I am involved in the debtors movement, with Strike Debt and other groups, and our analysis is that the imposition of debt by the creditor class is a political as well as an economic burden on the citizenry at large. The most effective way of stifling the political imagination of people is to load them down with debt and foreclose their capacity to alter the future for the better. Debt, in other words, is one of the primary enforcers of a class society.
I am also a parent whose children are growing up in more comfortable circumstances than I did. Parents in this position have to process all the creeping signs of class privilege and class mentality in their offspring. How do we combat that without putting our kids down? It’s a delicate business, and we confront it on a daily basis.
What current or recent news story exemplifies how Americans experience or are affected by class today?
It’s hard to pick a single one, but an item that has an enormous class dimension that is often overlooked is the effort to curtail access to abortion. For example, Texas just implemented a new law that will drastically reduce the number of facilities that provide abortion in the state. While this is clearly a measure directed at women, it is also directed primarily at working class and poor women. Middle class and wealthy women will be able to arrange to get to another state to have an abortion, even if this will be a serious inconvenience. However, most working class or poor women will find this difficult if not impossible. They will be the primary victims of this measure.
The cacophony of voices discussing Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century demonstrates a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo in the U.S.
Matt Taibbi’s reporting in Rolling Stone on the fraud, malfeasance, and deceit of the finance industry has been inspirational. He hit the jackpot early on by labeling Goldman Sachs as a “vampire squid,” but did not rest on his laurels. His analysis of each new swindle—and there have been so many—is animated by a vibrant cynicism that readers can’t help but share. But it’s not just gonzo journalism; the facts are carefully reported and examined as well. I think it’s criminal, but perfectly understandable, that the attention accorded Taibbi’s work is so slight compared to the recent hullabaloo over Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys—where the victims are hedge fund investors with a slower Internet connection the high-frequency traders.
Social class is no fantasy, but it’s reinforced by unconscious fantasies, innocent of the concept of class, about which kinds of people are dangerous or safe, dirty or clean, talented or not.
Wage strikes across the country—and across the world.
Ta-nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover story, “The Case for Reparations,” touched on some important issues with reference to class. The idea that people have worked their way up to the “middle class” in America is a false one. The American “middle class” is essentially a government creation, one aided by white supremacist ideology and racist policy. It’s important to know that history because, as Coates points out, we have this idea now that the ascension to the “middle class” is solely the result of hard work and education. We’re delusional.
—Mychal Denzel Smith
Maybe I can turn to advantage the fact that I’m drawing a blank. When virtually any news story says something about social class it’s hard to pick an exemplary one. There may be a lesson this: the visibility of class wherever we care to look. It inflects our interactions, shades our perceptions, and shapes the course of politics, the economy, even the natural world. Not that class explains everything, only that it’s in whatever we see and however we see it. We are all aware of class all the time. But awareness isn’t the same as consciousness. Psychoanalytic writing sometimes uses the paradoxical-sounding phrase unconscious fantasy for the narratives and anticipations by which we make sense of life without our knowing it. These fantasies are often false and—partly from the sense of being entrammeled in some invisible logic—painful. Social class is no fantasy, but it’s reinforced by unconscious fantasies, innocent of the concept of class, about which kinds of people are dangerous or safe, dirty or clean, talented or not. Politics and psychoanalysis in this sense share a task: to make the unconscious conscious, for the sake of truth and emancipation.
What book, film, article, or work of art would you recommend to someone who wants to better understand class in America?
The Disposable American by Louis Uchitelle and Nice Work If You Can Get It by Andrew Ross. Also—painfully obvious!—but Lorde, predominantly “Royals”: “That kind of luxe just ain’t for us. We crave a different kind of buzz.”
Class is not a given, in other words, it has to be made and remade, and that is a key part of Madison Avenue’s job.
For a good summary of how political inequality and economic inequality fuel one another, I recommend the latest study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page which finds that “not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all… By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.”
I also recommend Demos’ report, Stacked Deck, which summarizes political science research on how the donor class impacts policy outcomes.
There is a rich body of literature on class, both in the U.S. and globally, so it’s difficult to pick a single book or article. Forced to choose, I would lean towards the brilliant The New Spirit of Capitalism by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. The book is technically about France, but its insights can easily be applied to the United States.
I would recommend the book Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. She tried to work at a series of low-paying jobs over the course of a year and described the difficulties both of the jobs and of living on the pay.
Advertising is the most efficient way of illustrating class because it is already designed to target specific income segments. The rhetoric and the imagery used to sell luxury goods and real estate tells you quite a bit about how affluent people would like to see themselves. As for the consumer appeals to the middle demographics and the discount class, that kind of advertising tries to capture the upward aspirations of the socially denied or depressed. In the postwar era of mass standardized consumption, the fantasies were much broader in their appeal than is the case today, where niche marketing is broken down into ever smaller segments. That shift from the Fordist era illustrates how the patterns of redistribution have altered, but it also give us insights into how advertising tries to create micro-class distinctions. Class is not a given, in other words, it has to be made and remade, and that is a key part of Madison Avenue’s job.
Nicole Aschoff is a sociologist and writer living in the Boston area. She is an editor at Jacobin Magazine.
Dean Baker is the co-founder and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is the author of numerous books and articles, the most recent being Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People (with Jared Bernstein).
As Vice President of Policy and Research at Demos, Tamara Draut is responsible for developing and advancing the organization’s goals through research, idea generation and policy development. Tamara is a member of the Demos Executive Team helping to develop and drive the strategic direction of the organization. A member of the Demos team since 2001, Tamara developed the organization’s groundbreaking work on household indebtedness, middle class insecurity, and the economic challenges facing young people. She is the author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead published by Doubleday in 2006, and the author of numerous Demos research reports and policy briefs. She is currently writing a book on the new working class to be published by Doubleday in early 2016.
DW Gibson is the author of Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Todays Changing Economy. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The Village Voice, and The Caravan. He has been a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and is the director of the documentary, Not Working. Gibson serves as director of Writers Omi at Ledig House in Ghent, New York, which is part of the Omi International Arts Center. He is also the co-founder and co-director of Sangam House, a writers’ residency in India. He is currently working on an oral history of gentrification which will be published in April 2015.
Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, and a member of Strike Debt. His most recent book is Creditocracy: And the Case for Debt Refusal (OR Books)
Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine, as well as a contributor to Feministing.com.