Class: A Guide Through The American Status System
by Paul Fussell, published 1983
“A touchy subject”
Is class “America’s forbidden thought”? Does class bring up “unpleasing” notions? Does class exist in America?
While things may have been different in 1983 when this book was first published, for most of my life I have heard a lot about class– in literature, reading history, in the news and in conversation with friends, family, colleagues and strangers. The divisions that are most common are “upper class”, “middle class” and “working class”. Oh, and “the rich”. We don’t seem to have “lower classes”, and it isn’t always clear what the difference is between “the rich” and “upper class”, or even the well-to-do “middle class” and the “upper class”, or the barely-hanging-in-there “middle class” and the “working class.” We often hear about “the poor” but no one seems to have ever seen or spoken to one. The homeless don’t count.
These are primarily economic distinctions but, then, America’s economic identity has loomed larger than much else throughout time so that stands to reason. But Paul Fussell is more concerned with the elements of class which are connected to choice, call it taste, and so am I. Class is a confusing and complex subject and I don’t think Fussell manages to precisely and objectively define the term before launching into his observations, yet somehow this doesn’t prevent him from hitting his mark.
There’s so much to the idea of class and yet what has always fascinated me is the behavioral aspect of it. How a person of a certain class will tend to behave whatever his economic standing, whatever his occupation or role, whatever his level of education or wherever he grew up. Is there something genetic to class? It may be.
Segmenting the classes
Fussell identifies nine primary American classes despite the typical sociologists system of five:
- Top out-of-sight
- Upper middle
- High proletarian
- Low proletarian
- Bottom out-of-sight
The first three constitute a group, the next four constitute a second group and the last two constitute the final group. There are several interesting things to note about this arrangement. First, Fussell sees many similarities in behavior between the absolute top and the absolute bottom which is why they are similarly named (for modern, statistically-inclined socialists, read “top 1%” and “bottom 1%”). Second, the arrangement of classes 2-4 highlight the tendency of those closer to the top to see themselves as more average while acknowledging the penchant of those closer to the middle to identify more closely with the top out of aspiration-exasperation and paranoia.
Third, there is a glaring emphasis on crude commonality and the reality that much of the American populace looks, lives and behaves in a peasant-like fashion. While the proletarians were historically disenfranchised, undifferentiated masses providing cheap labor in industrialized urban environments, the truth is these people were and always will be peasants at heart and Fussell, joyously, acknowledges this in his class distinctions. The lack of buffer between destitution and proletarianism also shows how, whether they’re aware of it or not, those who look “down” on them from “above” can rarely tell the difference between a stable prole and a lost one.
While he comes up with 9 categories, in reality Fussell spends an inordinate amount of his time discussing the habits and tastes of proles, another, smaller fraction typifying the “uppers” and the remaining moments pointing out how anxious the few middle class people are between these two poles.
Through an exploration of appearance, living space, consumption habits, intellectual pursuits and speech Fussell tries to narrow in on specific details that can help us see class clearly. As you read through this material, two things happen: one, you become retrospectively more observant of the behavior of others you’ve witnessed without special note and two, you flinch each time you realize you’ve done something prole yourself.
This might be a good place to collect some of my favorite observations and append my comments.
Our former lower-middle class, the new high proles, now head “the masses”… they are identifiable as people things are done to. They are in bondage to monetary policy, rip-off advertising, crazes and delusions, mass low culture, fast foods, consumer schlock.
To that I’d add food pyramids (government nutritional diktat), public education and (increasingly related) a lifestyle of indebtedness. And “social engineering” broadly understood.
Imagine being under the constant eye of the foreman, a figure who has absolutely no counterpart in middle-class society [and] being required to bring a doctor’s note if they are absent a day…the degree to which your work is overseen by a superior suggests your real class more accurately than the amount you take home from it.
Interpreting class as a choice, I think it is even truer to observe whether one’s supervisor feels the need to ask you for that note or not, for example. The truly lower class person is held in check and formally “made honest” by the routine of the doctor’s note (even if he’s making one up or paying the GP off to scribble out a stack of notes for his use). The low-skilled worker who is nonetheless classy at heart never raises this suspicion from his supervisors and would probably find the exercise offensive and detrimental to the trust he has in his managers.
This idea of a spectrum of supervision is an interesting one. We can see the self-made entrepreneur at one end of the band and the on-the-job-transient at the other. Curiously, major corporate executives probably belong close to the transient, being supervised closely by the regulatory-legal apparatus and, nominally, by a board of directors and shareholders… some “kings of the world” they are! Elite politicians are clearly upper class in this sense, inhabiting a space close to the entrepreneur, but perhaps even further for those who have truly made it– the Clintons, Roosevelts and Al Sauds and others who are beyond scrutiny and control.
At the bottom of the working class, the low prole is identifiable by the gross uncertainty of his employment.
What I think Fussell is referring to here are people like construction workers, whose only hope of holding steady work is that the bubble of the day keep on inflating. When it pops, these types usually experience grave setbacks and may even take up or return to a life of petty crime to get by.
But what I think many (middle class? high proles?) would think of here is the crude characterization of the cold workings of a competitive market place, where the poor working stiff minds his own business and then loses his job in a sudden, mass layoff. Or where the boss just doesn’t like you, because you talk back or look at him funny or remind him of someone he hated in high school, so he fires you.
This doesn’t really happen in real life. Assuming a company is a viable going concern and not a fraud or otherwise mismanaged (in which case ALL staff jobs are at risk, prole and management alike), most prole occupations are secure with good behavior and dedication to the cause. While the bogeyman of job security is trotted out now and again, implicitly or explicitly, either in the case of a significant behavioral breach or as a means of putting the piss into the team and reminding them who is in charge, it’s all in “good fun.” Most employers aren’t that capricious because competition goes both ways and they can quickly lose much more than a staff member if they treat people like crap all the time.
a cheap way to achieve a kind of distinction is to be thin… flaunting obesity is a prole sign, as if the object were to offer maximum aesthetic offense to the higher classes and thus exact a form of revenge.
One flight across the country nowadays is all you need to remind you what class you’re in. If you can comfortably sit in an economy airline seat for 5 hours, there’s an excellent chance you are middle class at least.
legibility of their dress is another sign… T-shirts or caps with messages on them you’re supposed to read and admire… When proles assemble to enjoy leisure, they seldom appear in clothing without words on it.
Another example is the way proles turn unhealthy lifestyles into faux-pride brands, such as “Big Dog”. And the penultimate in legible clothing is the wearing of sports jerseys in public, conspicuously and most frequently outside of sporting events and arenas or as a form of semi-formal dress wear. In fact, I was rather dismayed to see Fussell miss this one, but then a correspondent reminded me: “Sports jerseys as casual wear were unthinkable at the time of ‘Class’. If there were to be a new edition, one would have to assess virtually the entire country as prole.”
On baseball caps:
The little strap at the rear is the significant prole feature because it demeans the buyer and the user, making him do the work formerly thought the obligation of the seller, who used to have to stock numerous sizes.
This was such a quaint observation looking back. Gone are the days of the plastic adjusto-strap. “Lids” nowadays are characterized by a bowl cut with a sewn in elastic band thus making them all “one-size-fits-all” which looks as believable as a one-size-fits-all dress shirt would. The funny thing is that some proles have adopted the perpetual wearing of the merchandising stickers as a sign of pride, as if to suggest this “lid” just came off the shelf (or better– was just sneakily removed from it without the vendors notice). Many other proles have graduated on to capless attire, headwear having degenerated so much amongst the lower classes that you can now spot a prole by his lack of cranial adornment (typically with an odd, early-balding molting pattern on the dome signifying poor diet and careless lifestyle choices) and similarly you can spot an ambitious member of the lower middle class by his decision to wear a simple, out-dated hat for the look and thrill of wearing it rather than because it is considered respectable or polite to cover one’s bird’s nest.
And for the she-prole, there is nothing that shouts “I am sexy and interesting” at a party or while walking a yippie, twerp man-repellent dog around the neighborhood like the fluorescent trucker hat which could only be complete, of course, with the throwback old-school plastic prole adjusto-strap.
you could probably draw a trustworthy class line based wholly on the amount of sugar consumed by the family
And thus, one of the most important and yet overlooked motivations of the “paleo diet” movement beyond health. In a society experiencing high prole drift, it seems only natural that those with class would take a stand anywhere they can in drawing clear class boundaries.
This is such a great book with so many things to quote and comment on, I simply don’t have the time. Maybe I will follow this post up eventually with another round of “Class” wits but for now the media above should suffice.