When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.
When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless.
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:
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.
The following is an essay written for a monthly company newsletter in 2015:
While business books are helpful, I find reading books from a variety of intellectual disciplines helps me gain new perspectives on our industry and business. One of my favorite reads is called “Human Action” by a social philosopher named Ludwig von Mises. Recently, I was struck by the following passage as von Mises commented on what drives consumer behavior:
The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run [businesses]. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. For them nothing counts other than their own satisfaction. They do not care a whit for past merit and vested interests. If something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors.
Does this sound like our customers? Cheapest price? Changeable and unpredictable? Values their own satisfaction above all else? No loyalty? Keeping an eye on their pocketbook and not yours?
Of course it does! In fact, this well describes all customers, ours, those of our competition and even me and you as buyers of goods and services ourselves.
There’s a simple truth about customer service in a competitive market environment buried underneath this description of consumer behavior. That truth is that our customers have CHOICES. Not one of them has to do business with us. Not one of them has to be impressed by our prices, our commitment to their satisfaction, the quality of our effort or the consistency of our desire to please. If any one of these things does not manage to live up to their expectations, you can bet that our competitors will take notice and provide it to them instead.
But there is more to the story than consumer behavior and competition affecting our customer service, according to Ludwig von Mises:
The consumers determine ultimately not only the prices of the consumers’ goods, but no less the prices of all factors of production. They determine the income of every member of the market economy. The consumers, not the entrepreneurs, pay ultimately the wages earned by every worker… With every penny spent the consumers determine the direction of all production processes and the details of the organization of all business activities.
What this means is quite simple. When we adopt innovations or change aspects of how our businesses are organized, they are never changes made arbitrarily. Every change must in some way lead to improved customer satisfaction to enhance the desirability of our offering in the market or the effort is wasted.
When we change computer systems, or business processes, or pay plans, or job descriptions or prices, or anything, these new arrangements must meet the market test. If the changes don’t help us serve our customers better in some way they will not be sustainable. If they don’t help us to provide something better than what our competition can provide, we will find our customers going elsewhere.
It also means we have a responsibility to stay on our feet and try to improve our service offering every chance we get. As a team, we can come up with new processes, new cost structures, new service offerings, new conveniences, new methods of communication and new attitudes toward service that can keep our customers surprised and smiling. In other words, embracing the nature of change and competition in the marketplace can help us “to keep our customers, our customers” (and to help us gain new customers, too!)
Knowing all of this, what are some things you could do to improve the quality of service you and your team provide to our customers every day? And how will you react the next time someone tells you that we’ve got to make changes to better accommodate our customers’ needs? Taking care of our customers how they expect to be taken care of has to be at the center of why we do what we do. You can embrace it or you can resist it– but you can’t avoid it. Which will you choose?
A few weeks ago I had lunch over the weekend with an old friend I hadn’t seen in some time. Since our childhood when we had been very close, his life had been characterized by many challenges, upsets and frustrations. In general, he seemed to be living life adrift in a real sense, by his own acknowledgement, the metaphor manifesting itself physically when he literally went sailing around a nearby island on a borrowed sailboat and found himself caught in a strong wind and a nasty current that pushed him off course and left him adrift for several hours, wondering if and how he would make it back to shore.
It has been sad, as his friend, to watch him have such a tumultuous relationship with life. But during this get together, he did communicate that he had been making some positive changes and was coming to a greater self-awareness through practiced effort, at least in terms of what he didn’t want from life.
I am not an expert on life and how to live it, but I endeavor to be to whatever extent it is possible. I learn something new about the art of living daily and I hope this pattern repeats itself for all of my life, however long it happens to be. I share the following not with the attitude of a facetious advice-giver but rather from the standpoint of “Here’s where I am coming from on this issue.”
Knowing what we don’t want out of life or who we are not, is of incredible value. It can save us a lot of time and frustration and wasted energy pursuing dead-ends, so to speak, if we are able to avoid the cul-de-sacs completely and just stay on the main road. But it is not enough to have a negative direction. Velocity is determined not just by rate of travel but by direction as well.
I encouraged my friend to think about his life in an ideal way. I asked him to imagine for a second that he had accomplished his dreams, he had gotten what he wanted and no one had stood in his way and the few who had he had stepped over with ease. Then I asked him to describe what that looked like, what it felt like.
The point of the exercise is to develop a positive direction for your life, to imagine some goals you can work toward. (Then the real trick is to enjoy the getting there and not obsess about when, how or if ever you arrive.) I tried to create a metaphor to illustrate the chaos that would come up without living a goal-oriented life.
The best I could do was to ask my friend to imagine watching a person play a game of sport who did not know the rules, who did not respect the boundaries of play and who did not care to score any points. What would such a person look like playing this game?
In one moment, they’d be running toward the goal, in another instant they’d be steaming away from it. For hours at a time they might just sit on the ground and do nothing, making no progress in the game whatsoever, twisting blades of grass in between their fingers or staring at the sky. Sometimes they might work with their teammates to make progress toward the goal. At others they’d fanatically attack them and assist the other team. They might carry the ball out of the boundaries of play, ignoring the deafening scream of the ref’s whistle, only to later carry it back into play.
Now and then they’d score a point, the crowd would go wild but they’d have no idea why, and feel no sense of reward. They’d probably be incredibly confused and often frustrated during the whole ordeal.
This is what living life without a goal is like, in my mind. Choosing a goal is akin to giving your life the structure and rule set of a game, to add coherence to your actions. With a goal you can check yourself and see, “Am I getting nearer or farther?” with each step you take. Further, you have opportunities to practice “playing the game well”. For example, if a person considers themselves to be playing basketball, one can examine their relative skill against a set of ideals common to basketball. If one were to examine someone dribbling, throwing a ball through the air, passing, etc., outside the context of a game of basketball, it’d be nearly impossible to say with any meaning whether they were doing such things with skill or with carelessness.
Living life with a goal is a choice. It offers benefits, as well as responsibilities. It’s not strictly necessary to the idea of “merely surviving” (which, by the way, is a goal itself). But it is enough to make life more interesting and, perhaps, more meaningful.