My researches have persuaded me that there are nine classes in this country, as follows:
One thing to get clear at the outset is this: it’s not riches alone that define these clases. . . . “Economically, no doubt, there are only two classes, the rich and the poor,” says George Orwell, “but socially there is a whole hierarchy of classes, and the manners and traditions learned by each class in childhood are not only very different but – this is the essential point – generally persist from birth to death. . . . It is . . . very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born.” When John Fitzgerald Kennedy, watching Richard Nixon on television, turned to his friends and, horror-struck, said, “The guy has no class,” he was not talking about money.
Not that the three classes at the top don’t have money. The point is that money alone doesn’t define them, for the way they have their money is largely what matters. . . . The main thing distinguishing the top three classes from each other is the amount of money inherited in relation to the amount currently earned. The top-out-of-sight class (Rockefellers, Pres, DuPonts, Mellons, Fords, Vanderbilts) lives on inherited capital entirely. . . .
“When I think of a really rich man,” says a Boston blue-collar, “I think of one of those estates where you can’t see the house from the road.” Hence the name of the top class, which could just as well be called “the class in hiding.” Their houses are never seen from the street or road. They like to hide away deep in the hills or way off on Greek or Caribbean islands (which they tend to own), safe, for the moment, from envy and its ultimate attendants, confiscatory taxation and finally expropriation. . . .
The next class down, the upper class, differs from the top-out-of-sight class in two main ways. First, although it inherits a lot of its money, it earns quite a bit too, usually from some attractive, if slight, work, without which it would feel bored and even ashamed. It’s likely to make its money by controlling banks and the more historic corporations, think tanks, and foundations, and to busy itself with things like the older universities, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Association, the Committee for Economic Development, and the like, together with the executive branch of the federal government, and often the Senate. . . . And secondly, unlike the top-out-of-sights, the upper class is visible, often ostentatiously so. . . . When you pass a house with a would-be impressive facade visible from the street or highway, you know it’s occupied by a member of the upper class. . . .
We now come to the upper-middle class. It may possess virtually as much as the two classes above it. The difference is that it has earned most of it, in law, medicine, oil, shipping, real estate, or even the more honorific kinds of trade, like buying and selling works of art. Although they may enjoy some inherited money and use inherited “things” (silver, Oriental rugs), the upper-middles suffer from a bourgeois sense of shame, a conviction that to live on the earnings of others, even forebears, is not nice.
Caste marks of the upper-middles would include living in a house with more rooms than you need, except perhaps when a lot of “overnight guests” are present to help you imitate upper-class style. . . . This class is also the most “role-reversed” of all: men think nothing of cooking and doing housework, women of working out of the house in journalism, theater, or real estate. (If the wife stays home all the time, the family’s middle-class only.) Upper-middles like to show off their costly educations by naming their cats Spinoza, Clytemnestra, and Candide, which means, as you’ll have inferred already, that it’s in large part the class depicted by Lisa Birnbach and others’ Official Preppy Handbook, that significantly popular artifact of 1980.
. . . The middle class is distinguishable more by its earnestness and psychic insecurity than by its middle income. I have known some very rich people who remain stubbornly middle-class, which is to say they remain terrified at what others think of them, and to avoid criticism are obsessed with doing everything right. . . .
“Status panic”: that’s the affliction of the middle class, according to C. Wright Mills, author of White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956). Hence the middles’ need to accumulate credit cards and take in The New Yorker, which it imagines registers upper-middle taste. . . .
If the audience for that sort of thing used to seem the most deeply rooted in time and place, today it seems the class that’s the most rootless. Members of the middle class are not only the sort of people who buy their own heirlooms, silver, etc. They’re also the people who do most of the moving long-distance (generally to very unstylish places), commanded every few years to pull up stakes by the corporations they’re in bondage to. They are the geologist employed by the oil company, the computer programmer, the aeronautical engineer, the salesman assigned to a new territory, and the “marketing” (formerly sales) manager deputed to keep an eye on him. . . . IBM and DuPont hire these people from second-rate colleges and teach them that they are nothing if not members of the team. Virtually no latitude is permitted to individuality or the milder forms of eccentricity, and these employees soon learn to avoid all ideological statements. . . . Terrified of losing their jobs, these people grow passive, their humanity diminished as they perceive themselves mere parts of an infinitely larger structure. Interchangeable parts, too. “The training makes our men interchangeable,” an IBM executive was once heard to say.
. . . Oddity, introversion, and love of privacy are the big enemies, a total reversal of the values of the secure upper orders. Among the middles there’s a convention that erecting a fence or even a tall hedge is an affront. And there’s also a convention that you may drop in on neighbors and friends without a telephone inquiry first. . . .
. . . Proceeding downward, we would normally expect to meet next the lower-middle class. But it doesn’t exist as such any longer, having been pauperized by the inflation of the 1960s and 1970s and transformed into the high-proletarian class. What’s the difference? A further lack of freedom and self-respect. Our former lower-middle class, the new high proles, now head “the masses,” and even if they are positioned at the top of the proletarian classes, still 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 food, consumer schlock. Back in the 1940s there was still a real lower-middle class in this country, whose solid high-school education and addiction to “saving” and “planning” maintained it in a position – often precarious, to be sure – above the working class. . . . These former low-white-collar people are now simply working machines, and the wife usually works as well as the husband.
The kind of work performed and the sort of anxiety that besets one as a result of work are ways to divide the working class into its three strata. The high proles are the skilled workers, crafstmen, like printers. The mid-proles are operators, like Ralph Kramden, the bus driver. The low proles are unskilled labor, like longshoremen. The special anxiety of high proles is fear about loss or reduction of status: you’re proud to be a master carpenter, and you want the world to understand clearly the difference between you and a laborer. The special anxiety of the mid-proles is fear of losing the job. And of the low proles, the gnawing perception that you’re probably never going to make enough or earn enough freedom to have and do the things you want.
But high proles are quite smart, or at least shrewd. Because often their work is not closely supervised, they have pride and a conviction of independence, and they feel some contempt for those who have not made it as far as they have. They are, as the sociologist E. E. LeMasters calls them and titles his book, Blue-Collar Aristocrats (1975), and their disdain for the middle class is like the aristocrat’s from the other direction. . . . Like other aristocrats, says LeMasters, these “have gone to the top of their social world and need not expend time or energy on ‘social climbing.’” . . .
Since they’re not consumed with worry about choosing the correct status emblems, these people can be remarkably relaxed and unself-conscious. They can do, say, wear, and look like pretty much anything they want without undue feelings of shame, which belong to their betters, the middle class, shame being largely a bourgeois feeling. . . .
High proles are nice. It’s down among the mid- and low proles that features some might find offensive begin to show themselves. These are people who feel bitter about their work, often because they are closely supervised and regulated and generally treated like wayward children. . . . Andrew Levinson, author of The Working-Class Majority (1974), invites us to imagine what it would be like to be under the constant eye of a foreman, “a figure who has absolutely no counterpart in middle-class society. Salaried professionals often do have people above them, but it is impossible to imagine professors or executives being required to bring a doctor’s note if they are absent a day or having to justify the number of trips they take to the bathroom.” . . .
The degree of supervision, indeed, is often a more eloquent class indicator than mere income, which suggests that the whole class system is more a recognition of the value of freedom than a proclamation of the value of sheer cash. . . . One is a mid- or low prole if one’s servitude is constantly emphasized. Occupational class depends largely on doing work for which the consquences of error or failure are distant or remote, or better, invisible, rather than immediately apparent to a superior and thus instantly humiliating to the performer.
Constantly demeaned at work, the lower sorts of proles suffer from poor morale. As one woman worker says, “Most of us . . . have jobs that are too small for our spirits.”
At the bottom of the working class, the low prole is identifiable by the gross uncertainty of his employment. This class would include illegal aliens like Mexican fruit pickers as well as other migrant workers. Social isolation is the norm here, and what Hoggart says of the lower working class in Britain applies elsewhere as well: “Socially . . . each day and each week is almost unplanned. There is no diary, no book of engagements, and few letters are sent or received.” Remoteness and isolation, as in the valleys of Appalachia, are characteristics, and down here we find people who, trained for nothing, are likely out of sheer despair to join the Army.
Still, they’re better off than the destitute, who never have even seasonal work and who live wholly on welfare. They differ from the bottom-out-of-sights less because they’re much better off than because they’re more visible, in the form of Bowery bums, bag ladies, people who stand in public places lecturing and delivering harangues about their grievances, people who drink out of paper bags, people whose need for some recognition impels them to “act” in front of audiences in the street. When delinquency and distress grow desperate, you sink into the bottom-out-of-sight class, staying all day in your welfare room or contriving to get taken into an institution, whether charitable or correctional doesn’t matter much.