Economics/Class Relations

Social Classes in the United States

Back in 1983, Paul Fussell published a classic work that outlined his theory of class stratification in the US.  The book discussed not only the socioeconomic positions but also the cultural and lifestyle aspects of different classes. I’ve generally found Fussell’s analysis to be as good as any. A reviewer provides a summmary of Fussell’s class categorizations. 

Top Out of Sight – Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don’t want us to.

Upper Class – Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don’t have to work. They refer to tuxes as “dinner jackets.”

Upper Middle – Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn’t be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.

Middle Class – The great American majority, sort of.

High Proletarian (or “prole”) – Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term “proletarian.”

Middle Prole – Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)

Low Prole – Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask “Would you like fries with that, sir?” as a career.

Destitute – Working and non-working poor.

Bottom Out of Sight – Street people, the most destitute in society. “Out of sight” because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don’t vote.)

Fussell is quick to point out that class in America is not decided exclusively upon finances; it is also a matter of taste, what one does with one’s recreational time, what one reads, what colleges (if any) one has attended and how well one speaks. He describes the anxiety associated with maintaining or bettering one’s position in society, and identifies the phenomenon of some members of the upper class descending in class ranks – apparently for kicks.

Fussell was writing in the early 80s when the huge class divisions we have today were just beginning to develop. Not that there weren’t wide class divisions before, but the kind of Third World-like class divisions we have now (as depicted in the video below) didn’t exist at the time.

The main modifications I would add to Fussell’s analysis for contemporary times would be to include the “New Rich,” i.e. billionaires and multimillionaires from outside the traditional upper class (e.g. the Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos types, as opposed to the Mellons, Rockefellers, and Hunts). Another group would be what David Brooks called the “bourgeois bohemians,” i.e. affluent, professional-class people with non-conventional personal lifestyles and/or far-left views on cultural politics.  A third group would be what Joel Kotkin calls the “new clerisy,” i.e. those in “ideas industries” that are responsible for establishing, maintaining, and disseminating the dominant ideological superstructure of the state/ruling class/power elite (e.g. media, academia, “think tanks,” public relations firms, etc). These three classes,  which often though certainly not always overlap with each other, are important because they are the essence of what farcically gets passed off as the “Left” in US politics (i.e. what has been called the “Wall Street-suburbia” coalition), consisting of people who are not from the traditional elite, and who reject conventional middle-class values, but who are not remotely connected to the working class. The Democratic Party is essentially the party of these classes at the present time, with global financiers still running the system from the top, of course.

 

 

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  1. Paul Fussell was related to my great-aunt. I read the book as a teenager right after it came out. I found it hilarious.

    I don’t think the general structure has changed much, even with the most recent crop of new rich. So much of what was talked about in the book was just, and still is, mainly unspoken.

    Have you read “Wasp, Where Is Thy Sting” by the late Florence King? It deals with some of the same stuff and is also hilarious.

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