Social relations across class lines

People relate to each other on the basis of a set of moral and cognitive frameworks — ideas about the social world and how others are expected to behave — and on the basis of fairly specific scripts that prescribe their own behavior in given stylized circumstances. It is evident that there are important and deep differences across cultures, regions, and classes when it comes to the specifics of these frameworks and scripts. Part of what makes My Man Godfrey humorous is the mismatch of expectations that are brought forward by the different signals of social class presented by Godfrey. Is he a homeless man, a victim of the Depression, or an upper class gentleman in disguise? His accent suggests the latter; whereas his dress and living conditions suggest one or another of the first two possibilities.

It is relatively rare for people in the United States to have sustained contact with individuals from substantially different socioeconomic circumstances; and when they do, the interactions are generally stylized and perfunctory. Consider churches — there is remarkably little socioeconomic diversity within churches in the United States. This is even more true of elite private and public universities (link). Take the percentage of Pell eligibility as an indicator of socioeconomic diversity. The University of Wisconsin-Madison serves only 10% Pell-eligible students, and Yale University only 12% Pell-eligible. According to the New York Times article providing this data, the upper margin of Pell eligibility is a family income of about $70,000; so roughly 90% of the undergraduate students in these elite universities come from families with greater than $70,000 annual income. What is the likelihood of a Yale or UW student having a serious, prolonged conversation with a person from a family below the poverty line (roughly $25,000)? It is virtually nil.

Non-elite public universities are more diverse by this measure; in 2011 49% of 19.7 million students in AASCU universities are Pell recipients (link). So the likelihood of cross-class conversations occurring in non-elite public universities is substantially higher than at flagships and elite private universities. But, as Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton show in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, even more socioeconomically diverse public universities fall victim to institutional arrangements that serve to track students by their socioeconomic status into different life outcomes (link).

This lack of socioeconomic diversity in most fundamental institutions in the United States has many consequences. Among these is a high level of perspective-blindness when it comes to the ability of upper-income people to understand the worldview and circumstances of lower-income people. In a very blunt way, we do not understand each other. And these forms of blindness are even more opaque when they are compounded by unfamiliar racial or religious backgrounds for the two parties.

This socioeconomic separation may go some ways towards explaining what otherwise appears very puzzling in our politics today — the evident hostility to the poor that is embodied in conservative rhetoric about social policies like food assistance or access to Medicaid-subsidized health insurance. A legislator or commentator who has never had a serious conversation with a non-union construction worker supporting a family earning $18.50/hour ($38,500 annually) will have a hard time understanding the meaning of a change in policy that result in additional monthly expenses. But also, he or she may not be in a position to understand how prejudicial his way of expressing himself is to the low-income person. (I’ve treated this issue in an earlier post as well.)

E.P. Thompson considered some of these forms of separation and mutual incomprehension across class boundaries in eighteenth-century Britain in his excellent essay, “Patrician Society, Plebeian Culture” (link). His central theme is the passing of a paternalistic culture to a more purely economic and exploitative relationship. Patrons came to have less and less of a sense of obligation when it came to the conditions of the poor within their domain. Simultaneously, men and women on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum came to have a more confident sense of their independence from earlier forms of subordination, sometimes in ways that alarmed the old elites. But this growing sense of independence did not after all threaten the relations of subordination that governed:

And yet one feels that “crisis” is too strong a term. If the complaint continues throughout the century that the poor were indisciplined, criminal, prone to tumult and riot, one never feels, before the French Revolution, that the rulers of England conceived that their whole social order might be endangered. The insubordination of the poor was an inconvenience; it was not a menace. The styles of politics and of architecture, the rhetoric of the gentry and their decorative arts, all seem to proclaim stability, self- confidence, a habit of managing all threats to their hegemony. (387)

The efforts that universities make to enhance the diversity and inclusiveness of their classrooms often focus on this point of social separation: how can we encourage students from different races, religions, or classes to interact with each other deeply enough to learn from each other? The need is real; the segregation of American society by race, religion, and socioeconomic status is a huge obstacle to mutual understanding and trust across groups. But all too often these efforts at teaching multicultural competence have less effect than they are designed to have. Organizations like AmeriCorps and CityYear probably have greater effect, simply because they succeed in recruiting highly diverse cohorts of young men and women who learn from each other while working on common projects (link).

Connecting the dots

There isn’t very much transparency about the deep structure of almost any complex modern society. For most people their primary impressions of the society’s functioning comes from the mass media and their own personal experiences.  We each see the limited bits to which we are fairly directly exposed through our ordinary lives — the newsroom if we happen to be a beat reporter, the university if we are professors, the play-and-learn center if we are in the business of preschool education.  We gain a pretty good idea of how those networks of institutions and organizations work. But it’s very difficult to gain a birds-eye picture of the social system as a whole.

The most basic goal of Marx’s economic programme was to demystify the workings of the political economy of capitalism.  He wanted to sweep aside the appearances that capitalism presents and to lay bare the underlying social relations of inequality and exploitation that really constituted the causal core of the system. (This is the point of his theory of the fetishism of commodities; link.) And he believed that active systems of ideology and false consciousness conspired to conceal these workings from ordinary participants. In particular, he wanted to demonstrate the process through which wealth is created within capitalism, and the relations of inequality through which its benefits are distributed.  It is a class-based analysis, and Marx proposes to the proletariat (and the rest of us) that we look for the class mechanisms of our ordinary economic experiences.

What is unsatisfying about Marx’s theory in the current context is that in the end it isn’t really very much of an empirical demonstration.  It is an abstract model of how the theorist thinks capitalism works, rather than a detailed empirical exposure based on rigorous and diverse data that demonstrates the flows that he postulates.  It offers a schema for connecting the dots of our ordinary experience, but it doesn’t actually carry out the effort.


Other researchers have done so, of course; researchers who demonstrate the widening inequalities of income and wealth that market democracies contain, the consequences of these inequalities for people at both ends of the divide, the often degrading conditions of work that the majority of the working population experience, and so forth.  So on the dimension of wealth, income, and privilege, it isn’t too difficult to gather the information we need to better understand our current economic realities based on information that is readily available; but most Americans don’t seem to bother to do so. The ease with which the right has succeeded in setting the terms of popular ideas about organized labor, racial inequalities, and immigration bears that out. Lies and slogans replace honest factual argument.

And what about the other large determinant of outcomes in modern society, the workings of political power? Here too there are founding theorists who sought to lay bare the “real” workings of power in a market democracy.  Foucault is one; Domhoff and Mills sought to do so a generation earlier.  The goals of C. Wright Mills (The Power Elitelink) and G. William Domhoff (Who Rules America? Challenges to Corporate and Class Dominancelink) were similar to Marx’s, but in the sphere of political power within a democracy.  They wanted to demonstrate how the language of pluralism and representative democracy works to conceal a system of power and influence that was anything but egalitarian. They wanted to shred the ideologies and obscurantist narratives that conceal these political realities.

But, like Marx to some extent, their writings too remained schematic. They offered a framework for thinking about political power that was radically different from that of the pluralists. But they didn’t really provide a detailed empirical exposure of the workings of this system in real time.  So here again, we’d like to have an organized way of connecting the dots within the contemporary world.  How do corporations use lobbying firms and campaign PACs to shape policy and legislation to their liking? How is it going on today? And, as is the case of the domain of economic inequalities, there are plenty of sources today shedding light on aspects of these processes.  But these political realities seem if anything, even more difficult to perceive.

The blog Naked Capitalism approximates the kind of dot-connecting that I’m describing, with specific application to the financial industry. Here a group of very expert observers are taking the trouble to track the complexities and the hidden interests involved in the financial industry, and to try to make sense of what they find in an honest way. I. F. Stone was a one-man dot-connector in the 1960s when it came to the Indochina War (Best of I. F. Stone). The opening chapter of Frances Fox Piven’s Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America does a good job of sketching out the influence systems that set the planets in motion in American democracy. And Bob Herbert’s last column for the New York Times does it as well (link).  We need exactly these kinds of effort in other areas too — defense contracting, influence peddling, the pharmaceutical industry, news media, …  We need help connecting the dots of how our society works, who pulls the strings and who benefits.

Blogging, critical journalism, and crusading thinkers like I. F. Stone and Frances Fox Piven can help a lot. And, by the way, it must be done in a way that is committed to high standards of empirical fidelity; it needs to inspire the kind of trust that Stone was able to do fifty years ago. And maybe, with the makings of a more truthful shared understanding of how our society actually works, we will succeed in creating a politics that transforms it.


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