My American Identity

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Identities based on ethnicity and class


Chapter 9

Middle-Class Identity and Revolution


White Americans might take greater pride in their racial and ethnic heritage were it not for the fact that many of their ancestors arrived in disreputable circumstances. Not everyone was a Pilgrim arriving on the Mayflower. Many of the early colonists were convicts who were given the choice of a jail sentence or emigrating to America. European immigrants might generally have fit the class description that is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

The paupers of the Old World, lifted up to a prosperous state in the New, had their ethnicity removed in the American “melting pot.” Intermarriage took place between different groups. A new culture developed in America replacing what had been brought from Europe. At first, the ethnic communities tried to maintain separate cultural identities but this became difficult and then nearly impossible when the media of mass communications brought a strong cultural influence to bear.

In 1904, a Swedish professor of geopolitics, Rudolf Kjellen, known for his nationalistic views, told a Swedish-American audience at Augustana College that their ethnic community was destined to disappear. He observed that the character of a people was determined by the land, and Swedes could not transport a culture formed in the Baltic to lands along the shores of the Mississippi river. “The landscape has more power than memories (of the old country), “ he said, and the character of the people would change accordingly. “Your past is at one with ours (Sweden’s),” he said; “(but) your present and future are and shall be different.” In other words, the forces of assimilation into an American community would prevail.

class distinctions

Therefore, it is no longer fitting for Americans to identify themselves primarily in terms of ethnic origin. In a nation of mongrelized nationalities, a more appropriate indicator of personal definition would be socioeconomic class. In medieval Europe, there was an upper class of aristocrats and a lower class of ordinary people, most of them serfs. As the society developed, its class structure became further differentiated into a lower class, an upper class, and a middle class. Some have gone further, splitting the last category into an upper-middle class and a lower-middle class.

The basic class distinction would depend on how much wealth a family possessed. The upper class would be rich, the middle class would be moderately well off, and the lower class would be poor. In the 1840s, a British historian, William Alexander Mackinnon, defined membership in the upper class as the ability to command the labor of one-hundred men or more. Middle-class persons might command the labor of between five and one-hundred men. Someone in the lower class would command only his own labor and perhaps that of up to three additional persons.

Considering that the average annual wage during that period was 30 pounds sterling, this scheme of class would translate into annual incomes, respectively, of 3,000 pounds for an upper-class person, between 150 pounds and 3,000 pounds for a member of the middle class, and below 150 pounds for lower-class persons.

Today, such classifications make less sense because income levels are constantly changing. One cannot quote hard-and-fast income figures without soon being out of date. Still, there is the concept of the “poverty line”, an annual dollar amount of income for a family of given size. That level of income would presumably distinguish lower-class from middle-class people. There is no such delineation for upper-class persons although the press sometimes discloses how many millionaires or billionaires live among us.

Although class status still correlates with income and wealth, a more meaningful criterion might be how that wealth was derived.

Generally speaking, the upper class would be persons with incomes from inherited wealth, like the medieval aristocrats who lived on landed estates. Members of today’s upper class might be employed in running a large family business or they might earn their livelihood from dividends, interest, or rents that their often inherited properties earned, entrusting others with the management.

The middle classes would comprise that group of people who earn a living by doing skilled or semi-skilled work. They might be employed by another person owning business or by an organization. However, this category would also include self-employed farmers, sole proprietors or partners in businesses, independent professionals, and others who supported themselves by providing a service. A further distinction might be made between blue-collar workers who work with their hands and white-collar workers who work with their heads, although all work involves some degree of knowledge.

In the lower class, one finds people who do not work or who work sporadically or in criminal activities as well as certain unskilled workers who are not paid enough to make ends meet. Such persons may depend for support on public assistance. The class definition is unclear though it involves the notion of economic marginality.

Roughly speaking, those would be the economic definitions of class. Certain cultural characteristics accompany them. Going from the lower to the upper classes, individuals tend to show an increasing degree of intelligence, refinement, and sophistication. Upper-class people are less physical and more intellectual, less materialistic and more cultivated.

Even so, the lower and upper classes are curiously related to each other, and be unlike the middle class, in certain of their attitudes. Both may tend to live more for the moment whereas middle-class people tend to postpone the rewards of labor for the sake of distant goals.

Because upper-class persons do not have to work, they have more time for other activities including the pursuit of pleasure. They have time to engage in intellectual or artistic cultivation. Safely above the economic grind, they can indulge themselves in projects that aim at personal or community improvement.

Lower-class people may also lead more leisurely lives but in this case it may be because they may lack the personal discipline or the opportunity to work for sustained periods of time. Edward Banfield, a scholar of the American city, has argued that the urban poor are “rigidly present-minded” and therefore cannot be effectively educated or encouraged to lift themselves out of poverty through government programs. In his view, this type of person tends toward crude physical expression and wants instant gratification of material needs.

The middle classes are more manageable. They have more regular habits than lower-class people do. Compared with the upper classes, their pursuits are more narrow and self-seeking. Middle-class people also tend to be moralistic. They are earnest, methodical, practical, hard-working, upward-striving, and self-reliant. In contrast, upper-class people put more emphasis on public service. The lower class has little to spare beyond its immediate resources and needs.

the middle class defined by upward mobility

Because most Americans identify with the middle class, our discussion of American identity will focus primarily on that group. For most of recorded history, being of “noble blood” was a man’s highest state. It was exclusively an upper-class attribute. The middle classes were less concerned with parentage or status at birth. Their sights were set on improving their situation in society.

The middle class came into its own in the late 18th century with the rise of democracy and the beginning of the capitalist system. At last, the common man had a chance to make something of himself. He could become rich through successful business activity. He might also be elected to a position in government. Both the American and French revolutions were led by persons associated with the middle class, sometimes called the “third estate”. This was the merchant class.

A society that gave ordinary people the opportunity to advance socially and economically made greater progress than other types of society. In an environment of personal freedom, knowledge increased and business flourished. William Mackinnon expressed a view prevalent in 19th century England when he wrote: “In tracing the progress of civilization, it is scarcely possible to attach too much importance to the middle class and to its influence over public opinion. Wherever the impulse inherent in man to improve his condition has free scope, as it will have in a country blessed with liberal institutions and equality of laws, a middle class must necessarily become the most powerful in the community.

critics of the middle class

It has become fashionable among intellectuals, however, to deride the middle class. Karl Marx equated the bourgeoisie (middle class) with capitalists who were exploiting factory workers; they needed to be overthrown through armed revolution. Marx catalogued the various evils which middle-class factory owners had inflicted on the British working class even as his own work was being subsidized by Friedrich Engels’ half interest in a Manchester textile mill. The Marxist political philosophy has stimulated a loathing of middle-class values and a preference for the urban poor, seen as innocent people victimized by an inhumane social order.

In recent years, Christian clergy have likewise cast a disdainful eye on middle-class people living comfortably in suburbs while the inner city suffers. Anyone who has attended services in a main-line Protestant church is familiar with the tone of sermons that chastise and belittle those in their congregations and elsewhere whose material comfort has inured them to a world of suffering. Some preachers speak of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” What passes for “social justice” in some circles seems to be a desire to afflict the middle class.

Another point of view is that which Walt Whitman expressed in Democratic Vistas. He wrote: “The true gravitation-hold of liberalism in the United States will be a more universal ownership of prosperity, general homesteads, general comfort ...(S)o a great and varied nationality ... were firmest held and knit by the principle of the safety and endurance of the aggregate of its middling property owners ... (U)ngracious as it may sound ... democracy looks with a suspicious, ill-satisfied eye upon the very poor, the ignorant, and on those out of business. She asks for men and women with occupations, well-off, owners of houses and acres, and with cash in the bank - and with some cravings for literature, too.”

Democracy thus posits a dignity in man which is fulfilled in the exercise of adult choices and achievement of a prosperous, middle-class status. Middle-class man is free to think and act for himself. If he does so foolishly, selfishly, or wrongfully, it’s still better than having been denied the opportunity.

The Marxists made the middle class an enemy. Unfortunately for them, lower-class factory workers, after they have received a few wage increases, begin to exhibit middle-class tendencies. In industrially advanced societies, unless the political leaders disastrously mismanage the public business, hopes of enticing working-class or other disenfranchised groups to take part in a revolution usually fizzle. It would appear, then, that the end of Marxist “class struggle” is not a classless order of unselfish farmers and industrial workers but a class of non-ideological persons that retains the same selfish attitudes as people anywhere.

The middle class is the universal class, if humanity is lucky. All gravitates toward its democratic mean. However, if the economic goal of poor people is to pull themselves up to the level of the middle class, they should also be wanting to make the conditions of that middle-class life humanly tolerable. There is no use in helping people to become integrated into the larger society if, once they reach that level, they fall down for lack of a sustaining spirit.

a life of spiritual deprivation

Too often the middle-class American has attained the fruits of economic success only to wither inside. The same conditions of institutional life that have enabled him to succeed economically have eroded his culture and identity. There is an impoverishment of soul that may defeat him in the end.

Contemporary Americans spend much of their lives in artificial and colorless routines. If a working American kept track of activities in a typical day, he might find that most of his time was devoted to meeting the time-constrained requirements of a job, fighting traffic to and from work, doing routine errands, grooming himself or relaxing, eating and sleeping, and dealing with emergencies. The remaining “free time” is apt to be spent in the fantasy world of popular entertainment. A few (especially young people) escape into virtual worlds made possible by the computer. After all the institutional influences and demands have taken their toll, a person has little left of his own.

The pattern was set when a person first went to school: One understands that one must enter a “system” to succeed in life. That system takes away choices that would normally need to be made each day and instead imposes a routine. The day that a child sets foot in kindergarten, he enters an enclosed structure of choices and activities furnished by a system that may later lead to success in a career. One may spend the better part of one’s life operating within that structure. Uncertainty is replaced by an implied guarantee that, in the end, things will work out for the best.

I liken this to a conduit pipe through which water flows from one end to the other. The pipe offers a way to transport water efficiently. Nature, on the other hand, sends rain water through an irregular network of streams, lakes, and rivers that move it from a mountain top to the sea. This system is less efficient but more beautiful. So our lives sacrifice beauty to efficiency defined in terms of achieving socioeconomic goals. In a world created by institutions, we give up experiencing the present for the sake of future well-being.

No matter how well institutions may be designed to satisfy human needs, an element in life will be missing - namely, the opportunity to apply one’s own judgment to meet life’s challenges. Ought a person allow his innate ability to look out after himself to degenerate for the sake of reliably reaching an end? Is not one of life’s satisfactions the chance to experience and overcome various kinds of danger? Is not the freedom to set one’s own goals desirable in itself? The fact that people will gamble away huge sums of money in Las Vegas, knowing that the odds are stacked against them, testifies to the fact that material success alone, unrooted in an uncertain struggle, cannot sustain the human spirit.

Schopenhauer once wrote that the goal of civilized man was not so much to have pleasure as to avoid pain. Indeed, each innovation in society seems calculated to make the world safer than it was before. In the business world, the latest innovation is usually a scheme for avoiding loss or sharing the risk: safety-deposit boxes, traveler’s checks, insurance, mutual funds, derivatives, government guarantees. The concern with safety may, however, be less due to people’s preferences than to society’s control by institutions. Institutions demand safety because, once established, they and their managers stand less to gain from spectacular successes than to lose from disastrous reverses. Such considerations are easer to argue in a committee.

Individuals, however, need some acquaintance with danger and uncertainty. If institutions set rigid conditions around him at work, a person may take out his frustrations on family or friends where an opportunity for discretionary action yet remains. Risk is what gives life its savor. Necessity is the basis of an authentic life. That being the case, how can institutions enhance the human spirit if they remove the opportunity to experience those things? In order for a life to be beautiful, it should, to a large extent, “tread the path of necessity” - be filled with activities that a person has to do. Otherwise, to pretend to be experiencing life’s reality from artificial arrangements is about as attractive, morally speaking, as Marie Antoinette pretending to be a farmer on her royal estate.

riding the escalator to success

Middle-class man seeks socioeconomic advancement. Compared with the lower and upper classes, that is the key to his identity. Many immigrants came to America from Europe where people were locked for life in a particular social class. America, to them, represented an opportunity to move beyond those limitations. They would join the American middle class which was driven by a desire for upward mobility. Institutions were developed catering to those who would be upwardly mobile.

The most important of those institutions was education. It created an opportunity for hard-working students to distinguish themselves by receiving good grades on tests and by graduating from college with a degree. The type of degree received, reputation of the college, and the grade transcript would then point the graduate toward a satisfying career. And so, getting a college education has become like a religion for middle-class Americans.

Until recently, the normal pattern of middle-class life involved a three-step process: education, career, retirement. After four or five years in the care of parents, a child would enter the educational system. Twelve or more years would be spent in kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, and high school. Some persons then would get off the escalator to assume menial jobs. The academically more talented ones would go on to a four-year college. Some would stay on for a few more years to receive a master’s degree or a doctorate.

Education was the first of a two-step achievement process. The second step was to pursue an income-producing career. This might last thirty, forty, or fifty years. The various business firms and professions each had a career path offering promotions. Finally, at the age of 65, the careerist would retire and receive a pension. At last, there was freedom and reasonable financial security but also the prospect of declining health.

One notes that, from the age of five to the age of sixty-five, the aspirants to upward mobility would be stuck in a system that locked in the best years of their life. One might compare this arrangement with a flying trapeze. One needed to catch the outstretched arms of someone at the next level to be promoted. The object was to advance with good speed in these high-level positions and hopefully wind up at the top. Big incomes and pensions were the reward for success. Individuals who missed a connection at some stage of the game would have a lesser reward.

Ultimately, however, the question must be asked: What profits it a man to acquire a pot of gold if he is meanwhile required to give up his life? A Chinese billionaire, Lim Goh Tang, owner of the Genting “City of Entertainment” complex in Malaysia, put it this way in a book: For many years of youth and good health, he put off doing what he enjoyed for the sake of making a fortune. Now that he was old and rich and had time for himself, he was spending a fortune on medical care. If he had to do it over, he thought he would do things differently. He had learned life’s lesson, but now it was too late. (The man has since died.)

the promise betrayed

Now, of course, the career structure in America is crumbling. Technological efficiencies and outsourcing of production have eliminated many high-paying jobs. Our large corporations no longer offer job security or guaranteed pensions. Slashing jobs is seen as a way to improve the bottom line. Confining as it seemed at the time, being on a treadmill or captive to a system of corporate lifetime employment now seems attractive. It is fondly associated with a vanishing middle-class life.

Yet, the education piece remains in place. While the economy implodes, education is a growth industry. Its increasing demand is driven by fear of competing for a shrinking number of jobs. It’s said that Americans must develop high-level skills to have a place in the global economy. A college education is said to be just what is needed to acquire those skills. Its cost has meanwhile been increasing far more rapidly than the general rate of inflation.

As tuition soars, however, job opportunities for college graduates and other Americans continue to shrink. Free-trade doctrines taught in the economics departments of the same colleges and universities enable the job loss. That does not stop educators from shamelessly beating the drum for the need for young men and women to take out more student loans to purchase more of their high-priced service.

is the middle class capable of revolution?

With all the betrayals going on in high places in our society, it’s getting to the point that we may need a revolution. But who will carry it out? The middle class, comprising the bulk of our population, would have to be involved in this effort if it will succeed. Is that class capable of such a thing?

Remember, these are people who have spent their entire lives inside an institutional cocoon, conforming to its requirements each step of the way. When have they ever had a chance to act independently? Many years in school have given them the skills to read and write, pass resolutions, issue reports and position papers, and employ decision-making models; but a real-life revolution will require more than this. It will require, for instance, people believing in themselves who may never have had to face a serious challenge. Hollow people will need quickly to develop substance. They will need to learn to respect themselves and others like them.

This gets back to the question of identity - middle-class identity. A strong sense of self-identity makes a person strong; and the same is true of communities. If middle-class people had a positive identity upon which to build communities of interest, they would gain self-respect. That would be the first step in building resistance to the exploitation of our nation by its leaders. A positive identity is not given but earned. When enough self-respecting persons come together in a common purpose, revolutionary changes can take place.

A precondition of personal strength is that individuals have enough free time to acquire the experience of acting independently. They would be free to learn by making their own mistakes. For a time, American society did show progress in giving its working people more leisure time but that progress has stalled. Work hours these days are becoming longer as employers demand a greater show of loyalty from employees as the price of keeping their jobs. The call for improved educational standards and verification of results has likewise put increased pressure on students to perform their display of knowledge on a quickening treadmill that leaves little time for anything else. All these people on a fast track to “success” have, in fact, become little more than slaves.

our identity as consumers

Until recently, Americans did enjoy a high degree of material comfort even if it was financed by home-equity loans and credit cards. The hard-charging business managers and professionals were paid well even if they had little free time. That created a situation where people were defined more by what they bought than by what they did. Their identities were based upon their role as consumers of certain commercial products.

And so, when you think of the American identity, it is often as a loyal customer of one or another brand-name product. A “real American” eats at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant, or drinks Budweiser beer, or drives a Chevy truck, or, perhaps (reflecting the new upscale mood), has coffee at Starbuck’s, or wears designer jeans. When “American culture” comes to other countries, it is usually in that guise. Television commercials drive home the message of brand loyalty each day.

Common to all those forms of personal identity is the fact that you, the consumer, are someone serving another’s economic interest. It is not a self-chosen identity that is considered American but a willingness to be associated with someone else’s enterprise. A nominally free people, we let ourselves be used that way. We submerge ourselves in another’s famous name. The name might be written on a tee shirt that we wear. It might be written on our diploma.

It’s time for Americans to declare their “identity independence” and exercise their freedom to be what they themselves want to be. Identity independence means the ability to choose your own identity instead of having someone else do it for you. You define who you are. Having more free time to do what you want, you then become what you do out of free choice. You become a more authentic person.

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See: "Budman’s anthem" (Budweiser beer’s philosophy of identity)

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