Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: “Class” by Paul Fussell (1982)

The scathing indictment of America’s unspoken social strata remains just as relevant -- and biting -- as it did three decades ago. 

In America, class structure remains our ultimate taboo. Whereas we can talk about racial, gender and ethnic disparities and prejudices until we are collectively blue in the face, the topic, and even the idea, of a rigid social stratification system in the U.S. remains a discouraged subject of discourse.

The beauty of Paul Fussell’s “Class: A Guide Through the American Social System” is its willingness to state the apparent: that we, as Americans, live in a cultural system that, for better or worse, makes sure individuals remain in the same socioeconomic conditions they were born into. Despite being a 32-year-old tome, Fussell’s biting analysis of U.S. class structures remains astonishingly relevant; at times caustically humorous and at other times depressingly frank, it’s among the best primers (and indictments) I’ve ever read about the U.S. social system.

The crux of Fussell’s argument is that America, at least after the stagflation crisis of the late 1970s, had transformed into a nine-tiered caste system. At the top were out of sight old money inheritors, whom spend most of their lives in bubbles of self-selected ignorance (and also, as the author suggests, to ward off pesky expose journalists and grant seekers.) Just below them are the upper class, which consists primarily of individuals whose personal wealth is partly due to their lineage, and in part due to their own lines of work -- which, as Fussell explains, is accessible to them mostly because of their lineage. Whereas the mega-elitists live in the shadows, the author describes the uppers as “ostentatiously visible” public figures, the likes that run banks, head foundations and serve as chairs of think tanks. Beneath them are the upper middle class types, who have mostly earned their own keep. These are the kinds of people that make their fortune through law, medicine, oil real estate and shipping. A key characteristic of this class, he said, was a profound “inattentiveness to ideas,” and a marked aversion to lower class culture: as such, don’t expect to find people of the like frequenting areas with high bowling alley or religious fundamentalist penetration.

The middle class, he said, is a group of individuals in a constant “status panic,” professionals like geologists, programmers, engineers and marketers, whom are obsessed with “correctness” and perpetually fear losing their jobs. Beneath them are the high prole, described by the author as a “socially-demoted mass,” with a fundamental lack of occupational freedom or self-respect. As skilled workers, their utmost fear, Fussell states, is the loss of social status -- in short, slipping from high prole to even lower prole.

The mid-prole, the author said, are generally operators whom are under ceaseless supervision from higher-ups. Job insecurity, Fussell said, absolutely commands them. The low prole, designated as unskilled laborers, live in a state of social isolation -- their great fear, Fussell said, is sinking from lower class status to absolute poverty. The lowest in the caste system, Fussell argues, are the destitute -- the homeless and migrant workers -- and the institutionalized; those in prison and mental hospitals, primarily.

Peculiarly, one may examine Fussell as something of a mixture of the  upper and the middle class himself; the son of a corporate L.A. lawyer, he wound up fighting in World War II and attending the less-than-prestigious Pomona College before garnering a PhD from Harvard. As a globe-hopping literature teacher, perhaps the best way to describe the acerbic Fussell is an upper-class, reluctant “elitist” by way of middle class toil. Although he harps on the lower classes for the not-so-eloquent tastes, he’s actually most condemnatory of the middle classes, describing their rank as a generally contemptible gaggle of perpetually nervous and irredeemable pseudo-intellectuals.

The bulk of Fussell’s book is combing over the obvious differences in class speech, behavior and appearance -- in essence, imagine “The New Yorker” attempting to church up Jeff Foxworthy’s sundry writings, and you pretty much have the author’s prose right under your nose. He is most critical of what he calls a palpable “prole drift” within the culture, a reference to the general “dumbing down” of then-contemporary social artifacts. Sweetened beers, brick-box style housing, self-service gas stations, the difficulty of requesting special orders at big book chains and the emergence of belt buckle ads in the New York Times, the author suggests, are all indications of the country's slow decline into a general mid-to-low prole level of sophistication. Not that he's really championing the middle and upper classes, by any means, as in the very next chapter, he's chiding the higher classes for their unnecessary use of "mock profanities" and multi-syllabic responses as a means of sounding ritzier than they actually are.

The two most interesting segments of the book, however, involve the author’s condemnation of higher education (whose veneration and class-raising mechanics, he argues, is about as close as America gets to unconstitutional “titles of nobility”) and his adulation of a new “classless creative class,” which he simply refers to as “X” (hence, the namesake “Generation X,” according to some clearly unbiased sorts.)

Regarding college, Fussell said that during the Kennedy and LBJ years, a somewhat manufactured “boom” in post-high-school education enrollment has resulted in a glut of “qualified” personnel who, in his eyes, aren’t really “qualified.” He goes on to say that only about 13 percent of the 43 percent of Americans with any kind of post-high-school education received a true “college education” (imagine that -- elitism from an Ivy leaguer!), rendering diplomas from places like Seton Hall relatively meaningless. Using some fuzzy numbers on loan from some other researchers, he estimates that (with debt factored in, I am assuming), the overall wage increase that stems from a college education for the other 33 percent is hardly any larger than it is for those that never went to college in the first place.

It is perhaps Fussell’s lionization of the Reagan-era Bohemians -- which, as he describes them, sound nearly indistinguishable from today’s culturally motionless hipsters, right down to their bizarre proclivities for Schadenfreude humor -- that is the most querulous aspect of “Class.” In the hands of these self-aware, “nearly broke, but fuck you, I have a college degree” artistes, Fussell believes America has it saving grace -- an entire substrata of individuals whose prole proclivities, in conjunction with their upper-middle knowledge bases, can provide the nation its only feasible outlet for a trans-class cultural renaissance. Well, seeing as how things played out in the 1990s and 2000s -- and Fussell himself is still too dead to pony up to his ill-advised predictions -- I suppose there’s precious little to comment about there. The finale of the book is an itemized list of household belongings, which Fussell considers a “cheat sheet” to determine your official class ranking, as well as a few pages of reader questions -- it’s funny, to some degree, but at the same time, rather superfluous. Hey, you gotta’ find some reason to charge extra money for the reprint edition, I reckon.

Needless to say, if you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of class prejudices and the ills of social stratification, you’re not going to find much here. Fussell’s book is merely an aesthetic glimpse at the nature of stratification in U.S. society, which, at times, delves into the psychology of the masses. Michael Harrington, this Fussell chap clearly doesn’t intend on imitating.

After reading “Class,” I have to wonder if the author’s same classifications hold true in a post-recession economy. Whereas Fussell’s America was a nine-class system at the time of the book’s initial publication, the U.S. today seems a little less fluid in terms of class delineations. Yes, the super-rich and the rich continue to exist, as do the impoverished and the unfathomably impoverished, but it’s the middle class described by Fussell -- consisting of the upper middle, the middle, and the high and medium prole -- that perhaps can be consolidated. The middle and upper middle, I would argue, could better be described as a “surviving class” in 2014, whereas the high and medium prole I would consider an “endangered class.” The wealthy we could just describe as “thriving,” where the low proles would be considered “near-extinct.”

Alas, Fussell’s book -- while mildly outdated -- is still an intriguing read, and one with arguments that are quite hard to refute. I really liked the general dispassion of the author; it would be so easy for a book about the U.S. caste system to deteriorate into a long-winded rant about social inequality and institutional prejudices, but Fussell, admirably, keeps things pretty level-headed throughout -- his obvious disdain of the middles and his abhorrence of low prole kitsch notwithstanding, of course. If you’re sweet on the idea of an analytical -- yet agenda-free -- assessment of the American social order, “Class” is a seminal offering that, despite its sardonic humor, remains fairly descriptive and thorough in its accounts of what makes the U.S. strata the organelle it is.

Just don’t be pissed off when, upon finishing the tract, you realize that you, yourself, might just be a few rungs lower on the national pecking order than you’d prefer.

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