As a European historian specializing in the 19th century, I’ve never been able to figure out what American journalists and politicians (not to mention academic sociologists) mean when they refer to “classes.” This term has two time-tested meanings. Either we’re talking about social groupings with legally recognized statuses which until the 19th century had certain political rights that other groups did not, or else what we mean is what Marx understood as “classes,” socio-economically dominant forces like the medieval aristocracy or the bourgeoisie that replaced them. Classes are not simply people who fall at one point or another into a particular income bracket or who buy SUVs rather than compact sedans or high-definition TVs instead of pick-up models at Kmart. It drives me absolutely nuts when I hear geeky-looking “economic experts” yapping on about how the “middle class,” that is, middle-income families or clusters of co-inhabitants, are hurting for this or that. “Middle class” used to translate as “bourgeois,” which referred to a social class of many centuries, as opposed to those who are moving up and down the income scale. The indiscriminate bandying about of the term shows how culturally ignorant we’ve become.
A former colleague of mine who teaches political theory observed that it’s now impossible to teach students about Aristotle’s conception of the family as a household. The kids get annoyed that an ancient Greek thinker held such a skewed view of family relations. It makes no sense, for example, that an aging dude was put in charge of other family members. After all, women should be wage-earners as well as make their own decision about reproductive rights. One young Brazilian exchange student went ballistic when the instructor failed to scold Aristotle for not discussing gay marriage. Isn’t this about family togetherness, the student asked, an attitude we should be praising instead of ignoring?
This present-mindedness applies, admittedly in a less dramatic way, to those who improperly use “class.” It even shows up in Charles Murray’s otherwise informative, recent best-selling book of social commentary Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Hailed by the celebrated British historian Niall Ferguson (in a special Amazon.com plug) as a defense of traditional family values, the work calls for a return to “the republic’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.” Presumably the folks among whom these nice things are being practiced are the high achievers, awash in college degrees, and those whom Murray locates in his not-so-fictitious Boston suburb of Belmont. The well-heeled model residents are contrasted to the less well-educated and often unemployed white population of Fishtown, a place outside of Philly that exists for what have become our white social dregs.
According to Murray, the white working force has been declining economically and morally since the second half of the last century, and he marshals loads of statistics to drive home this point. Among a sizable white population one now sees the effects of chronic unemployment, low educational performance, and dysfunctional family life. In Belmont (which by the way is the Massachusetts home of Mitt Romney and was once that of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society), the residents are doing fabulously well, earning multi-digit double incomes and sending their 1.2 kiddies (or whatever the current reproductive rate is for yuppies) to tony schools. Unfortunately, Belmont residents do nothing for their disadvantaged cousins in Fishtown. They engage in “condescending non-judgmentalism” instead of holding themselves up as social models to those who need their example of bourgeois success.
Despite my respect for Murray’s research and occasionally bold arguments, I find nothing in his book that resembles a traditional class among Belmont’s residents. They are mostly super test-takers, who, according to Murray, are endowed with high IQs. They marry people who are culturally and professionally like themselves (although not usually particularly photogenic). Strong gender roles, which were characteristic of traditional classes, hardly exist among the Belmonters, and while both parents are out amassing wealth, the kiddies are being raised mostly by hired help. Wealth-gatherers may have a relatively low divorce rate because divorce is an expensive, time-consuming commercial transaction for those in their income bracket. But their apparent monogamy does not prove these people have vibrant family lives and even less that they’re brimming with “faith and community.”
Belmonters do not spout their radical social views entirely by accident. It’s been my impression these busy beavers usually don’t feel that they’re part of a bourgeois, white Christian society. That’s because these workaholics are Jewish agnostics, Chinese atheists, and whatever other category our real Belmonters fit into. Urban high achievers think of themselves as outsiders, not as those who are assuming the mantle of leadership from 19th-century WASP Brahmins. According to Murray, his successful earners include Hollywood movie-makers and may also be in gay marriages, which he explains in a WSJ interview is “no big deal” for him. Those who excel in school and afterwards make loads of money may have their material value. But they form neither a resurrected bourgeoisie nor those who are likely to bring to fruition what Murray takes to be the vision of America’s Founders.
Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.