Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010.
New York: Crown Forum, 2012.
A person could be well into middle age and not remember it, but for most of the 20th century class was the central category of both social theory and practical politics.
From Lenin’s arrival in the Finland Station until some difficult-to-pinpoint moment in the late seventies or early eighties, anyone who purported to be an intellectual had to grapple with Marxism, a doctrine that famously reduced history to the history of class struggles. Grappling with Marxism was by no means restricted to those on the left. Conservative anticommunists such as James Burnham (ex-Trotskyist, mentor of William F. Buckley and therefore grandmentor of Ronald Reagan) and Milovan Djilas (early ally of Tito but ultimately his most devastating critic) developed theories of new bureaucratic classes battling capitalists and oppressing workers. Toward the end of this period, right-wing intellectuals developed the public choice school of political theory that in many ways translated Marxist historical materialism into the language of game theory and neoclassical economics. Moderates considered how democratic institutions could reconcile the competing interests of capital and labour. Even leading existentialists, agonizing over individual choice and meaning in the face of death and seemingly distant from social or political concerns, experienced an inferiority complex in the face of Marxism.
But class was not just an organizing concept for pointy-headed intellectuals. With the interesting exception of Canada, class dominated the day-to-day politics of the Atlantic democracies. Britain’s Labour Party, West Germany’s Social Democratic Party and France and Italy’s Communist parties were working-class in self-conception and sociological reality, and their opponents were clearly the parties of business and middle-class professions. The two major U.S. political parties were free of socialist ideology of any stripe, but in the decades after the New Deal the Democrats saw themselves as the party of labour while the Republicans saw themselves as the party of business. Labour leaders in the decades after World War II unquestionably had a seat at the table. Working-class political power corresponded to an era of growing social programs, relatively equal incomes and constrained managerial discretion in the workplace.
That was then.
To those of us who became politically active in the eighties, the politics of class was already an object of nostalgia. Environmentalism, pacifism and gender, ethnic/racial and sexual identity were far more compelling for youthful activists than class. Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Marxism had lost its intellectual cachet, and with the collapse of Communism as a real alternative to liberal capitalism, the importance of class as a category of analysis was enormously devalued.
Class also became less central for practical politics. Nixon and then Reagan successfully appealed to southern and northern Catholic working-class people, especially men, while Democrats made inroads among professional groups like engineers and lawyers, who had traditionally been Republican. Thatcher and then Blair diluted, at least partially, the class character of their respective parties. European social democrats largely retained their historic base, but in the process often came to represent a smaller portion of the left-of-centre electorate, with the alternatives increasingly “postmaterialist” (i.e., middle-class).1 As manufacturing employment inexorably declined in the face of changing technology and rising trade with newly industrializing countries, even the labour movement became less working-class. Public sector professionals who had been slow to unionize now dominate the union movement in the West, particularly in North America.
From the vantage point of 2012 and at the risk of greatly oversimplifying, the postwar history of the West can be split in two. During the first half (the French refer to these years as les trente glorieuses), class dominated how elites thought about politics and society. It was assumed that policy would reflect some compromise between business and labour. During the subsequent 30 years, class became a marginal part of our conceptual toolkit. And yet that second half has seen both diminishing racial and gender disparities and increasing polarization of wealth and income.2 We think less about class, but it matters more to how we live.
Perhaps a generation from now, the 2008 financial crisis will be seen as another turning point. It once again has increased the salience of class. The contours of the mass movements opposing austerity in Europe would not astonish a newly defrosted observer cryogenically frozen in the 1940s. In the United States, the Tea Party and then the Occupy movement each briefly aroused positive feelings among a majority of Americans. Each presented in some form a class analysis of the situation America has found itself in since the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the TARP bailout. The Tea Party is now an unpopular, sectarian and destructive tendency within the Republican Party and the Occupy movement never attained any effective influence in mainstream politics, but the initial popularity of these very different populist movements suggests that class is back in the West.
Clearly, the two movements do not mean the same thing when they propose class struggle. Tea Party supporters see themselves as snubbed by high-status educated elites, and believe these elites use their status to get public-sector preferment at outsiders’ expense. The Occupiers consider economic wealth and power to be the same, and to the limited extent that they have any coherent programmatic goals, they advocate government redistribution of wealth and income. In Max Weber’s terms, the Tea Party emphasizes stratification by status (what Weber called Stand or status group) as opposed to the political left’s emphasis on stratification by wealth (closer to Weber’s Klasse, group defined by market position, or Marxian class, although vaguer than either).
Today’s radical populists are representative of the larger coalitions in which they are embedded. Voting for Republicans is positively correlated with income and negatively correlated with education.3 Since education is the primary source of non-income-based status in modern America, Weber might see the Democrats as a coalition of people who want the status system to dominate the economic system, while the Republicans are the opposite. Since education and wealth are in turn highly correlated, politics at the elite level has become a narcissism of small differences as well-paid and highly educated liberal academics trade barbs with well-educated and highly paid conservative business executives. But whether it is Republicans denouncing out-of-touch elitists or Democrats calling for higher taxes on the wealthy, class is as important as gender and race to the politics of the one Western country that has never experienced a serious ideological challenge to capitalism.
While class is going to remain politically important for some time to come, its study currently lacks the intellectual dynamism it had two generations ago. This is particularly true on the intellectual right. We should welcome the fact that Charles Murray, author of Losing Ground and The Bell Curve and a bona fide right-winger, has written a bestseller on the subject of class. Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010 purports to survey changes in American class structure over the last 50 years on the basis of sociological data. Its thesis is that those changes represent an “unravelling” of American culture.
With the exception of a single chapter, Murray restricts his focus to American whites. This is a defensible choice: class differences are most easily studied by keeping ethnicity constant. As Murray argues, in 1963 race was obviously the deepest cleavage in American society; by the end of the period, from a sociological point of view, ethnic differences in life chances could be explained by differences in the class composition of American ethnic groups. In other words, the social prospects of black, brown and white college-educated people with professional jobs are similar. So too are the prospects of black, brown and white Americans without high school diplomas. Of course, black and brown are underrepresented among the college-educated and overrepresented among those without high school diplomas.
In one dimension, Murray sets his book up as a temporal comparison between November 21, 1963 (the day before President Kennedy was shot), and a present just before the financial crisis of October 2008. In another dimension, it is a spatial/social comparison between Fishtown, a white working-class neighbourhood of Philadelphia (in the book a composite of people who work, if at all, in blue collar and service industry jobs and have no education beyond high school), and Belmont, a wealthy suburb of Boston (doing duty as a composite of Americans with bachelor’s degrees and management or high-prestige professional jobs). Murray claims that Belmont and Fishtown diverged sharply over the 45 years, that the most significant aspect of the divergence is cultural as opposed to material, and that the divergence is threatening the American project as he understands it.
Murray finds a lot to criticize among both the upper and lower class. Belmont, he says, is out of touch. The managers, high-status professionals and cultural content providers constitute a “status group” in Weber’s technical sense, a circle for which “above all else a specific style of life can be expected” and who restrict nonfunctional interaction with everyone else.4 The food they eat, the wine and beer they drink, the vacations they take and the educational institutions they consider for their children are all designed to differentiate them from other Americans. Murray does not have a lot of sociological data, but illustrates his point with a test of his readers about their knowledge of NASCAR, family chain restaurants and popular television shows. Somewhat questionably, Murray argues that since his readers must be part of the upper class, if they do badly on these questions, it shows the upper class is more divorced from mainstream society that it used to be.
Murray concedes that rich people engaged in conspicuous consumption to get special status for themselves in 1963 as in 1863. The difference is that today’s upper class self-segregates with people cognitively similar to themselves. In 1963, as Murray tells it, America still had a high degree of status equality (within its dominant racial group), something that de Tocqueville celebrated in the 1830s and Weber remarked on in the early 20th century. Today, Murray suggests, elites are abandoning status equality; they are no longer rooted in a larger American society.
On the other hand, Murray establishes that the managerial-professional upper class works harder than ever and for the most part adheres to almost Victorian standards of bourgeois morality. The only major exception is that today’s bourgeoisie thinks premarital sexual relationships are sensible, so long as they are childless and broadly consistent with serial monogamy. The managerial-professional class gets divorced less, commits few crimes (Murray rightly wonders about white collar crimes and other abuses, but does not dig too deeply), and generally exercises and eats well – compared both to its working-class contemporaries and to the upper class of the seventies and eighties. Belmont conforms to a socially liberal ideology of tolerance and inclusiveness, but despite a little updating around the edges, its residents live as bourgeois a life as ever. Perhaps surprisingly, they go to church more than working-class and middle-class whites.
Murray has fewer positive things to say about Fishtown. Working-class white males are less likely to be employed, far less likely to be married and far more likely to be incarcerated than in 1963. In every postrecession recovery since the sixties, male labour force participation has failed to return to prerecession levels. Among women, workforce participation has not consistently declined, but it has remained flat since 1980 for those with high school or less, while educated women’s participation has steadily climbed in all but the worst economic times. Although Murray is unable to cite work less than a decade old, sociological studies in the eighties and nineties suggested cohabitation in America has not evolved into the de facto marriages seen in many other OECD countries. Instead, outcomes for children with two biological parents in a common law relationship in the United States were, as of the late 1990s, no better than for those in lone or step-parent families – which is to say, they were bad. Murray acknowledges improvements in the crime rate in the United States, but correctly points out that there has been no corresponding decrease in incarceration: an unprecedented portion of working-class men are in jail or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system.
Murray has nothing particularly original to say as to why these trends have occurred. Globalization implies that market income disparities within countries will increase. Technological development has ambiguous effects in theory, but since 1970 it has tended to commoditize low-skill labour, while giving unprecedented opportunities to what Murray refers to as “someone with exceptional mathematical ability interpersonal skills or common sense.” Combined with the crime and incarceration wave, and women’s greater choice as to whether to stick with the father of their children, this has led to less stable family formation among less educated Americans, which in turn has exacerbated poor intergenerational human capital development and other social problems. By contrast, educated Americans, with greater opportunities than ever if they can climb to the top, sublimate any need to depart from the lifestyles of the 1950s into a fondness for niche music, craft beer and peasant bread.
Unfortunately, Murray engages in almost no comparative analysis. But as the OECD has determined, while disparity in market earning capacity has affected all rich economies, whether this disparity turns into substantial divergence in post-tax/transfer wealth, income or life opportunities depends a lot on the generosity of tax and transfer policies. Even in the United States, almost all improvement in living standards of the working poor comes from more redistributive policy.5 In his discussion of Belmont, Murray dismisses any talk of more redistributive policy on the basis of an unconvincing “futility” argument that any such policy would be completely negated by increased tax avoidance. Here Murray confines himself to bald assertion and does not engage any of the specialized literature.
Later in the book, Murray rather surprisingly acknowledges that social democratic policies would work on their own terms: increased taxes and public spending would lead to less income inequality. Coming Apart, which up to this point claims to be descriptive and empirical, here takes a normative turn. Murray claims that recent “happiness science” supports Aristotle’s contention that the good life is measured not by satisfying preferences but by cultivating human capacities – “deep satisfactions” as Murray refers to them. For Murray, the four deep satisfactions are found in one’s relationship with family, with work (or avocation), with community and with God. On this view, Fishtown’s tragedy is not that it has declined in material terms but that its residents are less likely than 40 years ago to have jobs, have stable families, build civil associations or participate in religious institutions. Murray argues that social democratic solutions would worsen the loss of “deep satisfactions” because achieving them is premised on the possibility of material failure.
In the normative chapters, Murray finally reveals his dystopian conclusion: class polarization is threatening the “American project.” He refers to de Tocqueville’s classic observation that Americans tolerate more material inequality but less status inequality than Europeans. His highly questionable conclusion is that this difference from Europeans has become less true. He also holds a politicized idea of the American project as forbidding government policy designed to help those who have failed in the market.
Murray’s argument raises numerous methodological criticisms. His standards of evidence fluctuate wildly. With respect to residential concentration of rich and poor Americans, we get standard social science. Elsewhere, we must rely on a few lines from The Philadelphia Story to establish the proposition that moral norms against men sexually assaulting intoxicated women have deteriorated in the last 60 years. At the most basic level, the choice of 1963 as a starting point is arguably gerrymandered. It was a moment of unusual social and political consensus within white America. Ten years later, the class changes Murray notes were only beginning, but America was a lot more violent and white America more divided than it is today. The cosy image of 1963 also depends on excluding by definitional fiat the struggles around the rise of the civil rights movement. Nineteen sixty-three was the year of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” appeal to thousands assembled in Washington and of Governor George Wallace’s standing at the entrance to the University of Alabama in an (unsuccessful) attempt to block black students.
As Murray defines class, far more white Americans are “upper-class” in 2010 (21 per cent) compared with 1960 (6 per cent) and far fewer are now “working-class”(30 per cent) compared with 1960 (64 per cent). This complicates any story of growing apart.
A progressive response to Murray’s critique of Belmont might go as follows. The consumption and esthetic choices of the upper class are hardly worrisome. Early adoption of environmental awareness, acceptance of more equal gender roles and pursuit of healthier lifestyles are surely praiseworthy. The problem is that the upper class has taken almost all of the post-1963 gains in income and wealth.
People who confuse upper-class consumption habits with moral superiority do exist. We have all met idiots who think they are superior because they eat organic vegetables or drink craft beer. Even sillier are those who think lifestyle choices are blows against the “system.” Maybe all of us who have “Belmont” consumption habits can be tempted by these associations. The best response is satire. David Brooks did it well in Bourgeois Bohemians and Christian Lander’s website Stuff White People Like does it even better.
But surely it is also silly to think that a preference for craft beer and HBO television is a real social problem. The bourgeois have always been early adopters of new cultural developments, as of new technologies. If highly educated Americans are no longer willing to drink mass-produced beer and are unenthusiastic about stock-car racing, it is hard to blame them. Murray cannot demonstrate that such choices have any social significance comparable to the polarization of wealth and income.
Indeed, Murray fails to demonstrate that there is a trend toward cultural class polarization. Yes, hardly anyone in the professional-managerial class smokes today, while a third of working-class whites still do. But smoking has declined throughout the population: the cultural shift started with the educated and has diffused downwards. Other cultural developments, including ones Murray complains about such as tattoos and demotic dress codes, have diffused in the opposite social direction. Murray creates an unfalsifiable thesis: when the bourgeoisie develops its own cultural trends, it is evidence of growing apart, but when it adopts working-class trends, it proves the collapse of American civilization (Murray literally argues this).
No doubt, America is more culturally fragmented than it used to be. In 1963 network television was a cultural product to which almost everyone was exposed simultaneously; there are no such cultural products today. But nothing like that existed before the development of movies and radio in the twenties, and the fact that cultural products are niche marketed now does not necessarily imply that these niches pose a dangerous social problem. People choosing social groups and lifestyles rather than inheriting them is as American as Mount Rushmore. It is at least arguable that the increase in subcultures has, if anything, given Americans a broader array of social hierarchies to participate in, and thereby undermined the prospect of a single status structure, such as England traditionally had and Americans rejected.
Murray is on stronger ground arguing that there has been a change in the basis for upper-class membership. Human capital, particularly human capital well aligned with an economy geared around abstract reasoning and self-discipline, is much more important than it used to be. One can compare Yale’s freshman class of 1964 (most famous alumnus, George W. Bush) with Harvard’s of 2002 (most famous alumnus, Mark Zuckerberg). Murray’s argument that the human capital most rewarded in a modern economy is primarily genetically inherited is dubious. The “Flynn effect” – that raw IQ scores increase by a standard deviation every generation, especially for the most abstract tasks – cannot be explained by genetics. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that choice of parents is almost as important in determining a child’s acquisition of human capital as it once was in determining acquisition of land, stocks and bonds. The result is a new elite, almost as closed as the hereditary aristocracies of the past, convinced that its success is a result of its own intelligence and hard work, and arguably therefore less inclined to noblesse oblige or even to a basic loyalty to the polity in which it lives. Murray is probably right that more redistributive taxation would not really alter these developments, but it would of course generate revenue.
Murray’s diagnosis of Fishtown’s problems makes a lot of sense, but we need not accept his fatalism. As Murray would no doubt accept, it is not up to the liberal state to directly promote his “deep satisfactions,” although it certainly makes sense to try to find policy solutions to declining labour-force participation for working-class males. Murray argues that any welfare state has the tendency to reduce “deep satisfactions” by mitigating risk, but this argument fails to account for the obvious fact that it is far easier to fail in Fishtown than in Belmont. If the children of the rich are doing better at sustaining jobs and marriages, it is not because they face a greater likelihood of material deprivation if they do not.
To the extent that social programs and taxes are designed in a way that punishes people for getting jobs, then they will indeed make things worse. Heavily means-tested benefits or benefits provided without work requirements eliminate the reward from work. For some groups this perverse effect is a crucial consideration; for others, encouraging work is not as important as transferring income. Universal public services funded by broad taxation tend to mitigate inequality and can be consistent with a broad expectation that everyone will do their part. Murray’s preference – an unconditional basic income, clawed back as earnings rise – really does have the potential of driving those with marginal skills out of the workforce, and also undermining the sense of reciprocity that political support for public services requires.
Murray does not distinguish between what I consider a truly social democratic model of relatively high but broadly based taxes combined with broad and honest provision of universal public services and a welfarist model of no-strings-attached entitlement to means-tested benefits. He is able to get away with this through a cliché-laden discussion of the “European” model, which fails to distinguish entirely between closed labour markets combined with handouts and open labour markets combined with generous social services. From a social democratic perspective, commitments to universal health care or education do not degrade community or “deep satisfactions,” but enable them.
In certain respects, America has done better in maintaining labour force participation than many European countries because it has kept its labour market relatively open and has supplemented the earnings of the working poor. Since the 1970s, macroeconomic policy across the OECD has tended to favour investors (by keeping inflation low) over workers (by tolerating high unemployment). At least in the United States, monetary policy targeted high unemployment. Europe has a completely unaccountable central bank in the thrall of sado-monetarism.
The neoliberal response to globalization and technological change has always been to promote education. The OECD has shown that education spending can promote equality. Murray usefully points out that not everyone is equally able to take advantage of education that relies on abstraction and self-discipline, and that working-class males may be the most likely to drop out of school, with negative results for their families, communities and the broader society. North America has failed to provide high-quality education that works with the strengths of working-class men. With some justice, Murray can claim that this problem is given less attention by the public-policy-oriented elite because the people affected are so unlike the elite. At the same time, Murray and his ideological allies fail to acknowledge how little the free market is likely to improve things.
Perhaps the economic crisis will finally precipitate a class-oriented political movement focused on the contemporary world. Such a movement will need to reach outside the current framework of left and right. It should work both to reduce economic disparity and to reverse declining cultural capital. While Coming Apart is flawed and the flaws reflect the preoccupations of the American right, it is a serious attempt to grapple with class and deserves consideration – including from those who reject Murray’s ideological assumptions.
1 According to Andrew Gelman, in the 21st century voting for left-wing parties is much more highly correlated with low income in the United States than in most European countries or in Canada: See his Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 103.
2 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries (2008) showed income and wealth inequality increased in most OECD countries, including Canada and the United States, in the previous two decades. It should be noted that during this same period, global inequality declined.
3 Gelman, Red State, Blue State, footnote 2.
4 Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. H.H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 187.
5 Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan, “Five Decades of Consumption and Income Poverty,” retrieved from papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1535524