Why is it so hard for people to realize that the middle class they think they belong to is a false construct? We know that in terms of making a living, pretty much everyone in this country is about the same: mostly they sell their time and labor to some corporate interest for money*. There are status differences, of course. Some of us work in corporate cube farms answering phones, and others work in nice corner offices with stainless steel and distressed leather furniture. Some of us wear uniforms. Actually, pretty much all of us wear some kind of uniform, whether it’s a nurse’s whites and pastels or a cashmere sweater, bespoke tropical weight wool slacks and hand-made shoes. These symbols give people the sense that of where they fit into the social space, despite the fact that both the wireless tower inspector and the chief of marketing are selling their time and labor, and both would be replaced in a flash to save a couple of bucks.
One of the reasons we have trouble identifying our economic class is that the word “class” is used to divide society along the lines of taste and culture. People think of their class status in terms of their likes and dislikes as well as their economic standing. This sets up artificial divisions among people of equivalent economic class. These differences in taste and culture obscure the underlying similarity in economic circumstances. We are regularly treated to stories about how expensive it is to live a middle class life in New York, what with private schools, vacations in the Hamptons and have you seen the cost of an apartment on the Upper East Side? No wonder so many people are moving out to Park Slope, where status issues are about baby strollers.
These little games of status distinction driven by consumer goods replicate the crucial and real distinction in society, between the dominators, the rich and their minions, and the dominated, those who work in enterprises that produce the next round of profits for the rich, according to Pierre Bourdieu. Take a look at that chart drawn by Bourdieu, which Gillian Tett reproduced in the Financial Times with another and equally interesting chart. It looks to be about food choices, harmless enough, but much of it has to do with ideas about society as well.
Note the arrow running to the left, “heritage/heirloom, artisan”. People with cultural capital prefer these things to those instant, lite, microwaveable goods on the other side of that axis. The chart could be understood as saying that a few people have the knowledge and taste to appreciate the artisanal, intensively handmade stuff. Or it could be read as a way of drawing a line between you and the lesser peoples, even if you don’t have a lot of money. The rich go to Michelin four star restaurants where the entire menu is so cool, because they really have the taste and culture necessary to appreciate the finest things, so even if they aren’t really cool, they look cool.
Pretty much everyone knows about these food distinctions. Conservative pundits use them to stir up their troops, who know full well that those arugula and brie eaters look down on them while swilling their chardonnay. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to inspire the same anger and hostility when you say that the hyper-rich eat the same baby arugula with truffled crottin, while downing bottles of Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Maybe it’s because the conservative base has no idea whatsoever about how the rich live beyond the TV specials about the rich and famous, and those Lifetime network shows where the hyper-rich enjoy a hamburger and a Bud while looking out over their 50,000 acre Montana ranch.
It doesn’t dawn on the troops that the people with cultural capital are a lot closer to the way the dominators really live, with their lambic beers and their heirloom tomatoes, because it is the people with cultural capital who actually set the pace on the nature of cool, not the rich themselves. Just ask yourself, how cool are the Walton heirs?
It seems to me that it’s reasonable for the cool crowd to respond to the troops that they know what they like even when they don’t have much money. Sometimes a retro chair is just a comfortable place to sit, not a symbol of dominance. Sometimes people feel like a can of PBR is just the thing, not a comment on the lifestyle of other people. The great thing about consumption is that we all don’t have to like the same things. In fact, a society built around artisanal cheeses makes a lot of room for working people to sell their time an labor making artisanal cheeses and the gluten-free sea salt and rosemary crackers that go well with them and to run the farms, butcheries and shops for the charcuterie and pickles that complete the appetizer course.
And that society doesn’t need oligarchs to trickle down jobs on a select portion of the working people while encouraging the rest to hate the people who don’t share the same tastes.
Other posts in this series:
Middle Class Muddle
Thinking About Class Structure of the United States
* There are exceptions, people with small business who have some assets, and people who have inherited a lot of money, and a few escapees, the ones who got lucky and made enough money to retire and live comfortably.