A 1983 book by essayist, historian, sociologist, and literary critic Paul Fussell which attempts to detail and analyze the structure of the American status system. It became a personal favorite years ago, and still greatly influences the way I perceive fellow Americans.
Fussell's cruelty is somewhat mitigated by its equality: he has unabashed disdain for all classes. Though we, as readers, may wince when we find our values, beliefs, and cultural artifacts singled out for ridicule, there is a comfort in the knowledge that his analyses will soon pass to less sensitive targets (i.e. our neighbors).
The American status system is divided into nine classes:
Fussell goes to great lengths to clarify that it is not riches alone that define class, but rather a combination of wealth, style, taste, awareness, manners and traditions which generally persist from birth to death. There is a tendency for class drift, but fundamental markers of class designation are unlikely to change even through radical changes in income. For it isn't that the three classes at the top don't have money. Rather, money alone doesn't define them, for the way that they have their money is largely what matters.
The name of the "top out-of-sight" class comes from an interview with a Boston blue-collar worker, who when asked about wealth said, "When I think of a really rich man, I think of one of those estates where you can't see the house from the road." For Fussell, the top class could just as well be called the "class in hiding." Their houses are never seen from the street or road. They like to hide away deep in the hills or way off on Greek or Caribbean islands (which they tend to own), safe, for the moment, from envy and its ultimate attendants, confiscatory taxation and finally expropriation. They tend to be removed from scrutiny, escaping the down-to-earth calculations of sociologists, poll-takers, and consumer researchers. It's not commonly studied because it's literally out of sight.
The next class down, the upper class, differs from the top-out-of-sights in two main ways. First, although it inherits a good bit of money, it earns quite a bit too, typically from some attractive (if slight) work without which it would feel bored or vaguely ashamed. They tend to make money owning banks, controlling think tanks or foundations, running the more historic corporations, and busying themselves with things such as universities, the Committee for Economic Development, or the Executive branch of the government. But more importantly, the upper class is visible, often ostentatiously so. Fussell claims that while the out-of-sights have spun away from Veblen's theory of conspicuous consumption, the mere upper class have been left to carry on instead. When you pass a house with an impressive facade visible from the street, you know it is occupied by a member of the upper class.
While Fussell's cruelty may be equally distributed, it seems at times that he reserves an especially acute edge for the middle class. The middle class is distinguishable by its earnestness and psychic insecurity rather than by its middle income. Rich people who remain terrified at what others think of them, who are obsessed with doing everything right so as to avoid criticism, are stubbornly middle class. The middle class is the place where table manners assume an awful importance and mouthwashes and deodorants abound. The middle class is ascribed a certain "status panic" and continually looks to borrow status from higher elements. There is no latitude for individuality and eccentricity; you are nothing if not "part of the team.".
The middles lust for the illusion of weight and consequence, seeking heraldic validation ("This beautiful embossed certificate will show your family tree") and issuing annual family newsletters announcing the more recent triumphs in the race to become "professional". Nervous lest she be considered nobody, the middle-class wife is careful to dress way up when she goes shopping. Correctness and doing the right thing become obsessions, prompting thank-you notes for the most ordinary dinner parties. The desire to belong overwhelms. The middle-class man, according to Fussell, is scared. He is always somebody's man, be it the corporation's, the government's, or the army's.
The young men of the middle class are, in Fussell's words, "chips off the old block." You can see them on airplanes, being forwarded from one corporate training program to another. They consume John T. Molloy's books, hoping to break into the upper-middle class by formulas and mechanisms. Their talk is of the bottom line, and for no they are likely to say no way.
The disappearance of the lower-middle class is an area of concern for Fussell, one that forced him to delete that class entirely, and replace it with varying degrees of proletariat. The inflation of the 60's and 70's and the social demolition that resulted pauperized the true lower middle class, a class whose solid high-school education and addiction to saving and planning maintained it in a position above the pure working class. The former low white-collar people are now simply working machines, and the wife usually works as well as the husband.
The kind of work and the sort of anxiety that besets one as a result provide the main delineations of the proletariat for Fussell. The high proles are the skilled workers and craftsmen, such as printers. The mid-proles are the operators - think Ralph Cramden, the bus drivers. The low proles are unskilled labor, like longshoremen. The special anxiety of the high proles is fear about loss or reduction of status: you're proud to be a Master Carpenter, and you want the world to know the difference between you and a laborer. The special anxiety of the mid-proles is fear of losing the job. And of the low proles, the "gnawing perception that you're probably never going to make enough or earn enough freedom to have and do the things you want."
Follow the nodes for specific information on the class implications of personal appearance
, your house
, and the X Class