Florence King

Stuck in the middle

How to understand America’s class system

Stuck in the middle
1935: Stars of the Paramount production 'Ruggles of Red Gap', Charlie Ruggles (left), Mary Boland and Charles Laughton (second right). (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)|1935: Stars of the Paramount production 'Ruggles of Red Gap', Ch
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Ruggles of Red Gap

There you have it. Our upper class are Somebody, our lower class are Nobody, and our middle class are Everybody. Not for us the traditional middle-class composition of doctors, lawyers, judges, business owners and academics. All of these are Somebody to our rank-and-file middle class, who make the cut simply by self-identification. They might be department heads, office managers, supervisors, policemen, firemen, or highly paid skilled labourers like plumbers and electricians, but ask them where they stand on the social ladder and they will unhesitatingly say, ‘Oh, sorta middle class, I guess.’ In the last few years the rank-and-file middle class has expanded to include the first person in one’s family to go to college and the first person from a blue-collar family to hold a white-collar job. Even now, in the midst of a dying economy, you are what you call yourself: the American who still has a full-time job of any kind, or three part-time ones, is said to be ‘clinging to middle-class status’.

What happened, you ask, to the lower middle class? We don’t have one for the simple reason that Americans never call themselves that. The sole partial exception is the South, apart and eccentric as always, where lower-middle-class goes by the euphemisms ‘shabby genteel’ and ‘too poor to paint but too proud to whitewash’. This is the state of mind that allows Southerners to punch two holes in a can of Carnation evaporated milk and call it coffee cream.

Our undefined middle class is the key to what has happened to our economy. It is by definition the striving class, and when just about everyone insists on placing himself in it, you end up with a nation of unrealistic strivers bent on what C. Wright Mills called ‘affluence without purpose’.

The omnipresent American Dream is always put forth as the justification for any and all striving, as is the American Standard of Living (H.L. Mencken: ‘I’d trade the whole Acropolis for one American bathroom’). The two worked in tandem after the second world war when General Motors became the first giant industry to agree to union demands for cost-of-living raises. This seemed only fair — after all, unionised car workers are middle class too — but unintended (or intended) consequences soon took over. The enormous cost of the new union wages was passed along to consumers via ‘planned obsolescence’ as manufacturers used annual redesigning to make people ashamed of old-looking cars and push them into buying a new car every year to prove their middle-class status.

Proving one’s middle-class status also required credit cards, so these became easily available, but the real middle-class nirvana was the 30-year mortgage with payments fully deductible on the mortgage holder’s federal income tax. These deductions came to billions of dollars every year, so knowing the government as we do, we have to wonder why it would be so eager to divest itself of so much moolah.

We don’t have to wonder long. Try the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’s 1921 novel Babbitt: ‘When folks own their homes, they ain’t starting labour troubles, and they’re raising kids instead of raising hell.’

Or the builder of America’s first post-second world war suburb, William J. Levitt: ‘No man who owns his own house and lot can be a Communist. He has too much to do.’

He won’t give the government any kind of trouble, communist or otherwise, because he has lobotomised himself with his own hoe. Being a ‘homeowner’ transforms him from a thinking reed into a tinkering, puttering, dull, small-minded bore, and that’s just the kind of citizen a desperate government wants. Someone so busy-busy that he couldn’t possibly start a revolution even if he wanted to. The sacred American home­owner will never take to the streets and mount the barricades because he has to stay home all day waiting for the Johnny-Be-Quik men to come and unclog the toilet.

We have used 30-year mortgages as a safety valve against civil insurrection to create a bogus squirearchy with ‘something to lose’ so they will live in dread of losing it. This is peace through distraction and debt and it mounted to a fever pitch in the decade or so before the economic collapse of 2009. Americans’ definition of middle class made us sitting ducks for the own-your-own-home push. People completely unqualified to take on a mortgage got them anyway, bolstered by hostile attitudes directed against people who live in flats. There were a lot of sneering references to ‘a drawerful of rent receipts’ as if it were a drawerful of snakes. Every application, no matter how unrelated to one’s living arrangements, contained blocks marked ‘Rent’ or ‘Own’ that had to be checked. Some TV shrink even came up with a new disorder called ‘rental addiction’. I’m happy to report that I have it. And Carnation evaporated milk makes delicious coffee cream.