On the Concept of Class in American Life

Dear L.:

1. Some abstract art impressed me recently. The paintings looked like collages from fragments of home and garden design magazines, with elements flowing into each other haphazardly. Roads would become a roof with a window-like object almost like a shingle peering into a flower-bed. But none of that was there, perhaps.

The aesthetic of the perfect home appealed a bit too easily. There were thoughtful comments. Grace pointed out how things that looked like paneling and siding seemed to be light sources. Nathaniel focused on organic and inorganic qualities, a comment on perspective. Nothing seemed to provoke, though.

2. A friend read Louis Hartz, Russell Kirk and Tocqueville recently for a class. Hartz was a bit nutty: it looks like he’ll do whatever it takes to make a thesis fit, which includes bending all known laws of logic or physics. The 0ther tw0 thinkers were concerned, on my friend’s reading, with religion, tradition, freedom. Hartz insists the USA never had a credible socialist movement because it never had an explicit feudal structure. Where things get interesting is when he points out the things that create class distinctions in any given society. He goes too far with it; Hamilton is not someone using capitalist rhetoric to further the interests of his “class.” There is a genuine belief in equality, freedom, opportunity among the Founders that involves an emphasis on property rights. One might think this naive, but it certainly seems sincere.

However, Hartz’s insistence that class matters no matter where we are is something I have to take seriously. I am not here to sit and cry about lost opportunities. If there are opportunities being denied me or anyone else for very bad reasons, though, I need to be aware. We need to be aware.

3. “Very bad reasons” may not be someone stealing outright. It might be that when everyone works pretty hard, those with a small advantage get a lot more than those simply working (cf. “The Tyranny of the Meritocracy”). The thing everyone needs in a free society is time, and that literally gets more scarce every day unless you opt out. You need time to either give attention or get attention. To put it metaphorically: in theory, we used to have a leisure class (they were leisured, they had means. Class, though, in its colloquial use seems to denote a higher standard than its more technical use). Now, in theory, we’ve eliminated such a thing entirely. Even in the academy, “publish or perish” means you have to be in motion, pretending like you can justify your studies.

What scares me is that justice takes time and requires attention. Far more than any self-help rhetoric or institution or particular goal can give. Justice properly considered can look very ugly. At points we even have to make the difficult call of whether it is worth pursuing fully or not, whether a greater good can be had by holding back. Class, as a concept, can complicate this picture, sometimes distorting it to a point where it cannot be recognized.

4. Without becoming Marxist, I think it is very easy to see what we have left without any recognition of class itself. It’s literally a sameness, an asking of perfect homes and gardens – our individual happiness, non-conflicting – a begging where there must be a panacea. I’m not saying that once upon a time seeing Medici palaces and warlord’s castles made us more rational. Far from it. One could be as unjust then, if not more unjust, defending a hierarchy meant to keep people down and divided amongst themselves.

We want liberty to immediately be good. We think it’s reasonable to ask for what our parents and grandparents asked. A house in suburbia with good fences making good neighbors. Someone who loves us, a family. Stability in employment. I don’t know whether any of that is actually reasonable. It was always unreasonable to expect everyone find love: how many stories of heartbreak do we have through the ages? How can stability in employment exist when we prize mobility, when we get tired of being in one job too long? And what of the rest of the world? My brother and I were talking recently, and he mentioned “affluence” in China means making $16,000 a year.

Our vision is literally blurred right now with an indistinct vision of something that feels secure. I’m tempted by the vision, certainly. It promises goods which I feel everyone else is getting. That’s not entirely fair to say, though. It may be the case many aren’t getting what they want or need. In which case, we need to figure out what is achievable and work from there.

5. I remember when you worked for justice. I felt some of it was misguided. I felt all of it was sincere. That was a long time ago; we haven’t spoken for years. I wonder what your perspective is now. I can’t imagine it takes vinyl siding and white picket fences too seriously.

AK

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