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July 09, 2007


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I hear you but it still baffles me why we're so reticent to take up the subject. Seems to me we have a lot to gain from the conversation.


In corporations in which the top person makes 500 times what the person makes on the shop floor, all may still go by first names. The illusion that we are all just folks must be maintained. C.f. Bush at NASCAR rallies.

Sally Wilde

If I hear another de Tocqueville quote at a philanthropy conference I will run in front of a (moving) truck. Nevertheless, I think he got it essentially right in Democracy in America. Every colonist who arrived in the New World could own land and, through hard work, live an independent life. De Tocqueville observed that New World values—those that celebrated hard work and money-making—quickly trumped values mired in the aristocratic class systems of the Old World.

Over time, I believe, we simply replaced the old class system with a new, more complex, system based on race, ethnicity, religion, income, education level, and other factors. As I understand his argument, Paul Kingston would say that poor people in the U.S. simply don’t see themselves as belonging to the class of poor people, in the same way that members of the working class in England, say, see themselves as belonging to that class. This is likely true, and even the Wal-Mart greeter doesn’t expect to stay poor forever, but I don’t think it would take much for poor people in this country to begin to see how many “life-determining experiences” they share, and how four-squaredly fucked they really are as a class.


Rather than saying that they are blinkered, I would attribute an intelligence to the poor which intuits that an act of observation changes that which is observed, and that the category "class" - which is intended to describe an individual's relation to the means of production - will tend to get reified as describing an actual and inescapable state of being, which will then serve to reinforce and reproduce this state and its designated subjects, which/who will then be available as a commodity to those individuals and institutions - base or noble - who wish to trade on their value as such. Poor people probably understand, in their charmingly colloquial manner, that although history, custom and law have conspired to place them within this "class," so too does the analysis of this process, especially when said analysis is tendered from above.

That's why bringing class up as an issue in a context which is liberal rather than radical probably won't work.

A liberal audience of a class proposition may have its own subset of reasons for not wanting to hear about it.

Stuart Johnson

I grew up poor, surrounded by poor people of all races and descriptions, but I never experienced or encountered the “intuition” you describe. And I don’t believe poor people are “blinkered.” Africans Americans have generally understand their oppression in racial, not class, terms. The traditional class categories we would have inherited from Great Britain didn’t stick, and as immigrants we were unlikely to import the class divisions of our countries of origin. We simply have no common language of class in this country. And we’re under the spell of multiple myths—myths about class mobility, about equal access to opportunity, about American meritocracy. Even after witnessing the spectacles of Scooter Libby and Paris Hilton, we labor under the illusion that there’s one set of laws governing both rich and poor.

Moving from poverty to the middle class I was most struck by the sheer luck that enabled me to climb the income ladder. It became obvious to me how much The System favored those to whom already much had been given. The more assets you had, the easier it was for you to acquire more assets—it was as simple as that, the game was completely rigged. And the system didn’t just abet the accumulation of assets for people who had assets; it also made them more resilient, more able to buy their way out of just about any problem they might encounter—an accident,a spate of bad health, a messy divorce, an unwise investment.

That’s the kind of class consciousness I believe we need to acquire. It’s not a call to class struggle, but a call to a common struggle for a more just system.


I suppose, Stuart, that averting the stridency of class struggle in favor of a less fractious "common language" is what some people are disposed to do, as they audit their experience against the dictatorial interference of their diverse traditions; but I wonder if such a goal would meet the unmitigated approval of the radical Marx, or the liberal Mill - perhaps they'd both suspect an unacceptable clinging to the present?

Libby Handros


The film reference above, The American Ruling Class, we are please to annouce is now available for sale on ourwebsite, theamericanrulingclass.org.

Thank you!

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