HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 5, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Structure of Class

John Turner


Whenever Democrats criticize tax cuts for the wealthy or point out the excessive incomes being received by top corporate officials, Republicans attack them for wanting to start class warfare. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with class warfare but before we launch into it I suppose it makes sense to try to clarify what we're talking about. Truth is, I don't think we have a clear notion of what class means in America nowadays. We're a long way from the time of Alexander Hamilton when the upper class denoted the good, the smart and the rich.

A big part of our confusion arises from the disintegration of former cohesion. When wealth was based on landholding, and land was passed down through families for generations, then over long years, the people who had ample means also acquired education, and developed good taste, and mingled with the best minds. We can't say that such aristocrats were particularly just towards the poor, but they had at least some qualities that almost everybody admired and wanted to get for themselves. People tended to call it good breeding.

Nowadays, by contrast, the only thing the wealthy have that other people want is money. The cluster of characteristics that used to go with money has been dissipated. We don't expect wealthy people to be well-read, or to have good taste, or to understand the long-term workings of history. All we expect from them is greed and, for the most part, that's what we get.

I guess because of historical associations, we're having a hard time assimilating the concept of a greedy, vulgar, essentially ignorant upper class, that's upper simply because its members have buckets of money. We want more from our social paragons. We want them to stand for something elevated even when we don't possess a clear vision of elevation ourselves.

It might be sensible to give up the entire idea of class as an outmoded means of saying anything about groups of people. The trouble is, we can't do it, and the reason we can't is that when we go out in the world we find class distinctions being shoved in our faces wherever we happen to find ourselves. We may not be very articulate about them, may not have a convincing analysis to tell us how class works or what class is. But the distinctions themselves are blatant, and no matter how we try we can't ignore them.

The serious question about class differences is not whether they exist but, rather, what to do about them. Snobbery is not an attractive characteristic. So if the privilege of looking down on someone is the only purpose for noticing class we would do well, always, to try to put it out of mind -- though, as I've said, I don't think that's possible. The reason a classless mentality can't be achieved is the need for a model of behavior to set before young people. Despite the argument of maniacal progressives that children should be left completely free to decide who they want to become, society does have a legitimate interest in structuring behavior. And perception of class is its principal tool in doing so.

We think of some manners as being fine, or elevated, and others of being low. And for the most part we want to teach our children to avoid the latter. Even people who exhibit bad manners seem to know, almost instinctively, what good manners are. They might not know how to acquire them, but they know when they are in their presence. And, for the most part, when they encounter mannerly behavior, they try, however awkwardly, to emulate it.

That being the case, we would improve all social relations if we could shift our notions of class away from money and towards manners. It will take a long time to do it, of course, but if we could, it would make for a considerable gain.

In the first place, it would lay to rest the opinion that there's anything fine, or noble, about possessing vast amounts of money. There's nothing we need more than that.

Second, it would offer young people something to aspire to that would always serve them well, regardless of what walk of life they eventually decided to enter.

Third, it would help us reform our politics by getting people to contend with one another over the sort of social system they want to live in, rather than choosing their loyalties based on affinity with income groups. Politics ought to be about the human environment even more than it is about who gets what. I know that's a radical idea, but it's one we need to adopt if we're not going to be drawn ever downward into a maelstrom of bitterness, leading eventually to violence and bloodshed.

It may sound impossibly quaint, but the old-fashioned ideals of gentlemanly and ladylike behavior could be due for careful reconsideration as the characteristics that best allow us to redefine our beliefs about class.


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