Is Class A Useful Distinction?
Jim Blair

Class is not a very useful analytic tool anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. Even though the Communist Manifesto begins with "There are two great classes...," Marx seemed to talk about a great many other classes in his writings. He differentated landowners from the bougousie (for reasons that aren't exactly clear to me), he distinguished between peasantry and the proleterait, mentions the aristocracy, petit bougousie, lumpen proleterait, etc. So, its seems that for Marx, who argueably had a simpler social structure to deal with than the present US structure, two classes were inadequate. Likewise, the division you note above into lower, middle, and upper class is inadequate for anything but the most general commentary. In the example above, the use of class is simply shorthand for the concept (which I see as correct) that regressive taxes and use fees take a higher proportion of income for those near the middle of the income distribution compared to those at the high end, all other things being equal.

Sorting into classes economically is not very useful, however, when it comes to predicting what a group's interests, attitudes, and future probable behavior are. In the U.S., we would probably call someone with a $60,000 a year income middle class. The problem with trying to assign class interest to this group, however, is exemplified by the fact that we might find a union machinist, manager for a midsized company, owner of a mom and pop grocery, and social worker making about 60K. These people could reasonably be expected to disagree on all sorts of economic and social issues. The social worker and the machinist, for example, would probably want to see policies that contributed to higher wages while the manager and grocery owner want to limit wages.

Current thinking amoung Demographers and Sociologists is that class is based on SES (Socio-Economic Status). Unfortunately, this does little to clearify exactly what a class consists of. It really, to my way of thinking, it destroys the concept. That's because once we start considering all the social, economic, and status positions a person may occupy, it becomes apparent that there are almost an unlimited number of "classes." Consider: A person that is white and northern views a number of issues differently than a person that is white and southern. A person that works as a garbage collector has a lower status than someone that teaches high school, although the garbage collector may earn more. As noted above, different occupations produce differing points of view. In fine, the idea of SES makes society a n dimensional space in which "classes" of one are possible. Obviously, this is a long way from the way early social writers used the term and the way most of us use the term in everyday speech.

So, my view of class is that it is a purely nominative term intended to provide a heuristic handle for talking about about groups within society. It does no great harm to use the term as long as we are clear about what unstated concepts we are trying to express by using it, as in your example of regressive taxation.

Ruling class is a misnomer, I perfer the appellation "elites." An elite (as C. Wright Mills used the term) is a group with common interests from which flows an aggenda. The thing that seperates elites from groups with just an aggenda is that elites have the power necessary to accomplish their goals. Although there may be no ruling class, there is certainly political power structure that, in your example, necessarily has to act on a persons behalf in order that he become President. In other words, you or I couldn't wake up tomorrow morning with a new vision to bring peace and prosperity to the nation and expect to get elected in 2000. In Mills view, it is the political power structure selects and places the canidate before the electorate. Well and good, then, someone may say, Mills is talking about the political party. Well, yes and no, because elites often overlap or pool their resources in order to achieve their goals. Thus the canidate must pass muster with financial elites, the business community, etc., who in turn aid the political power structure in accomplishing its goals. Once their canidate is elected, the political elite sees to it that policy conforms to the wishes of the other elites with which it collaborated. I think Mills was correct that such elites exist and are relatively enduring and achieve moderate success in obtaining there goals. I would not, however, agree with the paranoid extremes to which he subscribed, he comes across in places as a wild eyed conspiracy theorist. At any rate, I think he was substantially correct in his belief that such groups exist and are relatively enduring and freqently have aggendas that are at odds with the greatest good for society.

People sometimes put things this way:

I think the most rigid social structure is "caste". People not only spend their entire life in one caste, but their children, grand parents, etc for many generations are also of the same caste. Less rigid is "class", but to really be a "class" don't people have to at least spend their entire life in one of them? If you are in one of them for part of your life and in another/others at other times, aren't they just "catagories"?

These definitions are by-and-large correct, but I'm not aware of any requirement that a person must spend their entire life in a class to be a member of it. Common usage, however, would presume a lenghty stay in a class. All classes are are nominative catagories. I think one of the biggest pitfalls in the social sciences is the tendency to creat a classification scheme and then reify it.

Someone else added this to the debate:

Just for the record I will add my ideas on what the fives classes are:

1. First you have the true upperclass, the superich who can pretty much buy whatever they want unless, of course, they really try to buy "the moon." There may be some in this group who are truly overextended; but, so long as no one knows about it, they get away with it.

This group is also subdivided in "old money" and "new money."

2. The lower upper or upper middle class. These are the wealthy professionals and nowadays many technical people as well. They are the people with very nice houses, maybe a new car every year or near to it, and a boat. Your friend sounds like he might be here. Anyway, these people expect all their children to go to college. A scholarship would be nice; but, college will still be arranged anyway. A vacation to Europe can be quickly arranged for if desired.

These people don't have the reserves of the superich; but, with a little planning, they can pretty much arrange for anything they could reasonably want.

3. This might be the true middle class; but, in my opinion it is shrinking with its members either moving up or falling down to the adjacent class. It includes professional and technical people who are not doing quite as well as in 2 as well as some well paid blue jobs. These people may own there own homes; but, it is not quite as nice as those in 2. They might even have a new car; but, not every year. If there is a boat, it is very likely a rowboat. If their children go to college, a scholarship will definitely be required. A trip to Europe, not likely; but, they do get to vacation within the US.

4. The lower middle or upper lower class. This is what is sometimes called "the working poor;" and, when many of us say "working class" this is the group we mean as well. IMO this is the group in the greatest crisis and also the group which has shown the greatest change in the past fifty years. They used to comprise our manufacturing base. These factory jobs often were life long jobs with benefits. A person could work his way up to supervisor and beyond with not even a high school education. When a boy, sometimes a girl, finished school Daddy took them to the plant and they would find a place for them. Those jobs have now either moved to other countries or require training that can be very hard to get. Now these peole work at whatever job they can get generally at low wages with no benefits. They never know when they will be laid off permanently; and, have to look for another job. They live in fear of illness because they have no health insurance. They live in fear that beat up old car just might not make it another day and then how do they get to work? Sometimes they own their own home; but, its either an old shack or it was bought a long time ago, when conditions were different. More and more of them are being forced to abandon their homes and live in apartments. Sometimes, if they can get financial aid, their children go to community college; but, more and more that is out of reach and their children end up like them going from what job they can get to what job they can get.

5. Call them the lower lower class. These are the people who chronically cannot get their lives together as well as some people, generally from class 4, who have have had a run of bad luck or made a few bad choices; but, we are all human. I suspect that the longer these people stay in this group the more chronic their condition becomes. The problem is that we seldom help people until they are in this group with little hope of getting out.

I believe our aim should be to prevent people from falling into this group. This means more aid to group 4, the working poor.

Aid is not necessarily more money. It can be among, things more access to information.

Each group has its own attitudes and coping mechanism. Some people often seem to get into trouble when they move into another social class; but, keep the same coping mechanism.

I am not saying all this is absolute. In a world with some 5 or so billion people, there has got to be enough variation to have plenty of exceptions; but, this is what I have observed is generally true; and, by generally I mean that it is what you will most often find, not that it is what you will always find.

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