Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reconsidering the Middle Class

Now that Dreaming in Middletown is published, I want to briefly touch on the road I could have taken, and didn't.

I am fully aware that my conception of the North American middle class, which operated throughout the book, is open to the challenge that what I described as "middle class" may be understood from a different perspective as just a "higher" echelon of the working class.

I remember discussing this with a colleague of mine at York U -- a lifelong Marxist -- who disagreed that the suburbs were middle-class. These were some questions he put to me after I described my ideas for sketching North America's middle class. Do you have to be at least middle-class to own your own house? Does earning a salary rather than an hourly wage automatically admit you to a different class? Is white-collar labour really so different (in principle) from manufacturing and service-sector jobs? When I said "middle class North Americans," was I really talking (mostly) about embourgeoised workers?

These are good questions. Excluding the small entrepreneurs and self-directed professionals who are best described as petit-bourgeois, many of the white collar guys who grew up in suburban environs and might recognize themselves in the teenage protagonist in the "Subdivisions" narrative may think of themselves as middle-class while working under conditions that befit an upper-working-class definition in much classic Marxist sociology. At best, they might be described as society's "middle layers," but not middle class, per se.

Nevertheless, I chose to thow my lot in with an eminent American sociologist (C. Wright Mills), certain American historians (Burton Bledstein, Peter Stearns) and American cultural critics (Rita Felski, Lorraine Kenney) and call these white collars, professionals and entrepreneurs part of the "new middle classes," as we've known them since the late 1940s.

It seemed to me that there was a cultural ethos among the middling sorts that had a distinct, bourgeois flavour, even if it didn't fit Marxist models.

It doesn't hurt that the middle class is such a North American catch-all. A band like Rush can attract fans from across the social spectrum with their middle-class-inflected music because so many of us -- white collars, blue collars, new collars, no-collars -- think of ourselves as middle class, living the American dream.

But it remains open to the challenge that middle-class identification is really some kind of false consciousness. We think we're middle class just because we aren't poor. Or because we've grown up thinking of our position in society as unique, or a product of merit or maybe accident.

It's hard for North Americans to "think straight about class," as Rita Felski writes, because we talk so little about it, we have almost no sensible language for it. Race and gender are so much easier, and so visible; but class is almost a taboo. It's also bloody complicated: an auto worker may earn more than a high school teacher, but teachers have to have a university degree, and some teachers have more than one. Meanwhile, artists, classical musicians, and others who produce "high culture" sometimes live close to the poverty line. Class and social position aren't just about wealth.

There's so much to consider, and so many ways in which class is lived and performed. And there's so much to think about where it intersects with music: a whole history is there, waiting to be written.

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