My dear, departed friend and collaborator, movie director Denis Sanders used to love to tell jokes impugning people with elitist social class pretentions. One in particular that I remember (that he also implied was a true story) went something like this. A limo pulled up to the front of the elegant Hotel Coronado. The chauffer opened the door for an expensively dressed woman who got out. Then he reached in a extracted a young boy of about nine or ten, also very nicely dressed. The chauffer proceeds to carry the boy up the steps of the hotel, followed by the woman. Denis happens to be standing at the top of the steps and says to the woman as she approaches him, “what a fine young son you have, madam; such a shame he is unable to walk.” The woman casts Denis a look of restrained disdain. “He walks just fine,” she intones, and over her shoulder adds, “but thank God he doesn’t have to.”
My theme is about social class, dimensions of which, as it is expressed in America, are not a joking matter. Although we came from different ends of the American social class spectrum, both Denis and I were contemptuous of class pretentions and the economic systems that produce class divisions in society. Much of the lore of America’s founding is about its overthrow of one of the most class-bound societies on earth. For all of its quaint Masterpiece Theatre dramas about snooty aristocrats and their “downstairs lessers” I prefer dramas a documentaries that chronicle the downfall of that snobbish social system. I had the pleasure of personally witnessing their socially-superior asses being ejected from their erstwhile “Crown Colony” of Hong Kong in 1997. My friend has been dead for over twenty years now, but I am certain he would be outraged at what portends to become a rigid social class stratification in a country that has always prided itself on a reputed absence of social class barriers (“Anybody can become President or a hedge fund manager in America.”)
The last depression was full of movies that depicted the American social class system that had emerged. Check out My Man Godfrey (1936), Stella Dallas (1937), or Dead End (1937; see DCJ Archives, No. 31.6), all b&w by the way, and you won’t need 3D glasses. The “haves” and the “have-nots,” the “swells” and the “slum dwellers,” we have always had them, right alongside the myth that “if they will just reach down and grab their bootstraps” they can pull themselves out of muck and the tenements into the comforts of the “middle class.” It has always been an insidious self-confirming hypothesis, usually reified by those who do manage to pull themselves up to the next level—nobody fights residential or school integration more aggressively than those who have “just made it” into a gated subdivision. Some make it and some don’t, and there have always been ready axiomatic answers as to why some do, or do not. Those that don’t make it just don’t want to reach for those bootstraps, or want to be Cadiillac “welfare matrons”; that was the Reagan “take” on the matter. Sure, there have always been “ne’er do wells” in society, but when you don’t provide a decent education, housing and health care and a culture that does not impugn your self-esteem, it becomes difficult to cull the ne’er do wells from what becomes a permanent and self-perpetuating underclass (and up pop the Reagans). We’ve become a society that makes jokes about “community organizers,” that denigrates and stings organizations like ACORN. Reach for those bootstraps, but none of that “affirmative action” stuff and don’t try to breach our gated communities.
American commerce has always found it advantageous to play to class pretentions. My airline credit card is constantly plying me with the advantages of moving from silver to gold to platinum, up to perks of a “higher” elite status. If I want I can buy my way into the First Class Lounge, well insulated from the hoi polloi crammed into the boarding lounge. I suppose that these blandishments will always be part of the human quest for distinction and superiority. But they are relatively harmless when compared to what is looking increasingly like the reconstitution of a feudal society ruled by a plutocracy rooted in corporations and financial institutions. The danger is that we will devolve into the social philosophy that (as I am sure some have always held) there is a “natural order” that ordains social inequality and which justifies its class rigidity. A I write these words there sits on the U.S. Supreme Court a majority of judges (“justices” just seems a inappropriate title) who consistently vote in favor of corporations over American workers, and (turn on the news—other than Fox) and check out what the governor and conservative legislators in Wisconsin are trying to do to screw public employees.
I can remember when it seemed that Americans were not hung up on social class the way, say, the British seem to be. There used to be an expectation of a progression into the upper reaches of the middle class. I expect that my own experience has been replicated untold times: uneducated grandparents who shipped over from “the old country”; parents who got high school educations and worked selflessly at decent jobs (dad was in a union job, mom not) and never tired of telling their sons they were “going to college”; the kids getting higher education and “professions”; and the expectation that the generations to follow would be assured measures of improved well-being and decent social status. There as no such assurances today as immigrants are denigrated as intruders who do not pay their way (The new Congress quickly bashed the so-called :Dream Act”), the working class have had their unions busted and their jobs outsourced and, in several states the middle class are battling conservative governors characterizing their “entitlements” as the cause of budget deficits.
Social advancement has been thrown in a cocked hat along with “the American dream.” It is more a product of limited historical vision than any social contract or the reputed wondrous “marriage” of democracy and capitalism. By the late 1970’s the dream was already wavering on the debt and social wreckage of the stupidity of the Vietnam adventure and along came Reagan, selling the soma of “morning in America” as the fix for the OPEC-induced oil recessions of the ‘70s, while his minions systematically prepared for the 30 years war on progressive taxation, unions, governmental regulation, fiscal solvency and civic responsibility, leading to Bush’s wasteful wars and tax breaks for the rich. Now it may well be that the Humpty Dumpty of the American Dream has little chance of ever being put together again, since “all the King’s horses and all this President’s men” are the very same financial con-men who pushed his sorry ass off the wall. Indeed, we seem to have reached a new status quo, one in which the oligarchs of Big Finance, Big Insurance, Big Pharma, Big Media, Big Energy, and Big Defense have “the system” all locked up. Amazingly, they even have useful idiots running around in teabag festooned tricorns screaming that the problem really is “big government.” It ain’t; the government is just the entity that gives them tax breaks, contracts and no regulation. The more puny that government (and its current administration) the better off the Biggies are at being “too big to fail” and ready to pay themselves big bonuses enabled by suckers who buy that line.
Those that are being given less and less a chance to make it are being fed Lotto, casino, reality TV and Glenn Beck. It did little good to pin their hopes on Barack Obama who shows no inclination to attack as system that still intends to give the rich and the oil companies their tax breaks while cutting social programs to presumably lower the deficit, but in reality is a sop to the those who see social programs as hand-out and income transfers for lower class of government dependent ne’er do wells.
I know, I know, this all sounds cynical and dismissive of the vaunted ability of the “greatest nation on the face of the earth” to fulfill its God-blessed exceptional mission of producing the greatest people. Nothing exposes the myth better than a dammed good economic meltdown. In the Great Depression there were Wall Street guys jumping out of windows; this time they were jumping on their corporate jets to get to Washington for their “too big to fail, but not to bail” rescue, and their pals were already there in the Fed, and the Bush and Obama administrations to ensure their bailouts and bonuses. The Depression brought on a lot of the social securities and regulations that did not guarantee, but provided a basis for the American Dream. That is not the case this time and the chips will fall in a different arrangement; if the biggies are “too big to fail” it is likely that the little guy is too little to succeed. In fact, the biggies are indeed big enough to fail but, like the lady said, in the new American class system, “thank God they don’t have to.”
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 3.8.2011)
See also: Kevin Drum, “Plutocracy Now,” Mother Jones, March-April, 2011, and Chrystia Freeland, “The Rise of the New Ruling Class,” The Atlantic, January-February, 2011