At dinner one night, I made two fatal social errors in rapid succession. First, during casual conversation with two good friends, I began talking about American culture. Not just culture, but how culture is linked to power and the broader social structure. If your eyes are glazing over at this point, you are beginning to understand how my dinner guests felt. Now imagine you are only half-way through dinner and I am seated between you and the door.
My second social gaffe was that I invoked the name of the infamous social critic, Karl Marx. And I had the audacity to state my opinion that part of what he observed about culture is correct. The conversation went a little like this:
Me: You know, I was thinking lately about Marx’s observation that modern society is divided between the Bourgeois people who own the “means of production”, like factories, media, businesses, etc., and the Proletariat people who work for them, and it’s really interesting to notice how much of American pop culture, which is created by the Bourgeoisie, perpetuates cultural practices that continue to put money into their pockets while keeping the Proletariat from changing their social position.
Friends: Why do you hate America, Communist?
Now, I felt their response to be a bit of a leap. Indeed, I felt a bit like comedian Russell Brand, who received death threats after criticizing the Jonas Brothers’ purity rings. Brand pointed out that the rings, rather than promoting sexual responsibility, continually drew attention to the brothers as sexual objects, an observation that was misunderstood by legions of morally conservative Jonas Brothers fans. As Brand later joked ironically, clearly his remarks were meant to convey “a Jihad on all American people.”
The problem with talking about Marx anywhere other than in a college classroom or hipster coffee shop is that Americans generally equate Marx with his published “Communist Manifesto”, which was taken up by Stalin and Lenin and a bunch of other crazy-ass dictators. Calling themselves “communists”, most used Marxism to overthrow monarchies, then promptly discarded his argument that the people were ultimately supposed to govern themselves, and instead ruled with great domination and cruelty.
Let’s go back to the source, people.
First of all, Marx makes the point that there is a difference between whether you own a business or just work for one. Is there anyone out there who is going to argue with that? There may definitely be risks and responsibilities to owning a factory or spa or film studio, but when it comes down to it, it is indisputably financially (and possibly emotionally) better than being hired to clean toilets at any of those businesses. It is even better than being hired to be a manager at any of those businesses. Owners can sell, transform, grow, or shrink their businesses. Employees can look for another job at a business owned by someone else.
Marx took this social distinction a step further, however, by looking at how this 2-part system maintains itself. As it turns out, business owners tend not to promote social or political or economic policies that challenge their position in society. [Insert here every comment Jon Stewart ever made about Republicans.] Instead, this group, which Marx labeled the “Bourgeoisie”, pushes for policies and beliefs and values that preserve their power and social position. Hello, Koch brothers.
But this is America, right? Freedom, equality, all that? Where any homeless child can grow up to become President or where any inner city Latina girl can just work hard and become C.E.O. of General Electric? Despite the legions of homeless presidents and Latina C.E.O.s out there (please note that I’m being ironic here), it’s a bit more complicated than the idealistic story we are told. People by and large die in the economic class into which they are born. If very lucky, they move up one notch. If unlucky, they move down a notch. And when they do move up to great heights, it’s not just about hard work; they have to culturally transform to match the social class into which they are aspiring.
This is precisely why it is social suicide to discuss Marx at dinner. Not only because of our historical associations that Marx equals commie heretics, but because Americans tend to believe that social class divisions do not exist here.
This is a denial of reality far superior to refuting moon landings. It involves ignoring terms like “white trash” and “upper crust” while we gawk at reality shows making a spectacle out of the super wealthy trying to shop at Wal-Mart and the super poor doing just about anything.
It involves insisting people “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” while ignoring decades of social science data demonstrating how impossible that is.
It involves judging people based on how they dress, chew, parent, eat, cough, and interact with others, as if those elements were personal failings rather than habits and standards embedded in social class.
Back to Marx’s point, as an impoverished minority in Europe, Marx was keenly aware of how doors were closed to him, and how difficult it was to move upwards in society, even when you were brilliant. Some societies are admittedly worse than others, but America has its fair share of rules created by those with property whose intent it is to preserve their property. Indeed, the earliest voting rules required voters to own property. Those people then made decisions for everyone else. (If you think this is a non-issue today, check out all the claims of voter fraud in lower-income areas and all the controversies over superdelegates at the political conventions).
Nowadays the machinations are more subtle. They are packaged in advertising that suggests that the more you spend, the more you are worth. They pop up in political associations between freedom and giving corporations even more federal money. They rear their young heads in high school courtyards, when paying extraordinary sums to wear the “right” clothes and have the “right” technologies and cars translates into social status. They are everywhere in parenting circles, from what organic baby food you should buy to which fair-trade, sourced-material, non-toxic toys to supply your kids. And when you have possessions stacked to the ceiling and threatening to cave in and crush you and your children, you hire experts to declutter and simplify your life using sustainably-harvested bamboo drawer dividers.
We spend hours and weeks and years of our lives determining which toys/outfits/technologies we need, only to find they have become out of style, too low-class, too politically incorrect. How much of our lives is taken up with researching, buying, taking care of, replacing, fixing, storing, and getting rid of our possessions?
More importantly, when we are consumed with consumption, who profits? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the Proletariat.
Question: When have you been in a situation that has made you aware of your social class?