American History without the Working Class — Again!

As interesting and insightful as American Prospect reviewer Sarah Igo makes it seem, I am not going to read Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer.

According to Igo, Fischer is a “master of synthesis, sifting through hundreds of studies of local communities and the lives of ordinary men and women . . . to arrive at what he sees as the defining arcs of American culture from the colonial period to the present.”  And, she says, the book displays “sensitivity to the experiences of disparate Americans but also comfort with broad generalizations.”  As I will explain, the timing is perfect for such an effort.  And even if many of the “broad generalizations” turn out to be too broad, or even flat-out wrong, they should be usefully provocative for anybody who is trying to understand current American culture and who believes, as I do, that past is always prologue.

But Igo critically (if too forgivingly) reveals a key premise of Fischer’s “synthesis” that makes me dismiss this social history out of hand.  Fischer straightforwardly equates “American character and culture” with “middle-class culture” and makes no apology for doing so because, he says, “the American middle class lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society.”

I’ve seen this before.  In fact, it is still a widely accepted academic convention that, as the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life premised in the mid-1980s, if you understand the American middle class you understand Americans in general because “the middle class . . . has so dominated our culture that neither a genuinely upper-class nor a genuinely working-class culture has fully appeared.”  Books like American Manhood and American Cool make similar claims, often admitting a certain narrowness in their prefaces, but then proceeding recklessly to treat their version of middle-class culture as synonymous with the distinctively “American.”  Peter Stearns, for example, not only admits a middle-class narrowness in his introduction to American Cool, he further lets the cat out of the bag by granting that “[l]ike many studies of the middle class, it is biased toward evidence from Protestants in the North and West.”

I can see why publishers would not want more descriptive titles using unwieldy terms like American Middle-Class Manhood in the North and West, but this is more than a matter of deceptive marketing.  The actual practice of excluding working-class culture from the discussion is what Benjamin DeMott has called “middle-class imperialism,” which is less about actual economic and political domination than it is about middle-class scholars simply mistaking a part (their part, our part) for the whole, thereby maintaining their/our cultural domination.  The professional middle class in America is culturally dominant, in my view, even though we are economically subordinate to a ruling class and somewhat less politically subordinate but in a more complicated way.

Though I’m open to debate, I’m basically okay with the cultural predominance of the professional middle class.  If we have to choose among cultures, I’d choose – indeed, I have chosen – the middle-class one.  But middle-class imperialism that mistakes our part for the whole of American culture is the same kind of illusion as James Baldwin pointed to in the 1960s when he said, “If I’m not what the white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is.”  If working-class culture is not simply a discount version of middle-class culture, like hand-me-down clothes; if it has its own internal logic, constellation of values, and distinct history, as well as its own internal contradictions; if working-class culture influences middle-class culture as well as being influenced by it – then middle-class Americans misunderstand ourselves, as well as the larger society, when we mistake our part for the whole.

The concept of a “dominant culture” within a society presumes that there are other cultures different from the dominant one – Protestants in Italy, for example, or Catholics in England, Kurds in Iraq, or new and recent immigrants in all countries.  You cannot understand a dominant culture by excluding reference to the ones it dominates, how and why it predominates, and how it influences other cultures even if you think they have no influence on it.  What’s more, wouldn’t it be important in understanding middle-class culture to know what it is in the middle of – traditionally, between capital and labor, between a ruling and a working class?  Isn’t this middleness fundamental to its character and culture?

The standard scholarly convention does not dispute these, or any other, notions of social structure.  It just assumes that the other classes ain’t got no (genuine) culture that isn’t fundamentally defined by the middle class.  I don’t know enough about the ruling class to say how “genuine” its culture is, but if Working-Class Studies has done nothing else, it has shown that there is a genuine working-class culture that is very different from the middle-class one.  And as Barbara Jensen, Annette Lareau, Betsy Leondar-Wright and numerous others have argued, this culture has many valuable aspects that compare favorably to middle-class character and culture, as well as some that don’t.   Most of us in the field, whether in our family lives, as teachers, culture workers or activists, have experienced the kinds of culture clashes that would be impossible if there were only one genuine “American” culture.

Made in America is an attempt to restore the kind of “consensus” view of American history that finds unity in diversity at the very core of our national character.  The civil rights, women’s and other social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s destroyed this view, aided in academia by African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, the New Labor History, and others who insisted that attention be paid to those who had been excluded from the official understanding of our world.  This buffet banquet of diversity may by now have overemphasized our differences from one another, making it a good a time to try again to find what it is that unifies us, or could.  That’s why I was looking forward to this book when I first heard about it.  Though it is unfair to criticize a book I have not read, I know this isn’t the book I was looking for because you cannot find unity in diversity if you start out by eliminating most of the diversity – namely the majority of actually existing Americans who are not middle class.

Jack Metzgar. Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

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9 Responses to American History without the Working Class — Again!

  1. John Russo says:

    First, given the several thousand hits and pings this week, Jack Metzgar’s blog clearly captured the imagination of many readers both nationally and internationally. So, I want to thank Jack and those who have already commented on the blog and keep my comments brief.
    In the US, the American Dream has been idealized, and the assumption is that most people think of themselves as middle class. But this assumption can be contested. This is best seen in the class self-identification in the National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago, General Social Survey: Social Class-Subjective. When asked, “If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which one would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?,” roughly 45% identified themselves as middle class and 45% working class. These percentages have been largely unchanged over the last 40 years. This suggests that working class culture may have more salience than Fischer’s book suggests and/or that there may be a more symbiotic and fluid relationship between middle class and working class culture, values and aspirations, as Metzgar has suggested.


  2. CSF says:

    Jack —
    First, I didn’t mean to guilt you into buying my book. I could have sent you a copy! I’ll make it up by sending a donation to the Center in lieu.
    Second, ultimately you’ll be the judge of whether the evidence is persuasive or not, of course. (I appreciate that the book’s thesis may — perhaps — work against the Center’s agenda.)
    Third, rock-n-roll and other elements of popular culture aside, I think that if you focus on what might be called deep culture — understandings and practices with regard to, say, family patterns, gender relations, group ties, emotional make-up, etc., — then the influences are not one-way but are heavily from the advantaged to the disadvantaged. But that’s an empirical question.


  3. Jack Metzgar says:

    Okay, Claude (“CSF”), I just bought your book, and I will read it if you actually argue the premises you state above rather than assuming them. But the examples given in your response do not make me optimistic. They are all one-way instances of middle-class culture influencing “blue-collar families.” What many people around the world associate with the “distinctively American” — rock ‘n roll with its roots in blues and country music, for example, or a (sometimes irritating) directness in speech and manner, or a fierce (and possibly naïve) commitment to personal authenticity over “success” or status – are not clearly derivative of “the particular values associated with 18th and 19th century bourgeois life [that] came to mark the distinctive character of American culture.” But making that argument would surely be interesting.

    Middle-class culture is powerful, and it certainly has and continues to influence working-class life and culture, but working-class culture is stronger than you seem aware. There is, and there has been centuries of, working-class pushback that could be seen as a dialectic of competing cultures mutually influencing one another, even though one is dominant. Maybe your new book recognizes that, but it sure seems like you assume that the American working class receives culture without giving any back or preserving any of its own. I’m pretty sure that’s false as an assumption, but if it is an argument, then I’ll be eager to read Made in America.


  4. Thank you, Jack, for your very thoughtful post! I actually wanted you to say more. I was particularly intrigued by your concept of “middle-class imperialism.” Your concept reminded me of a similar concept used by feminist political theorist Iris M. Young in her 1990 volume, Justice and the Politics of Difference. What she points out is important, I think, for our understanding of your concept:
    “Cultural imperialism involves the paradox of experiencing oneself as invisible at the same time that one is marked out as different. The invisibility comes about when dominant groups fail to recognize the perspective embodied in their cultural expressions as a perspective. These dominant cultural expressions often simply have little place for the experience of other groups, at most only mentioning or referring to them in stereotyped or marginal ways. This, then, is the injustice of cultural imperialism: that the oppressed group’s own experience and interpretation of social life finds little expression that touches the dominant culture, while that same culture imposes on the oppressed group its experience and interpretations of social life.” (P. 60)
    Regarding your discussion regarding the “middleness” of being middle-class (again, I wanted you to say more), I was reminded of a helpful discussion by Vanneman and Cannon a number of years ago, in their challenging volume, The American Perception of Class. Though they published their book in 1987, I think their words can still be instructive for our current efforts to unravel the threads of class within the tangled skein of oppressions in the United States. Reminding us of the powerful insights of Nicos Poulantzas in 20th-century debates about class, they note that:
    “Capital…directly supervises at the work site to ensure maximum effort from labor… Together…ownership, authority, and mental labor…determine the class divisions in contemporary society. It is the joint influence of all three social relations that subordinates the working class to capital. Middle-class Americans who are not themselves capitalists share in the exercise of these types of control. Supervisors direct workers; engineers design factories; social workers help regulate the poor. The power that people in these positions exercise separates them from working-class Americans who do not have such power. Neither working class nor capitalist, such positions can best be described as middle-class. (p. 57)

    M. Thandabantu Iverson, PhD
    Indiana University Labor Studies Program
    School of Social Work


  5. Kathy Newman says:

    Great post, Jack. One of the challenges to overturning the dominant middle class history and culture paradigm is that information about working class culture is also hard to get at, and involves a lot of painstaking, archival work. But that’s OK! It’s worth it!


  6. CSF says:

    To Alisa:
    Sorry. You have fallen for the fetishism of small differences. In the context of crosscultural and long-term historical comparisons, those class differences — while real — are not that profound. (It is, by the way, bete noire of many sociologists that survey data show modest class differences in scoio-political attitudes compared to, say, the UK.) As to the family structure, I did not say that w-c families “attained” the housewife model; I said that they came to aspire to it. Of course, in many realms, working-class families’ situations prevent them from attaining their aspirations.


  7. Alisa says:

    Try as I might, I’m not convinced by “CSF”‘s findings. It seems to me that he has neglected two important points: working-class values starkly differ from middle-class ones (what Michele Lemont so aptly discovered in _The Dignity of Working Men_); and, particularly given shifts in the global economy, the “breadwinner-homemaker” model is an outdated one, not revised or revived after the end of the Cold War but dismantled as women and minorities replaced the white and male industrial worker as “ideal” in a service-oriented economy. The suggestion that working-class folks have attained this “breadwinner-homemaker” model in an era of advanced capitalism is not only historically inaccurate (working-class women have always worked — something second-wave feminists failed to acknowledge when they argued fora woman’s “choice” to leave the domestic for the public sphere), but also inconsistent with the lived reality of class in the U.S. today. I applaud Jack for his critique — it is spot on.


  8. Holy says:

    “This buffet banquet of diversity may by now have overemphasized our differences from one another, making it a good a time to try again to find what it is that unifies us, or could.”

    I think there’s very little that unties us. It’s pretty clear from the deep racial, ethnic, and ideological divides that many Americans have fundamentally different and irreconcilable differences. Perhaps that is why our political system no longer functions. After all, it’s been decades since we’ve solved any major social or economic problems in this country.


  9. CSF says:

    I am sorry that Jack Metzger has decided to forego reading my book, Made in America – although tossing it into the dustbin with “Habits of the Heart” and “American Cool” is a sort of compliment, thank you.
    My book does discuss the working class (as well as the farmers, the poor, and the servants and slaves) , but it does indeed contend that the particular values associated with 18th and 19th century bourgeois life came to mark the distinctive character of American culture. And it argues that (1) over the centuries, more and more Americans moved from the excluded classes and castes into that middle class; (2) over time, more and more Americans yet remaining in the working class adopted middle-class orientations, or tried to.
    And that is an empirical question: When we see blue-collar families in the late 20th century idealizing – even if not attaining – for example, the breadwinner-homemaker family, college education for their youth, congregational churches, and the ideology of self-reliance (over labor solidarity), then we see the power of that middle class culture, whether we like it or not.


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