To my surprise, we have some genuine upper-class people reading this blog. Here’s what they thought, starting with Cabayun:
While I hardly grew up in the upper-upper world Fussell is describing (though my grandparents and to a lesser extend parents surely did), a lot of the particulars stood out to me as right on the money (the food, names, boring social scene almost by design, locations, house/furniture descriptions).
However, in my life I've seen less of the "nothing to prove" attitude, as even the upper class scene I'm a part of is full of social jockeying (particularly around marriage) among people who don't have to ever think about money.
I'd also anecdotally report sky-high high rates of alcoholism and depression that I vaguely theorize stem from most people being poorly equipped to handle a completely vacuum of purpose or financial drive to succeed.
And Crotchety Crank:
I'm likely in Fussell's upper upper [and] both generations above mine have already read [Fussell’s book]! One referred affectionately to "old fussy Fussell." They read it as somewhat satirical, and certainly inaccurate/unfair in places (for example, one person specifically objected to the "bland food" quip), but unfair in the same way that the Onion is unfair to the targets of its satire: even when it's exaggerated, it's exaggerated in a revealing direction. Could say much more, but maybe I'll save it for an open thread.
Upper class here, which is definitely middle class to say but I think it's ok since I'm anonymous. I would say that the one big change to the class system he outlined is that new money can definitely buy its way to the upper class. This was unthinkable for centuries but in the money obsessed current age is quite doable. Of course there is a world of difference between the my pillow guy and Henry Kravis so it's far from axiomatic that great wealth equals great class prestige. But where you used to see museum, presitigious university and music hall boards stuffed with Cabots and Astors those seats have been completely occupied by billionaires with maybe one or two exceptions for old times' sake. Get on a couple of those and you have risen to the top of the class hierarchy.
Old money types like me will always have an honorary place in the upper classes but the other reason that the upper classes have opened up for the billionaires is that the traditional old money is in the process of drying up. Old money used to be defined as 19th century or earlier in origin, and was eventually opened to make way for the descendants of the robber barons of the Gilded Age. But with relatively few exceptions, it stopped opening up after that, and fortunes made in the latter half of the twentieth century really don't get you much status (look no further than Trump). Meanwhile those proper old money fortunes continue to get divided generation after generation so I guess it was inevitable that the billionaires with some decent taste would have to refresh the ranks.
I found Fussell’s hierarchy of flower classiness mysterious - even wondered if he was joking - but some floral experts chime in to say it makes perfect sense to them. H Ann:
The class distinction in garden flowers is not as arbitrary as Scott makes it sound. The "prole" flowers are all annuals - exotic tropical flowers that have to be replanted every year in most of the US because they can't survive freezing temperatures. They are the Caribbean cruise of garden flowers. They are also cheaper than perennials in the short run but have to be replaced every year. Perennials, the upper-class flowers, are theoretically cheaper in the long run because they keep coming back year after year, but you only save money if you plant them in the right conditions, take good care of them, and stay in the same house long enough to reap the rewards. (Basically, perennials save money in the same way that a "timeless" wardrobe of quality pieces saves money.)
The fashion in upscale gardens has almost completely changed since the book was written. Low-maintenance is in, which the upper classes achieve through sleek minimalist landscaping and the lower classes achieve by not maintaining their yards.
My girlfriend also told me this was obvious (and added that the lower-class flowers are brighter and more plastic-looking), so maybe this is more widespread and normal knowledge than I thought. Also in flower-related comments, Matthew S:
A quick diversion on rhododendrons - The comedian who observed that it doesn’t sound like a flower, it sounds like a siege engine. "My liege, they have rhododendrons! All is lost!"
I found this hilarious, but why does it work? Maybe it has something to do with “rhododendron” being a maximally-Greek-sounding word? But I can only think of a few kinds of siege engines - catapults, trebuchets, onagers, ballistae - and none of them sound especially Greek. So I’m baffled.
A few people asked the same question as AManConfused:
What seems interesting to me about this is that class seems to be defined almost entirely by taste. Perhaps that's just the lens he chose to explore it, but class as I'd defined it always had a relationship with power and status.
Surely Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, as people with immensely vast fortunes and high profile businesses, must have more power and influence than many of the people he is defining as upper class. Could no amount of that break them into the high class category, even if they imitated high class taste and manners?
And if this upper class is largely invisible to us all, is their standing as cultural elites only supported by the opinions of their own insular groups? If the basis of class is social consensus then I think most people would perceive the social status of a highly successful and well known person who acted with some amount of decorum as upper class. Does the dissenting opinion of the secret upper class automatically exclude them from it?
I'm tempted to think of this invisible upper class as not the upper class at all, but some other subculture that while surely having money and power through personal connections, by excluding themselves from the public and influence in general societal messaging, loses out on the upper class definition.
Otherwise we cede them the power to define upper class, which is a lot to surrender to people with brass door knobs.
Maybe one possibility is that even though the upper class is invisible or uninteresting to you and me, other rich people envy them and want to be them? If Jeff Bezos feels some kind of pressure to get into the cool country clubs, and part of that pressure requires him to suck up to old money, then that might give old money some kind of power or at least justify calling them a “higher class” than Jeff Bezos. I doubt this is true for literal Jeff Bezos - he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to care too much about that kind of thing - but maybe it’s true for enough people that it matters?
When I was in middle school, I used to wonder - there are cool kids and uncool kids, right? But suppose all the uncool kids agreed to think of themselves as cool, and to make fun of the currently-cool kids. Then you would just have two groups of kids, each considering themselves superior and looking down on the other. And the currently-uncool-kid group would be bigger and probably win, insofar as it’s possible to win these things. So why don’t they do that? I have lots of partial answers, but still no satisfying one. I feel the same way about the upper class.
A Real Dog gives the Eastern European perspective:
For a Polish post-communist perspective instead, where all class boundaries have been rolled over by Soviet tanks...
Perhaps the most important thing that separates Eastern bloc culture from e.g. British culture is the concept of intelligentsia - a class materially poor but mentally rich, the artists and writers and academics. There is a strong implicit understanding that such a class is the heart of society, responsible for its "spirit" and the safekeeping of its values. Between WW2 and the subsequent Soviet occupation, this class has been essentially gutted, to a large extent physically (see e.g. Katyn massacre). In parallel, the communist effort to separate kulaks from both their holdings and the mortal coil has been successful, and there are no pre-war fortunes whatsoever. Communism falls, and now we have a tabula rasa society.
Yes and no. It turns out that when your entire country is privatized overnight, a clever person with connections - social capital, the best kind of capital - can acquire a ridiculous amount of money and power while nobody's looking. Moreover, aristocratic families keep their descendants educated (usually abroad, if possible), as well-connected as the previous generation, and ever eager to help each other out. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So that's the old money, with some noveau riche mixed in who got lucky playing politics.
The lower class works basically as described in the book. The middle class is stuck in a curious position. Do we aim to be the new intelligentsia, perhaps inspired by our own grandfathers? Do we enthusiastically jump in the rat race and attempt to out-earn and out-Instagram everybody else (cf. the lower middle class of the book)? Do we ostentatiously drop both status ladders and do our own thing? The middle class is fractured and occupied by sneering at everybody climbing a different ladder than themselves.
I’d asked if anyone knew someone trying to do what Fussell did, for the current era. I won’t credit every single person who answered, but the most common was David Brooks’ Bobos In Paradise, explaining how Fussell’s bohemian Class X merged with the bourgeoisie to become a joint bohemian-bourgeois (“BoBo”) upper-middle-class for the 21st century. Other people brought up the NYT style section, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Helen Andrews, and marketers (though they might not release their best discoveries publicly!)
And speaking of post-Fussell class analysis, Drew Schlomo writes:
It's not obvious to me that anyone has mentioned this, but Douglas Coupland named "Generation X" after Fussel's X class. the important thing to keep in mind about his x class idea is that it represents the idea of "opting out" of a power structure: you stop trying to fit in with the cool kids and smoke with your buddies under the bleachers instead.
By far the most controversial part of the post was the part holding up the Simpsons as a sign of now-unattainable 80s-90s working-class prosperity. Some people complained that even at the time, everyone understood the Simpsons to be unrealistically rich for their supposed working-class roots. So for example Ryan L:
The Simpsons is also a fantasy cartoon. Despite what the author of that tweet says, it was never believable that someone with a high school degree could become a safety officer at a nuclear plant, let alone retain that job while being caught on camera sleeping all the time. It's completely useless to use the world of the Simpsons as a measure of income inequality.
Also in Homer's Enemy, Grimy/the writers rub in our face just how fantastical it is for Homer to have the lifestyle he has. Even just the size of his house, his two cars, and the number of kids was realistically unfeasable. This was Season 8, so maybe the change happened between Seasons 1 and 8 or the better explanation is the TV shows have always shown the characters being able to afford a better dwelling than they'd reasonably be able to.
Other people went the opposite direction, and said the Simpsons was and continues to be a realistic portrayal of achievable working-class life. For example, Drethelin:
That Simpsons reference is deeply bubbled imo. There is a generation/subculture of people who grew up, went to a useless college, and don't have good jobs, but 65 percent of Americans are homeowners and the Simpsons are not astonishingly wealthy or anything by current standards, just by journalist/media studies person standards
Just for kicks, I went looking for a four-bedroom house in the America's various Springfields on Zillow. You can get this one in Springfield, OH for $140K. Four bedrooms, two bathrooms, 2000 sqft, two-car garage, and it even looks a bit like the Simpson house. No trouble affording this for middle proles like the Simpsons.
Josh M adds: “Springfield is a notoriously crappy town with terrible schools and a years-long tire fire. The dream of homeownership in one America's many dumpy towns is in fact still alive.” And Will: “In the [episode] Lisa's First Word, it is indicated that Grandpa sold his house so that he could give Homer the money to buy his. So the no-inheritance is a bit of a stretch.”
Dylan O'Connell on Republicans getting explicit about class, and Senator Hawley in particular:
This is a project that they have been *gesturing towards*, but I don't see any reason yet to take Hawley seriously in any sort of good faith when it comes to his policy goals.
He will call out companies on Twitter over the low wage they pay their workers, but he was *against* a far more modest minimum wage increase when it came to his own state a few years back (I mean I'm happy for people to change their mind, but I don't get any sense that's what happened here?).
To his credit, he *did* provide his own recent minimum wage proposal. But the structure is bizarre, and honestly makes no sense. It would place a nearly 100% marginal tax rate on people in certain settings, which really doesn't seem like what he or the GOP wants. But I honestly don't think Hawley is particularly interested in making this policy, he's just signaling his stance (and I'm honestly surprised that his aides didn't at least put more work into making that signaling a little more coherent).
Hawley's Twitter account is certainly a strident critic of Big Tech... but what are the actual policies he is proposing? I mean this genuinely, I have tried to find it, and I can't find much. Maybe they were going to be in that book deal that got cancelled, but that's the thing... he's not a pundit, he's a senator! Proposing legislation is kinda part of his job. The main thing I can find is his amendment to Section 230, but do you genuinely think he wants to pass that? I don't think it would actually fix his major criticisms of the industry?
This is not criticism of "Why doesn't the senate get anything done??". That has nothing to do with Hawley. But I think it's genuinely important to not just take "gesturing towards policy on Twitter" as equivalent to taking real substantive policy ambitions. There are lots of senators I disagree with, but you can absolutely find the concrete policies they support or reject. Like, just to stick with the obvious polarizing choices, when you go find some Bernie Sanders proposal, like it or not , I am confident that Sanders would *love* to enact that agenda. Maybe it's a terrible idea, but he sincerely thinks these are policies that should be made into law.
When it comes to Hawley, I honestly don't think that's the right perspective to take. Does he sincerely want his Section 230 Modification to pass? He doesn't really act like a senator who does. All the analysis I can find on both sides of the aisle seems to think that policy is pretty bad, and doesn't fit his mission. But is that even the point?
In his "defense", you can just say "What's the difference? The Senate won't pass anything anyways, so what matters is your performance to the public, and the values you stand up for". And like, that's actually kinda true, which is why I think you should give even less weight to the idea that Hawley is genuine about these policies.
Sorry for the rant, I admit it just bothers me. I would so much rather the GOP have real policy ambitions that I disagree with than the fact that they seem to have largely given up on those ambitions. And I think it's important to draw your own judgment on whether or not to "believe" senators on the policies they advocate, not just what they say their stance is. I think Hawley is genuinely wary of the effects of Big Tech and other large corporations, and would like to reign in their power. I do *not* believe the policies he gestures towards on Twitter are actually the ones he wants to enact. I think he knows the Section 230 reform wouldn't accomplish anything like what he wants.
The welfare stuff is odd because I think some of his *interest* in that is genuine, but he just isn't acting like it matters to him (trying to make a deal, do serious proposals, and whatnot). Until I see real reason to think otherwise, I just assume he's just got too much pressure from the conservative movement, which is still so antagonistic to welfare, for it to be anything but posturing from him. But like, I'd love to be proven wrong, his GOP colleague introduced a big new child poverty bill, let's see the support, or a genuine alternative.
This also sparked a discussion about whether Donald Trump was “upper class”, with one person arguing in support that he owns gold toilets, and someone else responding that gold toilets are the least classy thing imaginable. Good summation of the difference between economic vs. cultural models of class!
Also about the Republicans post, David English asks:
Are you going to do a similar post for the Democrats? Would be cool to read them side-by-side.
I have less good advice for the Democrats because they seem less confused. I am against wokeness on moral/epistemic grounds, but it does seem to be a winning strategy (I think 25% less wokeness would be an even more winning strategy, but I think the general direction is working).
I’m not a political scientist and this may all be garbage. But the conflict theory perspective on this - which has a lot to recommend it - goes something like: if you’re forming a winning coalition, you want to grab the powerful people (because then you have power) and the powerless people (because they’re more numerous, and also you can claim to be fighting for the powerless). But the powerless people are going to want things from the powerful people, the powerful people aren’t going want to give those things up, and then your coalition frays and breaks. The history of successful coalition-building has been wooing the powerful people by letting them keep their power, and placating the powerless people by giving them culture war concessions - which they obsess over, and which the powerful people don’t mind at all.
The most famous example of doing this well was the Reagan coalition, where powerful business interests got to stay rich and powerful, and Moral Majority Christians got to have prayer in school or whatever. But the modern Democratic coalition works too - powerful class interests get to stay rich and powerful, and poor minorities get to have anti-racist math in school or whatever. This honestly seems like a pretty good deal for the Democrats, coalition-building-wise, and I’m not sure they can do better.
One nicely symmetrical option would be for the Republicans to run on being the party defending the cultural lower class (secretly captured by an economic upper class of Koch-style billionaires), and the Democrats to run on being the party defending the economic lower class (secretly captured by a cultural upper class of influencers and thought leaders). But right now the Democrats don’t need to do that: they have the poor people, they have the influencers and thought leaders, but they also have lots of billionaires! From a purely pragmatic/strategic point of view I’m not sure how they do better. Maybe if billionaires aren’t actually useful then it’s worth their while to pivot, but that’s going to be hard to argue to the DNC.
Given the ways class is inherited, I was interested to hear some commenters mention Paul Fussell’s son is also famous. Psmith:
Paul's son Sam Fussell wrote the criminally underappreciated Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, which I suspect at least a few regular AST readers will enjoy.
And Steven Hales (slightly chopped up for better effect):
Sam Fussell’s book Muscle is really good and worth checking out. After graduating from Oxford, and starting bodybuilding because he was intimidated by city life, Sam started cosplaying the working class […] He would tell bodybuilding friends that his father had worked in a nail factory and was dead instead of admitting he was a Princeton professor.
Class is really weird. Somebody should write a book about it.