The 5 Social Classes in America

Theory is indispensable, for there is no way to commune directly with reality in the wild. The trouble with theories, lenses or reference frames, is that they must necessarily leave large parts of reality out of focus. When we speak of class, the tendency is strong to reach for the Marxian frame. As Foucault reminds us, Marx and Engels borrowed the notion of class struggle from the notion of race struggle. The point was to reframe history as the struggle for hegemony between rising and falling social classes. That was all well and good. But as good German thinkers, what they tried to do was to explain social structure by appealing to material reductionism. The mode of production, in this schema, determined social structure. More precisely, the key structuring reality that was isolated by Marx was the centrality of property relations: social classes were defined by their relationship to the means of production; on the one hand, you had the owners of the means of production, the capitalists, and on the other, wage laborers, dependent on the capitalists for access to the means of production. Once capitalism had advanced far enough, these would be the only two classes left, archaic landlords and suchlike would’ve long since disappeared, and all politics would come down to the struggle between the two Marxian classes. Or so it was thought.

The trouble began almost immediately. After many false alarms, as industrial capitalism finally took off at the end of the nineteenth century, there emerged a distinct third class, immediately called the ‘New Class,’ that did not fit at all in the bipolar schema but was seemingly integral to industrial capitalism. This was the class of white-collar workers who had little in common with the exploited masses or the capitalist class. They were educated, they were relatively affluent, they were upwardly mobile, and their power to set the social agenda was growing in leaps and bounds. More importantly, they simply refused to play by the rules of the Marxian playbook. Instead of exacerbating class antagonism, the New Class seemed destined to temper it.

For a hundred years, intellectuals have struggled with this theoretical problem. Like astronomers before Newton, they have resorted to adding the equivalent of epicycles in order to hold on to their cherished paradigm. But in the late-twentieth century, a new way of thinking about class emerged from the discipline of cultural sociology. Once the cultural turn had been fully digested, it became increasingly clear that the way out of the cul-de-sac of Marxian class analysis was to anchor class not in the mode of production, but in the mode of reproduction.

What class was meant to capture was the persistence of folkways — life history patterns, lifestyles, child-rearing practices, fertility behavior, family formation, family reproduction, human capital formation, meaning-making, psycho-political attitudes, and so and so forth. In order to identify a social class — a historical actor capable of carrying on some sort of struggle against other social classes — what needed to be pinned down was its mode of reproduction. The reframing required decentering the individual and recentering the family. For the persistence of folkways and all that followed from them, was, above all, a question of intergenerational transmission within families. In other words, the main theoretical insight of the new paradigm was that material advantage, ways of life, cultural values, psychological dispositions, and so on, are transmitted phylogenetically, so to speak. Class is passed on at the dinner table.

OK, so if we follow the cultural sociologists, what can we say about social classes in the present-day United States? I want to argue that there are five distinct social classes that can be identified; that there is clear daylight between them; and that grasping this class typology can help us understand the contours of the long war — the confrontation over American culture and values. And much else besides, including the misdiagnosis of the New American Left.

The diagnostic feature of the upper class is that it obtains a disproportionate share of its high income from family ownership of assets, largely inherited. Other diagnostic characters are live-in help, private jets, multiple vacation homes, control of companies, etc. This is a tiny stratum of society — something like one-tenth of one percent of American families belong to the upper class. The mode of reproduction in the upper class is straightforward — gifts, bequests and estates reproduce class directly. Historically, this is a very old class, certainly there from the beginning in American history, as attested to by the dominance in New England of the same set of closely-tied and tightly-knit families centered on the Mather-Cotton dynasty, right down from the time of the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony [David Hackett Fisher].

The calling card of the professional class is higher education and professional expertise. Also called the upper-middle class (an income-based definition) or the professional-middle class, it is a slightly bigger stratum — roughly 10 percent of families. The mode of reproduction here is very different: each generation must rejoin the professional class, so to speak, through years of university education and professional training. Graduate school, and above all, prestige schools, are the central sites of reproduction of the professional class. Class folkways are passed on, above all, through rigorous child-rearing practices (‘helicopter parenting’). In other words, professional class reproduction takes place by the intergenerational transmission of human capital. Historically, this class was tiny before World War II. It really comes into its own in the late-twentieth century, emerging triumphant in the 1990s. By the turn of the century, this class had attained unchallenged supremacy through its monopolization of the technocracy, the prestige media, and all major sites of cultural production. The geographic center of gravity of this class are the metros and superzips where the ‘bobos live in paradise.’ The hipster aesthetic and the Great Awokening are expressions of professional class Millennials, ie, the second generation of this social class.

My big discovery of this year is that it is the professional class, not the upper class, that is hegemonic. In fact, if you are upper class, you try to pass off as professional class — there’s a smell of nepotism in inheriting your social position instead of earning it by outcompeting others in getting into the prestige school-elite firm pipeline so central to Markovitz’s schema. So, like the working-class migrant, you try to hide your upper-class origins in polite society.

Then you have the middle class proper, with its center of gravity in the suburbs and provincial small towns where it maintains tight control over local affairs. It weighs in at about one-fourth of families. The diagnostic character of this social class is the formal use of space around the house as a lawn and the automobile as a way of life. Zones with single-family dwellings surrounded by impeccable lawns are a sure sign that you are in the middle-class world proper. They go to college but not graduate school or prestige schools. This is the ‘stand-your-ground’ class — the McCloskeys belong to this class. Status signaling here is achieved by the square footage of the property, the number of bedrooms in the house, and other displays of material wealth that the professional class finds so distasteful. The folkways of the middle class have by now propagated worldwide — everywhere there is any affluence, you can find the same monoculture of ‘the American way of life.’ Historically, the American suburban middle class emerged at midcentury, achieving a decisive weight in the 1960s, after which it went into a slow imperceptible decline. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, it was outmaneuvered by the professional class.

Below these charismatic classes, suffering their rule, are the subaltern classes. The numerically dominant social class, accounting for roughly half the population, is, and has been at least since midcentury, the working class. The diagnostic character of this class is a faster life history. They get married in their early twenties — compared to the late twenties for the middle class and the mid-thirties for the professional class. And they almost immediately begin reproducing. Child rearing in the working class is starkly different from the visible classes. Already by age three, professional class kids have vocabularies that are 70 percent larger than working class kids.

The American education system, geared as it is towards selecting and preparing kids for college, is actively hostile to working class kids. Kids from working class families go straight to work after high school. If the external site of reproduction of the middle class is the college town or state university, and that of the professional class is the prestige school or graduate school, that for the working class is the factory floor. At work, they master skilled work that makes all this stuff possible, and in horizontal solidarity with other workers, they suffer the discipline imposed from above with a grin and a curse.

Working class families are much more closely-knit than those of the upper classes. As Barbara Jensen has put it, the contrast is that between ‘becoming and belonging.’ In the professional class, the lodestar is ‘self-actualization.’ By contrast, working-class people center their lives on family, friends and community. The contrast is most visible is mobility. Professionals move half-way across the world for the right opportunity at the drop of a hat — they’re from ‘nowhere’. The bulk of working-class people work, live and die within miles of where they were born — they’re from ‘somewhere’. The mobility of the middle class is somewhere between these two extremes — one goes to the state school and perhaps works in the nearby metro before pairing up and returning home to the suburbs, perhaps within driving distance from one’s aging parents.    

Historically, the industrial working class and the middle class emerged together at midcentury as the century of American growth culminated in the 1960s [Robert J. Gordon]. We have previously documented the rise and fall of the industrial working class. While the middle class went into relative decline after the neoliberal turn in the 1970s, the industrial working class went into absolute decline — particularly after the Clinton betrayal. It has now become what Jest calls the New Minority. Treated with contempt and as ‘a threat from below’ [Richard F. Hamilton, 1972] by the hegemonic class, the working class has thrown its weight behind antisystemic populism.  

Finally, you have the criminalized underclass, accounting for about 10-15 percent of the populace. This is where you land if you really fall through the cracks. This is the world of true precarity: in and out of work, on and off welfare, in and out of prison, trailer parks and homelessness, drug abuse, red light districts, and so on and so forth. The shortest path to the underclass from the working class is to drop out of high school. One finds here an overrepresentation of the mentally challenged — the sorting on IQ posited by Murray and Herrnstein is most pronounced at the two ends of the social scale. Indeed, this is quite obvious in big Metropolitan cities where, more often than not, the homeless are schizophrenic and the petty criminals have a long history of psychological and behavioral dysfunction from early childhood. This is the view from law enforcement with which this class is so strongly entangled. From a critical perspective, the underclass is the ‘superfluous population’ — useless to capitalism as either disciplined laborers or consumers. The American solution to the problem posed by this superfluous population is to criminalize and incarcerate it. Incarceration rates in the Anglo-Saxon countries are revealing: 107 in Canada, 160 in Australia, 188 in New Zealand, 114 in the United Kingdom, and 639 in the United States.

Like the upper class, the underclass has sort of always been with us. Although, of course, its composition and social condition has changed tremendously over time. The modern system of allocation of esteem, reward and punishment has been a mixed blessing for the truly marginal. The professional class and much of the middle class sees the underclass as a deserving ward of the welfare state. The working class on the other hand, with its script of the ‘disciplined self’ [Michele Lamont], blames this class for its moral failings. In their book, ‘hard living whites’ and the ‘inner city’ [Black] criminal underclasses deserve not handouts but more discipline. This is a perpetual source of class antagonism between the hegemonic class and the working class — the main axis of class struggle in the contemporary United States.

3 thoughts on “The 5 Social Classes in America

  1. Sounds like a condensed version of Paul Fussell, with a bit of James Burnham and John and Barbara Ehrenreich thrown in.

    Anyway, I was thinking about *why* the professional managerial class dominates the upper class, the Really Rich, the people who make their money by ownership of capital assets.

    I suppose the easy answer is “because there are more of them” but that in turn begs the question why the middle class doesn’t dominate the PMC, since there are more members of the PMC.

    The answer I have come up with is that you can run things without privately owned capital assets. There’s a reason that it is not in favor, but it can be done. You cannot run anything much larger than a fruit stand without management, without someone to make sure that the employees show up and are paid, that the fruit is ordered and that the orders are delivered and the suppliers and tax man are duly paid.

    1. Definitely owe a lot to Ehrenreich. You ask a fascinating question. Why is the professional class hegemonic instead of the upper class? It’s not because of numbers. I like your corporatist theory of professional class supremacy — that’s certainly what’s going at elite firms and institutions. The revolt at the NYTimes was bottom up. And from the looks of it, the orgy of censorship by the social media firms is also driven from below.

      But I would suggest that professional class monopolization of symbolic production is important too. It writes everything that appears on agenda-setting newspapers. It makes all the films and television shows. It write all the books and the textbooks fed to kids. It is impossible to escape the voice of the professional class.

      There’s also the logic internal to the meritocracy. Have you seen my post on Markovitz? (https://policytensor.com/2020/06/27/asymmetric-information-and-professional-class-reproduction/) Basically, status is a function of school prestige in our present system of allocation of social esteem. This means that inherited privilege must hide itself and pretend to be earned by getting into the prestige school-elite firm pipeline.

      BTW, you should join the conversation on Discord. My handle is policytensor#2709.

      1. “But I would suggest that professional class monopolization of symbolic production is important too.”

        Agreed, although that begs the question why the PMC is able to monopolize symbolic production? Again, I think it’s because assets don’t necessarily need owners (at least not in the sense that you can point to a named individual and say “this dude owns that hot dog stand over there”) but they do need someone to do the work to produce the symbols.

        And yes, I had read your post on professional class reproduction – where exactly do little yuppies come from? I intend to read it again.

        Anyway, never been on Discord. Thanks for the invite.

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