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"I look up to him, because he is upper-class. But I look down on him, because he is lower-class."
March 30, 2007 2:07 AM   Subscribe


 
Interesting, as in ridiculous, that the representative of the working classes is someone who says they 'live in a detached house with a surfeit of stripped floorboards and a utility room. I keep guest towels, buy organic free-range eggs, am in the 40 per cent tax bracket and know what alfalfa sprout salad is.' Perhaps the Times couldn't find a poor person.
posted by jack_mo at 2:22 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


In my home town, there may have been lots of millionaires but it was not always easy to tell from the outside.

She clearly hasn't been home in 20 years. Even in erstwhile culturally modest places like Oregon, Washington State and the upper midwest, in the past 10 years, conspicuous consumption has become widespread and the divide between and among socioeconomic divides has become much more evident.

We can argue about what constitutes class in the US, but something the petty bourgeoisie has aspired to throughout our history, is being seen as from a higher station than the one from which it originated, mostly communicating this with a collection of material trappings.

Sorry to focus in on only the last link in the post, but when I see Americans go on about the USA being a "classless society", I think they are absolutely full of shit.
posted by psmealey at 2:24 AM on March 30, 2007


I am the best class.
posted by liquorice at 2:33 AM on March 30, 2007


As illustrated by the Lower middle and Working class articles, many people in the UK who identify themselves as being in those two groups, ain't.

It's interesting that, according to those writers, I could describe myself as being in any of those classes apart from the Upper. I just need to buy myself a peerage and then I'll have completed the set.
posted by tomsk at 2:34 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


liquorice is the best class.
posted by cgc373 at 2:34 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the Times couldn't find a poor person.

The article is trying to make the case that working class is not quite the same as poor. There's truth to that.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:39 AM on March 30, 2007


From the ‘Upper Class’ link:
So let us not say that it is a unique English problem. England has always been a country of great social mobility. It has been possible for us to have had a Jewish prime minister in 1880 and a woman prime minister in 1980. That would have been inconceivable in the US.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:39 AM on March 30, 2007


There was also a particularly disgusting anecdote in one of the comments, which I can’t find again for some reason, where someone with O-Levels and a plummy accent thought himself ‘better’ than his manager of several levels above who had multiple degrees and who had paid off her own house.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 2:49 AM on March 30, 2007


I reckon it's another sign of the cunning of the British ruling classes. They've been forced into concessions down the years by a vibrant working class movement, but they cottoned on fairly quickly that you could defuse a lot by making cultural concessions while hanging on to the real power and the real money. So post 60s everyone starts getting prolier-than-thou, the debs all speak mockney and you get Ken Loach and Dennis Potter on the telly. Meanwhile the assault on the welfare state and the post-war compromise goes into top gear, social mobility slows right back down and the gap between rich and poor widens.
Or something like that; haven't really thought that out in full.
posted by Abiezer at 2:50 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


To me there are three main factors that have utterly confused British notions of class:

1. The flood of mega-wealthy people who have taken up residence in London, but who aren't upper class.

2. The rise of New Labour, once the party of actual working people, from within Islington, mythical bastion of the middle class, confusing any political divides.

3. Former admiration and identification with the gritty honesty of "working class life" being replaced by widespread mocking of "chav culture". Obviously being a chav is not the same as being working class, but aspirations of upward social mobility are no longer equated with rejecting your working class roots.

To a certain extent these terms have become outdated, although I recognise that as a doctor (son of a writer and a teacher), to some people I'm forever entrenched in the upper middle class.
posted by roofus at 3:05 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oooh. My last name is one of those listed as "upper-class". Suddenly I feel quite posh. Where's my man servant? Ah, Reginald, there you are. The fire has gone down and I'm getting a bit chilly. Throw another stack of 100-pound notes on. No Reginald, the 100s. Yes, that's right. Those burn the prettiest.
posted by chillmost at 3:08 AM on March 30, 2007 [6 favorites]


FYI, these are the aristocratic families Onslow mentions in his article: the Howards, the Cavendishes and the Russells.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 3:17 AM on March 30, 2007


All very boring.

All these essays try to force old 19th century clichés onto current society. Britain has changed a lot - especially through the Thatcher era and a sort of commercial-socialism (the social state around the mid 1980's all over Europe).

The idea of all the old class systems (political and religious ones) - have long been substituted by a much more complex and fragmented system of modern tribalism, target groups and psychological categories.

As an inspiration I can only recommend Adm Curtis "The Century of the Self" [watch at Google video]. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have used focus groups to tailor their politics to the new 'casts' - and it was very effective.
posted by homodigitalis at 3:24 AM on March 30, 2007


"when I see Americans go on about the USA being a "classless society", I think they are absolutely full of shit"

Amen to that. I remember some recent study that documented that social mobility was much higher in the EU then in the US. So if you are born poor, 'working class' or whatever you are much more likely to stay within that group if you life in the US in contrast to the EU.
posted by homodigitalis at 3:27 AM on March 30, 2007 [2 favorites]


On the last link, I've never understood the American obsession with the perceived British obsession with class. The whole thing is so tedious, no Brit really cares that much, and the piece feels like it was written in 1977.

Of course, I listen to people's accents. And, yes, it is because I'm interested where they're from. But, contrary to what the author thinks it is a generalised, geography-based interest. Not because I'm trying to work out whether their granny was a maid or a lady.
posted by rhymer at 3:29 AM on March 30, 2007


Paul Fussell's book on class in America is interesting (even though his final chapter I found incredibly embarrassing for him--to me he clearly painted himself and his friends as wondrous examples of a new trans-class group that could only really inspire cock-punching).

Class clearly exists and is important to people, even if they don't think in those terms. We can all find examples within ourselves and by observing friends where our attitudes are clearly based on class distinctions.
posted by maxwelton at 3:32 AM on March 30, 2007


On post, I don't disagree with homodigitalis.
posted by maxwelton at 3:33 AM on March 30, 2007


when I see Americans go on about the USA being a "classless society", I think they are absolutely full of shit.

It's clearly wrong to say that the U.S. is a classless. But I think class works fundamentally differently in the two countries. I think the working-class author summed it up best:
In America, it’s not about where you are from but where you are at. Here we are so obsessed by class that it is never about where you are at but where you are from.
At my university, there is social pressure to fit in with the upper classes. I know people who consciously changed their accents so that they would fit in better. And the interview process is notorious for keeping people who don't out—when meeting British undergraduate admissions candidates I noticed that their speech patterns and mannerisms were much more diverse than the first-year British undergraduates in my college.
posted by grouse at 3:35 AM on March 30, 2007


"when I see Americans go on about the USA being a "classless society", I think they are absolutely full of shit"

In the case of the Madge-like writer for the times, yeah, sure. But as a general rule? Nah. Naturally there's a heckuva pecking order here, but we Yanks are simply not educated in the mechanics of class politics, that's the thing. We have no langage to talk about it, probably because we are congentially allergic to Karl Marx, and our lil capitalist engine that could runs on the cheery delusion that if we work super-hard we can get on top in our lifetime. Plus our class experience is so rooted in slavery, we turned our attention to race instead.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:39 AM on March 30, 2007


Classy post, Aloysius Bear.
posted by Effigy2000 at 3:40 AM on March 30, 2007


Plus our class experience is so rooted in slavery, we turned our attention to race instead.
So ‘white trash’ or not is not a question of socio-economic class? It’s, umm, race?
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 3:42 AM on March 30, 2007


hoverboards don't work on water writes 'The article is trying to make the case that working class is not quite the same as poor. There's truth to that.'

Sure, I just thought it odd, suspicious even, that someone who, by their own admission, wasn't working class by any sensible measure was chosen to muse on that, when they might easily have found someone who identifies as working class and would be generally seen as such to write the piece.
posted by jack_mo at 3:46 AM on March 30, 2007


Class is a function of society, there is no such thing as a classless society.
posted by vbfg at 3:46 AM on March 30, 2007


Paul Fussell's book on class in America is interesting

Paul Fussell's book is spot-on. Particularly the part about the truly upper-class: you don't know any of 'em, you've never seen any of 'em, and it's unlikely you ever will. The class masquerading as upper class are, in fact, upper-middle or simply middle. You can tell because of the narcissistic class aspirations evident in all their conspicuous consumption. Those big McMansions? Middle to Upper-Middle. No genuinely upper-class person would ever have a home you could see from the streets.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:55 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


you've never seen any of 'em, and it's unlikely you ever will.

Fascinating and very true. You might have met some of these folks if you went to Groton or Collegiate on scholarship. They mostly kept to themselves at if they attended university in the States and invariably it was Princeton, Bennington or Williams. And they never entered the workforce, at least notin any way that's familiar to any of us. An old high school buddy of mine managed to befriend a young Rockefeller as a freshman at Princeton, and managed to bask in the glow for a few years (I presume, à la Talented Mr. Ripley fashion) after graduation, sponging off of him for travel, adventure, leisure, etc. ... but eventually he was ejected. Because, after all, NOKD.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 4:16 AM on March 30, 2007


So let us not say that it is a unique English problem. England has always been a country of great social mobility. It has been possible for us to have had a Jewish prime minister in 1880 and a woman prime minister in 1980. That would have been inconceivable in the US.

Well, duh. We don't even have a Prime Minister.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 4:17 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Is a Prime Minister something that you'd have to have parliamentary system of government to know about? Because y'know... I don't.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 4:21 AM on March 30, 2007


Ah but jack_mo, if being working class is less about wealth and more about being anti-intellectual, then it might not be so easy to find a genuine Worker who can write to a publishable standard :) Our class categories leaking like this (working class millionaires?) makes it seem as if there are no class distinctions left, but it's just that the terminology hasn't yet adapted to new class divides.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 4:31 AM on March 30, 2007


Funny how the Times couldn't find/didn't want to find an actual working class person - you know, a builder or something. They do still exist, oddly enough.

I have no idea what class I am any more, except that I'm not upper class. I can't stand chintzy middle-middle class stuff and I speak clear RP, and detest football like that guy says. But my roots are distinctly working class/lower-middle, I can certainly drop a 't' or two if provoked, and I went to the local bog-standard comp dontcha know.

I don't think I believe in any of this stuff anyway.
posted by reklaw at 4:41 AM on March 30, 2007


All the authors, except Onslow, are currently writers at the Times. I wouldn't be surprised if the pool of working-class Times journalists from which Carol Midgley was fished is very small indeed.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 4:47 AM on March 30, 2007


I have to say, I hate the working class label. It's relevance is to 1853 understandings of the world, not 2007. It's essentially meaningless today. Sure we have some sense of what it means, and the distinction between our sense of who those people might be and who the middle classes are. As far as I'm concerned though, if your existence is predicated on your ability to work then that makes you working class. If your inability to exchange your labour for capital renders you fucked then you are working class. In the purely economic sense of drawing distinctions I just see no difference between the middle and working classes at all.

The rest is down to how people perceive themselves and their place in the world, which makes traditional understandings of class a measure of self satisfaction rather than actual position in society.
posted by vbfg at 4:57 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


In the purely economic sense of drawing distinctions I just see no difference between the middle and working classes at all.

well, actually, it's not that hard to understand ... middle class people have careers ... working class people have jobs
posted by pyramid termite at 5:07 AM on March 30, 2007


the truly upper-class: you don't know any of 'em, you've never seen any of 'em, and it's unlikely you ever will.

Total rubish, someone who confuses class with money entirely. It is a curious property of the upper class that money isn't always part of the bargain. If it were not so, then they'd have to let new money into the club, and, I can assure you, they do not. Only pedigree admits one into this class.

The conspicious consumers of which you speak tend to be new money, of the worst sort, hence, they feel they've something to prove. Likely first or perhaps second generation from the middle classes.

As for myself, it has been firmly established that I have no class at all. I've lived the life style of all the classes, for however brief a period, having been raised very non-class-concious in an uppermidwest factory town. Yet in my late teens, many finishing touches were included, under the tuteledge of a truly upper class gentleman (to the extent I would accept it, anyway, which, at times, wasn't much!)
posted by Goofyy at 5:08 AM on March 30, 2007


Perhaps the Times couldn't find a poor person.

As illustrated by the Lower middle and Working class articles, many people in the UK who identify themselves as being in those two groups, ain't.

Funny how the Times couldn't find/didn't want to find an actual working class person - you know, a builder or something.

What they couldn't find was a working class person who was interested in or willing to write an article about their class status. In my experience (vast, very very vast) working class men, alt least in America, aren't interested in class issues. Union membership in the states has relfected this loss of interest.

I'm the first kid to go to college in a family full of mechanics and I worked manual labor type jobs straight through college (though I was never very good at them). I don't think I qualify to speak for the working class and would never write an article from that perspective because it doesn't describe my current social standing. I think the Times writer did working class people a disservice by falsely representing their worldview. However, as someone who went from this kind of background to elite educational institutions (where these supposed never seen elites went) I will say the assertion that America is a society without class consciousness is complete and utter fucking garbage. And the distaste goes in both directions.

Those big McMansions? Middle to Upper-Middle.

Anyone living in anything that can be qualified as a mansion in any way whatsoever is not middle class. I think you're description of the classes is very far from reality.
posted by The Straightener at 5:14 AM on March 30, 2007


As an American who's been living in England for about ten years, I seriously question how relevant this segmentation is today. In banking circles, at least from the employment side, all anybody cares about is can she or he get the job done?

And on the retail side any Private Bank you might approach just wants to know if you meet their criteria for required minimum assets.

This crap might have been relevant ten or twenty years ago, but I'm finding it difficult to believe pedigree counts for much today. Unless, of course, you'd like to join on of those private clubs but, then again, who would want to?
posted by Mutant at 5:14 AM on March 30, 2007


the cunning of the British ruling classes

That's why I find David Cameron repellent in a way Margaret Thatcher never was. She was openly seeking to favour the interests of vulgar middle-class people like herself. Dave is obviously (almost openly) trying to pull an upper-class con, exploiting the dim-witted loyalty of the middle classes to help him fend off the workers and ensure the lifestyle of the wealthy and their heirs continues to go unthreatened either by revolution or simple social mobility. If the bourgeoisie had an intelligent sense of its own interests, they'd be the first to wheel out the guillotine for people like Dave. I'd love to have seen Norman Tebbit or someone of his ilk play Robespierre, but I'm afraid it's never going to happen.
posted by Phanx at 5:16 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


the truly upper-class: you don't know any of 'em, you've never seen any of 'em, and it's unlikely you ever will.

A " gentleman" would certainly not have to buy his own furniture and used to be described as living off the income of his income.
posted by adamvasco at 5:18 AM on March 30, 2007


In banking circles, at least from the employment side, all anybody cares about is can she or he get the job done?

If you have to work to make a living, you are by definition middle class. If you are a lawyer or banker, you are likely upper upper middle class, but middle class nonetheless.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 5:24 AM on March 30, 2007


If it was cold your daddy could stop it, goofyy?
posted by bonaldi at 5:25 AM on March 30, 2007


well, actually, it's not that hard to understand ... middle class people have careers ... working class people have jobs

So you see the difference as being possession of a certain class of skills?
posted by vbfg at 5:25 AM on March 30, 2007


If you are a lawyer or banker, you are likely upper upper middle class, but middle class nonetheless.

Exactly. Proper upper-class people would almost universally regard banking as a vulgar, middle-class sort of thing to do - like their contempt for being "in trade", no matter what sort of trade it might be. However, this kind of upper class person is a gradually dying breed.
posted by reklaw at 5:30 AM on March 30, 2007


So you see the difference as being possession of a certain class of skills?

i don't think skills have anything to do with it

get a job at a gas station ... or get a job at a factory and you won't need an explanation ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:34 AM on March 30, 2007


i don't think skills have anything to do with it

Skills have everything to do with it. My brother, a mechanic, makes more money fixing cars than I do as a social worker. He makes more money than most teachers his age. He's working class, I'm not, teachers are not. Not everyone with an advanced degree is making tons of money and not every working class guy is pumping gas. This is a particularly narrow view of both working and educated classes.
posted by The Straightener at 5:38 AM on March 30, 2007


And btw, a guy who is pumping gas and raising a family on that income isn't a part of the working class, he's a part of the working poor.
posted by The Straightener at 5:41 AM on March 30, 2007


This is a particularly narrow view of both working and educated classes.

This is exactly the point I'm trying to make. Class is a view of self and others and not at all related to wealth and ability to acquire it. It's a function of any society which divides labour and roles within that society in different directions and that is every society that has ever existed since the beginning of agriculture, and probably beyond.
posted by vbfg at 5:44 AM on March 30, 2007


Skills have everything to do with it.

because it takes absolutely no skills to be working at a gas station or a factory, right?

And btw, a guy who is pumping gas and raising a family on that income isn't a part of the working class, he's a part of the working poor.

ah, well, thanks for informing me of that ... i wondered why the hell my paycheck wasn't going very far those days and now you've cleared it all up for me

that was before i got the factory job, of course

but i'll just shut up and let my social betters explain to me what it all means and what my proper attitude should be, because obviously a stupid factory rat like me has no idea
posted by pyramid termite at 5:51 AM on March 30, 2007


Quoting from the working-class article: "In America, it’s not about where you are from but where you are at. Here we are so obsessed by class that it is never about where you are at but where you are from."

Indeed, and that's exemplified in this thread. The divergence of American, British and Marxist views of class is very noticeable. The British view that one can earn millions, live in an expensive house and have a career in banking or own a set of companies and still be working class (e.g. Alan Sugar) is very far away from the view of class that The Straightener, for instance, has. One comment of The Straightener's particularly struck me as showing a really fundamental difference: the idea that one could be of a different class than one's own brother — this really isn't the case in Britain.

Meanwhile, I think it's fair to characterise the 'means of production' part of vbfg's comments as essentially Marxist (not a term I use pejoratively, so I hope it doesn't offend). Thinking of class in terms of relationship to the means of production isn't very similar to the American idea of class*, and is I think really quite different from the traditional British idea of class, which doesn't have much to do with economics.

vbfg's statement that class is now about self-satisfaction and self-opinion mystifies me, though. Are you saying that the class of Lord Onslow or Wayne Rooney (or anyone in between) is determined by, or even affected by, their opinion of themselves? I don't think there's anything either of them could ever do or say that would alter anyone's perception of their class. Were Lord Onslow to slum it with London's poor for the rest of his days he'd surely just be labelled a champagne Marxist (a la Pulp's Common People).

* Not that I claim that there's one homogeneous understanding of class throughout the fifty states, but it's a reasonable generalisation.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 6:05 AM on March 30, 2007


because it takes absolutely no skills to be working at a gas station or a factory, right?

You're arguing that the skills necessary to pump gas or work at a factory are the same as those needed to fix a transmission or install a home cooling system? Is there no reflection in pay scales between these types of labor based on the amount of skills necessary to perform the job? Is that wrong?

And I didn't say "pumping gas requires no skills," nor did I call you a "factory rat." Maybe you should step away for a second to get your self consciousness under control.
posted by The Straightener at 6:21 AM on March 30, 2007


I always thought E.P Thompson had it about right in the Preface to his Making of the English Working Class:
By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousness. I emphasise that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a "structure", nor even as a "category", but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.

More than this, the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure. The finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or of love. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context.
I took him to be saying attempting to place yourself or someone else in a particular class or to give a snapshot of class in society at some point in time might be a bit of an idle exercise, but that in the long view it's hard to deny that it exists and shapes lives.
posted by Abiezer at 6:28 AM on March 30, 2007


the idea that one could be of a different class than one's own brother — this really isn't the case in Britain.

Bosh. How many tedious 70s/80s sitcoms played on the "working class relatives come to visit", like when Onslow appears to stay with Hyacinth Bucket. She may not be the upper-middle she aspires to, but she's definitely a different class from her brother.
posted by bonaldi at 6:31 AM on March 30, 2007


"In America, it’s not about where you are from but where you are at. Here we are so obsessed by class that it is never about where you are at but where you are from."

That's not really the case in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and much of the Old South. It matters a great deal in those places where you prepped, where you went to university, what company you work for, etc. These are definitely still upper upper middle class fetishes, but it's a mistake to think that these things don't matter in these geographical areas, particularly if you aspire to a certain type of lifestyle/career.

For the rest of the country, the midwest, the west coast, the great plains, the southwest, you are correct however. It is about what you've done in those place, not where you're from.
posted by Tommy Gnosis at 6:37 AM on March 30, 2007


What they couldn't find was a working class person who was interested in or willing to write an article about their class status.

They can't have looked very hard, then. Pop into any lower-level union meeting in the UK and you'll find class politics very much to the fore, complete with good old fashioned class war vocabulary, brothers and sisters. (Or you did, in the mid-1990s, the last time my upper-middle class self was reporting on strike negotiations.)

Aloysius Bear - spot on analysis, I think. Discussing class in an Anglo-American context like this leads to a lot of talking at cross-purposes.
posted by jack_mo at 6:37 AM on March 30, 2007


How many tedious 70s/80s sitcoms played on the "working class relatives come to visit", like when Onslow appears to stay with Hyacinth Bucket. She may not be the upper-middle she aspires to, but she's definitely a different class from her brother.

Well, the whole point is that Hyacinth is really just as low-class as they are, but is trying to hide it. You're supposed to think that she's stupid to be so pretentious, while the 'slobs' are at least honest.

Pop into any lower-level union meeting in the UK and you'll find class politics very much to the fore, complete with good old fashioned class war vocabulary, brothers and sisters.

Well, there aren't too many of those left, but yeah. I think they got too hung up on the idea of having a Times writer do every piece, when it seems quite clear that there are no proper working class Times writers.
posted by reklaw at 6:41 AM on March 30, 2007


I think they got too hung up on the idea of having a Times writer do every piece, when it seems quite clear that there are no proper working class Times writers.

I'm sure there are working class people who work for the Times, although not as writers. Of course the editors wouldn't know who any of those people are.
posted by grouse at 6:54 AM on March 30, 2007


In America the usual class markers: accent, education, finances, profession are so variable. Is a Beverly Hills plastic surgen making 7 figures a year and hobnobbing with the elite, of a higher class than an HMO provider in rural Mississippi?

Case in point, my husband's parents and my parents.

His family comes from dirt-poor, uneducated (cotton mill workers, share-croppers) heavily accented ("We might could git you that") Southern stock. My family comes from a Midwestern (little or no accent) college-educated (ministers, pharmacists, teachers) background. Yet, both sets of parents live in essentially the same type of housing, both of our mothers dress about the same (JC Penny casual) both families are heavily involved in church and therefore engage in roughly the same type of activities, and both sets of parents have about the same income. I would say they are both middle class.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:05 AM on March 30, 2007


They can't have looked very hard, then. Pop into any lower-level union meeting in the UK and you'll find class politics very much to the fore, complete with good old fashioned class war vocabulary, brothers and sisters.

According to the number of trade unions and their overall membership in the UK from 1975-2002 (pdf) those people are getting about as hard to find as they are in the states.
posted by The Straightener at 7:10 AM on March 30, 2007


I would say they are both middle class.

Indeed the are. The distinctions you are describing are regional, not class-oriented.
posted by psmealey at 7:11 AM on March 30, 2007


Right, there is a huge diffrence between the british and US senses of "Class". The Middle class/Upper class/Lower class terms really mean nothing other then how much money you have at the moment, and your "Class" changes, regardless of how you behave depending on how much money you have at the moment.

In the U.K. it's based on something less tangible. A working class person may have more money then a middle class person, and or even in rare cases an upper class person. Class, there, is about behavior.

People do talk about whether a person "Has class" depending on how they act as well, but it's two separate concepts that use the same word. It has nothing to do with money.
posted by delmoi at 7:21 AM on March 30, 2007


Indeed the are. The distinctions you are describing are regional, not class-oriented.

But these are not just regional differences. Both of my parents have college degrees and came from families were college degrees were the norm. Both of my parents have traveled the world and studied outside the classroom. They have exquisite table manners, enjoy classical music and have friends who do so as well. My husband's mother refuses to play Trivial Pursuit because she knows nothing of history, geography, art or literature-- she and father-in-law are woefully undereducated and to this day mother-in-law does not know which side of the plate the fork is laid. These would definitely be class distinctions in the UK.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:24 AM on March 30, 2007


were where college degrees were the norm
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:26 AM on March 30, 2007


Watch 7-Up again to see how class still works in Britain.
posted by tellurian at 7:30 AM on March 30, 2007


First up against the wall, the whole lot of you.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:37 AM on March 30, 2007


Wow, tellurian, I've never heard of the Up series (Wikipedia). Sounds amazing.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 7:39 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Watch 7-Up again to see how class still works in Britain.

Watch Caddyshack again to see how class still works in America.
posted by psmealey at 7:49 AM on March 30, 2007


We in the middle-middle class are not going to set the world on fire. But we will be the ones running the inquiries into why there weren’t enough fire engines in the area after the conflagration occurs.

Heh.
posted by mediareport at 7:50 AM on March 30, 2007


I might have felt differently if I was from the East Coast, where there is old money and people go to Ivy League schools and, for all I know, wear spats. Indeed, it may be the same in California, which is a bonkers place. But I am from Oregon, a beautiful and relatively straightforward state.

Uhhh, isn't this woman talking about class right there? Apparently to her, the East Coast is more hoity toity, we Californians are crazy loons living in some "bonkers" place (Whatever, lady. It's a very big state. I doubt you've experienced the whole place.), and Oregon is her vision of average middle of the road perfection. So... she's not judgy?

And as far as Americans not caring about eachother's class, I don't know what she's talking about. We just base it on other things. For example: "So what do you do for a living?" Income aside, do you actually think that someone who is an insurance salesman is judged equally with a fashion magazine editor? Someone who works at 7/11 is judged the same as someone who works at Disneyland? A real estate broker is judged the same as a plastic surgeon? Someone could be doing amazing things in life or making millions, but if the details are boring then Americans are far less impressed. I know for a fact that even though I made NO money whatsoever when I lived in Los Angeles, all I have to do is say that I used to work on movie posters and suddenly people's impression of me changes. I may be making more money now but lately my job hasn't been as interesting to anyone. And I definitely make NOOOOO money as a jazz singer, but when I mention that little hobby o' mine to some people their faces just light up and damned if it doesn't makes me downright fascinating. And God knows I'm really not. Well, other than to myself.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:53 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


I graduated in 2005 from an old New England prep school, and I would agree with Tommy Gnosis that, among some people on the East Coast, these sorts of things still matter. I went there on scholarship, and I was amazed at how many people there enjoyed exactly the sort of hereditary lifestyle that seems to be characteristic of the British upper classes- they were "old" money (considering the relative brevity of American history), they had countless ancestors and relatives who had attended the same school, or one of several similar schools, and while some of their parents were employed as lawyers, Wall Street types, etc, a not inconsiderable number of their parents seemed to have no occupation other than managing the family trust or perhaps some philanthropic foundation. I'm not sure if the difference between those whose families had no real occupation other than overseeing their assets, and those whose parents had careers, is significant, however, as either way, they were people who could afford high school at $45,000 a year for their children (and probably many years of private elementary and middle school), and the advantage to the children of attending such a school (if any) would be the same regardless of origin.
posted by Oobidaius at 8:00 AM on March 30, 2007


"Class... is about behavior."

Not a bad definition, delmoi.

In the UK, class is also about assumptions and priorities - which stamp one as "belonging" far more than money ever will.

Aloysius Bear's comments have been brilliant.

The upper classes may have little power in the UK today. But boy are they still firmly rooted. I've been on the subtly freezing end of too many country house experiences to ever ignore this fact.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:05 AM on March 30, 2007


Meanwhile, I think it's fair to characterise the 'means of production' part of vbfg's comments as essentially Marxist (not a term I use pejoratively, so I hope it doesn't offend). Thinking of class in terms of relationship to the means of production isn't very similar to the American idea of class*, and is I think really quite different from the traditional British idea of class, which doesn't have much to do with economics.

I'm not offended, it's precisely where my ideas of class come from. I'm not a Marxist for a bazillion reasons, not the least of which is that it's bollocks, but it is in essence where the term 'working class' comes from imo. For the record I'm also British, so some of my understanding of these terms also come from that aspect.

Your recognition of the difference in understanding of the terms between the US and the UK is valuable I think. I sorta kinda knew that but hadn't really articulated it to myself when I was writing before. In fact though, I do think those understandings are converging. It seems to me from my miscellaneous reading that nearly everyone in the US considers themselves middle class and I think, post Thatcher and definitely post-Blair, that's an increasingly held view in Britain. What is it that makes it so? There's nothing that says that they are that I can see, they just identify with those labels and want to be perceived as belonging to those categories.


vbfg's statement that class is now about self-satisfaction and self-opinion mystifies me, though. Are you saying that the class of Lord Onslow or Wayne Rooney (or anyone in between) is determined by, or even affected by, their opinion of themselves?


I think what I'm really saying is that once you get past economic definitions of what class is the rest really is opinion. We see ourselves as similar to those people, or different from those over there. That doesn't make these categories any the less real in terms of their effect on people. Once a group of people get together in some way and declare themselves different, and those differences are then perceived to be real and tangible, then those differences genuinely are real and tangible.

For instance, in what real sense is your excellent example of Alan Sugar at all working class? In every British sense of the phrase he is, of course, and will always be. But he's self made money too. That would likely make him something of a hero in the US. Here he would either be lauded as a hero or have his posh car scratched by people who also see him, and themselves, as working class. By that view, to some extent he's betrayed his roots. Nothing about what he has done will ever change the way people view him and probably won't change his view of himself, other than I bet you can't see his house from the road either.

Tied up within all this is opinion of self and opinion of others. Ultimately, that's all I think class is. It's when there are commonly held opinions of self and others that class becomes real and tangible but ultimately, imo the only one that genuinely matters is whether you have to work to live or not. Apart from a very few, everyone has to work to live and it renders notions of class meaningless for anything other than tugging yourself off at how fantastic you are compared to those bloody oiks over there.

Perception is everything. I assume you're aware of what the stereotypical English accent is. I call it the BBC accent, because BBC radio announcers used to talk that way. They would dress in full evening dress (dinner jackets and the works) to read the news out on the radio. The only people who ever, ever spoke that way worked for the BBC or defined themselves as middle class. It's not a local accent or an accent specific to anywhere in particular, it genuinely is an affectation that says "I am middle class". It has become a genuine accent because so many people adopted it as an affectation to mark their class distinction. They did it though because they thought they sounded aristocratic as a result. The very definition of speaking this way was to not drop your aitches like those working class cockneys do. If you know somebody called Harold, calling him Harold and not 'arold is what marked you out as having class. At least, that was the impression these self aggrandizing tosspots had. Their lack of class never let them realize that the aristocracy are and always have been as bad if not worse for dropping their aitches as anyone else.
posted by vbfg at 8:26 AM on March 30, 2007


For instance, in what real sense is your excellent example of Alan Sugar at all working class? In every British sense of the phrase he is, of course, and will always be. But he's self made money too. That would likely make him something of a hero in the US.

I was just out walking the dog and thinking about John Edwards, son of a mill worker, (or was it a coal miner?) born and raised in NC, self-made money galore. Does this make him a hero? He does get slammed for having made his fortune in civil lawsuits, but otherwise I think he is both well regarded and despised for his roots. Note that he neither speaks, dresses or acts like the son of a mill worker. I haven't been to dinner with him, but I bet his table manners are lovely.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:37 AM on March 30, 2007


It is unfortunately pretty close to accurate for me to say that everything I know about class in the United States—except for what I learned from the Paul Fussell book referenced above—I learned from Gilmore Girls. On the other hand, I have the definite feeling from Gilmore Girls that somebody involved in writing the show knew a thing or two about the schools and society Oobidaius describes.
posted by cgc373 at 8:38 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


"Their lack of class never let them realize that the aristocracy are and always have been as bad if not worse for dropping their aitches as anyone else."posted by vbfg

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

It is a distinguishing charactertistic of the upper classes that they retain their strangled vowels and misplaced consonants no matter to whom they are speaking.

The rest of us betray our class anxieties by talking "up" or "down" - depending on whether we are trying to ingratiate or dominate.

Yanks do this too, by the way.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 9:18 AM on March 30, 2007


I agree (at least, I think I do) that class is a result of shared opinions becoming in some way real.

I've never read Durkheim so there's every chance I'm talking nonsense here, but I think a relevant term is 'social fact'. Modern ('fiat') money is a social fact. Notes and coins have almost zero intrinsic value, and can no longer be exchanged for gold. Money gets its value, and its meaning, purely from peoples' beliefs about it. If people stop believing in it, money ceases to be real. The value and meaning of money is clearly not an objective, scientific fact like gravity. But it's also something more than 'meaningless', more than just a subjective opinion. One can't change one's mind and decide that money no longer has value — for each individual, money is absolutely inescapably real, as real as anything else. For an individual to decide that money is meaningless would be, at least in practical terms, as futile and invalid as deciding gravity isn't real. I think this is not a bad way of describing class. It straddles the division between subjective opinion and objective fact.

I don't think I've contradicted anything you've said here. I do admit to being hopelessly out of my depth in these sorts of sociological waters though :).

Oh, and thank you Jody for introducing me to the term 'Up to a point, Lord Copper'.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:08 AM on March 30, 2007


"I agree (at least, I think I do) that class is a result of shared opinions becoming in some way real..."

Darn it - I was just reading this entire comment & thinking again there was someone here making an awful lot of sense, and it was you again - Aloysius!!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 10:16 AM on March 30, 2007


Jody: I'm flattered, but I was more or less repeating (and agreeing with) what vbfg wrote (as I understand it, at least).
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:20 AM on March 30, 2007


Semi-tangentially, from the American-on-class link:

I was under the impression that it was all about geography. This meant that I developed quite a line in Canadian jokes (sorry, Canadians, but no one deserves it more).

As a Canadian, I'm bewildered. Seriously. What does that mean? Why would Canadian jokes stand you in good stead in a conversation about class with the English? And why do Canadians deserve it the most?

I don't mean these questions rhetorically, and I'm not at all offended. Just genuinely baffled. English Mefites: Little help?
posted by gompa at 10:32 AM on March 30, 2007


I was under the impression that it was all about geography. This meant that I developed quite a line in Canadian jokes (sorry, Canadians, but no one deserves it more).
As a Canadian, I'm bewildered. Seriously. What does that mean? Why would Canadian jokes stand you in good stead in a conversation about class with the English? And why do Canadians deserve it the most?

She initially thought that when people were trying to place her accent they were trying to infer where she came from geographically, rather than what class she was brought up in. So I guess she alluded to being Canadian to throw them off the track? I don't really understand that part.
posted by grouse at 10:43 AM on March 30, 2007


Unlikely as it may seem, I think the show The O.C. actually provides a fairly accurate portray of one version of the American class system. In the west there's far less post-colonial history than on the east coast (and much much less than in Britain). So the difference between the upper class and the "nouveau riche", upper middle class is a matter of only a few generations.

As a result, barriers aren't nearly as well established . Yet, there are still major differences. On the show, they often exaggerate, but that's not to say that they don't exist. When the main character Ryan (who comes from a decidedly lower-class situation) is first brought into Newport he's seen as an unwelcome intrusion. Very quickly it's shown that it's a very different place from where he grew up. You don't have to be born into money to get in, but fewer people are making enough to qualify.

Farther north (specifically the Pac NW), I don't think there's as much social exclusivity, but there's easily as much economic stratification.
posted by timelord at 10:50 AM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


gompa and grouse, I interpret that bit as: she thinks her interlocutor is interested in placing her geographically, so a natural topic of conversation is North American geography. The average middle-class Briton isn't necessarily au fait with every US geographical stereotype — especially as she says she's from Oregon, which I (as a middle-class Briton) don't really know much about (it has some trees, and not many people, and I wouldn't know much more about it if it wasn't for Mefi).

So she guesses, perhaps correctly, that the one topic of North American geographical humour likely to raise a laugh or at least a knowing smile is Canada. I think most Britons know of Americans' mockery of Canada, and perhaps (dare I suggest it) some Britons* think of Canada as a large, snowy Belgium (singularly uninteresting, little contribution to art/science/anything), and therefore a ripe target for teasing.

The bit about 'Canadians deserve it most' I read as just standard American mocking of Canada.

But I could well have got the wrong end of the stick here, who knows.

* Not me, of course :)
posted by Aloysius Bear at 10:58 AM on March 30, 2007


I was more or less repeating (and agreeing with) what vbfg wrote (as I understand it, at least).

We seem to pretty much agree. The only thing I think I'd add is that whilst we have perceptions, and it's our willingness to accept our perceptions that makes them real, their true origin isn't so much in our wealth but in where our position is in that part of the division of labour that society must have to be productive. At a deeper level we all recognise that if "he's so special, why does he have to work for a living?" plays a role in our attitude towards others too.

Those roles that we have within that division of labour are in flux and the process is accelerating. Both sides of my family were coal miners for as far back as my Dad has got with his family tree investigations. I suspect for most of us here previous generations have had the same set of skills passed down through the generations up until some relatively recent point in the past. It's something that's only true now for a set of people who are by far the minority in any urban society. If I'm right and class is determined by role and not wealth, in societies such as ours where reskilling workers and constantly educating one's self for new challenges is increasingly the way to survive those perceptions we have of other people are increasingly only going to be fleetingly based in reality. At that point, class is meaningless.
posted by vbfg at 11:22 AM on March 30, 2007


Personally, I think in America everyone identifies themselves as middle class,a view reflected by the many "there are few upperclass people in the US" in this thread, while (based on money-earned) the upper class is much larger than we think, and the middle class much smaller. (With a growing gap).

This may be a midwest viewpoint though, as pointed out previously in the threads, it seems class on the coasts is measured differently than in the midwest.
posted by drezdn at 11:34 AM on March 30, 2007


The bit about 'Canadians deserve it most' I read as just standard American mocking of Canada.

Hmm. There really isn't much "standard" mocking, inasmuch as most non-border-state Americans don't even have enough misinformation to form a stereotype, aside from maybe an igloo joke or saying "aboot." Anyway, glad we sorted that oot, eh?

Canada as a large, snowy Belgium (singularly uninteresting, little contribution to art/science/anything), and therefore a ripe target for teasing.

*cranks Arcade Fire album, raises insulin vial in toast, returns to Ondaatje novel*

posted by gompa at 11:37 AM on March 30, 2007


*cranks Arcade Fire album, raises insulin vial in toast, returns to Ondaatje novel*
Most Irish people I’ve talked to about it have had ridiculously positive opinions on Canada and Canadians, and I can’t imagine the sharing-a-Queen thing will make the Brits think worse of you in general. I suspect Ms. Treneman will have been perceived as boorish more than anything else for those jokes, but no-one said anything.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 11:49 AM on March 30, 2007


Always liked Paul Fussell's witty book, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, on class in the USA, although I've known a number of people with a white trash mindset who are also listed in the Social Register or Burke's Peerage.. The New York Social Diary can make for as interesting reading as the National Enquirer, gossip and one-upmanship on one level or another.

In India the word for caste in Sanskrit is varna, which means color.

About the complex caste distinctions in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
posted by nickyskye at 12:10 PM on March 30, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well I think the whole banking/trading thing as vulgar derives from antisemitism more than it derives from being "new money", if my grandmother is any indication. I also find it disingenuous that if anyone shows materialism it isn't supposedly so-called old money. I think someone needs to read up on the Ellis, which recalls the scene from Rules of Attraction where the mother complaining she had her Cadillac stolen at Neiman Marcus or Saks (her story keeps changing) beckons how everyone else in the restaurant is "real" old money ... which the character comments that their money, being over 150 years old, isn't apparently enough. Saying that only new money expresses materialism is hanging out with their indie/hipster friends with trust funds too much. If anything the "upper class" indulges just as much as anyone but pretends it is no big deal. If anything I can tell who has come from money by how well they treat their possessions, if there is anyway to determine class in America.
posted by geoff. at 12:57 PM on March 30, 2007


Interesting topic insofar as the warped conception of "class" in the west has mutated so greatly in the past few centuries that it's impossible to discuss without wandering into a much broader discussion of the culture as a whole and its complex historical relation to economic privilege or destitution.

For those interested in the possibility of upward class mobility in the United States in the early twenty-first century I would recommend Paul Krugman's short and somewhat famous lament "The Death of Horatio Alger".
posted by inoculatedcities at 1:52 PM on March 30, 2007


New York Times material on class I thought this article was a good analysis of class and a has a little test to figure our your own class. The articles at the top of this thread were pretty good, but the author of the working class article self-analysis was clearly flawed - a middle class guy drinking cheap beer is just "slumming it" not expressing his class on some more deep and meaningful level.

The middle class as a group of rather boring and complacent folks hit me like a hammer, I've had a tough time figuring out why I don't care about politics anymore but its just that the right and left tend to provide me about the same level of benefit - middle class folks generally pay the bulk of taxes and don't consume as many government services as the poor (at least in Canada where you are talking about a social safety net and health care) - politicians tend to worry about the rich and poor so the middle rarely moves much.
posted by Deep Dish at 5:19 PM on March 30, 2007


Great idea, lax execution.
posted by blacklite at 6:08 PM on March 30, 2007


I, for one, am amazed we got this far without a mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. Seriously, we all went to high school right? You Hick Slobs--

Anyways, I can remember going to one, and only one social gathering in New York that I felt was truly, unmistakably, of an upper-class--the kind that I had heard about before only in the aforementioned chronicles of Long Island Eggs and such.

So, in my experience, here are the markers of the True American Upper Class:

Lots of Van Morrison. If not Van Morrison, then something like it.

Pictures of Nantucket or some other New England beach resortish area, along with Nautical mementos, and perhaps driftwood.

Bad Dancing (to Van Morrison).

Sweaters, possibly tied around shoulders. This might be a decoy, cause I've seen it in L.L. Bean catalogues and the like.

They throw me out of their party after I call one of them an inbred sonofabitch who looks like a chewedup Jack Nicholson--but, after much insistence, they shake my hand like a man and introduce themself before tossing me on my ass.

Happy to have cleared all this up!

P.S. that accent stuff in the England is pretty wacky, and way beyond my depth. But definately still going strong.
posted by goodglovin77 at 10:29 PM on March 30, 2007


Before I tell you all what I think of your comments, could you please just elaborate on where in the Hamptons you generally choose to summer? Because obviously that will make a difference.
posted by miss lynnster at 10:54 PM on March 30, 2007


I suppose it'd be futile to suggest that 'class' has nothing to do with money.
posted by Twang at 1:02 PM on March 31, 2007


Fucking classy.

(Sorry, couldn't resist).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:41 PM on March 31, 2007


> but we Yanks are simply not educated in the mechanics of class politics, that's the thing. We have
> no langage to talk about it

Henry James si, Scott Fitzgerald no.
posted by jfuller at 9:22 AM on April 2, 2007


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