Commentary Magazine

Fear of Falling, by Barbara Ehrenreich

High Anxiety

Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.
by Barbara Ehrenreich.
Pantheon. 293 pp. $18.95.

The debacle of the 1988 presidential election not only left the very word “liberalism” badly battered, but may have administered the coup de grâce to the only opposition movement with a shred of intellectual and political vitality: the so-called “neoliberals.” Hence, in 1992, the Democratic party will find that it once again has to face the relentless demands of its Left; and that Left, if it is feeling any vestigial desire to win elections, will have to come up with a plausible strategy for attracting middle-class voters, rather than continuing to invoke the deus ex machina of the unregistered and nonvoting masses—a strategy that might better be called “waiting for Godot.”

Such is the very problem that Fear of Falling is designed to address. Stitching together an elaborate account of the changing structure of classes and class perceptions in postwar America, Barbara Ehrenreich hopes to provide arguments that will persuade the middle class, particularly that part of it she calls “the professional middle class,” to make common cause with the working and “lower” classes, and thereby reinvigorate the Left’s prospects in contemporary American politics.

The principal obstacles standing in the way of such solidarity, she believes, are the persistent misunderstandings and phantasms infesting the mind of the middle class. She intends to dispel these elements of false consciousness, in particular by persuading the middle class of two things: first, that its persistent fears, since the end of World War II, of “going soft” or “losing ground,” and thus “falling” into the lower classes, have been selfish and harmful delusions; and second, that its position in the structure of the U.S. economy is infinitely more insecure than it appears to realize. It is hard to see how both these propositions can be true.

One would be justified in hoping for a more compelling thesis from Barbara Ehrenreich. She is a graceful and often witty essayist, usually at her best in writing of everyday, commonplace things—food, dieting, fashion, leisure, “relationships,” and pop culture—from a mildly heterodox feminist position. As a prominent figure in the “communitarian” Left, she seems to have a genuine, if somewhat abstract and overly economic, appreciation of the forces that hold a community together. Beneath her rather conventional attacks on “consumer culture” lies a grudging admiration (an admiration one sees more clearly in a cultural critic like Christopher Lasch) for the old-fashioned Victorian virtues, especially work, family, thrift, and self-restraint.

But it is a grudging respect at best, deriving more from hatred of contemporary consumerism than from genuine regard for bourgeois values. Indeed, she finds consumption all-consuming, and attributes enormous coercive and hegemonic power to the “consumer culture.” One never knows quite what to make of this fashionable term, which seems to designate what Poles, Russians, Chinese, and much of the rest of the world so ardently desire. But its use seems especially peculiar in a writer whose prose and thinking show so conspicuously the marks of the slick “lifestyle” journalist.



In the 50’s, Miss Ehrenreich begins, all middle-class Americans believed themselves to be living in an affluent, classless society. A comfortable middle-class suburban existence was thought to be the American norm. But despite their well-being, members of the middle class were nagged by a persistent “fear of falling” out of their station (an understandable feeling, one would have thought, for those who could remember the Depression and the war).

Such anxieties, the account goes on, found a diverting outlet in the obsession with juvenile delinquency, which “gripped the public imagination in the 50’s,” and at the same time served as a “comforting distraction” from the “issue of class.” Then, with the burgeoning civil-rights movement, and Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), the middle class was induced to “discover” the existence of poverty. But instead of extending the range of its sympathies, the middle class merely projected its fears of downward mobility onto the poor, whom sociologists had conveniently taught Americans to think of stereotypically as “infantilized” products of a “culture of poverty.”

According to Miss Ehrenreich, these condescending misperceptions of the “lower” classes were but the first in a parade of similarly self-protective illusions. Next came the charge of “permissiveness,” directed especially against the “class traitors” who populated the student movement of the 1960’s—traitors because they challenged the “class fortress” of the professions by their disdain for authority and expertise, and because they adopted rock and roll, the subversive “invention of the poor,” as their own. Now the middle class was projecting its intense “fears of falling” onto its very own unruly youth.

But there arose an unexpected source of self-exculpating relief. Thanks to the well-publicized anti-antiwar militancy of the “hardhats,” and the presidential candidacy of George Wallace, the middle class suddenly “discovered” the existence of the working class, and promptly projected onto it all manner of contradictory urges: on the one hand, the working class could be a reservoir of traditional values in a time of cultural upheaval; on the other hand, it was a cesspool of authoritarian personality traits, bigotry, and hopelessly bad taste. The working class could thus be seen as a bulwark of “middle-American” values, at a moment when middle-class kids were deserting those values; and simultaneously the Archie Bunkers of the world could still be regarded with a comfortable sense of superiority.

The middle class also found that it could project onto the “liberal elite” or “New Class”—media elites, university professors, Washington intellectuals, foundation bureaucrats, etc.—all the “permissive” qualities that it most feared in itself. For the neoconservatives and the New Right, in particular, the concept of an ambitious and arrogant New Class became a “bludgeon” with which to beat opponents into submission—and self-contradictorily so, for what were the neoconservatives themselves but denizens of the New Class?

Finally, inevitably, came the yuppie. Emboldened by-the intellectual Right’s discrediting of anti-business attitudes, and freed from the sense of moral responsibility which professional status once entailed, the yuppie simply threw in his lot with the corporate elite, displaying the seasoned cynicism of the well-paid courtesan. He accepted the fact that his class was a privileged one, and intended to make the most of those privileges, gorging himself at the cornucopia of consumerism while also working excessively hard at his job and exercising compulsively at the health club—all to prevent “going soft,” to allay the “fear of falling.”

Fortunately, however, the reign of the yuppie was brief, punctuated by the stock-market crash of 1987. His extreme self-centeredness was just too much for the middle class to take as a plausible image of itself; and the yuppie has crawled back into the mahogany woodwork. But the “fear of falling” remains, reassuming much the same form it took in the 1950’s.



This, then, is Barbara Ehrenreich’s walk through recent American history. It is like a stroll through a hall of funhouse mirrors; one finds oneself surrounded by a crowd of grotesque images whose apparent agitation and movement exist only in the eye of the beholder. We learn little about the lives of real Americans except that we do not know what we thought we knew about them. We learn little about the inner life of the middle class, other than a glimpse of its alleged fears, obsessions, and delusions. Readers who doubt whether the terms of individual psychology are so fully applicable to groups will have to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show; for this is one of those books that must be believed to be read.

Of course: middle-class people seem to have certain characteristic anxieties. But that is not exactly a new discovery. The “fear of falling” has always been a defining characteristic of modern middle-class life, as Tocqueville recognized a century and a half ago, long before the “consumer culture” or the solipsism of the suburbs.

Nor is there much that is persuasive in Miss Ehrenreich’s oddly conflicted view of the professions. For the most part she accepts the standard radical critique: with their high educational demands, long periods of apprenticeship, and absolute control over accreditation and access, the professions are artificial barriers thrown up by ambitious middle-class “experts” for the purpose of monopolizing cultural authority and keeping out intruders and poachers, particularly those of the “lower” classes. There is an element of truth in this view, but like Miss Ehrenreich’s favorite notion of “projection,” according to which ideas of reality are only so much evidence of psychic delusion, it is rendered false and pernicious if carried too far.

For one thing, the radical critique ignores the degree to which the internal discipline and cultural authority of the professions contribute to, and in turn derive from, the genuine pursuit of real knowledge. Ehrenreich prefers to think the middle class erected steep barriers to the professions solely to make and protect a fortress. Yet she also argues that a major source of anxiety for the perpetually anxious middle class lies precisely in its fear that its own children will be unable to mount those very walls; hence its “obsession” with “permissiveness” and with “going soft.” A less tendentious writer might have conceded that the professions deserve high marks for attempting to impose rigorous and impartial standards for admission to their “fortress”; in Miss Ehrenreich’s account, it looks more like the story of the class that couldn’t shoot straight.

What is most disappointing about this book, however, is its total unwillingness to take its opposition seriously. One would never guess from Miss Ehrenreich’s account that a lively and wide-ranging debate over the means and ends of the welfare state has been taking place in this country over the last two decades. In her rendering, writers like Charles Murray have not been engaged in a reconsideration of public policy; they have merely been—guess what?—projecting onto the poor (and the fictive New Class liberals) “the anxieties of their class.” And as for the liberals who ought to have been countering them, well, these “tortured” souls have suffered a failure of nerve and need to “regain the use of their backbones.” This is a bizarre, ostrich-like way of reading recent American history.



But enough of the sordid past. What lies ahead for the feckless middle class, which this book means to woo as well as to indict? Perhaps, Miss Ehrenreich opines, echoing the cyclical sentiments of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a release of its “pent-up idealism”—but first it must clearly understand where its interests lie. That understanding will begin with one central fact: “the discovery of the rich” as the main enemy. So long as the middle class does not recognize the degree to which it, too, like the working and lower classes, is putty in the hands of capital, so long will the middle class remain separate from its “natural” allies.

Now we can see where all this has been leading. By cultivating a loathing for the Trumps, Forbeses, Iacoccas, and Helmsleys who run the world, the middle class will shake free of the insubstantial projections flitting across the walls of its Platonic cave. In alliance with the classes below, it will walk in the sunshine at last, and no longer fear falling. For all the conditions engendering that fear will have withered away. Nor, in a truly egalitarian society, will the professional middle class disappear—far from it; it will expand and expand, “until there remains no other class.” Huey Long’s slogan, “Every Man a King,” will be updated for the 90’s: “Every Person a Professional.” And all the children, presumably, will be above average.

Idealism is generally to be preferred to cynicism; and there is nothing cynical or insincere about this earnest effort to reunite the appeals of democratization and expertise, populism and progressivism. Whether it is any more realistic than the other phantasms haunting this book, however, is another matter. If, for example, the structure of the professions is a specific cultural formation which reflects and aids the ascendancy of a particular class, then why would that class willingly open its “fortress” to the classes below? What would make it willing, Barbara Ehrenreich answers, is a more richly informed and visceral hatred of the rich. But it is hard to understand why she is so sure the middle class has nothing to fear from such blatant appeals to class-conscious resentment. As the example of Weimar Germany suggests, hatred, once released, can be exceedingly difficult to contain or direct.

It is more than a little discouraging to see the argument finally descend to this level. Henry Adams—who was something of a cynic, albeit a less than sincere one—asserted near the end of his life that politics is “the systematic organization of hatreds.” But that formulation, like much about Henry Adams, was more clever than wise. What has been valuable about the communitarian Left today has been its willingness to question some of the Left’s longstanding assumptions, in the pursuit of a more elevated definition of politics and the public realm. A book like this one raises doubts about how deep that willingness runs.



About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.

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