Out in the Cold
The Hidden Injuries of Class.
by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb.
Knopf. 275 pp. $6.95.
Class is like a fur coat—soft and warm to wrap around you if you have it, a constant goad and affront if you’re one of those left out in the cold. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb set out to discover the impact of a class society on those near the bottom by conducting 150 in-depth interviews with working men and women in Boston. The plumbers, shop foremen, electricians, and janitors whom they spent over 400 hours interviewing expressed a variety of feelings about their place in society—anger, pain, humiliation, but also, surprisingly often, acceptance. One of the most interesting and poignant facts of life in America is that working people often assume personal responsibility for their social position. Even while many of those interviewed felt that “I never had a chance,” they also finally declared, “I didn’t have what it takes,” or “I didn’t have it upstairs.”
The juxtaposition of a class society and an ethos of individualism and personal development puts the burden squarely on the worker. Old notions of Social Darwinism still linger over the field: those who deserve to get to the top will rise, and those left behind are where they belong. The resulting fracture in self-esteem may actually be compounded by a rise in social status. The manual worker who achieves a lower-echelon white-collar job finds himself bored and frustrated by “paper-pushing.” He then castigates himself for not having what it takes to profit from his “rise” and his “new opportunities.”
Richard Sennett (who did the actual writing of this book) does not explore the problem, yet it is clear that mobility in a hierarchical situation must always be accompanied by self-doubt. If a man has staved off social contempt for years by asserting the virile superiority of those who work with their muscles, how is he to feel when he finds himself behind a desk? The meat-cutter interviewed here who won a job as a bank clerk is pleased with his achievement, but also contemptuous of his colleagues, and hence, by extension, of himself for joining their organization: “The other fellows, because they got an education, sneaks out early and comes in late.”
The worker, in short, gets it coming and going; whether he rises in the social scale or fails to, he is liable to a perpetual crisis of self-respect.
Self-respect, the authors believe, is the name of the game, and “freedom” and “dignity” are its prizes. In America, both freedom and dignity are won by acquiring “badges of ability,” publicly-acknowledged personal merits that make one stand out from the rest. Repeatedly the men and women who speak in this book express pain and resentment at being treated in their work as one of the faceless mass, at being “part of the woodwork,” or “just Ricca the janitor.” In an individualistic society they crave validation as human beings through personal recognition. Yet, cruelly, the authors note, “the few need the many: individuals exist only so long as a mass exists, a point of reference consisting of others who seem pretty much alike.” In order for one to be legitimized as an individual, many must make up the contrasting woodwork. Thus efforts for social mobility and personal validity can also bring a crisis in “fraternity.” The worker promoted to foreman must leave his fellows behind. It is likely that they will resent him, and he may quickly come to resent them, for now he is responsible for the quality of the “menials’” work, and they have a certain power to make or break him in the eyes of his superiors. Thus each is set against the others, as all struggle to acquire more badges of ability than the rest. A not uncommon response, the authors find, is that workers separate the “real” self, the loving, feeling, fraternal person, from the performing self. The foreman leaves at home (where his real life is lived) all the qualities that might lead him to sympathize with an erring subordinate and hence make himself vulnerable. He becomes, in a word, alienated.
But what of the New Affluence and the much-vaunted ability of workers in America to buy houses and cars, speedboats and summer cottages? Are not common patterns of consumption erasing class lines? Evidently not. Many of the workers interviewed for this book know that materially they are much better off than their Depression-era parents were. Many are earning $10,000 to $15,000 per year. Yet many, apparently, feel that they lack something tending toward freedom and dignity which the middle class enjoys, including those members of it who earn less than skilled craftsmen. That something might best be described as self-development. Part of the status accorded to professionals, the authors believe, arises from a perception on the part of others that these people have scope to develop all their own best qualities and then to give of their ripened personalities to others. The doctor, unlike the foreman, is free to engage all his refined sensibilities in his work. Said one woman, “It’s not the money, see . . . if you could be in a position like that, at least nothing stands in the way of your doing good. . . .” It seems that the longing for “creativity” and “autonomy” has spilled out of the middle-class encounter group into the larger society.
“To make something of yourself” has always been the first and great commandment of American society, and from the beginning the requirement has had overtones broader than the purely economic, although the authors of the present volume seem little aware of it. The ethos of aspiration and the cult of self-improvement are far older than mass industrial society in America and probably have a religious base. Although Richard Sennett glances once or twice at the class societies of the past, this book suffers from an acute limitation in its field of vision. Sennett properly locates the origins of the meritocratic ideal in the Enlightenment, when, ironically, it was seen as an amelioration of the injustices of class. The authors believe, however, that the Enlightenment thinkers fell into a fatally “flawed humanism” when they allowed dignity to wait upon evidence of individual worth, rather than ascribing it to human life per se. This notion, Sennett implies, was happily seized upon by the capitalist bourgeoisie to legitimate its own power.
In fact, class society is as old as Western civilization (and as broad), and so is the idea of advancement through personal worth, though this advancement once took place in the interstices of “the system” rather than being built into its guiding ideology. The ancient folk tales of the poor younger son (often considered “simple”) who wins the princess and half the kingdom through his wits and his luck are the first Horatio Alger myths.
Daniel P. Moynihan has remarked that in the United States “equality” is achieved not by an imposed leveling, but by the diffusion downward of upper-class privileges. What is a luxury of the rich in one generation becomes a universal necessity in the next, and finally a publicly-acceded right. We can see this process working with everything from bathtubs to automobiles to college degrees. Its inevitable corollary is that everyone must aspire to the life-style of the upper classes: we must, all 200 million of us, crowd through the same funnel. Yet just as inevitable in this process is the infinite regress of the upper classes before the advancing mass. Does everyone have a high-school diploma? Then the best must get a B.A., a Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellowship. There are always new worlds to conquer. Indeed, social mobility in America is less well-represented by the old image of the ladder with its definite finishing point than by the endless children’s song about the bear who went over the mountain, to see what he could see. “He saw another mountain, he saw another mountain.”
For it is not only the working classes who are subject to injury in the perpetual scramble for self-legitimization. Sennett recognizes this in passing: “The position we take in this book is that everyone in this society, rich and poor, plumber and professor, is subject to a scheme of values that tells him he must validate the self in order to win others’ respect and his own.” If such a position is taken in the book it is taken only once and forgotten. By and large, Sennett and Cobb are not much interested in the injuries that the upper-middle class inflicts on the middle class, or that the intellectual class inflicts on everybody. But the craving for merit in the eyes of others is the same in every stratum, and money and education alone are no longer enough to provide it. You must also subscribe to the right magazines and hold the right political opinions. There is indubitably more “class” in making stained glass in your spare time than in driving a snowmobile. A whole book could be written on the competition for merit in the area of mental health—more spontaneous than thou, etc. There is even a certain amount of competition in some quarters over who is least competitive. The institutions of class are indeed cutting close to the source of self-esteem, as more and more qualities of mind and personality become status symbols.
The people interviewed by Sennett and Cobb are aware of the demands that await them in the middle class. In a group interview, one woman astonishes and angers her friends by proclaiming that she (unlike them) wouldn’t “die” if her daughter brought home a black boyfriend. As she implies that her friends are bigots—hence, lower-class—she looks to the academic interviewer for approval. Sennett understands the implications of this interview, but he fails to develop them at any length. In “A Note About the Authors,” the book informs us that Jonathan Cobb and his wife live “with six other people in Dorchester, Massachusetts”; this pushing forward of the communal house looks uncommonly like a bid for personal validation against the mass of bourgeois others.
The true tragedy of class today, just as it was in the eras of princely magnificence, is the wasting of resources on gifts for the ego. If everyone had enough, those who wanted to could be left to their search for validation. The authors would like to end the competition and its inevitable injuries by devaluing “individualism” and creating a classless society. But what such a society would look like, they are unable to tell us. There are no models anywhere in the world, Sennett unhappily concedes. Clearly those societies that proclaim themselves classless have only substituted political for social classes. The authors conclude that a truly classless society would be one in which nobody had the power to reward anybody for what he did. Presumably in such a society, nobody could have his book published, since this would constitute a badge of ability and hence a status gain against others.
Personal striving after validation seems to be an endemic condition of self-conscious man, not just a perversion of modern capitalism. The concepts of superior and inferior and a desire for one’s self to be superior are as old as the race, and it seems probable that institutions of class are expressions of the human desire for legitimacy rather than a primary cause of it. Striving after personal justification has taken many forms in human history, but striving there has always been. This observation seems almost ludicrously elementary. But Sennett and Cobb, while they report acutely on the effects of the striving, give a shallow and sometimes unconvincing treatment of the causes.
It seems again excruciatingly obvious (yet apparently it is necessary to state) that human beings, except under the most nursery like conditions, are not likely ever to achieve lives completely free of anxiety and wounds to self-esteem. But how can we lessen the pain which Sennett and Cobb chronicle, as well as the pains they don’t mention? Modern society’s contribution to anxiety is surely not the creation of class and the notion of better and worse, but the introduction of mobility, of possibility, including the possibility of failure. (The devaluation of religion and the host of simple virtues which offered the humble an alternate road to justification probably also enters in.) The best we can do now, it would seem, is not to eliminate the idea of personal validation (will men ever forget the notion of “good” and “bad?”), but to broaden it; not to wipe out the possibilities, but to multiply them.