Lion of the Blogosphere

Paul Fussell would call them “proles”

From a NY Times politics article about the decline of the term “middle class”:

“What do you call people who don’t have good jobs but who aren’t poor?” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Labor’s Love Lost,” about the rise and fall of working families.

Paul Fussell had this figured out 31 years ago.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

May 11, 2015 at EDT am

Posted in Proles

35 Responses

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  1. These terms are slippery because they are not defined. The incomes of the 1% can be fairly easily determined every year. The poor has an official Department of Labor definition. But middle class? It’s kind of fuzzy. The government should just provide an income based definition. That would make talking about the middle class or the working class easier rather than just depending on self reporting of how people feel.

    Mike Street Station

    May 11, 2015 at EDT am

    • Paul Fussell was more right here. “Middle-class” is about more than just income, although income is an important part of it.

      Politicians have always wrongly included working-class blue collar people (proles) in the middle class, but with the middle-class shrinking it’s harder for them to do that. There is now bobo and prole but very few middle class.

      • A large chunk of the middle class is high prole. Teachers, accountants, prole-lawyers, etc…

        JS

        May 11, 2015 at EDT am

      • Class is about much more than what job you have. Members of any of those jobs you listed could be prole or middle-class depending on a number of factors.

        CamelCaseRob

        May 11, 2015 at EDT pm

      • It’s important. It’s hard to imagine a cop being anything but prole (except on an HBO series).

    • True. On TV series good police detectives are almost never prole. As far back as “Barney Miller” the detectives were mostly smart, educated seeming guys, except for Wojo, the Polish American. Rust Cohle on True Detective is a tortured intellectual. On The Wire the heroic detectives are mostly the kind of people NPR listeners would relate to – Freamon is an artist who makes dollhouse furniture, Daniels lives with his councilwoman wife in a beatifully decorated apartment, McNulty is a sensitive Irish dreamer whose authority problems are due to his deeper understanding of human nature, etc. Are any police detectives in real life that smart?

      Peter Akuleyev

      May 12, 2015 at EDT am

      • Many have college degrees, but a degree in “justice studies” doesn’t necessarily mean one is smart.

      • That has more to do with the limits of screenwriters. Few writers, and even fewer writers who work on television or movies, can really put themselves into imagining a character much different from them. That’s why TV detectives are usually as you describe, “the kind of people NPR listeners would relate to-”

        Writers who can do that have usually had some real life experience to provide the ammo. But of course, that’s a small minority.

        Mike Street Station

        May 12, 2015 at EDT am

      • The bias of the media in favor of people with high IQs is something I’ve been meaning to write about. The voices of the low IQ are ignored because they can’t write well and they are unable to express themselves in a way that the higher IQ people who control the media (both liberal and conservative) are able to understand or relate to.

      • This comment reflects a prevailing misconception about “proles”. Proles are not necessarily stupid, and are often highly intelligent. In the UK – from, say, the mid-Victorian era to the nineteen-sixties – there was a thriving tradition of working class autodidacticism. Many major intellectual figures and politicians were proles. Charles Dickens, for example. I’m sure he was a lot more talented (and smarter) than your average self-satisfied Ivy League-educated banker or law partner tooling his Mercedes through the streets. TV police detectives, in both the UK and the US, are almost always proles. It explains their maverick physicality and their contempt for the desk-bound middle managers they have to answer to. “Prole” comes from “proletarian”, the Marxist classification for those who do not own the means of production and must earn their living from their labor. It is comparable to the Roman term “plebeian” or commoner, versus “patrician” or aristocrat. I am proud to be descended from proles. I am proud to BE a prole. My father was the son of working class Irish immigrants (his mother a maid, his father a nightwatchman) who earned a Harvard Ph.D. on the G.I. Bill. My maternal grandfather and his brother were working class immigrants from the East End of London whose entire family labored twelve hours a day in the shoe factories of Lynn, Massachusetts, but nonetheless grew up to be doctors. Proles were not necessarily stupid then, and they are not necessarily stupid now. Nor will they be so in the future. The reason why Paul Fussell despised and vilified “proles” was because he was a fat homosexual WASP patrician snob who resented the intrusion of the sons of the working class into American intellectual life.

        Hank Rearden

        May 12, 2015 at EDT pm

      • Paul Fussell had a kid, so I don’t think he was homosexual.

        In the past, there were high-IQ proles, but that is no longer the case. High IQ proles went to college, got white collar jobs, and their children grew up middle-class or bobo.

      • @LOTB – Fussell was at least bisexual. He admitted as much in a People Magazine interview when his first book (about WWI) was published. And your flat generalization – like most flat generalizations – is incorrect. I have a cousin – a member of my own still quite lively generation – whose mother and father were a bookkeeper and a van driver, respectively, and he worked his way up to become the data center manager of a top data analysis company – despite having dropped out of high school and never having graduated college (which he attended on a GED). It still happens. And, besides, educated white collar workers are themselves “proles” now, aren’t they? If indeed that is so, does that mean that white collar workers have become stupid, too, all of a sudden? Think, also, of the innumerable casualties of corporate decimation. I can think of at least five former IT guys who segued into the following trades after they got laid off – car repair, electrician work, carpentry, landscaping, and tending bar. I met the landscaping guy at a Triple Nine meeting, so he can’t be (too) stupid. Also think of what will happen in the future when college becomes too expensive to attend and more and more erstwhile “middle class” people revert to the working class – as the result of economic rather than intellectual reasons. You’re a bachelor living in Manhattan with a freakishly narrow perspective on the American scene who conflates class with intellect. Those Wall Street assholes farting into their five-thousand dollar suits don’t have a monopoly on gray matter. If you want to broaden your appreciation of the smarts of the American worker, read Matthew Crawford’s take on the cognitive challenges of skilled manual labor in “Shop Class As Soulcraft”.

        Hank Rearden

        May 12, 2015 at EDT pm

      • @Hank

        Dickens was funny, like a stand up comic today.

        But he was a prole and worthless in front of the nobles.

        He was never knighted and where are his descendants now?

        Regression to mean.

        toos is god

        May 13, 2015 at EDT pm

      • @toos is good The descendants of Dickens may not be famous, but can you name just one of the nobles he would have stood “worthless” in front of? And let us not discuss the monarchy. If the Dickens was a stand-up comic, the royal family is and always has been the cast of a reality show. Ah – Count Leo Tolstoy, perhaps! But then Tolstoy worshiped Dickens; I don’t think Dickens stood worthless in front of him.

        Hank Rearden

        May 14, 2015 at EDT pm

  2. One should lose respect to much of their fellow Americans, when this article mentions “an occasional trip to Disneyland”.

    JS

    May 11, 2015 at EDT am

    • And Lion, that’s a terrible quote to define prole. When I first read it, it seems like the professor was talking about “Class X”.

      JS

      May 11, 2015 at EDT am

      • Class “X” is now called hipsters, and the rest of class “X” has merged into the bobo class.

      • Hipsters/Trustfarian types usually have all kinds of odd jobs if they work, and are usually not considered “poor”, in the case of Hipsters.

        JS

        May 11, 2015 at EDT am

      • The are not “poor” because they don’t have the social pathologies of the poor. “Poor” is about bad social behavior as much as it’s about having money.

  3. The more interesting development is people with decent educations, who have shitty jobs. Back in Fussell’s day that was rare. A college education pretty much guaranteed a middle class lifestyle unless you were a real fuck up. Now college grads can hope to work at a Starbuck’s style service job that 35 years ago would have been an after school job for high school kids.

    Peter Akuleyev

    May 11, 2015 at EDT am

    • One should ask, why would you want to slave away at a job that is 40<more hrs/week for a paycheck, where the work environment and job duties are usually not very pleasant? This is in essence defined American Capitalism and this continues to assert itself for those want to be part of this paradigm.

      JS

      May 12, 2015 at EDT am

  4. Precarious jobs with good education were not uncommon until about 1900, at a time when only a few percent were college-educated. At least in Europe you could be stranded in assistant clerk or teacher/tutor jobs for years. One was supposed to work as unpaid law clerk for some time to get started in a legal career, so you needed a sponsor. Of course, many of these people actually made it to respectable middle class professors, lawyers, civil servants. Apparently, we are back there in many respects.

    nomen nescio

    May 11, 2015 at EDT am

  5. ““The cultural consensus around what it mean to be ‘middle class’ — and that has very much been part of the national identity in the United States — is beginning to shift,’’ said Sarah Elwood, a professor at the University of Washington and an author of a paper about class identity that one Clinton adviser had studied.”

    Anybody have an idea which paper they mean?

    It could be interesting for the Lion’s circle…

    If it’s this one maybe not so much…

    Encountering poverty: space, class and poverty politics,
    Vicky Lawson and Sarah Elwood
    University of Washington,
    http://depts.washington.edu/relpov/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/encountering-poverty_final.pdf

    Thin-Skinned Masta-Beta

    May 11, 2015 at EDT pm

  6. Wouldn’t “losers” work as well?

    Bill

    May 11, 2015 at EDT pm

    • No, “losers” are the people at the bottom of the Gervais Principle hierarchy.

      • They’re not at the bottom, Lion. I’d put the Clueless far below them in terms of being taken advantage of.

        Kyo

        May 13, 2015 at EDT pm

  7. Classically,the middle class worked with their minds in an office, the proles with their hands in a factory. Many secretarial/office jobs are just as bad as a nonunionized factory job used to be, I think, though of course you don’t have to worry about machines chewing up your hands. (Fussell alludes to the lack of injury to the middle class in their jobs, in fact.)

    I think both white and blue collar jobs are now effectively ‘working class’ unless you’re on one of these elite tracks. Fussell was writing in 1980; we can hardly blame him for not being a prophet!

    SFG

    May 11, 2015 at EDT pm

    • Or I like to say, anyone today who is a W-2 employee is a prole. Having taxes taken out of your paycheck involuntarily in essence signifies your subservience to someone, which proles are the most obliging. Self employed individuals and business owners can write off all kinds of expenses and get to choose whom they want as a client.

      JS

      May 12, 2015 at EDT am

      • You obviously have never been an entrepreneur. A small business owner is in a constant state of enslavement to their clients and at the mercy of market conditions. They don’t get to “pick” their clients as they are usually lucky to get them. They also typically make very little money. Even today’s plutocrats, like hedge fund managers and venture capital guys work 80 and 90 hour workweeks. There is nothing aristocratic about that. All business people are proles except for the chairmen of very large corporations or the owners of said stock that don’t have to work at all. In Europe merchants were never considered upper class. For this reason I see many W2 employees as being higher class than many business owners. A government bureaucrat or professor for example. They have cushy positions with real societal influence even if they make less money than your typical businessman, who must spend every waking minute networking, hustling and kissing their clients’ behinds.

        B.T.D.T.

        May 13, 2015 at EDT pm

      • Woah! You must think a W-2 employee at a small business has more status than his boss (who is the business owner).

        I’m a self employed person making six figures so I know what I’m talking about. Whether your business is lucrative all depends on what you are offering, your luck of the draw with customers/clientele, and how you are able to keep them. Further, whether small businesses are successful or not, is similar to one’s self actualization process. Most W-2 employees don’t really like their jobs and spend a lot of time on a useless endeavor so they can just pay their bills and survive. Businessmen are more control of their situation, more so than an employee via his/her boss relationship.

        You must think a city with all big box stores and mostly corporate entities is more prestigious and less “prolier” than one that has mostly small businesses and boutique shops!

        JS

        May 13, 2015 at EDT pm

      • By the way, merchants in Europe were part of the bourgeois, proles and lumprenproles were the serfs and peasants.

        JS

        May 13, 2015 at EDT pm

  8. Coming on this site is like traveling back in time. This talk of proletariat and middle-class lifestyle is early Twentieth Century to 1960s. We live in a Dark Dystopian Future now. A bifurcated society of haves and have-nots similar to a Soviet Style Police State, but with a Corporate Overclass like Willy Gibson’s Cyberpunk. Look at the gangs roaming the streets hunting victims and the jackboot thug police wearing military combat armor and rolling around in armored vehicles. I’m running in the shadows now, chummers. No one trusts anyone anymore. Tinfoil hats are all the rage. Anyone who wants to believe is just naive.
    You have two choices at this point from what I see. Hitler or Stalin. You might get lucky and squeeze out a Mussolini, but democracy and republic is just last Century wishful thinking at this point. This America is a turnkey Police State. The next guy will be a Dictator for sure.

    Joshua Sinistar

    May 13, 2015 at EDT pm

    • America is just an overgrown school yard setting, with the principal (who is your dictator) and the police, who make sure the kids don’t step out of line while they play.

      JS

      May 14, 2015 at EDT am

      • Regarding W2s, i agree that in a small business setting the owner will have a higher status than the W2 employees but it does not mean that they are high status in relation to the rest of society. You are correct that merchants and industrialists who employed workers were a part of the bourgeoise or “middle class” in Europe. Sole proprieters, however, were considered petit bourgeoise or “lower middle class”. That is just another word for high prole. So yes, based on the traditional class model boutique “shopkeeper” operations are lower than the corporate lords of industry.

        Saying that all W2 employees are proles is off base. The Secretary of State and the President of Harvard get W2s from their respective employers but they are undeniably upper class. The vast majority of businessmen are nouveau riche alpha sales proles that clawed and hustled their way to the top of the corporate hierarchy. They have just won a larger share of the King’s table scraps. If they can make it to a chairmanship or live off of interest then they will escape their inner proleness.

        B.T.D.T.

        May 14, 2015 at EDT am

      • Becoming the elite is not easy, unless you were born into it. A small business who caters exclusively to an elite demographic doesn’t happen overnight, nor does an individual who attain elite status as an employee does the same in a short amount of time. This being said, becoming an elite employee is lot easier than an elite business owner, because the employee doesn’t have to worry about marketing and getting a clientele, but the owner has more status, relatively comparing, because he has more control. Elitism is all about power with money!

        JS

        May 14, 2015 at EDT pm


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