Like everyone else, I am mesmerized by the grotesque drama of the presidential election. As a sociologist, I try to understand the place of class and religion in what goes on. One class angle that has been extensively commented on is that a core constituency for Donald Trump is the old white working class suffering from the joint effects of globalization and technology—blue-collar jobs exported abroad or replaced by machines. Ironically, if Trump weren’t working them for their votes, he might insult such people as “losers”!The most curious statement made by Trump, arguably the most grotesque figure in the drama, is when he recently identified himself as an Evangelical. I think he was saying to them: You may not think so, what with me zooming around in my private plane, deep down I’m with you! And perhaps also: Stick with me, and you’ll be rich like me!The truly curious fact is not that he said this, but that many Evangelical supporters take his word for it. In a crazy way, he may replicate the message of many preachers of the so-called “prosperity gospel”: Stick with me, and God will make you rich! The new underclass, looking up at its betters, seethes with resentment at the so-called “suits”. And the latter, looking down with contempt, feel superior to the “slobs”. Yet I have never seen Trump without a suit, as he feistily parades his slobbish style. Ted Cruz, who appeals to the same disfranchised constituency, is much more plausible as an Evangelical “suit”.Look at the other side. If Trump and Cruz are running against a Republican establishment full of suits, Bernie Sanders attacks Hillary Clinton as a permanently “suited” agent of Wall Street. Although his ideas are all the illusions of the sixties preserved in amber, Sanders is the only one of this deplorable quartet who impresses me as a genuine person.Irving Kristol correctly perceived in the 1970s that the left-leaning “knowledge class” was increasingly merging with more “moderate” elements of the old business elite. A grand bargain has been struck between country clubs and faculty clubs. Denizens of the latter accepted capitalism (and some became reasonably affluent), and hard-bitten businessmen accepted the social and cultural icons of the intelligentsia (aka “knowledge class”), such as sexual liberation and racial diversity.Some of the curious syncretism of this bargain has been caught by good journalists with a nose for what is going on, rather than by social scientists pursuing arcane ideological and methodological festishisms—from Tom Wolfe’s essay “Radical Chic” (1970) to David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise (2000—“bobos” stands for “bourgeois bohemians”, a felicitous phrase that failed to quite make it).What happened in the intervening thirty years is very interesting: A class (by definition a relatively open social grouping) became a sort of caste (a hereditary group, characterized by what anthropologists call commensality and connubium—sociability and intermarriage). People in this group marry within it (the defining characteristic of a caste), live together in the “right” neighborhoods and make sure that their children go to the “right” schools. As a result they not only have shared economic interests but a shared culture.It is important to appreciate this fact to fully understand American politics today: These people constitute an elite that spans the divide between the two parties. The two party establishments resemble each other much more than their respective non-elite bases. The “suits” of the business elite, especially if they produce real things, may still embody some of the values of the so-called Protestant ethic, but their lifestyles are likely to be exuberantly hedonistic—if you will, Puritans on Viagra. Clinton is lucky in that she perfectly represents the culture of the “moderate” Democratic leadership—while African-Americans and Latinos still believe, not altogether incorrectly, that she is “fighting for us”. Both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are also convinced that the “slobs” who applaud them will stick with them whatever “suits” say about them. Moderate Republican leaders correctly understand that either one of those two could wreck the party that nominates them for the presidency (it remains to be seen whether their desparate efforts to find an alternative will succeed).Ever since the middle of the last century it was becoming clear that the economies of the affluent societies were becoming increasingly “post-industrial”—that is to say, with services producing more GDP than manufacturing. The major result of this development was that industrial production employed fewer people than services, with the large opportunities for upward mobility for blue-collar workers shrinking and in places disappearing. Detroit, which used to be the center of the automobile industry, was the American prototype of this development, though other advanced capitalist economies moved in the same direction.The term “services” of course covers quite different forms of employment—from financial analysts to caretakers in nursing homes. The expansion of all services opens up new employment opportunities, and jobs in nursing homes could indeed provide opportunities for redundant automobile workers, albeit with much less remuneration. The sociologist Daniel Bell has given a detailed analysis of the change in his book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1974); earlier the economist Fritz Machlup has presented an overview of the total “knowledge industry”, in The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (1962).The interesting point is that successful mobility in both types of services, and even in sectors of manufacturing, requires schooling—at least up to a high school diploma if one wants to move from unskilled to more skilled labor. Success in the higher services, such as financial advisors let alone corporation lawyers—the world of “suits” (male or female)—depends on many years of grueling schooling in “good schools”. When my wife and I were living, with young children, in a gentrifying section of Brooklyn, there was a small park with a play area in front of our house. Another young mother, exhibiting her little son (he must have been about five), asked us “Do you think he is Princeton material?” (A question going beyond the scope of this essay: Do years of fierce competition, lasting from kindergarten through business school, effectively destroy childhood?)Advice to kids of the downwardly mobile working class: At least finish high school, and you’ll have a chance at getting out of the underclass ghetto. On one class level: Just aim for an inner-city high school diploma! On a higher class level: Aim for Groton or another prestigious public school—and Princeton after that! But in any case: It is schools, schools all the way!The most trenchant attack on the school as an institution was made by Ivan Illich (1926-2002), the idiosyncratic Roman Catholic priest who started a very unusual think-tank in Mexico in the mid-1960s called CIDOC (Centro Intercultural de Documentacion). In 1971, he published his most influential book, titled Deschooling Society. In it he attacked school as an agent of modernization rather than, as it presented itself, as a purveyor of timeless culture—in the Latin American context, as an agent of capitalist “development” (a bad word on the Left).Understandably, Illich was first hailed on the Left, but that was really a misunderstanding: His critique of modernity and capitalism came from the conservative Right. The break with the Left came soon, after Illich made a trip to Cuba and then denounced the Castro regime as a brutal dictatorship. From then on CIDOC became his platform of a radical critique of a broad array of modern institutions (most dramatically of modern medicine, Medical Medicine, 1976). Illich could not be imprisoned in any ideological bottle. Toward the end of his life, he rooted his critique of modernity in rather obscure texts from the Middle Ages. Most relevant to the present discussion is Illich’s concept of “the vernacular”—a cultural domain insulated from the control of “the suits”.An aside: In the early 1970s. my family and I spent three summers at CIDOC. These were sundrenched, happy weeks. They are among the fondest childhood memories of my two sons. Both my wife Brigitte and I found them enormously stimulating. I first experienced the realities of “underdevelopment” and the various attempts to understand it; Brigitte resonated with Illich, as she was working on her interpretation of intelligence tests, as measuring not intelligence but degrees of modern consciousness. Both us profited greatly from conversations with Illich and the very diverse visitors who came from all over the world and talked into the night on his terrace, but neither of us could follow him into his anti-modern utopia. We remained friends. He visited for the last time after we had moved to Boston. He was on his way from New York to Cuernavaca, “to dance in the New Year with the widow of Erich Fromm”. He broke the trip at Logan Airport, took a taxi to our house, asked it to wait for an hour, then went back to the airport to take his flight to Mexico. A wonderful icon of a critic of modernity who loved the Middle Ages! (For a recent well-researched biography of Illich, see Todd Hartch, The Prophet of Cuernavaca, 2015.)Not coincidentally, “vernacular” is a linguistic term. It refers to the language of the common people who could not speak the language of the elite—in Illich’s beloved medieval times, ordinary people couldn’t understand, let alone speak, the Latin of the clerics, and instead spoke barbaric languages like middle German. (Which is why the ecclesiastical authorities were suspicious of translations, like Luther’s, that translated both Bible and liturgy into German, precisely because, horribile dictu, he believed in the priesthood of all believers!) Then as now, children coming to school from the (literally unspeakable) depths of the lower classes must learn to speak the “correct” language of their betters into whose ranks they would like to graduate—“good German”, “good English”, and so on. Illich often cited the author of the first official grammar of the Castilian language, who dedicated his work to the King of Spain, so that all his subjects would understand and obey the now codified “king’s Spanish” (the same codification of the “king’s English” of course happened a bit further to the north—remember the King James version of the Bible!)A useful question to ask in any contemporary society today is where is the dividing line between the vernacular of common people and the language of the elite (the “Latin” if you will) toward which the poor slobs aspire. England, which still has persistent linguistic markers in the class system, is far ahead of other modern democracies in this matter. A careful reading of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Major Barbara” is a more useful introduction to the phenomenon than a lot of sociological treatises on class (typically written in a particularly repulsive “Latin”). In most of Europe there are broadly similar differences between the vernacular and the language of the elite, an Oxford accent as against Cockney, with “BBC English” somewhere in the middle. Democratic egalitarianism exerts pressures on the differences, but a well-informed ear can still hear them (from below as well as from above). If not due to class, in a number of countries there are regional or ethnic vernaculars which children who speak them at home are taught in school to give them up.But let me return to where this essay began: the splendid exercise of American democracy now under way. (Perhaps I should reveal to my readers an about-to-be published report by the Senegalese Academy of Social Sciences. It includes its well-researched document with the conclusion that the United States is not yet ready for democracy. It is written in impeccable French.)In America today, are there still empirically available vernaculars, and what are they? There are still class indicators, though less sharp than in England. Regional vernaculars have waned considerably, at least in part because of television, though they still very much exist (and not always pejoratively) in the South and Southwest. The vernacular of “black English” is still very relevant as a barrier against assimilation (often deliberately so on the part of young African-Americans). It is difficult to generalize about other ethnic or immigrant vernaculars—“Spanglish”, Italian, and so on. I think that in most cases there are very different consequences if these “accents” of standard English are in the language of very educated individuals or of less educated ones. An educated European accent can actually be a cultural asset, which it is not if it just signifies poorly learned English. As far as I remember, when I first came to America, I was barely eighteen, I actually put it on more strongly. I vividly remember occasions when some young American women would tell me how much they liked the way I spoke English. The same is probably the case with an educated Southern accent.Without having thought about this systematically, I will just list some surviving vernaculars: The subcultures of white criminal gangs or convicts (definitely not an asset for mobility). Bikers or long-distance truck drivers. The professional military (especially non-commissioned officers in combat units—those who aspire to higher ranks have to learn to speak “correct English”). Then of course there are religiously demarcated religious subcultures, which will vary with the class position of their members. Yiddish inflections are widely considered cute, even imitated by upwardly mobile Gentiles. Catholic clergy, even seminary students, have their own inflections. Probably the most important politically is the distinctive discourse of Evangelicals. Donald Trump could not succeed if he tried it; neither (I think) could Hillary Clinton (though, if she has a good ear and enough chuzpah, she has spent enough time in Arkansas to have learned it). Ted Cruz doesn’t have to try. Bernie Sanders would disdain such role-playing (despite his misguided ideology, I do give him credit for his integrity).I’m not saying anything original, but the shrinkage of the industrial working class is serious a problem in the U.S. and all other affluent societies. There must be avenues of upward mobility for young people without much education. To some extent the market will help: Income will go up for services such as taking care of old kackers such as myself. But there is something not easily dealt with by public policy. Some steps in educational policy could help (for example in community colleges or by imitating the German apprentice system). But to stay with Illich’s term, there must be ways to make individuals proud of their “vernacular”. Giving PhDs in “black English” to African-Americans (under affirmative action, no less) is not a viable solution. But there is a healthy contempt for the rat-race of the “suits” among people who are quite happy with their lives, despite (and even because of) their having opted out of the endless struggle for wealth and status. Here, I think, is an interesting agenda for both government and private foundations.
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Published on: April 13, 2016
Religion & Other CuriositiesSuits, Slobs, and the New Class System
A new caste has emerged in America, constituting an elite that spans the divide between the two parties. The two party establishments resemble each other much more than their respective non-elite bases.