Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class

Written 30 years ago, Ehrenreich’s book charting the shift in consciousness of the middle class is eerily spot-on reading for someone trying desperately to understand what went wrong in the 2016 election.

She starts in the 1950s, when fear of affluence was an actual thing; people were frightened of what their rampant consumerism would lead to. Then, like a miracle, poverty is “discovered” as a cause célèbre of the professional middle class, something to be dealt with, grappled with, handled, something more palatable than civil rights (“Perhaps the poor were less threatening to white, middle-class sensibilities than the swelling black movement”). But then the youth protestors wreaked havoc on the imagination of the intellectuals, creating a split to turn former lefties into neoconservatives.

Affluence, dread, and poverty in the 1950s
Ehrenreich places the reason that America produced the most vigorous feminist movement in the world on the fact that we were “one of the only countries in which the middle class (which is wealthy by world standards) customarily employed its own women as domestic servants.”

She points out a 1968 book by Edward Banfield, a Harvard urbanologist, The Unheavenly City, was a glimpse of what was to be mainstream views on poverty by the 1980s: “The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment… Impulse governs his behavior… whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless.” Banfield also suggests that “improvements in public sanitation and in medical and hospital care keep many lower-class people alive, often in spite of themselves.” He suggests taking children away from the lower-class, and the easiest way to do this would be to “permit the sale of infants and children to qualified bidders both private and public.” The middle-class view of the poor guaranteed that they would get services, housing, and projects… anything other than money that they couldn’t be trusted with.

Intellectual backlash against the student movement
Students lashed out at the authority figures closest to them, wondering why they should listen to their professors, “What is your vaunted objectivity but a mask for privilege, your expertise but an excuse for power?” With their power threatened, intellectuals fought back. Robert Brustein, a Yale professor warned that if students and professors were to be on equal footing, the professionals would be on the same footing as amateurs, resulting in “a bleak future… of monochromatic amateurism in which everyone has opinions, few have facts, nobody has an idea.” This rings alarm bells in my mind about the current state of the Internet.

Ehrenreich then traces the origin of the professional class, arising 1870-1920 when educational barriers started to be erected, forcing expensive degrees to practice law, medicine, or any other professional work. Since the professors now under attack had undergone the hoops that had been thrown up, they were furious in their counterattack. The students had exposed the basis of middle-class privilege: “We know more, and are therefore entitled to positions of privilege and authority.”

Because of the barriers to entry which had been thrown up, the middle class’s own youth weren’t guaranteed entry into the class… adding to the stress of life for a parent to have to cultivate and push their young through the barriers that they had gone through. “Hence the perennial middle-class preoccupation with the problems of childraising.”

Discovery of the working class
Godfrey Hodgson pinpoints the awakening to this new class in the summer of 1968 during the clashes with Chicago police protesting pro-war Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey. The press were attacked along with the protestors, and editors of all the nation’s major newspapers sent telegrams of protest to the mayor. But then polls showed that the majority of Americans (56%) sympathized with the police, and overnight the press abandoned its protest! The media realized that they’d been too sympathetic to one side and that they’d then focus on the silent majority. A 1969 TV Guide article quoted network officials: “We didn’t know it [the white, adult majority] was there!” and “The world doesn’t end at the Hudson,” another discovered. Books poured in over the next few years—The White Majority, Middle Class Rage, The Radical Center, the Troubled American—and magazines filled their pages with definitions of Middle Americans. Time only excluded “the nation’s intellectuals, its liberals, its professors, its surgeons” and, as Ehrenreich points out, its blacks.

Quotes in a 1969 Newsweek article ring uncomfortably close to what we just witnessed with the last election:

“Paint your face black and you can get a new Cadillac and the county will come in and feed your family..” says Frank Reis… “There’s only one way to solve this, and that’s gonna be with a revolution. I’m for fighting it out between us,” David Pedroza says angrily…. “What do you call dragging the American flag on the ground and burning draft cards and all that shit?” asks Reis… “We should have a Hitler here to get rid of troublemakers the way they did with the Jews in Germany.” (Newsweek Oct 6, 1969, “The Troubled American”)

Television was a new way that middle-class professionals could address the working class; at work they barked orders and now in the privacy of one’s home, they lecture and scold. This is why the media became a target–the commentators looked conceited and people in their homes couldn’t talk back.

This discovery of the working class meant that the middle class couldn’t pretend to be the core of America. The true majority was “angry and embittered, hostile to the middle class itself. In discovering the working class, the middle class discovered a negative, and hideously unflattering, image of itself: an isolated elite, pretentiously liberal, and despised by authentic, hardworking Americans.”

The “New Class” and coalescing of the Right
The liberal elite was coined the New Class by neocons in the 1970s, surfacing in mass media in 1975 by Irving Kristol; defined as consisting of “scientists, teachers, and educational administrators, journalists and others in the communications industries, psychologies, social workers, those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector, city planners, the staffs of the large foundations, the upper levels of government bureaucracy, and so on.” Denouncing this New Class was a rite of passage for people moving from the left to the right. As neocons looked to shore up business uber alles, they found allies among the dissident members of the “New Class” like Kristol.

The New Right was born in 1974 and by the late 1970s was a bureaucratic machine with its own think tanks and media, along with an “expanding network of sympathetic or subsidiary groups—pro-business, anti-gun control, pro-law-and-order, and ‘pro-family’.” Enhrenreich grants that “It took a certain spirit of opportunism to graft these social issues—anti-abortion, anti-ERA, anti-gun control—onto the traditional economic agenda of the right.” The enemy was the supposedly decadent New Class, who let everything slide.

At their core, neocons understand that capitalism goes against their core values of hard work, self-denial, family loyalty. Daniel Bell (neocon until rejecting the label in the 1980s) wrote that “modern capitalism has been transformed by a widespread hedonism that has made mundane concerns, rather than transcendental ties, the center of people’s lives… Without the hedonism stimulated by mass consumption, the very structure of business enterprises would collapse.” Ehrenreich points out the central dishonesty of the New Right: “Its intellectual leaders pinpointed permissiveness as the source of America’s ills. Yet they could not attack, or even mention, the one source of genuinely permissive ideology in American culture [, advertising and capitalism].”

Yuppie Strategy
In the 1980s, it became more evident that there wasn’t one big middle class filling up American shores. The late sixties were the last years where economic inequality declined, and then the gap between have and have-nots started widening. Middle class started shrinking (blue-collar middle class) with the deindustrialization of America and wage loss due to declining union power. Scrambling to find a foothold that wasn’t crumbling, yuppies were born. Colleges went from protest centers to being the place to launch a career. Between early 70s and early 80s, 50% decline in people getting English degrees (and nearly 50% for social sciences) while business degrees doubled. This choice to be a business major wasn’t always happily made. Ehrenreich says they suffered from “premature pragmatism.” Along with this shift in degrees came a shift in attitude, “a negative, self-centered mood settled over the campuses. UCLA’s annual survey of undergraduate attitudes found a steady rise in avarice and a decline in altruism and social concern.”

Along with the yuppification came the need for couples to find financially compatible mates. Fitness became another way that people were showing off their wealth (“if fitness was consumption, it was also penance, a continual balancing of calories ingested with calories expended, a socially acceptable equivalent of bulimia”), as well as showing how busy you were. “Busyness became an essential insignia of status–and a not entirely ineffective one. To have time and attention for others is to concede their importance. The upwardly mobile professional, rushing from one appointment or deadline to another, concedes nothing to those who are less harried and hence, obviously less important.”

The Next Great Shift
Written from the perspective of 30 years ago, Ehrenreich misses the wild excesses brought on by the internet boom(s) and thinks that the 1990s may bring us back to the ideals of the 1960s. The New Class is not what’s causing hedonism. “It is the locus of the most acute conflict over hedonism, the nexus of the most pronounced tension between modernism and tradition, consumerism and self-discipline.”