But class in America and elsewhere is surely informed by metrics other than tax brackets, isn’t it? We are advised, these latter decades, that a category—class?—of people known as “coastal elites” looks down upon the honest yeomanry, the “real Americans” who live in “flyover country” (I used to think of them as “those funny little rectangular states”). And yet, there are folks in, say, Oklahoma or Indiana who, with three or four times my household income, would regard me as “elite,” so surely that makes us upper class here at The Crumbling Manse™, aren’t we?
Well of course, by Bay Area standards, we’re only getting by, although we have the incomparable advantage, accounts payable-wise, of no children, no carried-over consumer debt, no student loans (at last!) and a mortgage that should be retired within another thirty months, leaving us with a property that has appreciated considerably since its purchase late in the last century. And I am startled to see that our household income puts us slightly north of the ninety-fifth percentile, national median-wise. But again, let’s leave money aside.
In my twenties I was a guest at a suburban manse owned by a friend’s father, a self-made millionaire. “Millionaire” counted for a great deal more in the mid-seventies than it does today. The place was tricked out with ghastly vulgarity: not unlike (although in fairness to my friend, nothing like as over-the-top) Donald Trump’s decorating schemes. During the preceding years I had been received in the homes of other college friends who, by no means as prosperous in terms of fungible assets, rested comfortably on nest eggs of cultural and intellectual attainments. They were, what, upper-middle class, if that? The millionaire was probably worth a dozen or more of these households, but culturally, had they been his neighbors, he would have been the Tony Soprano (I do not mean to impute an organized crime connection, although in the case of the paterfamilias’ line of work the possibility cannot be excluded) on the block.
So about that: the, let us say, solid-waste management guy brings in $x each year, and has rebuilt and remodeled his home in McMansion style on steroids. Across the street the retired Stanford associate professor (household income closer to $.05x of Tony Soprano’s), who purchased his considerably more modest bungalow back when Bay Area houses were affordable, holds state in his comfortable premises, perhaps a tad shabby, perhaps a tad deficient when it comes to gilded faux-Louis XIV furniture. Professor Poor can comfortably discourse about a range of topics that would leave Tony Soprano tongue-tied, although in fairness Tony Soprano knows much about disposing of corpses in municipal landfills, a discipline that would leave Professor Poor utterly bewildered. Tony dismisses Poor because he is, by Soprano standards, well, poor, while the academic regards the solid-waste mogul, his vast, gaudy house, his dreadful decorating scheme (in particular his “library,” consisting of buckram-bound volumes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, purchased by the yard), his indifference to scholarship, with boundless contempt. Each man regards himself as dwelling in the superior “class.”
So how do we evaluate them? Does it matter?
I have connections—I will not say more than that I am obliged not to sunder these—with a couple of individuals, both of them probably in percentile 99.5 (and ardent Trump supporters, natch), who share in addition to considerable personal wealth, an indifference—nay, an outright contempt—toward the “cultural elite,” whom they likely believe personified by “Hollywood celebrities” (so Barbra Streisand claims to care for the poor, but she lives in a Malibu mansion! Hyuck, hyuck, checkmate, libtards!), and also toward erudition and intellectual attainment generally, particularly those that come under the rubric of “liberal arts.” I might have asserted that they would indignantly deny “elite” status until the God-Emperor Trump said this a year ago:
“They always call the other side ‘the elite’. Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do,” the US president said. “I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t. And I’m representing the greatest, smartest, most loyal best people [sic] on Earth — the deplorables, remember that?”So perhaps they’ll embrace the label after all.
But class: I did not come myself from an educated family—neither of my parents continued their studies past high school—but they were cultural strivers after the fashion of their cohort in the Fifties. Both of them regretted skipping college; both were, I think, keenly conscious of their deficits, and endeavored to better themselves: they subscribed, for example, to a service that mailed the household LPs of “classical” music, not because they actually liked this—their tastes ran more toward Broadway musicals and the “Great American Songbook,”—but because they admired, and aspired to, the stratum of society that did. I owe to them, in part, my own enjoyment of all of these genres. Now might be a good time, incidentally, for the occasional reader to refer to my long-ago entry on “Mid-Century Middlebrow.” Go ahead. I’ll wait. And they aspired for better things for their children in terms of standard of living and culture.
Obviously I come down on the side of class-as-culture rather than class-as-income-bracket, but of course, when it comes time to draw a charmed circle, most of us will devise one with ourselves at the center, as the short-fingered vulgarian so tellingly contrived to do in his 2018 remarks. There is no need, to be sure, for the two categories not to overlap: indeed, at one time they were very nearly congruent, and as the striving, presumptuous middle class that emerged following the New Deal and the postwar reforms is gradually squeezed out of existence—hanging on by its fingertips to the hem of privilege, or cast down to the upper proletariat to be milked by the rentier class—it may be that the “elites” will reunite, with perhaps a significantly larger percentage of semiliterate vulgarian thugs in their ranks. I can hardly wait.
*The existence of the USSR as a countervailing economic and political system, its deficits notwithstanding, served as a brake on some of capitalism’s direst impulses, and we are living through some of the consequences of its absence—but this is properly the topic of another entry.