Class Consciousness Matters

What's missing from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal

| June 30, 2005

Between a series in the New York Times and a package in the Wall Street Journal, the message is out: Americans have less class mobility than in the past few decades, even less than in many comparable industrial countries. The curious thing is this: Americans believe just the opposite.

This belief is especially perilous, David Moberg writes for In These Times, when considered in the light of another widely-held American myth: the self-made man.

It is generally recognized that financial inequality is on the rise. Development of an ultra-rich class, however, isn't worrisome for those who believe they are upwardly mobile. In 2000, a poll indicated that nearly 40 percent of Americans believed they were either among the wealthiest 1 percent -- or on their way there.

But exaggerated inequality decreases mobility. People on the lean end have fewer resources to devote to class-boosters such as college degrees, while those on the fat end have an excess of resources -- financial, legal, and political -- to channel into maintaining their privilege. By comparison, Moberg says, countries with less disparity demonstrate higher levels of social mobility.

Then there's the myth of the self-made man. Instead of acknowledging the disproportionate power the upper classes wield, Americans tend to attribute good fortune to an individual's genius and labor. Turn the rubric around, and failure to acquire wealth and power is equally self-determined.

Neither failure nor success can be explained so narrowly. The class in which an individual is born largely determines class as an adult, Moberg explains, and class affects access to health care, education, and employment. Individuals make their own history, 'but not under conditions they choose.'