Class Consciousness Matters

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.’

Consciousness of the impact of class, as well as ‘race, gender
and other accidents of history,’ is critical for social change.
Myths of self-made success and class mobility allow Americans to
ignore an economy in which the bottom 90 percent saw their real
incomes fall between 1980 and 2002, while the ultra-wealthy saw
theirs more than double.

‘Rather than manners or fashion,’ Moberg writes, ‘class
ultimately has more to do with who has the power to make such
decisions and the powerlessness of the majority.’
Julie Hanus

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Class
Consciousness Matters

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