Thursday, November 01, 2007

Funny, I always thought class was about economics

Apparently not. It seems that "middle-class" is an adjective being used to describe, not a demographic defined by earnings, but by "values." In a story, strikingly titled "More U.S. millionaires are middle-class" Reuters tells us:

New research has found that more and more Americans worth at least $1 million want luxury goods such as yachts but otherwise lead family-focused, work-oriented lives.


[T]hese new millionaires adhere to middle-class values, earning their money rather than inheriting it, working 70 hours a week, and choosing neighborhoods based on the quality of schools.


"They spend their money on all the things that tie back to family values -- on the health and welfare of their family, career development, and as you move up the ladder they spend on leisure and luxury activities."
The article, though brief, is fascinating for the way that it tacitly imbricates earnings, values, and spending patterns. These people spend money on their families--and one wonders what this means exactly other than the fact that they purposely live in good school districts. And that apparently defines them as middle-class. There's so much wrong with that set of associations it almost feels unsporting to blog about it. So single or childless millionaires are unable to be seen as middle class because they are not "family oriented"? How stinking rich does a family man have to be before he can be seen as rich or upper class rather than middle class? And what about dirt poor people who invest what little they have in family-oriented things? Are they part of the middle class?

You get my drift here.

Though to be my own devil's advocate for a minute, the positive thing that can be said about the article is that it makes explicit what tends to operate under the surface in our culture--that class really is a function of culture as much as cash. My favorite French theorist (everyone should have a favorite French theorist), Pierre Bourdieu, argued as much about French culture/economics. (Note that Bourdieu called himself "left of left," and the tagline of NMTE at present is "left of liberal.") Were I not bone weary and trying to leave work soon, I would give a Cliff's notes version of Bourdieu's Distinction, my favorite book of his, but alas dear readers you are to suffer as a result of my haste and exhaustion. You'll have no such in-a-nutshell paragraph here. And the web is lousy for a decent Bourdieu page. At least I cannot find one. Really what you have to do is read him. It's a commitment, but it's not nearly as punishing as Habermas, I promise.

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