Classes Don’t Need to “Understand” Each Other

Thomas FrankThe worst aspect of conservatives’ gripes about classism are the solutions they propose. Never do they suggest that we actually do something to mitigate the extreme imbalance of power between the social orders, because that would change them from compassionate conservatives into dirty commies. The farthest they usually go in this regard is to recommend that we vote for a candidate who shares our values, a guy with whom we can imagine chugging a can of beer while we’re both cleaning our rifles or talking about soybean yield or getting our hair cut in some really authentic small-town barbershop from back before the big-box stores killed small towns.

David Brooks is a daring writer, however, and he pushes it to the limit: We need a “common project,” he declares, in which Americans from different classes can come together to do something jointly and thus learn to understand one another. Such an undertaking, which sounds a lot like one of those team-building exercises that are always suggested by management consultants, would “improve social mobility” so that “social distance will decline.”

Yea, verily: When the venture capitalist shall dwell with the checkout clerk, and the payday lender will lie down with the coal miner, then brotherly concord will prevail at last.

The truth is, though, we already have a common project between the classes — it’s the economy. Technically speaking, the highly educated professional class does know how the other half lives, because they tell the other half how to live. They set their wages and hours. They make suggestions of what to eat and drive and squeeze onto their toothbrushes. They instruct them how to do their jobs — and they even offer friendly advice for how to rationalize it when those jobs get shipped to Mexico or China.

Now, there is something that would change this ugly class situation, and it’s not a society-wide project in which bosses and bossed come together for a series of exciting trust falls. It’s the opposite: An organization of workers that allows them to confront members of the other class and negotiate with them over wages, hours and the other things that actually determine the conditions of their lives.

Unfortunately, such organizations strike most conservatives as a perversion of the natural order. Try to set one up where you work and within minutes David Brooks’s tasteful fans in the C-suite would be on the phone to the Ferguson PD imploring them to show up in full combat mode and make you stop. But let workers form unions and it would actually do something huge and immediate to close the crevasse of inequality, increase mobility, and maybe put a big dent in racism and police brutality along the way.

No empathy from on high required. Do something about class itself, and the rich can keep their “classism.” Snobbery without power behind it is not deadly but merely amusing, a joke from a Monty Python skit long ago.

—Thomas Frank
Ann Coulter and David Brooks Play a Sneaky, Unserious Class Card

2 thoughts on “Classes Don’t Need to “Understand” Each Other

  1. That checkout clerk, in Europe, is sitting down. On a chair. In America, that checkout clerk is standing up. For no reason. You can scan UPC codes (which, you’ll recall, Bush The First was baffled by) just as effectively sitting down as standing up. Why are our checkout clerks standing up?

    Because we want, in our grand American classless society, for everyone to be defined by class. Everyone has their place, and the place of checkout clerks is “fuck you, you’re in a shittier situation than me right now, stand up, you big piece of nothing.” (It’s pretty awful to stand up for hours on end; I’ve got misery in my feet that will never recover.)

    Really, by pretending we’re a classless society, we are more class-obsessed than almost anyone else. It’s ridiculous.

    • Oh, yeah. The the classless society myth is one of our most pernicious. As for standing: yes. People don’t understand it unless they’ve done it. I can walk for 8 hours straight without a problem. But standing for an hour is excruciating.

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