Review: Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class by Barbara Ehrenrich Print E-mail

FF(Minnesota Review. N.S. 34/35, Spring/Fall 1990)

A Movable Beast

Nothing perhaps is as cumbersome for the sociologist to analyze as the middle class. It resists any easy reading because people constantly enter and move around inside it, as often as they become entrapped or leave. With such liquidity, its most conspicuous trait is a mercurial identity which no other class possesses. The more we question this identity the more divergent our thinking becomes. Do middle-class people share the same values? Do their cultural values outweigh economic ones? Can a person having middle-class career values have another class's artistic tastes or political agenda? Add then the saccharine images with which the media makes a middle-class lifestyle seem desirable, and those with middle-class aspirations leap out of the woodwork. George Bush is one. He works hard at being middle class by pitching horseshoes, holding barbecues, and hugging grandkids, and never once loses his upper-class status. Oddly, he can mix with us but we aren't invited to his parties. Anyone with some education and a few correct possessions can appear middle class. Even the middle class. So, with appearances intrinsic to analyzing this class's identity, only the intrepid sociologist would wrestle with such a subject. Answering the bell is Barbara Ehrenreich, searching for the middle-class's inner life.

To make the journey, the author has adopted the style of "decade-conscious" writing currently the vogue of many sixties' radicals (Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, James Miller). The idea is to dig for clues to class-consciousness in the 1960-1989 "retreat from liberalism" which the middle class has undergone. "Even the names of these decades seem to tell a story that begins with a mood of generosity and optimism and ends with cynicism and narrowing self-interest." Ehrenreich argues that this sixties-seventies-eighties time-chunk has accumulated a consciousness, largely unscrutinized and subtly deceptive. And, because the middle class's image has repeatedly been refashioned in the last 30 years, risking a definition based on the mirrors with which we perceive it is perhaps the only way to talk about it.

Sharing with other authors who have written about personal experiences in the civil rights, anti-war, and women's movement as well as the War on Poverty, Ehrenreich's assessment is a sort of bildungsroman: social analysis which becomes more enlightening because her experience as an activist is, as we sixties' folk once said, relevant. That touch, that attitude, is most engaging in her work--not its obvious erudition and cogent arguments, but how her identity as a middle-class writer guides the material with an ever-centering purpose.

I admire such a tack. Although Fear of Falling contains few I-was-there experiences, the book presents its bias as an analytical value. The inner life of our class--we professional writers, activists, and teachers on the left--dominates our thoughts Ehrenreich suggests because we recognize that we are the ones who perpetuate both facts and fantasies about ourselves. Our needs, we say, are special and universal, unknown and obvious, hoarded and abandoned. The result is an identity which borders on the neurotic, at once nurtured and defended, then rejected and scorned. Knowing ourselves has much to do with knowing our class. "Even those of us who come from very different social settings often find it hard to distinguish middle-class views from what we think we ought to think."

One useful distinction in speaking of a class's inner life is that for Ehrenreich the middle-class soul has no stasis, no radiant being. Rather it is kinetic, unfixable, the transient flux of a historical dialectic. But though its changing identity appears free, its very fickleness has brought about much economic and political injustice against other social groups. Fleshing out this injustice takes some rigorous analysis, which Ehrenreich does well.

The biggest problem involves reading the images which those who hold the Power-To-Label others show us our sociological images. Ehrenreich calls these label-enabling elites the professional middle class, those with "capital" based not on property but education, the mid to upper-end of roughly 20% of the population. Over the past three decades the professional middle class has engendered two main interpretive views about American society. First was the revelations largely by middle-class reformers in the sixties about poor people and the working class; second was the vision middle-class liberal elites had of themselves, particularly the "New Class" of the seventies and the Yuppies of the eighties. To analyze the middle class thru the needs of these influential subgroups makes for more rough going because they see themselves (white, educated, workaholic) as the "social norm . . . from which every other group or class is ultimately a kind of deviation." Thus perhaps the only way to make sense of the middle class is as a class system itself, its ladders of privilege rung with highly educated yet deeply insensitive beliefs. That such politically savvy professionals practiced Siegfried-and-Roy illusions with the values of middle-class people in terms other than, and in spite of, what many vulgarly conceived them to--the smiley faces of the Brady Bunch--is Ehrenreich's thesis.

In the early sixties America discovered the poor. Michael Harrington's The Other America was the catalyst, prompting Kennedy to begin and Johnson to briefly sustain a war on poverty. But the middle class's "poor" were not the same as the actual poor. "The invented poor were a reflection of middle-class needs and a projection of middle-class anxieties. They were . . . 'others,' aliens inhabiting a world of their own that might as well have lain outside the national boundaries." Attached to the other was the "culture of poverty," what Ehrenreich calls "an extension of the prejudices against the lower classes." In other words to say the poor had a culture was really to say they were diseased. "What the middle class saw in the poor . . . was the dreaded effects of affluence on the middle class. The poor did not participate in affluence themselves, but, strangely, they came to represent its worst effects on the human character . . . [namely] that of the ideal consumer . . . hedonistic, impulsive, self-indulgent. Nothing could better serve the consumer-goods industries than for everyone to abandon their 'capacity for deferred gratification' [the middle class's trademark] and become as suggestible and addicted to sensation as the poor were said to be."

With such assumptions, social groups are still monitored: each "minority" community owes its economic future to how well they strive for middle-class rewards--education, career, home. Furthermore, much of middle-class identity is founded on a smug privilege that it claims for itself alone: We are morally better because we endure neither the perils of poverty nor the wastefulness of wealth. Having it both ways, affluence and conscience. Essentially, it was as important to "help" the poor as it was for the middle class to remind themselves what they were not or, worse, would be if they fell from the grace of their preciously worked-for status.

In the seventies it was on to the "New Class," the liberal elites which Ehrenreich says was a deviously packaged group. The New Class, so labeled by the conservative movement, actually comprised both liberal and conservative "journalists, commentators, think-tank residents, authors, speechwriters," those who were "estranged from the concerns of 'ordinary,' working-class Americans." But behind such alienation from the "other," behind the need of magazines like Commentary to attack the conscientiousness of sixties' activists, was the growing damage that jockeying for position within the workplace wreaked on many middle-class people. "What had begun as class-consciousness--an awareness of the middle class as one class among others--seemed to degenerate, in the seventies and eighties, into self-hate."

Ehrenreich's chapter, "The 'New Class': A Bludgeon for the Right," is an intriguing analysis of intellectual intra-class warfare. The idea is that one segment of the class controls another segment thru evasion and denial. An example. National African-American political candidates are viable one day, so it goes, but not the opportunistic, wide-open-minded Jesse Jackson. With his character suddenly an "issue," the new candidate is kept out and social issues are easily ignored. Ehrenreich says such manipulation springs from "the central dishonesty of the New Right: Its intellectual leaders pinpointed permissiveness as the source of America's ills. Yet they could not attack, or even mention, the one source of genuinely permissive ideology in American culture. The New Class . . . includes the marketing strategists, copywriters, and miscellaneous corporate hirelings who actually compose the permissive message of the consumer culture."

"I been slimed," Bill Murray said in Ghostbusters. What better metaphor is there for what Ronald Reagan and the conservative mafia wrought: welfare-causes-poverty, income polarization, academic conservatism, weakened affirmative-action laws, upscale and downscale markets for those gaming with middle-class liquidity, and the Yuppies, whose "workday was devoted to the 'bottom line' and a leisure life divided between consumption and penance." The sixties radicals may have been "anti-intellectual" but the yuppies (who Ehrenreich labels "ultra-stupid") were "unintellectual."

I find much virtue in Ehrenreich's push to grasp this three-decade-long eel. Her intention seems to have been to make middle-class people more sensitive to their caste, and how they cast others in their own image, by proving that the class is a changeling, a moveable beast. But that doesn't make us feel any more at home. In fact who would want to claim such an identity once they understand the distortions elites use to represent the middle class. What's most ironic is that most middle-class people probably believe they are classless individuals. It seems the middle class exists so it can be unclaimed, just as the foulmouthed have always argued why poverty exists--to rise out of. I suppose the middle class does have a soul. Yet it's hardly one which will buoy anyone's conscience.