C. Wright Mills – Middle Class, Ideology, and Mass Consumer Society

Having examined the weakest component of the power elite in the third chapter, in Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals, in chapter 4, the focus is on another major work of Mills’s: White Collar – The American Middle Classes, considered the second volume of his social structure trilogy after The New Men of Power:

White Collar stands, after sixty years, as the most comprehensive work that American social science has produced in the study of the new middle class. Mills does nothing less than to formulate a detailed stratification system of the new middle class, from state and corporate bureaucracies embodied in the “managerial demiurge” at the top of the status hierarchy, to intellectuals in intermediate positions, to what he describes as the “enormous file” of clerical labor.” (134)

The middle class, in American collective imaginary, holds a special place. Where the concept of working class never really took hold, the middle class is both aspirational and ideological. It is aspirational in that it reformulates the social stratification system in terms of capacity to consume en masse, and represents the achievement of the American Dream.

It is ideological in that it is a category constructed by the rising mass media and its main target. It is ideologically constructed as a specific class of workers. To define it, Mills uses several inspirations:

“As Mills demonstrates in White Collar, the “new” salaried middle class was highly stratified, ranging in status and income from managers at the pinnacle, followed by qualified professionals (no longer able to hang out their shingle and become small entrepreneurs but instead are obliged to work for salaries), to clerks, mostly women, who perform routine and repetitive tasks. At the turn of the twentieth century and not only in the United States, the new middle class was on the road to outstripping, in size and social importance, the old, entrepreneurial, self-employed middle class, which was being cut down to size by large-scale corporate capital. By the 1960s, this new middle class also outnumbered industrial workers.

One of the earliest examples of scholarly attention to white-collar employees appeared in 1912. Emil Lederer, a German sociologist, was one of the first observers of the “middle position” of salaried employees, those between owners and wage workers. He identified this stratum as a “new” middle class, new because it differed from the “old” middle-class of owners of small productive and commercial property. Members of the new middle class worked for salaries and were generally employed by large corporations and the state.” (130)

And:

“Kracauer is mostly concerned with the more-or-less complete recruitment of salaried employees to capital’s side by means of “the ideologies that fetter them.” These ideologies appealed to the salaried masses’ feeling of superiority based on their schooling, which awards them a degree of status but no concrete material rewards. On the contrary, far from the individuality promised by high capitalism, Kracauer shows that the salaried employee has become the crucial element of the increasing massification of contemporary society exemplified in the “standard character.” These characters “adapt themselves more or less easily to the firm,” continuously aware of the distinction between themselves and the proletariat, and their adoption of “bourgeois ideology” masks the gap between their self-conception and their actual living and working conditions.” (131)

And so, white collar workers become the adjuncts of the state and capital rather than challengers to them. However, being workers as much as their industrial counterparts, they do experience the same alienation.

“Alienation remains, for Mills, the basis for the popular acceptance of mass culture and mass consumption as the real purposes of life. The implication of Mills’s analysis is that the demise of the “gospel of work” as meaningful activity and its replacement by instrumentalism in which income is its only “meaning” constitutes the foundation of his judgment that leisure reigns supreme as the object of human activity in the modern world. But Mills also calls attention to the decline of the family and the community as the principal sites of human relationships.” (136)

And contrary to the current anti-union narratives, unions, in the US, have been a disciplining force for workers, into not challenging the system but getting more secure positions in unfavorable conditions and removing uncertainties from the convulsions of capital.

“The 1960s and early 1970s was an era of intense white-collar organizing, first in health care and then among the millions of government employees at federal, state, and local levels. Some of the most dramatic gains were made among teachers, whose two major unions, taken together, are now America’s largest, with a combined membership of almost four million. But, chiefly at the municipal and state governments, unions made huge strides among clerical workers, including in universities. By the mid-1970s, more than a third of public employees were in unions, and the proportion was much higher in education. Unionism sank roots among the professoriate as well. But it did not take long before these organizations fit themselves into the already established union models forged in production and transportation: the point of work was now to enable the worker to consume more on the basis of a labor contract that secured her job from the ups and downs of the economy and the arbitrary whims of the managers and that provided steady raises and a measure of health and pension benefits. Their chief goal was job and retirement security and, only occasionally, did they concern themselves with the totality of their members’ lives, let alone the lives of working people in general.” (137)

The rewards for this were greater access to social goods: education and mass consumption. The trade-offs?

“But if intellectuals are the seat of critical thinking and new ideas with which to confront the new conditions of life, Mills finds them wanting, mainly because they have lost their freedom to think against the grain. (…) They have been thoroughly incorporated as part of the bureaucracies of the media and other corporate organizations.

(…)

Mills ends by challenging the judgment according to which the postwar intellectual is a free agent in the age of corporate capitalism. Mature capitalism extends its reach beyond the market for ordinary commodities into culture. Insofar as culture is a contested ideological terrain, its transformation into a commodity and crucial aspect of power goes hand in hand with the subordination of the free intellectual into a well-paid salaried employee. Even the Hollywood writer is a servant of the company; Mills allows that perhaps the playwright remains autonomous, but not the academic.

(…)

The passing of the free intellectual has given rise to the “technician” of existing powers. “Intellectual activity that does not have relevance to established money is not likely to be highly valued” (156). The intellectual cum administrator, “idea man,” and publicist has been made solidly middle class, part of the apparatuses of power rather than their independent critic.” (140)

Rings a familiar bell, my fellow academics?

“Mills’s ruminations on the transformation of intellectuals into technicians of power in modern U.S. society and their middle-class identity, combined with his general skepticism of the possibility of the emergence of an effective radical opposition party in which intellectuals could play a critical role, poses significant questions for the future of democratic society. He concluded that the institutions of mass communications, of culture, and of economic, political, and social organizations have little or no room for critical thought, much less self-criticism. What is left is a politics of despair manifested in the absurd claim that American politics is ruled by consensus.” (141)

That last one is a dig at the pluralistic thesis. But the institution that comes for a real beating here is the media as the ideological shaper of mass culture based on consumption as the remedy to alienation. His criticism is again strikingly prescient:

“Mills insists that “the forms and contents of political consciousness [including class consciousness] or their absence, cannot be understood without reference to the world created and sustained by these media, [which are] the common denominator of American experience, feeling, belief and aspiration” (334). The media “trivialize issues into personal squabbles rather than humanizing them by asserting their meaning for you and me.” Mills’s main criticism of the media is that it holds “a monopoly on the ideological dead; they spin records of political emptiness” (335).” (143)

Can you say “reality TV”?

By extension, this leads to a fake pluralism within the polity, ruled by consensus within the power elite, behind illusions generated by the media:

“While noting rising living standards and the remarkable postwar economic growth fueled by technological innovation, Mills strikes a dissident chord: “there is very little difference between the two parties that monopolize American politics” (346), and there has never been a real alternative political formation to challenge them. The reason: the social structure that supports this arrangement has “drained” nearly all of the opposition leaders. In the absence of a significant opposition, American politics is virtually a one-party system in which “impersonal manipulation has replaced authority” (345). In this vortex, the individual feels powerless to change anything; his voice is silenced. Thus there is, for the most part, no public debate about fundamental principles or, indeed, vital political issues of any sort.

So the problem for the new middle class is that neither political awareness nor political organization is present to oppose the monopoly of knowledge and power that prevails in American society.” (143)

And Mills is merciless in noting the massive failure of social scientists, including sociologists in pointing this out.

“Most sociologists, political scientists, and journalists were busy celebrating economic prosperity and asserting that social rule was dispersed by a multiplicity of interest groups, none of which, according to them, remotely held a monopoly of political power. And they ignored the concentration and centralization of economic power or, if duly noted, insisted that phenomena such as oligopoly were decoupled from politics and the state.” (144)

Needless to say, this is a dig at the dominant sociology of the day back then: Parsons’s and Merton’s functionalism.

On the Guns Thing, I would Just Like to Point Out…

This obvious set of facts:

See the differences? See the statistically significant correlation between homicide by firearms and ownership of firearms? See the massive difference between the United States and other developed countries?

Now, since yesterday, we have heard a whole bunch of rationalizations as to why this has nothing to do with guns. So, let me unpack some of these rationalizations.

Rationalization #1: violence is part of human nature.

If that were the case, the rates of violence between the United States and comparable countries would be, well, comparable. Heck, violence rates all over the world would be roughly at the same rate. There is nothing “natural” about violence. There is nothing genetic about it. It is not universal. To state that violence is universal and part of human nature fails to explain the scatterplot above.

Rationalization #2: If the killers had not used guns, they would have used something else (follows a long list of potential weapons).

Except, they did not, did they. These killer had access to these alternative weapons all along. So why did they pick guns? R#2 does not explain the choice of guns in the first place. The reason they picked guns was that guns are available relatively easily. They are also lethally effective (and a lot of  people pointed out that the Chinese attacker went after the same number of children with a knife and none of them died). And the kind of guns these killers chose were those that would provide them with great and easy means of piling up a solid body count.

Also, no one knows whether the killers would have turned to other weapons. had guns not been available. It is pure speculation.

Actually, we may suspect that they would not. When other societies removed weapons, the number of homicides drops to low levels. Again, just look at the scatterplot above.

To be fair though, the scatterplot below shows what percentage of homicides were committed with firearms. The correlation becomes weaker, but still holds with three outliers.

In other words. countries where forearms ownerships is lower than the US are not full of murderers using other weapons available to them.

Rationalization #3: It’s because of diversity. All these other countries have much more racial and ethnic homogeneity than the United States.

Note that no evidence is ever offered of that claim. But let’s accept it for the sake of argument. The majority of homicides in the US are committed within racial and ethnic groups, not across racial and ethnic lines. If diversity was the issue, we would be discussing epidemics of cross-racial / cross-ethnic violence. That is just not the case. And in the vast majority of the killings under discussion, it is usually white killers / white victims. Diversity has nothing to do with it. Illegal immigration has nothing to do with it. When was the last time such killings were committed by undocumented immigrants?

As a general rule, when people invoke “diversity” as the independent variable (never operationalized as a variable, but amorphously invoked nonetheless), it is the PC way of making a racist argument (it’s because of the non-white people that other European countries don’t have) without being called racist. And it’s wrong every single time.

Rationalization #4: the killers are mentally ill, therefore, no gun regulation will do anything.

This one often comes even before we even know anything about the killers but all of a sudden, everyone becomes capable of psychiatric diagnosis. Again, this one does not explain the scatterplot above. One would still be left having to explain why the United States has a higher rate of mental illness. But then, one would still have not explained the link mental illness → gun violence.

This rationalization also assumes that mental illness is an objective category completely disembedded from culture. As I have argued before, mental illness does not exist separate from culture. As Howard Becker showed us a long time ago, a category like “mentally ill” is one that is socially constructed through a variety of social processes having to do with specific professions and producing results such as the DSM. The DSM is not an objective categorization of symptoms and conditions. It is influenced by – and influences – our culture. Once socially produced, the designation of “mentally ill” is then applied as a label to a series of observable behavior that violate norms.

If one wanted to invoke mental illness as an explanation for the shootings, one would still need to explain why the person decided to get guns and shoot others as opposed to, say, run naked in the streets, a behavior that would also get the person defined as mentally ill. And one would still have to explain why mentally ill people do not pick killing with guns as the behavior expression of their mental illness in other countries.

The truth is that mentally ill people are just as influenced by the culture as the rest of us. They are just as socialized in a culture that provides scripts regarding masculinity, violence, power and, yes, guns. It is culture that makes available the idea that one’s masculine anger is to be appeased to murder suicide by gun.

And then, once these rationalizations are in place, solutions are offered:

Solution #1: more guns

Based on the scatterplot above, this one should have been laughed out of town a long time ago.

This idea is based on cultural narrative that have the force of myth: (1) a good guy with a gun will always shoot better than the bad guy; (2) any good guy with a gun will always overpower a bad guy with a gun; (3) a good guy with a gun will never make a mistaken identification; (4) all such situations are always unambiguous, the parties have been clearly identified, the potential victims are out of the way, all that is left is the good guy v. the bad guy, Death Wish-/Dirty Harry-style.

Solution #2: more God

I know this one sounds stupid but it has been trotted out, so, keeping in mind the scatterplot above, consider this:

As you can see, the US has higher rates of religiosity compared to its level of wealth, making its levels of religiosity compared to that of South America rather than the economically-more-comparable Europe. There is already more God in the US than in other part of the developed world.

And if you look at religiosity within the US, you will find all sorts of behavior (like murder) correlated with high religiosity:

The truth is that lower levels of religiosity correlates with lower levels of violence (interpersonal and structural).

So, overall, the data is pretty clear and so are the policy implications. And I would just like to add one more thing:

Now, you will note that the arguments on masculinity, white privilege, mental illness and health care in general, inequality and gun policy are all arguments that we are told to not make because it is insensitive. Then, ask yourselves, who benefits when these issues are not discussed and problems not solved?