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

December 15, 2012 by and tagged , ,

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.

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