Class analysis as farce

One of the things that always bothers me about universities is how cagey they are when it comes to talking about their place in class reproduction. (For those of you who are uneasy about “class,” try asking yourself about the possible place of universities in hierarchical, even antagonistic social systems of status, prestige, exploitation, wealth, and opportunity.) Sometimes people talk about how universities promote social mobility for students, but, as easy as it is to forget this, even the very idea of “social mobility” presupposes hierarchy and inequality; it takes a structure of inequality to enable the individual to move around within it. As for the social class of the faculty, there too it’s difficult to pin down. In part that’s because longstanding ideologies of the “scholarly guild” tend to conceal class inequalities within the faculty, above all between contingent and non-contingent staff. In part that’s because a traditional Marxist analysis of class has a hard time handling people like academics who have a lot of cultural capital but relatively little actual money. In part that’s because it’s convenient to imagine oneself as classless (which is, moreover, the foundational fantasy of middle-class America).

I find it interesting, therefore, to notice those rare occasions when some sort of class analysis manages to emerge from official academic discourse. If we look at the University of Chicago’s very odd Idea of the University colloquium from 2000-2001, we see that Don Randel, then the university’s president, expressed a very definite faith in his university’s collective attachment to wealth:

“We must hope that values and commitment are the principal reasons for which both faculty and graduate students want to be at The University of Chicago. But we cannot idly expect them to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice. One of our greatest challenges for the future, then, will be to find the resources with which to ensure that neither talented faculty nor talented graduate students go to other institutions for the wrong reasons (though it is hard to imagine what a “right” reason could be).”

In other words, Randel argues that the faculty (and graduate students) must be well paid, lest they go elsewhere for the “wrong reasons” (i.e., for crassly economic reasons). The university has continued this argument in the meantime, incidentally; it was one of their main motivations for increasing graduate stipends in humanities and social sciences a few years ago. But Randel doesn’t only observe that many people are motivated by money; he also argues that we can’t expect any very significant financial sacrifice for any apparent higher purpose. Which is a way of saying not only that money matters, but also that it outweighs any foreseeable moral or political motivation. In other words, economic status — indeed, class status — is the bottom line.

Now, I can tell you that most of the responses to this colloquium’s speeches were terribly serious and profound. But the very last response was Andrew Abbott’s, and he seemed to have been appointed court jester for the afternoon. Abbott is one of those senior faculty who has dedicated himself partly to analyzing his own institution; his book Chaos of Disciplines has some genuinely unprecedented ideas about patterns of academic social relations, and he’s written an interesting history of the Chicago sociology department. In his comments on Randel’s speech he argued, half-seriously, half-ironically, that there was nothing special about the University of Chicago, that serious arguments were generally avoided in favor of “non-encounters,” that there was nothing at risk in the faculty’s parlor game of ideas, that “there is little on the line,” and that “we had better wake up and discover a commitment to something besides the nostalgic pleasantries we live with today.” But I was most struck by the moment where Abbott comments on Randel’s comments on class:

It is this kind of non-commitment [to serious intellectual disagreement] that forces Don to his most depressing conclusion, that “we cannot idly expect [faculty] to express their values and commitment through any very significant financial sacrifice.” Excuse me? The median salary of full professors in the Divisions is around the 93rd percentile of the American income distribution. Their children’s college tuitions are paid for. They have health insurance, disability insurance, university-paid trips to conferences, half-price at the lab school, office phones to use for personal long distance, all the usual privileges of the upper class. Do you think the taxi driver who brought me in from O’Hare last Sunday night thinks people who have all this but are in only the 93rd, not the 95th, percentile of income are making a sacrifice? Showing a special commitment? And that we can’t expect people to “express their values and commitment” at the price of that extra trip to London for spring break?

Needless to say, Abbott makes no concrete proposals for financial sacrifice; he goes on to complain about the “endless litany of self-gratulation and narcissistic blackmail” one hears from the faculty.

But if we stop and look beyond the shine of farce that enfolds this text, I’m struck by the fact that never before have I heard a faculty member at my university describe the (senior) faculty as “upper class.” Abbott, to his credit, doesn’t even present this as a revelation; he presents it as obvious. He only manages to muster a bit of indignation for those who imagine that these upper class faculty really can justifiably cling to every last penny of their wealth, to their “extra trips to London” and their easy taxi rides home afterwards. Abbott’s indignation, or is it mock indignation?, seems to be above all for those who believe that their privilege and their claims of moral virtue and “special commitment” are entirely coherent.

Given the serious threat that this argument ought to pose for faculty fantasies of their own virtue, I find it unsurprising that it only appears publicly in the context of a series of half-jokes. In the register of an “Excuse me?” with no practical implications. In the imaginary thoughts of an imaginary taxi driver, conjured up as a member of a lower social class, conjured up as an example of Abbott himself coming in contact with someone less well off.

You could call it a fantasy of class envy.

Maybe even a symptom of a fleeting moment of guilty class consciousness on the part of the professoriate.

11 thoughts on “Class analysis as farce

  1. That seems pretty much in line with the standard American response to class, which is that there’s no such thing as “upper class.” We’re all middle class folk! During the ’08 elections, John McCain was asked where he thought the cut-off for “middle class” was, and he famously replied that it was $5 million.

  2. Hi Max, interesting. Of course, McCain was also lambasted in the press for the patent idiocy of that comment, so I don’t think he can be portrayed as completely typical (the “have a million dollars” mark still constitutes an important symbolic threshold for many people, I’d guess).

    It does make me wonder, though, whether there is some disparity in American understandings of “the rich” vs. “the poor.” Do you think, speaking in terms of overall cultural norms, that there’s no such thing as “lower class” in the same way that (you argue) there’s no such thing as “upper class”? Seems to me that Americans have many, mostly derogatory, ways of defining and describing the lower class — often in terms of skin color, in terms of location (the ghetto, the hood), in terms of non-wage-labor economic activity (welfare queens or panhandlers), etc. Of course, poor people tend to be publicly portrayed less as a normal “class” of people in American society than as a group of deviants or problems, so it’s unclear whether these rhetorics of stigma really amount to a class category.

    One other point of classificatory disparity comes to mind: rich people tend to be publicly represented as individuals (hence many Americans can name many particular rich people: Donald Trump, Bill Gates, etc, etc), whereas poor people tend to be publicly represented as a de-individualized mass. Reactionary representations of “the rabble” seem to have a long history, from what I’ve seen…

  3. I mean, speaking in real terms, obviously there is a “lower class” as well as an “upper class” in America. But I think that people of all social backgrounds are taught, on a cultural level, to regard themselves as part of the middle class. Growing up, I vaguely recall my mother having been on welfare for a while, but at no point did I ever feel that I was anything other than “middle class.” And at the same time, you have people complaining that an increase in taxes for those who make over $250,000/year is somehow an attack on the middle class.

    I think that it’s probably much easier for poor people to regard themselves falsely as members of the middle class than it is for rich people to do the same thing. And this is probably the reason why, in high society, there’s a stigma attached to talking about money. Because if you talk about money, the suspension of disbelief in one’s own immense wealth becomes impossible to sustain.

    As far as the poor are concerned, I think they–like elderly people–don’t really exist in the public or political imagination. Or rather, they only exist when we’re talking about a limited set of issues. For example, the only things elderly people really get a voice on are Social Security and Medicare. They’re full citizens with full votes just like anybody else, but if we’re not talking about one of those two issues, they might as well not exist. I think that poor people only exist when we’re talking about various welfare-based programs, and usually the tone is something like “We need to get rid of those programs because poor people are just mooching off society.” Poor people only exist–in the public imagination–inasmuch as they constitute a group to be actively disparaged and ignored. And we disparage/ignore them primarily because they remind us that not everybody is middle class. They break the illusion, and for that they earn our most intense scorn.

    I think that in American culture, with wealth, you earn a sort of individualism. Like, that’s the icing on the cake. You’ve lent proof to the great American institution of the individual, and your reward is to be known far and wide by name. On the other hand, somebody who doesn’t obtain a lot of personal wealth is a loser and a nobody, and will remain lumped in with the individuated mass.

  4. Eli! I like this–especially the thought that in such a forum, critical thoughts about class can only become utterable in the ambivalent register of the joke (ambivalent because the passage does *not say* “and therefore let’s be radically consistent and stop reproducing the hierarchical conditions enabled by such a fantasy”). Instead the implication seems to be that, if only we’d *think* right, if only we would get in the habit of remembering the point of view of the taxi-driver that drives us to O’hare, then… we would be less deluded? Less trivial? More virtuous? I’m not sure what the payoff is beyond the virtues of a depressive realism.

    As for the thinking about the senior faculty members as an “upper class,” or thinking about the professoriat as the site of class divisions, I’m a little skeptical–if only because many of the people who manage to stick around to be the undercompensated underclass at places like the University of Chicago manage to do so largely on account of resources derived from family. (This one reason is why I find it hard to get psyched on political action around the slot “graduate student,” which to me seems by the very terms of its articulation to be limited to bourgeois quality-of-life issues).

  5. Talking about ‘the middle class’ turns the class concept from one of analysis of a political antagonism (us vs. them — e.g., lower vs. upper, or proletariat vs. capitalists) into one of sociological analysis. The latter is important, but if the class concept is going to be an effective weapon in class warfare, it needs to be sharpened into a framing of the relations between political groups and anti-groups (e.g., the proletariat is exploited by the capitalists, while the middle class share some traits of both and thus have fragmented subjectivities, which can be sharpened in either direction through raising class consciousness (as subject formation of capitalists or anti-capitalists)).

    What I found most interesting about your post here is your noting how Abbott’s class analysis arose only within the framing of humor. I’d be interested to hear more of your reflections and observations on the use of humor in academia (do you have some other blog posts on this?). In my interactions with faculty and administrators at my university, I’ve often observed their use of attempts at humor during potentially tense discussions involving people across the power spectrum. I’ve often felt disgusted at their half-ass jokes and moreso when their jokes have their intended effect of eliciting laughter from faculty and grad students. The joke-laughter collective performance seems to be a way to collect all of the actors present into a temporary association in harmony with each other, and thus to neutralize any potential antagonisms that would divide those present (e.g., exploited faculty and students vs. capital accumulating faculty and administrators (where many faculty would have to grapple with an internal conflict between their subscriptions to both of these positions)). Based on this analysis of humor as a weapon in class warfare, I think that we (i.e., we who are members of the facebook group ‘destroy academic capitalism’) should take more seriously our use of and subjection to humorous performances. Why not practice a collective refusal to laugh at administrators’ and capitalist faculty members’ jokes? (Of course there are tactical considerations here: e.g., sometimes we need to wear masks in order to work the bureaucracy.) Further, why not develop our own jokes that come from and promote anti-capitalist perspectives (and only laugh at those jokes)?

  6. Hi Eli and Dustin, great to hear from you both. Eli, I agree of course that class systems are constituted by conflict and have latent antagonisms, but in the US, the big question, of course, is why there is in fact so little overt class conflict. There I think you perhaps are hasty to dismiss the idea of the middle class as (presumably merely empirical) “sociological analysis” — isn’t the upshot of my discussion with Max that the “middle class” is also a cultural construct that serves precisely to dampen and conceal class antagonism? And at the same time, isn’t it a bit manichean to imagine that all political antagonisms have only two parties? For instance, if we think about what the Ehrenreichs call the professional-managerial class, I’m not sure that they simply “share some traits of both” upper and lower classes — perhaps they are another social group with autonomous identities and interests of their own? Relatedly, my understanding of middlebrow cultures is that they’re constituted both against high cultures and against popular cultures at once. I guess you could say I find it hard to believe in the famous Marxist hypothesis that, starting with the 19th century, the world is being increasingly divided into exactly two opposed classes.

    About jokes, I’m glad to see your shared interest in that point, though I don’t know if I know how to develop it further. Anthropologists used to write about “joking relations,” a form of social relations in which joking was normative (often as a form of obligatory tension-management), but I have yet to see an analysis of joking relationships in academia. Eli, I’m kind of wondering: do you think the cases of bad, coercively harmonizing jokes that you describe are really very similar to Abbott’s joke that I discuss here? My sense is that Abbott is making some basically taboo, but accurate, observations, and that only a façade of humor makes his discourse tolerable for his fellow faculty. I think his joke isn’t so much forced harmony as a defense mechanism against his own conscience. Which only goes to show that jokes can serve very different social functions in one and the same world.

    Dustin, can you clarify what you’re skeptical about when it comes to class divisions among the faculty? I can’t tell if you’re skeptical about their existence, about how to analyze them, about their potential for social transformation, or what… Of course the danger in “grad student” politics is precisely what you say it is. On the other hand, I think grad student politics does have potential to go beyond pure material self-interest. It can create new collectives where there were none; it can shift the balance of power slightly in campus policy-making; it can try to aid other (far more exploited) labor groups on campus. It can help delegitimate some of the worst academic delusions, even: the song and dance about how grad students are “apprentices” to a magical and eternal faculty “guild,” and hence aren’t really doing work deserving of decent pay, comes to mind…

    And just to take a stab at your other question, my sense is that Abbott’s saying that faculty might be more willing to make economic sacrifices for their ideas or moral commitments — whatever those are — if they took stock of their actual class privilege. In a nutshell, I guess the newfound virtue of self-sacrifice is the imagined “benefit” that Abbott projects onto his fantasy scene of newly enlightened privilege (which, again, seems to be only tolerable as fantasy).

  7. Max, just one thought: I love how the implication of your comments on class norms is that, in essence, everyone is supposed to be identically middle-class, and yet everyone is supposed to strive to become an individual by getting rich (and hence being able to purchase the trappings of social recognition). Isn’t it kind of ludicrous to have a norm that obliges (middleclass) conformity and differentiation (through wealth) at one and the same time? “Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others…”

  8. Andrew Abbott sounds like a guy protected by tenure. Thankfully there are still self-aware folks in that category. Few people outside the academy realize that university class problems are partly the result of indifferent, aloof, self-absorbed professoriate. But I generalize. My point in commenting was to praise Abbott for his candidness. – TL

  9. Eli:

    I think there’s a spectrum of individuality and independence in America. The more wealth you obtain, the more individual and independent you are. The government is supposed to ensure “a level playing field” from which all people can race toward independent wealth and freedom from official institutions. Of course, let’s set aside the problematic nature of this “race” to begin with, and acknowledge that what most people see as “a level playing field” is a kind of absurd world constructed of their own self-interests, biases, etc.

    The non-upper classes spend most of their time shouting back and forth at one another (between constituent demographic groups) about how to construct this playing field, while the playing field is always already being constructed, behind curtains, to favor those with real access to the echelons of power (the upper classes).

    But also, about some being “more equal than others.” That’s essentially what the Supreme Court decided with the Citizens United case re: campaign finance. They summarily determined that money is pure speech. So really, it’s become codified that the more money you have, the more you matter in American society. It’s the stupidest, yet most predictably and typically American, conception of speech I’ve ever heard.

  10. Possibly of relevance to this discussion… I was interested to see that this op-ed on a growing American “aristocracy” manages to pose a major and very serious question relevant to American class structure, only to immediately reduce the terms of debate to a pure question of estate tax policy.

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