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Gordon Haskell

The Middle Class in U.S. Society

A Discussion of the New Book by C. Wright Mills

(September 1951)

From The New International, Vol. XVII No. 5, September–October, pp. 288–294.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The mechanization and concentration of production in America has brought with itself a vast increase of the sociological phenomenon which is usually described as the “new middle class.” And with its expansion in numbers has come the inevitable proliferation of theories about the political, economic and social role which this group is likely to play.

C. Wright Mills’ new book [1] is an exceptionally valuable contribution to this discussion. Written in the brisk, readable style to which we have become accustomed in Mills’ work, it is a serious attempt to analyze the historical pattern of the rise of this group in American society, its social, economic and psychological characteristics, and its probable political role.

The difficulty which one encounters in defining “the new middle class” gives a clue to the ambiguous position it holds in the social structure. As Mills points out, it can best be defined not by a description of its own characteristics, but by contrasting it to other, easily definable economic classes. The bourgeoisie is the class whose social role is defined by its ownership of capital. The new middle class, like the proletariat, does not own means of production, although at its apex it may exercise vast administrative powers over masses of private capital, and often supplements its income and bolsters its position through actual ownership.

In their vast majority the office workers, salespeople, teachers, technicians and foremen who make up the rank and file of the new middle class are propertyless. As time goes on they can be distinguished from the industrial proletariat less and less on the basis of income, education, leisure time, security of status, etc. The best criterion which sociologists and statisticians have been able to develop to distinguish them from the classical proletariat is that they perform their work in their street clothes, in “white collars” rather than in blue denims.

The growth of this group in American society over the past seventy years has been tremendous. According to Mills, the old property-owning middle class declined from 33 per cent to 20 per cent of the gainfully employed population between 1870 and 1940. During the same period, wage workers declined from 61 per cent to 55 per cent, while the new middle class increased from 6 per cent to 25 per cent.

Despite their growth, however, they do not represent a “stratum” in capitalist society. Rather, they form a pyramid of income, social power and prestige inside the larger social pyramid. At the top are the big executives and administrators of corporations and government departments. The middle ranges form a broader group of secondary executives, managers, and successful professionals. The broad and deep base is made up of the people who, along with the manual workers, are administered, directed, and manipulated by the higher echelons.

The first section of White Collar is devoted to an analysis of the decline of the classical middle class of small property-owners. The evidence on this is now so overwhelming that only writers of advertising copy have the courage to deny it. There are now four times as many wage and salaried workers as independent entrepreneurs. The farmers, once the backbone of the small property-owning class, have declined to a tenth of the occupied population, and even among them, 2 per cent of the farms had 40 per cent of the land in 1945.

The capitalist class has itself been polarized into the great industrial and commercial corporations on the one hand, and what Mills calls the “lumpen bourgeoisie” on the other. In 1939 1 per cent of the business firms in the United States employed 50 per cent of all people working in business. In the realm of retail trade, the last stronghold of small property, during the same year the bottom 75 per cent of stores accounted for only 25 per cent of retail sales.

Despite its decline in economic and social importance, Mills points out that the remnants of the old middle class still play an important ideological and political role in America. The power of the farm bloc is proverbial. In the name of free enterprise they, and their colleagues of the various business trade associations, seek and are able to obtain government protection and legislation which guarantees their profits. They are often the vanguard in the attack against labor unions. And their continued existence gives substance to the myth of a free enterprise, free market, competitive society, without which the great corporate monopolies would be hard put to find ideological justification for continued existence in private hands.

The old middle class, the petty bourgeoisie, are disintegrating, but their decline has not led to the political consequences which might have been expected on the basis of the old Marxist predictions on this aspect of capitalist development. The reason for this is evident. Only during the years of the great depression was the destruction of the small capitalists so rapid and painful as to produce a conscious feeling of despair and revolt. Except during those years, the expansion of employment opportunities, and the general rise in the standard of living has succeeded in integrating them into the job hierarchy of the new middle class without an acute feeling of loss. The sons and daughters of the little businessman of yesteryear are much more obsessed by the idea of getting ahead in the bureaucratic structure of some corporation than with dreams of reestablishing their old independence, let alone of changing society.

But within the new hierarchy, their dreams of advancement have decreasing chances of realization. For within the white-collar pyramid the same forces have been at work which have shaped our society as a whole: mechanization and concentration.

The industrial revolution has come late to the office, the store and the salesroom, but it is now proceeding at a pace which is made possible only by its previous development in industry.

By World War II the overhead involved in tabulating, coordinating, and directing the vast network of industry, communication, transportation, trade and finance had become a real drag on profits. This is just another way of saying that an increasing portion of the surplus value created at the point of production was being absorbed by the administrative and coordinating functions which are inevitable in any industrial society, but which become monstrous in a society of private industrial monopolies. It was this drag on profits which gave major impetus to the mechanization and rationalization of white collar jobs.

Mills gives a fascinating description of the development and application of office machinery on an unprecedented scale. Along with this came the inevitable reduction in the skill, and responsibility required of the office worker. Assembly-line techniques, once confined to industry, are now transferred to the office. Experts analyze each job, break it down into its simplest elements, reorganize the office physically to ensure a steady flow of production, and the office hierarchy structurally, so as to reduce costs.

The result, as in industry, is the fragmentation and alienation of the worker. Office people are, in any case, removed from the reality of production. By and large they handle the shadows of products. Even the production line worker adds an actual piece to the whole product, and can see it growing into something under his hands. The office worker handles the invoice, the bill, the memorandum, the cost schedule ... the paper reflections of the industrial process. His satisfaction on the job, his feeling of being part of and contributing something of value can be derived chiefly through his knowledge and understanding of the directive or coordinating, or even marketing role performed by his office or firm. And in the smaller, more intimate and personalized office, even the lowly clerk often had a significant range of knowledge about these matters. But as his job is fragmented, his range of knowledge is narrowed. Increasingly his function is on the order of the punch-card operator who transfers coded symbols from schedules to cards without even knowing what the code stands for.

Although the old office is still statistically predominant, the new, rationalized office will soon take its place. And its impact is not confined to the workers with the very lowest skills, although they are the chief ones to be displaced by the new machines. The fragmentation of responsibility and of knowledge tends to go to the very top of the new business bureaucracies.

The modern type of the big businessman is the corporation executive. Only at the very top does he approximate the old captain of industry. Even there, his major decisions are made not as a “free” individual, but as a chairman of a board which works in conjunction with other boards and committees directing the enterprise.

Below him, is the cadre of executives and administrators. They are even less free entrepreneurs looking for the main chance. They are links in a chain of command, taking orders from above, and interpreting, elaborating and transmitting them downward. And in the larger enterprises, there is not a single chain of command, but several, connected at the top. Even the executive’s information is limited. His power is derived from his office, and for his position in the hierarchy he depends more on his relations to those above him in the chain than to any special abilities which he may possess.

The bureaucratization of the new middle class is not confined to the realm of big business. It affects the so- called “free” professions almost as much. The young man who becomes a doctor today knows that the road to success leads through his relationship to and status in a major hospital or clinic. The young lawyer finds his place in a legal factory, in which he is likely to spend his life drawing up briefs in a narrowly specialized field, while the senior partners spend most of their time moving in the circles from which business in large volume may be expected to flow into their factory. Other avenues of success lie through joining the legal staff of some corporation, or some government department. Only the failures hang out a shingle over the shabby office from which they issue forth in pursuit of ambulances ... or as a last resort, there are always the swelling ranks of the FBI ...

This whole process of bureaucratization, institutional rigidity, personal fragmentation and alienation is described by Mills in absorbing detail. As the hope of the white collar worker lies in a successful climb within one of the myriad bureaucracies, his whole personality must be aligned accordingly. Success comes not from superior energy, intelligence, or a capacity for making bold decisions. It comes from his ability to “sell” himself to those above him, to impress them with his cheerfulness, adaptability, “willingness,” and above all, loyalty. This involves the final degree of alienation ... the alienation from self.

Mills is deeply preoccupied with the socio-psychological effects of this whole process on the new middle class. At one time, the white collar workers’ feeling of security was buttressed by his knowledge that he had a formal education, an income and skills which set him above the industrial worker. But all of these factors are losing their former importance. The growth of unions in America has raised the status of the workers to a position at which vast numbers of them have more job security, higher incomes, more assured pensions, sickness benefits, vacations, etc., than a large percentage of the unorganized white collar workers. The spread of high-school education removes the “educational escalator” as a distinctive property of the new middle class.

But people still feel that they must have some status, even if there is no objective basis for it. Mills describes the “status panic” as one of the characteristics of the white collar world.

Mills appears to feel most strongly the dilemma of the “intellectuals” in our society. In his previous book, New Men of Power he showed this same preoccupation. There he set forth the view that if the labor movement is to make its way against the “main drift” it must be informed by “a brace of labor intellectuals,” and tended to ascribe to them a role which seems to us somewhat exaggerated.

In White Collar, when he considers their actual role and position, he is at the point of despair. Instead of critically thinking men, he finds that they are the hired “experts” and “technicians” of the business and political power which dominates the scene. Their talents find a buyers’ market which their integrity cannot resist. The professors become the “non-political” experts who advise government agencies, or the “objective” and “disinterested” handmaidens of business in market research, industrial management, and a personnel psychology. The writers are seduced by the status and income which can be theirs only as hirelings of Luce, of the great advertising firms, or of Hollywood. And often those who do resist the powerful attraction of these mass media of communication find themselves doomed to the relative atrophy of their talents which attends their inability to communicate beyond the narrowest of circles.

But what political significance does the rise of the new middle class have for American society? Are the white collar workers, or some special stratum of them, destined to move along some unique political road of their own?

Mills rejects out of hand the notion that the “managers” may strike out in their own interests, and displace the capitalists as the ruling class.

In the political sphere [he writes] no American manager has taken a stand that is against the interests of private property as an institution. As its chief defender, rhetorically and practically, the manager has a political mind similar to that of any large owner, from whom he derives his power; and in his present form he will last no longer than property as an institution. Thus, although the bureaucratization of property involves a distribution of power among large subordinate staffs, the executives of the modern corporation in America form an utterly reliable committee for managing the affairs and pushing for the common interests of the entire big-property class.

Ever since the decline of the petty bourgeoisie could no longer be disputed as a historical fact, bourgeois sociologists and economists have contended that their traditional role is being taken over by the new middle class. As against the Marxian thesis of the polarization of society, they have maintained that this new group would act as a “balance wheel” in society, as a cushion between capitalists and proletariat, as a stabilizing and moderating influence on the class struggle. Mills finds no evidence, historical or theoretical, for this contention.

In so far as political strength rests upon organized economic power, the white-collar workers can only derive their strength from “business” or from “labor.” Within the whole structure of power, they are dependent variables. Estimates of their political tendencies, therefore, must rest upon larger predictions of the manner and outcome of the struggles of business and labor.

And he continues:

The political question of the new middle classes is, of what bloc or movement will they be most likely to stay at the tail? And the answer is, the bloc or movement that most obviously seems to be winning.

They will not go politically “proletarian,” if for no other reason than the absence of any political proletariat in America. They will not go politically “middle class,” if for no other reason than the absence of middle-class policy or formation, and because they will not be economically able to maintain such a status. They will not go political as an independent bloc or party, if for no other reason than their lack of either the unity or the opportunity. They will not become a political balance-wheel, if for no other reason than their lack of will to choose one bloc or another before it has already shown itself in the ascendant; they will “choose” only after their “choice” has won.

It is at this point that Mills’method, and hence his conclusions, show their major fault. And the fault is not uniquely his: it is endemic to the whole school of sociology of which he is such an outstanding representative.

American sociologists have done a tremendous job in developing and refining techniques for testing the attitudes of various groups in the population. They are very adept at discerning the way in which these attitudes, and the social and political instrumentalities which groups devise to meet their particular problems, change under the impact of changing situations.

Valuable as these techniques are for many purposes, they are adequate only for periods of relative social calm. They test and describe why people are as they are, why they think the way they do, how they react to the given, known conditions in which they find themselves.

But they are grossly inadequate to explain violent, drastic changes in consciousness and behavior. As a matter of fact, both their political prejudices and the very refinement of their technique tends to make them shy away from the consideration of such changes which do not lend themselves so easily to precise measurement and documentation.

Mills notes a tremendous political apathy as the chief political characteristic of American society. He attributes this to a number of factors: The mass media of propaganda, entertainment and communication; the secrecy in which major political decisions are made; the helpless feeling of the individual confronted by the vast, interlocked government, business and labor bureaucracies which seem to grind along their way divorced, almost, from the control of any individual, leave alone of the “little man.” All of these no doubt have their validity.

“There were no plain targets of revolt,” he writes, “and the cold metropolitan manner had so entered the soul of overpowered men that they were made completely private and blase, down deep and for good.”

This appalls Mills, and gives a profoundly pessimistic cast to his book. Here is a society at dead center, drifting toward an ever increasing bureaucratization in structure and privatization, i.e., dehumanization of the individual. And in this situation, the new middle class which he is describing specifically, but also the working class which appears as part of the social matrix in his study, tend to gravitate to the present foci of power. Thus it is, and thus it will continue to be.

With regard to the middle class, there is no historical evidence to indicate that in a situation of social struggle “they will ‘choose’ only after their ‘choice’ has won.” Rather, there is much evidence to indicate that in those critical periods of history when rapid change is taking place, the political apathy of the middle class turns to a frenzy which attaches itself not so much to the dominant power, but rather to the most dynamic, economic class or political movement. It is precisely this tendency of the new middle class which constitutes at the same time one of the greatest opportunities as well as one of the greatest dangers in a time of social upheaval.

In Germany, the new middle class gravitated to the dynamism, the promise of a radical shake-up of society, made by the Nazi movement long before it had won, or was even close to winning. And the very powerful Social-Democratic movement was unable to attract the middle class, and was eventually overwhelmed because its “traditional,” gradualist approach had lost its appeal for the middle class at that juncture. The widespread attraction Stalinism has for sections of the new middle class abroad cannot be explained solely in terms of its inclination toward established power.

In describing the depoliticalization of American society, Mills contrasts the present situation to what happened here during the great depression. His pessimism, it would seem, derives from a feeling that the factors enumerated above which contribute to this apathy are here to stay, and what seems to be an underlying assumption, that nothing appears likely to counteract them in the future.

But the times in which we live, viewed from a platform broader than that offered by the techniques of sociological testing and investigation, can be seen as times which will subject the social fabric of America to tremendous strains. The dominant fact of the past ten years has been the vast, unexampled prosperity of the American people. Such has been the privileged position of the United States that all social and economic dissatisfactions, struggles, frustrations, could be absorbed and directed inside the flow of this all-pervading prosperity.

To believe that American society will continue indefinitely to enjoy this degree of unprecedented physical and economic well-being is to believe in miracles, and in permanent ones at that. And to believe that when the full impact of the permanent war economy, and later of the global war itself, places our society under the most drastic and shocking strains, the working class will fail to respond in the only way it can respond successfully: through a new development of political consciousness, is to permit counsels of despair to overcome the dictates of reason.

And as Mills so ably points out, it is the political reaction of the working class, in one way or another, which will determine the political role of the new middle class, as well as the political future of our whole society.

* * *


1. White Collar, by C. Wright Mills, Oxford University Press, 1951, 378 pp. $5.00.

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