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Critical Review by Joshua Henkin
SOURCE: "A Touch of Class," in The Nation, Vol. 249, No. 17, November 20, 1989, pp. 607-09.
Although critical of several of Ehrenreich's conclusions, in the following review, Henkin finds much to like in Fear of Falling.
Most books that make sweeping assertions about American culture, Barbara Ehrenreich argues, are really only about the middle class. When authors tell us that "Americans" are becoming "more self-involved, materialistic, spineless, or whatever," they are really referring to the relatively small "professional … middle class … from which every other group or class is ultimately [considered] a kind of deviation." In Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, Ehrenreich claims to do consciously what others have done unwittingly.
Fear of Falling is an attempt to demythologize the professional middle class, to portray it as it is: one class among several, with its own interests, fears and obsessions. But the book is not simply an exercise in cultural anthropology. The professional middle class, Ehrenreich notes, "plays an overweening role in defining 'America': its moods, political direction, and moral tone." By tracing the attitudes of the middle class from the late 1950s through the late 1980s, Ehrenreich hopes to understand America's move to the right.
According to Ehrenreich, the middle class is preoccupied with the fear of growing soft, of losing discipline, of submitting to "the imperatives of consumption, the tyranny of affluence." This is so because the middle class must rely on hard work and deferred gratification in order to retain its privileged position. The rich can almost always expect to maintain their status for life. The same, unfortunately, is true for the poor. Only the middle class depends, in Margaret Mead's words, "not upon birth and status, not upon breeding or beauty, but upon effort."
This struggle to maintain discipline is, according to Ehrenreich, particularly difficult under modern capitalism, whose success depends on self-indulgence. Barraged by advertisers, afflicted with consumption overload, the middle class both craves and distrusts affluence—hence its almost schizophrenic relationship with material goods and its enduring fear of falling. In Ehrenreich's opinion, this fear is the principal force guiding middle-class life. It helps explain the way members of the middle class think, the goods they buy, the people they vote for, the relationships they seek out.
But why so profound a fear? And why the last three decades, in particular? Here Ehrenreich turns to the 1960s, which proved to be a watershed in middle-class consciousness. The student protest movement shook middle-class foundations. A radically egalitarian future would have meant that "education and intellect would be valued no more than, say, the skills of a mechanic or the insights of the downtrodden." The university, the bastion of middle-class power, was under attack and the middle class began to see itself not as an amorphous, all-inclusive body but as an elite with interests to protect. More important, most of the student radicals came from the middle class and were supposed to grow up and assume their parents' positions of power. When it turned out that these kids had other things in mind, their parents grew introspective—and self-critical.
The most frequent (and flawed) explanation for student radicalism was that middle-class parents had been too permissive. Childrearing techniques underwent massive scrutiny. "Is It All Dr. Spock's Fault?" read one New York Times Magazine headline. Neoconservative journalist Midge Decter said that the younger generation had no "capacity for deferred gratification." Permissiveness led to hedonism, which led to trouble. It also became an all-purpose charge against liberalism, an epithet that helped cement the strange relationship between the neoconservatives and the New Right.
By the late 1970s conservative intellectuals were defining and excoriating the so-called New Class—middle-class professionals working in the media, in universities, in think tanks, in the upper echelons of government bureaucracies. The New Class, in the eyes of its detractors, was liberal and elitist. Although the New Right distrusted the neoconservatives, suspecting, correctly, that they were themselves thinly disguised members of the New Class, it didn't hesitate to crib neoconservative theories. But it added a twist. While the neoconservatives had described the New Class as power hungry, the New Right portrayed it as immoral and hedonistic, too. The problem, again, was permissiveness. With the New Class playing the role of enemy, the ultimate miracle took place in 1988: a millionaire Republican, straight from Skull and Bones, winning the Presidency by portraying his middle-class rival as an elitist.
How did it happen? Again, Ehrenreich points to the middle class's fear of falling. Middle-class liberals failed to respond to right-wing attacks because these attacks struck chords of middle-class self-doubt. The charge of permissiveness was inaccurate, but it "rang true because it touched on that perennial fear within the professional middle class of growing soft, of failing to strive, of falling into the snares of affluence."
Ehrenreich admits that her overall argument is "rashly speculative." That, in itself, need not be a problem. But speculation calls for more qualification, more caution than she usually displays.
Ehrenreich's definition of the professional middle class covers "all those people whose economic status is based on education, rather than on the ownership of capital or property." Included, among others, are "schoolteachers, anchorpersons, engineers, professors, government bureaucrats, corporate executives (at least up through the middle levels of management), scientists, advertising people, therapists, financial managers," and Ehrenreich herself. Wow. This is a very diverse bunch, particularly when it comes to Ehrenreich's principal concern: attitudes toward consumption. It is unlikely that people whose tastes run from Beethoven to Bon Jovi, Fiorucci's to Filene's basement, Windows on the World to Wendy's, are all going to have more or less the same perspective on hedonism. It is hard to believe, in other words, that for all these people the fear of consumption is all-consuming.
Much of what Ehrenreich says has a grain—often many grains—of truth. But she tries to turn her theory into the whole truth, and in so doing she is on shaky ground. Her monolithically psychological approach comes close to reducing conservatism to a neurosis. Tempting but insufficient.
The specifics of Ehrenreich's theory are equally troubling. Does the middle class hold stereotyped conceptions of the poor simply, as Ehrenreich claims, because the poor have "come to represent what the middle class fear[s] most in itself: softening of character, a lack of firm … values"? Or might there be other reasons, such as fear of crime or plain ignorance? Has "yuppiehood" fallen into disrepute because "the upwardly mobile middle class began to lose its own fragile sense of identity"? Or might it be simpler: that middle-class people, like others before them, found excessive materialism unfulfilling? Is the fear of falling the only, even the principal, cause of internal conflict between indulgence and self-restraint, between spending and saving, between the present and the future? What about divorce, loss of community, political unrest, the threat of nuclear war? All these shake our sense of stability and may send us reeling from cautious preparation for tomorrow to extreme focus on today—and back again.
Moreover, to the extent that a fear of falling does play a role in the inner life of Americans, it is not clear that the middle class has a monopoly on it. The working class and poor, it might be argued, are even better candidates for this fear. Although the precipice on which the middle class stands is higher, the pit into which the lower class falls is deeper. Family and friends can almost always insure that a middle-class person in trouble does not go homeless, does not starve. Not so for a member of the lower class.
Finally, Ehrenreich's understanding of George Bush's campaign success, and her explanation of the right's ability to paint liberals as elitists, is unconvincing. It is true that some liberals, to their detriment, failed to respond to right-wing smears. But the relevant question is how the charge of elitism became credible in the first place.
Ehrenreich seems intent, for the most part, on avoiding this question, perhaps because she realizes that, when the charge comes from Norman Podhoretz and George Bush, the pot is calling the kettle black. But it is not sufficient to argue that the right is more elitist than the left.
In fairness to Ehrenreich, she does, at one point, admit that there is a "grain of … disturbing truth" in the right's attack on the liberal elite: "Middle-class-led reform movements, from the Progressive Era to the War on Poverty, have been marred by an elitist distance from the would-be beneficiaries of reform." But this is a departure from an argument that focuses almost exclusively on the middle class's internalization of the charge of elitism, not on the substance of the charge itself.
The charge's effectiveness comes from the fact that the university, which has long been associated with snobbery and elitism, with lofty theories untested by real-world problems, is also associated with liberalism. To a great extent, this is a consequence of the 1960s. But even today, many universities are liberal strongholds. Conservative intellectuals, despite their prominence, are a relatively strange sight. And although, as Ehrenreich notes, students in general are now as conservative as the rest of the population, in the more elite universities, the universities that produce many of the most prominent members of the professional middle class, the student body remains predominantly liberal. Polls of Ivy League students in 1988, for example, showed disproportionate student support for Dukakis.
The attitude of some middle-class liberals has helped strengthen the charge of elitism, and Ehrenreich's theory about the middle class may help us understand why. Ehrenreich notes that knowledge and expertise are the "capital" of the middle class. Without them, middle-class members would indeed fall. But this argument suggests something deeper. The professional middle class, which is constantly reminded that it lacks the influence of the truly powerful, can console itself by flaunting its "intelligence," its superior knowledge. And in doing so, it reinforces the charge of ivory-tower elitism.
Take, for example, Ehrenreich's response to a Nixon diary entry that lambastes the New Class and praises "middle America" for its guts and character and patriotism. She writes: "There, in ungrammatical outline, was the germ of the New Right's eventual strategy."
Now, Ehrenreich can surely be forgiven for taking a jab at Nixon's syntax. Still, she inadvertently explains his attitude. What Nixon likes about middle Americans is that they don't care about his grammar. The people who do care are, in George Wallace's words, "the over-educated ivory-tower folks with pointed heads looking down their noses at us." In the public mind (and often in reality), these pointy-heads are liberals.
Despite these problems with Ehrenreich's central argument, there is a good deal to recommend in Fear of Falling. The book is elegantly written, and the insight and wit that characterize her journalism are also abundant here. Ehrenreich's chapter on the New Class is particularly good, as she dissects neo-conservative dishonesty and hypocrisy. She is equally incisive when attacking the permissiveness theory, noting that capitalism, the main source of permissiveness, is never a right-wing target. Throughout, she has a keen eye for the contradictions of our culture. Her book, its faults notwithstanding, is worth a careful read.
This section contains 1,845 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)