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Critical Review by Jefferson Morley
SOURCE: "The Discreet Anxiety of the Bourgeoisie," in New York Times Book Review, August 6, 1989, pp. 12-13.
In the following review, Morley praises the insights in Fear of Falling.
I was a teen-age neoconservative, I came of age politically in the 1970's with a low tolerance for the foibles of my parents and an all-too-cool critique of the 1960's, especially of the decade's "permissiveness." The cultural contradictions of capitalism seemed less disturbing (and more fun) to me than the cultural contradictions of Communism, and I imagined I was rejecting middle-class culture. But in fact, as Barbara Ehrenreich's Fear of Falling makes clear, it defined my every thought.
For me, not the least of this book's achievements is its explication of my peculiar coming of age. But any citizen of the educated middle class will find something even more useful here: a persuasive account of an intellectual dispute that has been simmering in the superego of the American professional-managerial class for the last 30 years or so. This dispute has helped shape American politics.
Ms. Ehrenreich, an intellectual journalist with a gift for aphorism and the author of several books, picks up her story of middle-class anxiety in the late 1950's. At the time, it was claimed there was no need for a major political restructuring of society, although divisions of class and race remained powerful elements in American life. Frequently, conflicts were dealt with euphemistically. Affluence, Ms. Ehrenreich notes, became "a way of talking about, wealth without talking about class."
A larger problem was "discovered" in the early 1960's: poverty. After millions of Americans were revealed to be impoverished, a number of leading sociologists, together with a spate of cover stories in the news weeklies, blamed the conditions not on class but on a lack of character, deficient morals among the poor. This explanation, Ms. Ehrenreich observes, served as a kind of psychological projection. The poor represented "what the middle class feared most in itself," she says—a "softening of character, a lack of firm internal values."
The emergence of the counterculture in the mid-1960's, however, mocked the pretensions of the American middle class. There was no longer any need for it to project its anxieties onto the poor. Its own children were softening up the sturdy internal middle-class values with large dosages of drugs, sex and rock music.
The latter, Ms. Ehrenreich says, was especially important. "If theories of the 'culture of poverty' were the middle-class critique of the poor, rock was a critique of the middle class, bubbling up from America's invisible 'others.'" Rock, she notes, was the music of the underclass, and by the late 1960's its influence extended literally everywhere in America.
As a result of this youthful upheaval, several leading writers of the intellectual middle classes took up the theme of "permissiveness," and this, according to Ms. Ehrenreich, has been the central insight of American conservatism since the 1960's Ivy League professors, intellectuals of the Old Right, astute bureaucrats in corporate public relations and all manner of aspiring Washington policy makers built a school of political thought around the permissiveness problem.
Concurrent with the emergence of permissiveness in mid-70's intellectual discourse was the discovery of the working class, especially in its "silent majority" incarnation. This group was said to be imbued with traditional values, scornful of countercultural foolishness and confident of American purpose abroad. Increasingly. It was argued that the intellectuals of the educated middle class would do well to emulate these folk. I can personally attest to the appeal of this argument, at least to the adolescent mind.
Ms. Ehrenreich is again on firm ground in diagnosing projection. The anxious middle class was once more seeing what it wanted to see. Yes, there was an emerging Republican majority, at least in Presidential elections, but the working class in the late 1960's and early 1970's could not be neatly encapsulated, particularly when it came to the war in Vietnam. As Ms. Ehrenreich points out, the American working class was more, not less, opposed to the war than was the population as a whole, and more, not less, inclined to regard the conflict as a criminal enterprise and not an exercise in mistaken idealism.
But middle-class scholars and analysts, Ms. Ehrenreich insists, were not eager to perceive rebelliousness in the working class. "Its activism—the upsurge of strikes and militant job actions in the late sixties—was scantily covered relative to the movements of students or minorities, and was never framed as a 'crisis,' a challenging new phenomenon with its own media heroes and personalities."
Instead, the conservatives among middle-class intellectuals, with an impressive sense of self-importance, blamed intellectuals in general for society's permissiveness, employing a rather simplified version of Milovan Djilas's notion of the New Class. Mr. Djilas, a Yugoslav dissident, noted that under Communism a new class, whose authority was based on its command of ideas, had come to power in Eastern Europe. In the United States, neoconservatives argued, a permissive New Class was dismantling the traditional American value system and substituting its own secular and countercultural, if not socialistic, values.
By making this argument, Ms. Ehrenreich declares, the conservative intellectuals were defending their own professional interests. Black nationalism, rock music and other cultural innovations were entirely in the American grain. But they called into question the relevance of the work of middle-class intellectuals, who were afraid of falling out of positions of authority.
Even in the late 1970's, the inadequacy of the neoconservatives' diagnosis was plain. The kind of mindless hedonism that could ruin character did not originate solely in the 1960's counterculture, as any student of disco and cocaine could see. In American society, the tensions between modernism and tradition, consumerism and self-discipline were being played out not among the isolated left-wing intelligentsia, but in the marketplace. The multi billion-dollar cocaine industry, to cite but one example, is hardly the work of permissive Ivy League intellectuals. It is the creation of profit-seeking entrepreneurs—many of whom have impeccable right-wing credentials.
The American working class, as the object of the conservative intellectual's affections, fared pretty badly once the conservative agenda was enacted under President Ronald Reagan. Ms. Ehrenreich explains that capital was shifted from manufacturing to speculation; that the maldistribution of income grew worse; that the possibility of buying a house receded, and that well-paying jobs grew scarcer. There were, however, plenty of job openings for New Class conservatives in Washington. And the problems of permissiveness had spread to Wall Street, to the savings and loan industry, to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Ms. Ehrenreich blames the conservative intellectuals for discrediting the idea that the educated middle class has any duty or ability to contribute to public life. She insists it does—if it puts aside status anxieties and the sometimes strange language of current political debate. At present, American society seems divided between its allegiance to the speculative free market and its yearning for productive work. The intellectual can make a contribution to the debate over the market place, she says, simply by asserting the value of pleasurable work. "The pleasure of work is the middle class's tacit rebuttal to capitalism," she says, "a pleasure that cannot be commodified or marketed, that need not obsolesce or wane with time." It is a modest, humane and (I'm tempted to say) neoconservative suggestion.
This section contains 1,205 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)