Have a Tattoo? Drive a Van?
Clarified and Classified
However sugarcoated and ambiguous, every form of authoritarianism must start with a belief in some group's greater right to power,
- Ernest Renan
- Peter M Senge
The following is based on the opinion of the British Office of National Statistics leavened with some observations of The Economist.
Marx said that if you owned nothing but your labour, you were a proletarian. The British government takes a more nuanced view.
The government statisticians have devised a scheme of six classes:
Stastisticians devised this scheme for the registrar-general at the beginning of the 20th century as part of an attempt to refute the arguments of eugenicists by showing that inequalities in health had social rather than genetic causes.
The advertising industry's ABC1 classification is based on the registrar-general's scheme, but pays more attention to differences in income.
From the spring of 2001, however, the government will adopt a new "socio-economic classification" (the Office of National Statistics doesn't like the c-word) to reflect the big social changes of the past century, such as the withering away of the old manual working-class.
The inventors of the new scheme argue that social class depends mainly on a person's position in the labour market. Their scheme divides people up according to the nature of their employment "contract". Those at the bottom make a short-term exchange of cash for labour. Those at the top are involved in a longer-term contract in which they are rewarded not only by income but also by promises of rising income and perks.
The new scheme yields seven classes:
David Rose of Essex University, who helped devise the scheme, says that it turns out to be a good predictor both of income (even though it is not based on income) and health (except - intriguingly - for the self-employed in class four, who are just as healthy as those in classes one and two).
For most British people, however, such careful delineations miss the point.
They will continue to pick up class signals from a myriad of small signs. Not just the obvious things like accent and education. Just as telling are a taste for loud striped shirts, cuff links, signet rings and Barbour coats - which are definite signs of a toff.
Or an urge to drive a white van, sport a tattoo and drink lots of lager - the post-Marxist definition of a proletarian.
Source: The Economist 3 June 2000
Throughout recorded time ... there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low.
- George Orwell
by Jonathan Yardley
Snobbery: The American Version
Ours is not, or so we like to think, a nation of snobs. Founded on the principle that all men are created equal, governed by a democratic system that purports to ensure the equality of all in the eyes of the law, based on an economic system that promises equal opportunity for all, the United States would seem to be the absolute antithesis of snobbery and all it represents, yet it is all around us. "Snobbery thrives where society is most open," Joseph Epstein writes in this smart, witty, perceptive and somewhat snobbish inquiry into the phenomenon:
The term is not easily or succinctly defined. Epstein begins by positing that "a snob is someone who practices, lives by, exults in the systems of distinctions, discriminations and social distractions that make up the field of play for snobbery," which is fine so far as it goes, but, as Epstein quickly acknowledges, it doesn't go far enough. A few pages later he adds:
This is true, though the reader is entitled to wish that Epstein had explored this particular aspect of the problem - that a person who is not inherently snobbish may display, in certain aspects of his life, snobbish traits - more deeply and explicitly than he does. Epstein declines to profess himself a snob, for example, yet he admits to a certain propensity for reverse snobbery - "to find out which way the snobs are headed and then turn oneself in the opposite direction" is how he defines it - and gives evidence of it in his distaste for those whom he nicely sums up as "virtucrats," that is, "any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain," as well as for intellectual snobbery as manifested in such places as book publishing, academia and the New York Review of Books.
As this suggests, snobbery is a complex business. To begin with, it is important not to confuse snobbery with elitism. The latter is "a politically supercharged word ... almost invariably another sour-grapes word, at least when used to denigrate people who insist on a high standard." To demand high standards - "about workmanship in the creation of objects, about what is owed in friendship, about the quality of art, and much else" - is merely to insist that people and things be the best they can be, but "delight in excellence is easily confused with snobbery by the ignorant."
In this sense Epstein is an elitist, and so, it is admitted without the least embarrassment, am I. In his case as in mine, scorn for the affectations and opportunism of others - their snobbery, that is - can lead to bouts of reverse snobbery, but the occasional snob should not be confused with the full-time operator. It is on the latter that Epstein has trained his sights, and to devastating effect.
Until fairly recently it was easy to identify snobbus americanus. He or she was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, a member of what for several generations was the closest this country ever came to a class that ruled not merely by money and power but also by inheritance. The WASPs began to lose their hold in the 1960s, not least because they actually (if in some cases reluctantly) believed in the Constitution their forefathers had written and began to extend its guarantees to others of less privileged lineage; this subject was explored to provocative and revealing effect by the late Robert C Christopher in Crashing the Gates (1989), a book that Epstein seems somehow to have missed but that suggests the WASPs were, in effect, willing conspirators in their own demise.
But Epstein most astutely argues that "what the demise of the Waspocracy did for snobbery was to unanchor it, setting it afloat if not aloft, to alight on objects other than those connected exclusively with social class." The human instinct for snobbery gives every evidence of being strong, but the disappearance of the WASPs - and, with them, the disappearance of old-fashioned capital-S Society - removed social class as a vehicle of snobbery except in those walled enclaves into which the WASPs retreated. The would-be snob had to look elsewhere to find ways in which to look down on others. This being a great country, plenty of opportunity proved to be at hand.
It is here, in his inquiry into the various forms that post-WASP snobbery has taken, that Epstein has his greatest fun, and so too will the reader. In a succession of brief, pointed chapters, he takes on everything from college snobbery (Volvo station wagons with Harvard, Dartmouth and Vassar decals prominently visible on their rear windows), to intellectual snobbery (he does a lovely tap dance on Susan Sontag, with her "winning combination of snobbery and self-promotion" and her manufactured image as "broodingly beautiful, avant-garde, Frenchified, grimly serious"), to food and wine snobbery (especially "the snobbery of healthful eating, which brings our old friend the virtucrat to the dinner table, and with his politically correct palate he's not, as will scarcely surprise you, the most expansive of guests").
These chapters are at once parts adding up to a sum greater than the whole and individual essays that can be read to pleasure and profit independently of each other. Epstein is an adroit practitioner of the personal essay, a form mastered by precious few at any time and now on the verge of extinction. It is an exceedingly difficult form to bring off, because writing primarily about oneself bears the inherent risks of self-absorption and self-indulgence. Epstein is not wholly immune to these - actually it is self-satisfaction to which he is most susceptible - but over the years he has managed to make himself consistently interesting, more self-effacing than one might imagine, and almost always - in the best sense of the word - entertaining.
He also possesses that rarest and in some ways most valuable of qualities, common sense. By way of example I recommend his chapter on taste. It raises, as he says, many questions, "but one thing that is not in question is the centrality of taste to snobbery - and more and more so in our day, when there is perhaps more anxiety about taste than at any other time." It is difficult in the extreme to determine what is "the hallmark of superior taste" at any given moment, especially in an age when everything changes so rapidly and unpredictably as it now does, so one needs "an inner radar system in good repair," unless:
Wise words. Unfortunately the people most in need of taking them to heart are the ones least likely to read them, those who would see themselves reflected in Epstein's mirror. Thus the readership for Snobbery: The American Version is likely to be small, which may or may not be snobbery of yet another variety. The possibilities, after all, are limitless.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The Washington Post Sunday 7 July 2002 © The Washington Post Company
The Living-Room Scale (Revised)
(An early, primitive form of this was promulgated in 1935 by F Stuart Chapin in his book Contemporary American Institutions.)
Begin with a score of 100. For each of the following in your living room (or those of friends or acquaintances) add or subtract points as indicated. Then ascertain social class according to the table at the end.
Calculating the Score
Source: Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell published by Summit Books 1983
For more articles, tests, film studies and visual amusements click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this Intellectual and Entertaining section.