Our American Upper Class
by Albert Jay Nock
Our American Upper Class
by Albert Jay Nock
This article was written in October, 1931 for the Atlantic Monthly, and was republished in the book, Free Speech and Plain Language, William Morrow and Company, 1937
OFFICIALLY we are a one-class country, and proud of it. The nation was founded at a time when feeling against a titled and hereditary upper class was running strong. Even God, according to one of our earlier poets, was getting a little tired of kings and was ready to take responsibility for a republican order of society. The prejudices conceived in that time are still ours, officially. In a popular way, perhaps, they have worked out somewhat more towards a collateral tradition that "in the United States one man is just as good as another, or a little better." Thus the haughty shop-assistant or beauty-specialist who patronizes her client and calls her "dearie" is more in the popular than the official tradition; while the publicist or the electioneering statesman who butters up the "great and glorious democracy of the West" and its many-headed sovereign, is more in the latter. But both traditions are based upon resentment of anything savouring of standards and sanctions specifically associated with a titled and hereditary upper class. A person who wishes to be well thought of finds it safe business to govern his public conduct, his manners and his general view of life by distinctively middle-class standards and sanctions, and to be rather ostentatious about disparaging all others.
Matthew Arnold, who divided his fellow-countrymen into Barbarians, Philistines and Populace, said that America was a country like his own, but with the Barbarians left out and the Populace nearly so; our society was almost solidly Philistine. This indeed has been our official ideal. We have never owned up to a lower class, a Populace or proletariat; what might be thought to answer to a Populace is merely so much Philistinism in the making, and hence already Philistinism by brevet. The thought of a formally-acknowledged upper class is as jealously resented as the thought of a formally-acknowledged Populace, perhaps more so.
This resentment was burned into us in the first instance by our experiences under British misrule, by the French Revolution, by the spectacle of Napoleon's tyranny and freebooting; and it was backed up by the political theory of the eighteenth century
Test any such group by the mark of privilege, and it answers. No modern society ever more lavishly endowed its beneficiaries with privilege. The public-land grants to our transcontinental railways alone would make the land-holdings of the entire British nobility look like a real-estater's subdivision. It would be an interesting job for a statistician to compute as best he could the annual cash value of the purely law-made property in this country, i.e., the annual revenue proceeding from the unearned increment of land-values, from tariffs, from franchises and concessions
Or, again, test our upper class by its immunities and exemptions; no group in any modern society ever enjoyed more or greater. It is a common saying
The fact of our having an upper class is natural and should not be surprising, for human society has regularly differentiated such a class, and usually by a regular formula. No nation ever purposefully started out to make itself a three-class affair, like steamships. The differentiation began when an alien group took possession of the soil and of other privileges, usually by conquest; then consolidating their position by outright assumption of the law-making power, and proceeding with the economic exploitation of the balance of the population lying outside their own group, through legislation forcibly imposed; such, for instance, as the Enclosures Acts of the British Parliament. The operations of the Japanese in Manchuria are a reversion to this primitive technique. Thus took place the stratification of society into two classes, an upper and lower, or, more strictly, an owning and exploiting class and a propertyless dependent class
Such, in general outline, is the historical formula by which societies have differentiated themselves into classes. In the United States, however, the case was somewhat different. Our society differentiated both its upper and lower classes out of fairly pure middle-class material, quite generally unaware that it was doing anything of the kind. It seems to have been thought
At the other end of the scale, our upper class has been differentiated by the one single qualification of success in accumulating wealth; that is to say, it has been differentiated according to a strictly middle-class canon. Our society imposes no other condition, absolutely none, for admission to its upper class. Nor does it put any definite expectation upon its upper class but to keep on accumulating and enjoying wealth, and to keep in motion the machinery by which the accumulation is got together. What expectation does it put, for example, on Mr. Gerard's fifty-nine corporation-heads, as class-representatives, but to keep their corporations running? I know of none. I am not taking account of such matters as distributing charity, endowing hospitals, founding colleges or serving on political commissions; for frankly, I see no sign that our society regards even these as an obligation specifically resting on its upper class. Its organs of opinion appear always to take them as an expression of pure generosity and to laud them accordingly. What I refer to is a set of distinctive class-ideals, class-excellences, class-responsibilities, such as an upper class has generally felt under a certain social pressure to accept; and as I said, I know of none in force but the one I mentioned. No society has ever asked less from its upper class than ours; none could very well ask less.
By way of example drawn from the present depression, we may remark that our upper class has largely extemporized itself into a last-minute organization for improving the condition of the poor
In other societies, as a general thing, a member of the upper class is not supposed to make the accumulation of wealth his master-concern, or expected to be particularly good at it. His ancestors are supposed to have stolen enough in the first instance to enable him to rub along, merely taking care of what he has and devoting himself to other pursuits. The hoarding of wealth is not a serious infraction of the upper-class canon, though when it shows itself as a master-concern it is usually regarded with disfavour; but a master-concern with accumulation is not thought to comport with upper-class dignity. Recruitments of an upper class out of "trade," out of the instincts and abilities that built large fortunes on a foundation of penny-dreadfuls, beer or soap, are put down by general consent as a distinct adulteration. These instincts and abilities, focussed on the master-concern of accumulation, fall historically under the middle-class canon.
The United States, however, has differentiated its upper class by an application of the middle-class canon exclusively. The general membership of our upper class may be said, roughly, to be made up of those who have an income of two hundred thousand a year or more, and the regular trimmings, such as a yacht, a show-place here or there in America and another in Europe, and so on
We maintain, then, an upper class which is in all respects most substantially acknowledged in an informal way, but which we will not acknowledge formally, tending rather to get up a considerable patriotic warmth of dissent from the bare suspicion that we are maintaining an upper class. This might be taken as a culpable failure in intellectual integrity, as no doubt it is. Without laying any stress on that point, however, it may at least be taken as a failure in clarity about what we actually have; and what I wish to observe is that this lack of clarity is productive of extremely unfortunate social consequences. What we have actually done is to differentiate an upper class which we do not permit to act like an upper class; hence we lose the specific social benefits that are historically within the province of an upper class to disseminate.
Let us see how this is so. In other societies the upper class is supposed, in consideration of its privileges and immunities, to develop certain special class-ideals, class-standards, class-excellences; and there has always been a pressure of tradition upon its members to accept responsibility for them and keep to them with reasonable loyalty. Noblesse oblige. Default on these obligations, when it becomes flagrant, as in the France of 1789 or in present-day Russia, is the sole invariable antecedent to an upper class's overthrow. We, however, have made it impossible, through our lack of clarity, for our upper class to develop these characteristic ideals, standards and excellences. We insist that it must carry with it into its new status the ideals, standards and excellences of the middle class, and cleave only unto those. From its new vantage-point it must be always nervously looking back upon middle-class instabilities, uncertainties, trepidations, always faithfully reflecting the middle class's obscurantist prejudices, its narrow and ignoble prepossessions, its dogmatism, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency. The upper class's attainments, preoccupations, even its pleasures, must differ only in degree, not in quality, from those of the middle class; and in general, the strength of its influence and the weight of its authority are conditioned only by its power of agreement with the middle-class mind and spirit.
We have lately had before us a very striking illustration of the extreme stringency of this limitation. It is worth citing at length, even at the risk of throwing this essay somewhat out of balance. Mr. Hoover's relief-committee, a strictly upper-class organization headed by Mr. Gifford, published a series of advertisements last fall, addressed to the people at large, with a view to loosening up their purse-strings. We all remember those appeals; their tone was extremely interesting in the eloquence of its testimony on the point I am making. If the Duke of Devonshire should address the British people on a public matter of great urgency and importance, the people would expect him to address them in his class-character. If he adopted for the occasion a class-character not his own, they would be conscious of an anomaly more or less mortifying and painful. In addressing the American people, however, poor Mr. Gifford felt
Morale: it wins wars; it beats depressions; it lays the firm foundations for prosperity. America is engaged in a mighty enterprise of morale-building.... Feel the thrill that comes with victory. Go forward with America to the better days ahead.
Again, as the price of a sympathetic response, the middle-class canon required Mr. Gifford to impersonate a plumber or bricklayer out of a job, and to talk the way he thinks this unfortunate would talk
"I'll see it through if you will.
"They tell me there's five or six million of us out of jobs.
"I know that's not your fault any more than it is mine.
"But that doesn't change the fact that some of us now are in a pretty tough spot, with families to worry about and a workless winter ahead."
To-night say this to your wife; then look into her eyes.
"I gave a lot more than we planned. Are you angry?"
...It is true, the world respects the man who lives within his income. But the world adores the man who gives beyond his income.
No. When you tell her that you have given somewhat more than you had planned, you will see no censure in her eyes. But love.
Such a stringent limitation as this works badly. There has always been a social expectation, a sort of tacit understanding, that an upper class should do its best to become intelligent and that it should organize the progressive cultivation of intelligence within its own body, as the British upper class did in founding schools like Eton, Rugby and Harrow, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. I do not say that all the members of the British upper class have met the expectation put upon them, or that these institutions are beyond improvement. All I say is that the expectation existed, and that something, be it much or little, was done about it. Our society, on the contrary, discourages its upper class from cultivating intelligence. As the case of Mr. Gifford shows, it insists that the mind of the upper class shall run in middle-class sequences, and the middle class is not interested in intelligence; it is interested only in agreement.
An excellent demonstration of this is found in our upper class's utterances on the character, causes and probable duration of the depression signalized by the explosion of the stock-market in October, 1929. One can not bring oneself to speak of them at length. They should be enough, however, to convince any one that our society does not expect its upper class to become intelligent or has the faintest suspicion that it should do so. When a member of the British upper class, for example, talks wretched nonsense in public about some matter of national moment, he is at once reminded that there are certain class-criteria of intelligence by which what he says is to be judged. When Mr. Hoover, Mr. Ford, Mr. Rosenwald, Mr. Sloan, Mr. Gifford, Mr. Dawes, Mr. Schwab, Mr. Farrell, Mr. Strawn, talk nonsense, their words are not referable to any class-criteria, for none exists; their divagations are published widely, accepted complacently, lauded uncritically, and it goes for nothing that the mere passage of time proves them to be nonsense.
The complete bankruptcy of intelligence exhibited in these representative pronouncements from our upper class should make a clean sweep of the notion so often advanced to account for the low level of our general culture, that our best minds nowadays go into business. They do not. They do not go anywhere. There is nowhere for them to go. Our society has made no place for the individual who is able to think, who is, in the strict sense of the word, intelligent; it merely tosses him into the rubbish-heap, while picking out the stupidest millionaire in sight and placing him in the White House to the accompaniment of a deafening fanfare of adulation for his almost superhuman abilities. Intelligence is the power and willingness always disinterestedly to see things as they are, an easy accessibility to ideas, and a free play of consciousness upon them, quite regardless of the conclusions to which this play may lead. Intelligence, therefore, while not precisely incompatible with success in accumulating wealth, is unrelated to it; hence it is disallowed by our Philistines. It is ineffectual among our Populace, on account of that class's intense preoccupation with the hard problem of keeping body and soul together from day to day. The only class with which it might be effectual, our Barbarians, is virtually forbidden to transform itself by the cultivation of intelligence, because of society's strong insistence that it shall set up no class-ideals and class-criteria of its own, but shall keep steadfastly to those of the Philistines.
One may see evidence of this in the character of the great and rich educational institutions that our Barbarians have founded, as compared with those founded by the corresponding class in England. They are strictly middle-class institutions; that is to say, they are organized to do everything for the "average student," for the motor-minded, a great deal for the incompetent, the merely clever, the sagacious, but nothing whatever for the unconsidered minority which gives promise of some day becoming intelligent. If evidence of this be desired it may be had in any quantity from a perusal of Mr. Flexner's recent work on our universities and Mr. Learned's works on our colleges and our secondary schools. A significant book was published last winter under the title, They Told Barron. It is made up of notes taken down by the late Clarence W. Barron, publisher of the Wall Street Journal
Of course it is well to remember that these are tales out of school, and such tales are never high lights of high-mindedness.... Yet the world which "told Barron" seems to me very different from any other society.... In all this talk of 361 pages by the "rulers" of our society, aged mostly between forty-five and seventy, there is hardly a line of good conversation, not a trace of real culture or plain good breeding, not the slightest evidence of even a fair formal education.
Again, there has always been an understanding that in return for its immunities and privileges, an upper class should furnish an example of social life and manners. The value of this is imperfectly understood, as a rule; it lies in the inculcation of a really sound sentiment of patriotism. Burke said that "there ought to be a system of manners in every nation that a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. For us to love our country, our country ought to be lovely." This is just what our country is not; and our upper class is estopped from doing what it might to make it so because we jealously insist that its class-ideal of social life and manners shall be but a mere expansion or glorification of the middle-class ideal, limited, unintelligent, more than a little ignoble, and hence more than a little unlovely. The sentiment of patriotism pervading our society is, therefore, as everyone knows, correspondingly ignoble, brittle, meretricious. It is significant that our people are the only ones who expatriate themselves in large numbers because they do not wish to live at home. Others do it to better themselves in purse or in health; but thousands of Americans
Again, there has always been a pretty general expectation put upon an upper class to develop a class-code whereby conduct is rated, not as legal or illegal, righteous or unrighteous, fashionable or unfashionable, but as becoming or unbecoming. These codes may be more or less unintelligently devised, more or less mechanically obeyed, but the essential thing about them is that they are bottomed on a strong sense of the place of dignity and self-respect in a sound social order. There is great social value in a class which sticks stoutly to its class-sense of conduct as becoming or unbecoming, and recognizes a fairly definite category of things that "aren't done." These things may be legal, fashionable, even by the going standards of morality they may be moral, but they are not felt to comport with dignity and self-respect and, therefore, one would just a little rather not do them.
Our upper class has no such code of conduct, nor can it develop one against the very strong social pressure upon it to retain the middle-class sanctions intact and unimproved. The middle-class ideal contemplates conduct primarily as legal or illegal; sometimes as moral or immoral according to a stark and mechanical notion of morality; sometimes also as fashionable or unfashionable. As far as other sanctions are concerned it tends towards letting every man do what is right in his own eyes. Specific illustrations of this tendency would probably be thought invidious, but one may supply them for oneself from almost any issue of any metropolitan newspaper. The journalistic history of the Harding and Coolidge administrations alone supplies plenty of them. It is no trouble to assure oneself that the middle-class ideal takes no great account of the claims of delicacy, dignity and self-respect in the realm of conduct; here again it is more than a little ignoble, and our society's devotion to this ideal has weakened the sense of these claims to the disappearing-point.
This is a disintegrating influence in our society, and one that has a free rein because the only class which is in a position to inaugurate any restraint upon it is estopped from doing so. Milton, himself a prophet of the middle class if ever it had one, has shown clearly the disintegrating effect of over-devotion to the middle-class ideal and its sanctions. His words are pretty closely descriptive of the courses that our society has taken, especially of late:
In every commonwealth, when it decays, corruption makes two main steps. First, when men cease to do according to the inward and uncompelled actions of virtue, caring only to live by the outward constraint of law, and turn this simplicity of real good into the craft of seeming so by law.... The next declining is when law becomes too strait for the secular manners, and those too look for the cincture of law. This brings in false and crooked interpretations to eke out law, and invents the subtle encroachments of obscure traditions, hard to be disproved.*
Even with nothing else to its credit, an upper class that has maintained a sense of the "inward and uncompelled actions of virtue" and by force of example has recommended their "simplicity of real good" to the rest of the body politic, has pretty well paid its way.
Everybody is aware that we do not get much good out of our upper class, but perhaps is not so well aware that our lack of clarity about its status is a distinct interference with our getting any more. We have an upper class, we are bound to have one, for every society has always differentiated one, and ours is no exception. We may as well be clear about that; by any test of upper-class status that one may wish to apply, we have one. Well, then, since we have one, why not demand that it make itself useful, or at least allow it some reasonable chance and encouragement to make itself useful? There is a great deal to be got out of an upper class; but if we differentiate one on the sole condition of success in accumulating wealth, and put no further expectation on it, but insist that the differentiation shall stop with that, we are in no way to get much. If we differentiate it from the middle class, and then oblige it to go on with strictly middle-class ideals, standards, excellences, instead of developing distinctive class-ideals, standards and excellences of its own, how much better off are we for having it at all?
If no society ever got less from its upper class than ours
If it were suggested as a social obligation that they should turn away from incessantly looking backward at the middle class and create a set of distinctive and historical class-ideals, class-standards, class-excellences, such as an upper class has always felt under a certain social pressure to accept, it is quite possible that they would respond to this expectation also. Our society is unintelligent and without regard for intelligence; well, instead of accepting this state of things as natural and meritorious and falling in with it, an upper class can apply a considerable corrective, first by transforming itself to the best of its power, and then by giving an example of high respect for intelligence, and by taking measures for the discernment, appreciation and cultivation of intelligence at large. Our ideal of social life and manners is extremely imperfect; well, instead of acquiescing in its vulgarity as normal and proper, an upper class can do a great deal to refine and elevate it, and thus to liberate the only kind of patriotic sentiment that is worth anything. We have quite lost a sense of dignity and self-respect as sanctions of conduct or as elements making for stability in the social order; well, instead of condoning this defect or agreeing with middle-class tradition in erecting it into something like the status of a virtue, an upper class can exert a very powerful influence towards remedying it and forestalling its unfavourable consequences.
In these three directions an upper class has often made itself conspicuously useful and may do so again; and it is the only class that can. For one set of reasons a lower class can do very little for society in these directions; for another and wholly different set of reasons a middle class can do as little, perhaps less. Possibly our upper class would not accept obligations of this nature under any circumstances; it may be too firmly fixed in the middle-class tradition to see any reason why it should do so. But this is not the point; the point is that so long as strictly middle-class loyalties are so strenuously enforced upon it, it never can.
New York, October, 1931.
How You Can Help