In his new book, “Class Matters: The Strange Career of an American Delusion,” historian Steve Fraser explores the notion of class as a power that has shaped our nation but is only lately being openly acknowledged.
His interpretation is intriguing, provocative and revealing. While Fraser could have used a good editor to declutter some wordy passages, and some of his arguments will raise eyebrows, “Class Matters” is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship examining the country’s rising inequality.
Fraser uses iconic events, documents and images from American history as his raw material for six essays on why class matters. The reality of class — not just patterns of consumption and markers of wealth and privilege, but raw power — had largely been expunged from our national vocabulary by political elites pushing the American Dream, he argues. But the dirty secret of class emerged a decade or so ago in the unequal wreckage of the global financial meltdown, he contends.
“Class is the secret of the American experience, its past, present and likely future,” Fraser writes. “Everyday life in every way bears the stigmata of class,” he asserts in his attack on who we are and how we treat one another. The problem of class, inequality and social mobility has moved center stage as a growing number of scholars, journalists and activists have begun to address the pressures of our new Gilded Age.
Or as Chris Rock jokes: “Whole Foods does not say ‘No Blacks Allowed’. But a $7 orange does. That’s the new Jim Crow.” Many still debate whether President Trump’s victory was
an expression of white economic anxiety or racial backlash, or both. A Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, has helped form the
Economic Security Project, which proposes giving people earning less than $50,000 a guaranteed income of $500 a month by taxing high earners. He explores it all in his new book, “Fair Shot: Rethinking Inequality and How We Earn.”
“Class Matters” arrives on the scene just in time for the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report, which was ordered by President Lyndon Johnson in reaction to the urban uprisings of 1967 that engulfed despairing black communities in more than 100 cities. Nowadays, the impact of class and economics — and not just race — is seen in the report’s oft-repeated warning that “our
nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
“Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report,” a series of essays co-edited by Fred Harris, a former commission member, and Alan Curtis, president and CEO of the Eisenhower Foundation, shows how much worse things are. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Harris and Curtis noted that the percentage of Americans living in extreme poverty has increased since the 1970s and that the top 1 percent receives 52 percent of all new income.
An “invidious pursuit of inequality happens under the smiley face of equality for all,” Fraser writes. “Officially, we all subscribe to the American Dream. But as we also all know, as George Carlin once bluntly put it, ‘They call it that because you have to be asleep to believe it.’ ”
Politicians are not alone in selling a classless delusion, Fraser argues. He puts historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, scholars of the law, social critics and theologians on the list, too.
Fraser’s six essays laying out his case coincide with distinctive periods in American history. He starts with the settlements at Plymouth and Jamestown, examines the ratification of the Constitution, reflects on the Statue of Liberty and the symbol of the cowboy, probes the capitalism vs. communism debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev, and finally ponders Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech and the black struggle for power and inclusion.
The arrivals at Plymouth and Jamestown and the writing of the Constitution came when the future of the country as a capitalist society was not yet settled, Fraser writes. The Statue of Liberty and the cowboy, he contends, are figures that characterized a time when “family capitalism” flourished, a way of life that evolved into “unanticipated modes of subordination.” In his encounter with Khrushchev in 1959, Vice President Nixon celebrated a classless, triumphant, postwar America.
Class, in Fraser’s estimation, is a condition of “power and subordination.” “Before it was reduced to an abstract economic category, capital first of all existed and continues to exist as a vessel of power, a political relationship between those who have it and those who, because they don’t, must submit.”
Fraser sprinkles personal stories among his essays. He writes about growing up in suburbia, for instance, and his work as a political activist, including a harrowing summer down South as a freedom fighter. The side trip renditions are uneven: Some feel like distractions, some are inserted clumsily, others are instructive.
And while “Class Matters” is shot through with illuminating passages, Fraser could have said more about how class intersects with race and gender and how political power has been maintained by the divide-and-conquer calculus of attaching a black face to many problems that stem from inequality: welfare dependence, drug addiction, mass incarceration and family breakdown.
In the chapter on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Fraser duly notes that King’s words have been co-opted by conservatives and repackaged for corporate consumption by annulling the marriage between economic justice and racial justice.
He also contends that black power was accommodated only so long as it fit within “the wider sphere of a color-blind, state-administered capitalism.” He quotes Andrew Young as summing up “its accomplishments, outlook and limitations” by saying: “I quantify revolution in dollar terms.”
Many would argue that the struggle that now blooms as Black Lives Matter and other iterations has accomplished much more than lining pockets. Revolution cannot always be quantified.
Whether you agree with all he says or how he says it, Fraser forces the reader to consider his arguments. His contribution is one of many that we should embrace in this time of reckoning over what this country stands for and where it needs to go.
The Strange Career of an American Delusion