Middle Class Values

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

The 20th century redefined what it meant to be middle class, Henry Dampier says, especially in the United States:

In the past, it was a particular set of mercantile and moral values combined with a basic material requirement of property ownership.

Gradually, with the help of more than a century of propaganda, it changed into a squishy set of beliefs centered around faith in education and in sending children to be educated by their priestly betters. This was not the case in the 19th century, especially in the United States: you can read about the disdain for formal education broadly shared by the barons of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, you can find a disdain for high culture, preferring the virtues of hard work, thrift, and personal restraint.

Previously, the role of thrift was critical. It was middle class to wear inexpensive shoes and simple clothing. Investors who wanted to show canniness would condemn company owners who used fancy pens or who purchased gilded books for paying excessive attention to form over function.

Parents instructed their daughters to marry men who displayed such values, in large part because it’s more natural for women to be physically attracted by rakes and not by dentists.

We can criticize these values from a different standpoint, but that’s not the point of this post. Whether or not those values were good or bad is less important than observing how they have been obliterated in the present.

Currently, middle class has become less about thrift and ownership and more about displaying your access to credit with enormous vanity purchases used to signal class status. Because, under democracy, it’s not possible to formalize class distinctions in law, people will often expend enormous sums to signal their status informally. They will buy expensive new cars on credit, buy expensive (and useless) educations for their children from the most prestigious (holy) institutions that they can get their children into, and buy ticky-tacky houses in the nicest neighborhoods that they can borrow for.

Part of this has to do with many decades of monetary experimentation that punishes saving and rewards borrowing, but that, too, is co-morbid with a change in values.

One of the big problems is that we have told everyone that they are ‘middle class’ even though that they show none of the attributes that were historically attributed to that class.

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