For the most part, Americans are shielded from the direct application of power—in other words, they generally don’t have people telling them what to do without some semblance of a voluntary contract being in place. If your boss orders you to show up at 5:00AM to do kitchen prep, you can always quit. If your neighborhood association won’t let you paint your house mauve, you can move. Our scope for making meaningful decisions about our lives seems largely unconstrained and there are few formal, legal limits on the scope of our opportunities, no matter who we are. We appear to be free to follow our instincts or common sense and do just about anything—often some act of consumption—it would occur to us to do (provided we have the dollars). It’s an idea that runs to the heart of beliefs about American exceptionalism and has a special place in every jingoistic political speech and truck commercial, as the John Mellencamp spots for Chevrolet Silverado, ubiquitous during televised football games, so perfectly epitomize: “Let the bells of freedom ring out across this land / This is our country.”
What makes it seem like “our country”—and not the police’s or the state’s or oligarchs’—is the way power is distributed throughout society’s institutions and tends to work without anyone specifically being responsible. When layoffs happen or a résumé doesn’t get a callback or rents go up or property values drop, there’s no specific person to blame. Everyone takes their cue from someone or somewhere else, forming a never-ending, spiraling chain of command. It’s the system’s fault, if anything, we conclude. We can’t really hold ourselves accountable either; whatever misfortune the system has dealt us seems as though it really could have happened to anyone.
Cultural historian Michel Foucault’s studies are basically about this process—how power comes to reside in social institutions—hospitals (The Birth of the Clinic), prisons (Discipline and Punish, universities (The Archeology of Knowledge) and concepts (sexuality and gender (The History of Sexuality), mental health (Madness and Civilization)—and then exercise itself with no particular agents directing the process. Reading these works tends to leave one heavy with doom, hopelessly trapped in invisible prisons that no one builds and no one can tear down.
However, capitalist ideologues usually portray diffused power positively, locating it in the market, which is then virtually deified as a near-flawless system for aggregating and distributing information about what a society wants collectively. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith initiated the line of thinking, modifying Bernard Mandeville’s scandalous dictum of “private vices, public benefits” with his doctrine of the invisible hand, which magically transforms self-interest into social benefit, and Austrian economist and libertarian icon Friedrich von Hayek elaborates the concept as spontaneous order, which has the nonpareil benefit of preventing bureaucrats from telling you what you must think and do. From this point of view, capitalism yields not an iron-clad status system girded with the additional insult of making your class seem like your own fault, but “creative destruction” that allows each generation to remake the social order new, with nothing but merit and efficiency to guide it.
No matter how dispersed power is spun, as prison or meritocratic utopia, it makes it difficult for us to put a face or a clear motive on the forces constraining us, so even though the discriminatory effects of racism, sexism, religious hatred and the like are everywhere palpable (and one could spent all day isolating examples in the media), it can be hard to identify the people in our lives who subject us to these things personally. Such people are rare, and we’ve created the special category of “hate crimes” to vilify them. Generally these villains are hard to locate; it’s not as though people in de facto segregated slums like Brownsville, Brooklyn, can hold some specific racist at fault for conditions in their neighborhood. Up close, individual people’s motives are often well-intentioned or obscure; as a result the only verifiable source of power affecting our lives seems to be ourselves.
But it would be wrong to conflate our inability to perceive how power circumscribes our lives (or to recognize the forces responsible for these limitations) with autonomy. We obviously don’t create the conditions we live in by force of individual will, and that power we are encouraged to attribute to ourselves so often proves impotent. Autonomy, in a culture that fetishizes independence and individuality, is less an ontological condition than an experiential good. It is a fantasy we pay for the privilege of indulging. When we go shopping, we are often trying to buy the feeling of control as much as we are trying to acquire some specific item, whether that means sending sales clerks to scurry at our whim in the store or adding ersatz style to our lives by adorning ourselves and our personal spaces with some unique combination of branded objects. We shop so that we may exercise our freedom of choice, our consumer sovereignty, which, we are assured, will control what goods are subsequently offered in the marketplace—and if we can move markets, we can move the world.
But as Lizbeth Cohen suggests in A Consumer’s Republic, (Vintage, 2004) her study of postwar consumerism, the fictions of autonomy that derive from the myth of all-powerful and meritocratic purchasing power merely serve to compensate for the actual limits on social mobility, blinding us to the ways class hampers our judgment and dictates self-sabotaging behavior we then tend to assume responsibility for. In practice, the significance of the market is sidelined, and social capital—the distinguishing markers and habits of your class, assumes greater sway, Social capital doesn’t trade freely on any exchange; it conserves privilege and protects the class prerogatives that constitute real autonomy while assuring that more of the goods and opportunities society produces go to a select few elites. Then these lucky few can use the alibi of the free market to retrospectively justify their rewards with specious claims of merit, tradition or divine right. With the market responsible, the beneficiaries can feel as though they have clean hands, while the victims begin to look in the mirror for whom to blame for failure in a quasi-meritocracy.
In The Hidden Injuries of Class Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb (Vintage, 1973) delineate this process by looking at the aspirations of working-class immigrants in America in the mid 20th century, concluding that workers are both propelled and held back by an ideology of individualism. They argue that in the absence of outright oppression, modern class societies function by creating a ceaseless competition for dignity and social recognition, which is pegged to an individual’s ability to stand out from the mass. It would seem that individuality is impossible to measure and would not be fertile ground for a competition, yet like autonomy, it has become a classic zero-sum positional good. Consumer goods are plentiful—they can’t make you special in the end—but social attention and recognition is scarce, and few of us are famous enough to command it or rich enough to ignore a lack of it. So a struggle against anonymity ensues, which is mirrored by shows like American Idol, which trades on that near-universal battle with obscurity to provide the vicarious thrill of watching someone overcome it while reinforcing the idea that our personal choices have power by tallying our votes.
But a subsidiary lesson of such shows is that there’s only one winner. You only earn social recognition when others lose it—you are an individual only if your peers conveniently make up a mass you can stand out against. When basic dignity is defined in terms of this kind of individuality—and even a casual glance at our public discourse confirms this is the case—success in securing it will at the same time inevitably alienate you from those peers, depriving you of the solace of community without gaining you admission to a more receptive one. This process puts one in a position to ask oneself, Who am I to think I’m better than everyone else, then those people I consider my friends? Do I want to be one of those overambitious social climbers and find myself stranded between worlds, rejected by the community I sought to escape and isolated in my nuclear family unit like some latter-day Silas Lapham, racked with guilt and forced to take consolatory pride in bravado shows of faux independence? The fear of being caught in the middle leads us to undermine ourselves, to internalize judgments no one actually passes.
One of the hidden injuries of class, then, is how lower classes must reconcile the contradictions foisted on them by a hereditary status system that pretends to be egalitarian. They can either withdraw, or as Cobb and Sennett argue, they can choose a course of self-sabotage, succumbing to feelings of guilt, confusion, insecurity or inadequacy to rationalize failure or relative deprivation as deserved. Thus, class society manages to wound and cripple the lower orders without anyone higher up in the social hierarchy seeming directly responsible. No one intentionally prohibits us from finding success; we end up excluding ourselves, as this proves easier to live with than a rigged system. (Better to feel like you lost the game than to think the refs threw it.)
One way in which this plays out is in the pursuit of meaningful work; glamour jobs that provide status and allow you to indulge your individual talents. Because these jobs often have to do with generating “original” and “creative” products, it’s easy to imagine they are distributed according to merit—the people who do the best work inevitably get the jobs. But this is obviously false; these jobs are scarce and our educational system generates far too many qualified candidates. (Conservatives might suggest that our educational system is perhaps too egalitarian, or that state-supported schools are diploma mills that perpetuate their own existence and funding by lowering standards and processing more and more students.) When I was getting a graduate degree in English, it became all too apparent to me, going to conferences and seeing all the other eager competitors for those ultra rare tenure-track jobs at universities, that there were going to be a lot of unhappy and unemployable PhDs, overqualified for anything but the one job they were acutely trained to perform. It also occurred to me that society almost certainly didn’t need this many literature professors, and something had gone horribly wrong in society’s allocation of educational resources to produce so many people like me. I probably should have been discouraged from my course at a much earlier juncture than two years into a dissertation. Perhaps I should have listened to the inner voices of failure sooner.
But what about the stubborn souls who won’t listen? How to weed them out and protect the jobs for the better sorts, who’ve always claimed them without stoking social unrest? One way to disqualify candidates is to require them to work for free in unpaid internships or to live on subsistence stipends while accruing the necessary certifications in graduate school. This rules out anyone who doesn’t have another source of income—inherited from parents, say—to fall back on. Another disqualification method is to require social capital—make sure they know someone who can recommend them and vouch for them. This requires having the kind of connections that elites take for granted, knowing someone in admissions at this Ivy League school or in HR at an entertainment company. Or you have to have the wherewithal to be in the pipeline for job openings (or elite unpaid internships) that aren’t publicly advertised but instead are announced through established grapevines. Access to these networks stems from class advantage, and keeping these networks exclusive is how class borders are policed.
But if all that fails to discourage applicants for prestige jobs, society falls back on what sometimes is known in pop-psychology magazines and self-help books as “the fear of success”—we sabotage ourselves because we internalize the belief that we don’t deserve to advance. Caught up in the zero-sum game for dignity, which for the underclass is never felt to be secure, never seems automatically given by virtue of one’s being human as it is for the privileged, we turn to the gatekeepers of those institutions empowered to dole out dignity and never fully apprehend the reasons its withheld. Sennett and Cobb write, “What is in you that commands the approval of others? You can’t know this, but someone can…. Power in the organization, like the God of Weber’s early Protestants, knows about you what you do not know about yourself.” In this competition, the rules continually change and render contestants passive and fatalistic, crippling them with self-doubt. This in turn encourages them to remove themselves from the running for high-status positions that are technically open to all, positions they end up feeling they somehow inherently don’t deserve.
“The psychological motivation instilled by a class society is to heal a doubt about the self rather than create more power over things and other persons in the outer world,” Sennett and Cobb assert. Consequently, the idea of agency beyond the boundaries of one’s own psyche becomes ever more remote. Passivity becomes common sense, which intensifies the pleasures of spectatorship that make advertising and entertainment function, reinforcing their appeal and the passivity itself in a feedback loop. This passivity spills over into self-doubt, which further fuels the fear of success; the unwillingness to assume greater responsibilities, which seem capable of being met by the application of one’s natural talents but are actually a matter of class habitus, having a familiarity with social mores and conventions and access to social networks. Combine that confusion of means and ends with the contempt other competitors from their class—their former friends—will feel for them if they succeed and you can see why workers disqualify themselves and don’t even try for advancement. Instead they try to deflect attention and struggle along independently, while subsisting as spectators of real life, what is going on in celebrity land or in the pages of the newspaper.
It’s not hard to imagine scarce goods other than prestige jobs being preserved in this fashion—consider health care, which is getting scarcer (more expensive) all the time. Society wants to preserve the illusion of universal care it can’t afford to provide, so it can enlist the class system and the injured dignity it produces to convince lower class people that they don’t deserve the same kind of singled-out attention from their doctors that their betters are accustomed to. Instead they will be treated in second-rate clinics staffed with overworked, underpaid health care providers, and processed as though they were faulty machines in for assembly-line repair, and they will be grateful if they manage not to embarrass themselves or cause too much trouble. There’ll be plenty of incentive to conceal any symptoms themselves, which will mark sufferers as potential victims of adverse selection, where health insurers refuse the business of those most likely to be sick. It’s a small step from there to make people feel as though their illness, like their poverty, is their own fault, and have them assume blame and responsibility of the consequences. Shouldn’t be too much problem with class mobility, then.