Middle-Class Looking Glass
FEAR OF FALLING: THE INNER LIFE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS by Barbara Ehrenreich, New York: Pantheon Books, 292 pp., $18.95
THE recent death of Michael Harrington was taken by many to symbolize the end of socialist influence in American political thought. Through his many books, including ``The Other America'' (1982), the work said to have sparked the War on Poverty, Harrington served as the conscience of the left. ``I see Michael Harrington as delivering the Sermon on the Mount to America,'' Senator Edward M. Kennedy once said.
There may never again be a voice like Harrington's, one that could make claims on the heart without hectoring. But those who think that socialist idealism has passed from the American landscape should consider Barbara Ehrenreich.
As she did in her controversial book on gender and family life, ``The Hearts of Men'' (1983), Ehrenreich uses her current text to trace a psycho-history of the professional-managerial middle class. The result is an alternative anthropology of American social relations from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Ehrenreich's reliance on the notion of class is a socialist legacy, but in the broader sense it also owes to 19th-century authors, like Balzac and Zola, who struggled to lay open the mental life of a class in order to expose the defining experiences of a nation. Her thesis, that middle-class life in our culture is taken as a social norm, has formed the basis of some of America's most influential books. Both David Riesman's ``The Lonely Crowd'' (1951) and Charles Reich's ``The Greening of America'' (1970) rest on the assumption that middle-class behavior is the mirror of society. More recently, Robert N. Bellah and his colleagues portrayed contemporary moral values through a surprisingly popular study of the middle-class mores entitled, ``Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life'' (1985).
Ehrenreich's chronicle begins in the late 1950s, before poverty was ``discovered,'' at the point where the perceived boon of American affluence was beginning to feel like a burden. She recounts that leading intellectuals, like David Riesman and Daniel Bell, were beginning to suggest that problemlessness was itself a problem. In the postwar period, the middle class worried that it might lose its creative energies and suffocate in a sea of consumer goods.
The War on Poverty provided the middle class the challenge it needed to rouse itself from malaise and a generalized fear of decadence. Ehrenreich notes that the rhetoric of renewal grew so fiercely uplifting, so focused on stirring the middle class, that it frequently lost sight of the objective fact of poverty.
It was, Ehrenreich suggests, a misfortune for the poor to be discovered by a middle class tormented by the forebodings of its own decline. Fear of falling grew more intense during the student movement of the late 1960s, when America's children of privilege seemed to be rejecting middle-class values. Ehrenreich sees the student movement as a pivotal time, a period in which the middle class became more defensive and a lot less liberal. It was also the moment when the middle class made another discovery, or one should say, created another temporarily soothing symbol. This time it was the working class who suffered the anxieties of middle-class insecurities.
Working-class stereotypes came to stand for traditional American values, like hard work, independence, and self-discipline, which the middle class felt were slipping away. At the same time, the liberal elite, disparagingly called the ``New Class'' by neoconservatives, came to be seen as less American, that is, as selfish, slothful, and ineffectual. To neoconservatives and their growing number of supporters, cutting social programs was a way to reduce the bloated roster of New Class bureaucrats. To the New Right, the New Class had generated poverty by inducing dependency on federal programs. To end poverty, then, one had to reduce social spending.
The yuppie phenomenon - hard work, hard spending, and high seriousness - drew on neoconservative values. Ironically, in Ehrenreich's view, the yuppies have brought the saga of the middle class almost full circle. She characterizes the present moment as one of anxious affluence and pent-up idealism.
What will be the next great shift for America's definitive class? Ehrenreich hopes that contemporary middle-class anxiety over consumption will spur greater class consciousness, and ultimately lead to revisioning the middle class not as an elite, but as a class bearing strong affinities with the poor. Just as the middle class in the past discovered poverty and the working class, she hopes that it will discover the rich in the 1990s.
Overall, Ehrenreich's analysis of the psychic tides of middleclass life is on-target. Her writing, spiked with aphoristic observations of modern life, is always entertaining. When, in her conclusions, she recommends that the middle class undergo an implausibly abrupt change of heart, one still admires her moral purpose, and the principles of equality and social justice that give the book its bearings.