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January 06, 2011

The Illusion of the "Professional" Class and the Rise of the Liberal Aristocracy

In a comment to the last post, Reactionary wrote:

I've long believed that a key failure of modern society is the widespread disdain for honest labor. There should be no shame in doing a "regular" job and doing it well. However, among many there is the assumption that any person who doesn't work in data or abstractions is a dullard.

I have a series of related points to make about this. I think I've made them before but I also wrote my liberal aristocracy thing six hundred times before so I guess there's no harm in repetition.

I was reading about Victorian London a while ago (I'm into Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes and gaslights and Marias so I like that period in history) and the writer discussed the evolution of the "working class" versus the "middle class" (or professional class, as it is more and more termed today).

She made the point that the two classes were largely separate -- they lived in separate neighborhoods, wore different clothes, spoke with different accents, and so on -- and that, generally, the middle class was considered "higher" than the working class, but she also noted that there wasn't a very good reason to say it was "higher."

Except that one class worked with its "mind" and the other class with its hands.

But did one class work with its mind?

She noted, for example, that a Bank of England clerk would be a member of the middle/professional class, despite the fact that what he did all day was hand-write numbers into ledgers and do simple arithmetic and some filing work and the like, whereas, say, a carpenter actually did real thinking, real planning, at his job, with elements of real creativity.

And yet it was the Bank of England clerk who was considered a "mind" worker and the carpenter merely a hand-laborer.

Now, of course, there were plenty of middle/professional class people who did work with their minds -- doctors, theologians, professionals, lawyers, nurses and so forth -- but there were an awful lot of such people who didn't, or only did to a trivial degree, and of course there were plenty of working-class people who didn't work much with their minds at all. Low-level factory workers, ditch-diggers, etc.

So there was an element of truth to the mind/hand distinction -- but it was a relatively small element of truth, more disproven by contrary example than confirmed by rule.

And even in terms of wages -- this I thought was interesting -- there really was no distinction between them, except that the working class person usually made a little more money than the average member of the middle/professional class. Sure, what we'd call true professionals made more, but not a huge amount more, and, at any rate, there were comparatively few of those compared to the large number of clerks and such.

Yet, despite there being no genuine distinction between them to demonstrate that one class was "higher" than the other, the distinction nevertheless took root, and middle class girls would marry middle class boys and working class girls working class boys. Which is the real test of a true, defined class -- do they mix enough to intermarry? If not, they're pretty well defined classes. Which is sort of one of the criteria used to determine whether one animal is merely a different variety than another or a whole different species. Can they mate?

At any rate, that distinction has obviously persisted, even in America, with the ingrained sort of idea that a low-level associate producer making crap money and rote choices on an MSNBC daytime talk show was somehow "above" someone making real command decisions in his occupation, like a plumber. And this sort of idea is very important to that low-level producer at MSNBC, because by thinking this way, he puts himself in the league of doctors and engineers.

Doctors and engineers don't think the same way -- they don't think "Ah yes, I am in the same social class as that low-level line producer on MSNBC" -- but they are widely outnumbered by the more marginal members of that purported class, and those with the numbers make the rules.


I noticed in the mid-nineties the new buzzword was "the Information Elite," a proposed new class that included, by definition, anyone in the media, no matter how low-level or rote/mechanical in their actual job function. And you know who couldn't get enough of talking about the "Information Elite?" The media, of course! Because everytime they brought it up, and fretted about this new class distinction that might have harmful effects for sooociiiiety, they were of course flattering themselves by naming themselves "the Elite."

While pretending to worry about this new class, of course they were all delighting inside. Who wouldn't? The dirty little secret is that pretty much anyone wants to be "elite" in some way or another. So any cute new catchphrase putting you into some new elite is going to be, well, a little attractive.

Anyway, that's how class distinctions harden, I'm pretty sure, at the lower levels of the class, among the more marginal/aspirational members of the purported class, because they want the class to exist, because they need for it it to exist -- in order for them to belong to it.

The low-level line producer at MSNBC needs the fiction of the "Information Elite" as a class a hell of a lot more than, say, Steven Spielberg does. Steven Spielberg doesn't really have to worry about his status or position in the pecking order. He has enough individual accomplishments that he has no need to inflate his ego with the accomplishments of other people, to whom he is connected only by his purported class.

But it's very important to that MSNBC producer that he's in the same class as Steven Spielberg. And hence, it's that MSNBC producer who's really interested in pushing a system of rules and signals of that purported class that will differentiate him from those he wishes to be considered socially superior to. And he'll do that by aping the sort of manners, accent, and modes of thought that Steven Spielberg (or any other undeniable, inarguable paragon member of that class) displays.

But he's really just aping Steven Spielberg, isn't he? He's less choosing his thoughts and beliefs than looking up to a paragon of the class he aspires to belong to and mimicking those. And he does so because his membership in that class is marginal and very debatable and so he takes on as many of the attributes as he can of the paragons of that class -- that solidifies his position in that class. (He thinks -- but I don't know if Steven Spielberg would agree.)

All of that is very Marxist I think and I apologize for that but hey, broken clock, twice a day.

And this all goes hand in hand with my own Great Big Idea, that liberalism is largely, by subconscious design, a machine of class-differentiation for those aspiring to be part of an upper class to count themselves as part of that upper class, even if (especially if!) their credentials for belonging to that class are otherwise slim.

And this effect pushes liberalism, not conservatism. It's true that, hypothetically, a system could have developed wherein conservative thought was defined as the ideology of the elite, and then aspirational would-be memebers of that elite would ape conservative modes of thought rather than liberal.

But it didn't work out that way. Because people tend not to see elites of most professions in everyday life, or at least aren't usually exposed to the political beliefs of those elites. Doctors, as a group, tend to be conservative (or more conservative than most professions -- far more conservative than lawyers, for example), but your average patient doesn't get to hear all of his doctor's opinions on politics. The doctor pretty much sticks to his area of expertise.

But people do hear all about the politics and preferences of one profession-- the media, of course, which is on television 24/7/365 and has to put out a lot of content. And so they do, offering, in tv shows, films, and newscasts, all of their ideas (they need to churn out content, after all) -- and the media's ideas tend to be liberal.

If people typically heard the beliefs of other inarguable elites, perhaps there wouldn't be this bias in people's minds that liberalism represents the beliefs of the smart set. If people heard what engineers had to say, if engineers were on Letterman as much as Brian Friggin' Williams, perhaps their subconscious notion of the "elite" way of looking at things would change. But they don't hear from engineers. They just hear from David Letterman, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, and other, um, non-elites who just happen to be paid a king's ransom and be on tv all the frickin' time because that's their job, to fill up the space between commercials. Even when other elites are featured on tv -- they tend to be ones expressing the same ideas as the media. Al Gore gets on Letterman to talk up global warming, but Freeman Dyson -- an actual brilliant scientist -- doesn't get to say that he thinks global warming is overstated, half-baked, most-likely-wrong poppycock. Science popularizer Carl Sagan is on every network to talk about his "Nuclear Winter" theory, but father of the hydrogen bomb Edward Teller doesn't get to say that's all a bunch of well-meaning made-up political "science."

I'm not really an elitist (tell a lie-- most people are, in their own way, and so am I) but I understand the need for it. People are people. They are insecure in their position and they want to feel special. Inclusion in some sort of "elite" (even if that elite exists almost entirely in their own minds -- KKK guys are pretty arrogant about how brave they are for seeing the truth about race relations, for example) is a little indulgence in self-flattery most people succumb to.

So I understand how many otherwise-sensible people become liberals. They aspire to be something more; they want to feel special; they want to be part of the "better" sort of group of people. That's elitism, sure, but that's the sort of elitism that most people harbor, even if secretly.

And 90% of the time when they see members of a professions' elite, they see liberals, because 90% of their exposure to people outside their actual first-hand acquaintances is from tv and magazines and TMZ. And all those elites spout the same party line, so people can be forgiven for thinking that is, in fact, the "elite" way to view the world.

But it's not. It's just the way the elite members of a single profession think. But that's the one profession they hear from, day in, day out. So when they cast about for their models of behavior and thought, those are the only ones most people even have the option of choosing.

I don't know what the solution is here, except for Andrew Breitbart's frequently-expressed determination to just completely replace the media, but that seems sort of impossible.

Loose Shit: Doctors, theologians, etc., were never part of the middle class, I don't think. They were always the professional class. I think the classic true "professions" were medicine, law, science.the academy, theologians/clergy and, sometimes, teachers, depending on who's defining the "professions."

But I blended them because I think the middle class considered itself part of the professions, even if those in the professions would themselves jealousy guard their own designation as a class apart.


I think the basic rule in life is that when people are making distinctions about class or achievement, they always -- always -- define the boundary as one that they just barely cross themselves (so they can belong to the upper class) and so as also to exclude the maximum number of people from that designation.

That is, most define "victory" as just beneath them so they can be winners but have the largest number of "losers" to contrast themselves against.

Hey, that's how people work. Kind of lame but we're all a little screwed up and self-flattering like that.

Funny Gag? 30 Rock has a sense of humor that's hard to explain. One joke they did recently was about class distinctions -- Liz attempted to buy a ticket in the raffle, which was really a game the crew (and not the "elites" on the show like Liz) played.

Jenna (a very stupid and vain actress) stressed the class distinction here by speaking about it as if she were in a dystopian sci-fi world like Brave New World, suddenly inventing a futurespeak lingo for the differing classes:

Jenna: What are you doing? That game is not for SoftHands and FaceWorkers. It's for Strongs and Lifters.

I don't know what you call that kind of joke. It's a type, though. 30 Rock does that kind of joke, whatever kind of joke it is, enough that I recognize it as a 30 Rock joke. They lapse into an entirely different genre for 1.5 seconds, and no one notices or remarks upon it.


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posted by Ace at 03:16 PM

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