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The American Perception of Class by Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Weber Cannon (Temple University: $29.95; 363 pp.)

August 30, 1987|Gregg Easterbrook | Easterbrook is a contributing editor of Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly. and

Marxists have not had much to say about the Soviet Union for many years, but they remain obsessed by the West. In Europe, politics is commonly analyzed in the lexicon of class determinism, despite the fact that only soft-core Eurosocialism has been endorsed by voters of democracies there. In the United States, the only place Marxism has ever caught on (or served a working class, in this case the tenured professoriate) is within the ivy walls of academe. Nonetheless, Marxist interpretations of the American experience continue, the latest being "The American Perception of Class" by Reeve Vanneman, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, and Lynn Weber Cannon, a researcher at Memphis State University.

Vanneman and Cannon set out to debunk what sociologists call "American exceptionalism," the failure of radicalism to manifest itself among American workers. Marx predicted that industrial development and proletarian consciousness would be inexorably linked, and so according to theory, the United States should have the world's angriest workers. The authors believe this may be true; that conventional wisdom is wrong in ascribing to U.S. workers' basic contentment with the distribution system of American society.

"The error of inferring the absence of class consciousness from the failure of American socialism is so widespread and so easily committed that it has almost single- handedly wrecked the study of class consciousness," Vanneman and Cannon write. Supporting this notion, they supply a wealth of data on self-perceptions, meaning the way people describe themselves to pollsters. Given the choice of "lower class," "middle class," or "upper class," for example, some 80% of Americans in one poll labeled themselves middle class. If the option of "working class" was added to the list, however, 51% preferred that. In such statistics, Vanneman and Cannon find indication of a subtle campaign to repress awareness American class determinism, to "overlook available evidence that Americans are indeed class conscious but that this consciousness is not translated into successful protest because of the opposition of a healthy and vigilant capitalist class."

Really? To me, it seems amazing that anyone other than an academic lost in the library stacks can imagine that typical Americans don't know some people are better off then they are. Or that given the choice of self-labeling as "low," "working," "middle" or "upper" class, most people wouldn't prefer "working." Upper class has a snob connotation in the United States; lower class sounds like failure; and middle class, though a life circumstance providing the shared affluence Marx said workers should have, is synonymous with boredom.

But then the bulk of "The American Perception of Class" consists not of original research but attacks on other people's research. This kind of sniping is the token of exchange at university sherry hours, but of little relevance to readers. Have Vanneman or Cannon ever actually spoken to any of the workers about whose private thoughts they claim special insight? You wouldn't know it from the text. Their worker quotations are plucked from the very studies they are denouncing, or from Studs Terkel.

The authors show fondness for anything that makes American life sound horrible, while dismissing that which makes it sound good. The American dream, for example, is a narcotic--"it is certainly no accident that just as a massive worker proletariat was being created on these shores, America worked hardest at convincing itself of its openness and classlessness." This formulation glosses over the complication that openness was exactly what drew much of the immigrant proletariat here.

Vanneman and Cannon wax nostalgic for the good old days of the goon squads, noting proudly, "American labor conflicts have generated as much sustained violence as has working-class protests anywhere in the world." At one point, they rake columnist David Broder over the coals for a 1980 article extolling Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, as an idyllic Norman Rockwell locale. In the 19th Century, they note, the town was the site of brutally violent mine strikes. But the Coeur d'Alene bloodshed ended in 1899. Can't things change during the course of a century? And if Idaho is secretly a hotbed of radicalism, why did it support Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and 1984?

The reason, Vanneman and Cannon imply, is that elections are a fraud, and union leaders are covert dupes of the moneyed elite. These have become standard left-wing explanations for the inconvenient realities, that the American proletariat displays utter contempt for Marxist office-seekers, and that unions seem more interested in wages and benefits than in seizing the means of production.

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