Quotes of the Day – August 16, 2012: C. Wright Mills’s White Collar, pt. 1

I started this book at the beginning of the summer. And after countless distractions and other books, I finally finished it early this morning. It is an incredible book, not just because of its intellectual and statistical rigor, but because of its analysis and commentary on the politics of the white-collar class. Mills looks at the development of the new middle class and discusses at length its role in the political economy. Though the book was written over half a century ago, Mills’s assessment of class consciousness and the relationship of producers to production is surprisingly relevant today. Throughout the book, Mills explains how historical moments, seemingly ripe for an explosion of radical political activity, resulted in little to no change in the status quo. Of the centralization of private property that altered class definitions Mills writes:

It has been a secular trend of too slow a tempo to be felt as a continuing crisis by middle-class men and women, who often seem to have become more commodity-minded than property-minded (Introduction, xv).

That change in consciousness, from “property-minded” to “commodity-minded” can be seen in today’s middle classes. The defining characteristic of the middle class class is not ownership of property – many Americans (about a third) don’t actually own their homes, let alone small business – but  ownership of certain commodities. It reminds me of the Walmart effect: in the post-industrial economy, real conditions of privation are masked by the availability of cheap goods and easy credit. The middle class is insulated from proletarianization, at least for a moment, when its members feel that they can obtain all they want. And yet, what is perhaps most sinister about gradual, creeping proletarianization is that it is nearly impossible to fight. The changes are nearly imperceptible, and so it’s difficult to muster up radical energies. Mills, in describing the structure of the new office, appears to predict, in a sense, the nature of the internet.

What must be grasped is the picture of society as a great salesroom, an enormous file, an incorporated brain a new universe of management and manipulation (Introduction, xv). 

The internet is like a great salesroom, blanketed by wall-to-wall advertisements. On nearly any page you visit, you can find someone selling something. It is also like an enormous file, with nearly infinite sub-folders and categories. A file contains information, and the internet contains an ever-growing amount of information. Most of all, with social media the internet has become a way of managing and manipulating not only commercial lives but also our appearances and identities. On Facebook, we constantly tailor and curate our profiles. A good portion of the book is spent comparing the new middle class, white collar workers to the proletarian, blue collar, wage workers. In many ways, Mills writes, the new middle class has been proletarianized.

Estranged from community and society in a context of distrust and manipulation; alienated from work and, on the personality market, from self; expropriated of individual rationality, and politically apathetic – these are the new little people, the unwilling vanguard of modern society (Introduction, xvii).

Such a description is familiar, particularly the “personality market,” which has now become both more competitive and omnipresent. Towards the end of the introduction, Mills introduces a challenge to political and economic thinkers that, to this day, has not been met.

Liberalism’s ideal was set forth for the domain of small property; Marxism’s projection, for that of unalienated labor. Now when labor is everywhere alienated and small property no longer an anchor of freedom or security, both these philosophies can characterize modern society only negatively; neither can articulate new developments in their own terms (Introduction, xix).

And then later he writes:

It is one of great task of social studies today to describe the larger economic and political situation in terms of its meaning for inner life and the external career of the individual, and in doing this to take into account how the individual often becomes falsely conscious and blinded (Introduction, xx). 

Mills, in defiance of the common stereotype about leftists, deftly demonstrates a detailed understanding of the American political tradition.

With no feudal tradition and no bureaucratic state, the absolute individualist was exceptionally placed in this liberal society that seemed to ru itself and in which men seemed to make themselves. Individual freedom seemed the principle of social order, and in itself entailed security. A free man, not a man exploited, an independent man, not a man bound by tradition, here confronted a confronted a continent and, grappling with it, turned it into a million commodities (Old Middle Classes, pg. 12).

That pretty much sums up the American attitude towards the land – to turn it into a million commodities in the name of freedom. Politicians, particularly Republicans, like to imagine that the country is populated mostly by small-business owners. A more accurate description of these people valued immensely by both parties (though they don’t constitute the majority of working Americans), might be the “lumpen-bourgeoisie.”

The true lumpen-bourgeoisie, however, employ no workers at all: the proprietors and their family members do the work, frequently sweating themselves night and day (The Transformation of Property, pg 28).

The sacrifice made by these workers is often idealized in today’s political rhetoric. Small business owners, particularly those who toil the hardest, are lionized as the true engines of the economy. Of course, we know this isn’t true. The class consciousness of the lumpen-bourgeoisie also explains why these mythical small business owners nearly always swing to the right.

Their prestige is often considered by them to be low, in relation to those on whom their eyes are fixed – the larger, more successful entrepreneurs. And, over the last twenty years, they have felt a denial of deference in relation to workers organized in successful unions (The Transformation of Property, pg. 31). 

The above passage describes today’s political climate exactly. Out of admiration for the more successful capitalists and resentment for unionized labor, the lumpen-bourgeoisie votes for regressive social policy and unfettered capitalism. The politics of the lumpen-bourgeoisie is an aspirational one. Its members choose the policies that benefit who they hope to be, rather than who they are.

Among those smaller bourgeois, the desire for gain now seems uppermost; it becomes the focus of virtue, and as the adventurous spirit is replaced by a search for the true fix, the very norms of respectability become psychological traps and sources of guit. The calculation for gain spreads into the whole of social life, as the lumpen-bourgeois man thinks of his social universe, including the members of his family, as factors in his struggle, a struggle in which he is often as unsuccessful as he is ambitious (The Transformation of Property, pg. 33).

In chapter 3, The Rhetoric of Competition, Mills describes the illness that afflicts political rhetoric even today.

Over the last hundred years [now 150 years], the United States has ben transformed from a nation of small capitalists into a nation of hired employees; but the ideology suitable for the nation of small capitalists persists, as if that small propertied world were still a going concern. It has become the grab-brag of defenders and apologists, and so little is it  challenged that in the minds of many it seems the very latest model of reality (The Rhetoric of Competition, pg. 35).

The rhetoric of competition does not reflect political realities. But even worse, it used to give the false impression that meritocratic society exists.

For, if there is free competition and a constant coming and going of enterprises, the one who reamins established is ‘the better man’ and ‘deserves to be where he is.’ But if instead of such competition, there is a rigid line between successful entrepreneurs and the employee community, the man on top may be ‘coasting on what his father did,’ and not really be worthy of his hard-won position. Nobody talks more of free enterprise and competition and of the best man winning than the man who inherited his father’s store or farm. Thus the principle of the self-made man, and the justification of his superior position by the competitive fire through which he has come, require and in turn support the ideology of free competition. In the abstract political ranges, everyone can believe in competition; in the concrete economic case, few small entrepreneurs can afford to do so (The Rhetoric of Competition, pg. 37, emphasis mine).

In the same vein, Mills provides insight into the psychology of the kind of people who make up the Tea Party.

Yet, while he looks to government for economic aid and political comfort, the independent businessman is, at the same time, resentful of its regulations and taxation, and he has vague feelings that larger powers are using government against him (The Rhetoric of Competition, pg. 52). ‘Middle class radicalism’ in the United States has been in truth reactionary, for it could be realized and maintained only if production were kept small-scare (pg. 57).

The old “middle class radicalism” has now become fully-fledged reactionary politics, as articulated by many on the Right. And yet as much as the Right likes to insist on the justice of the free-market, it has systematically eroded the freedom of the individual.

The distribution of man’s independence, in so far as it is rooted in the ownership and control of his means of livelihood and his equality of power in the market, is thus drastically narrowed (pg. 57).

From the perspective of a business-owner or property owner:

Now unlimited freedom to do as one wishes with one’s property is at the same time freedom to do what one wishes to the freedom and security of thousands of dependent employees (pg. 58).

For the employees to reclaim their freedom from the property or business owner, they must take over the property they use to work – to seize the means of production.

…..more to come in part 2!

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