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Two Cheers for Class

Peter L. Berger

The human sciences in America are in a state of advanced and seemingly irreversible decay. One look
at the programs for the annual meetings at which the practitioners of these disciplines gather suffices
to convince one of this diagnosis. There are exceptions, of course. Here and there one finds people
doing honest scholarly work, but most of them are in a position of “inner emigration” within their
professions.

The agenda of the majority consists of more or less esoteric incantations of miscellaneous
“progressive” dogmas. The most common incantation, indeed a sort of mantra, is “race, class, and
gender,” referring to categories that supposedly describe the most important realities in human society.
All of them have to do with power or lack of power. No wonder that Nietzsche is experiencing a
surprising revival in these circles. No longer repudiated as a spiritual ancestor of Nazism (a charge that
was quite unfair to begin with), he is now made to legitimate every variant of political correctness on
the left; one can imagine his discomfort if news of this reaches him in whatever sector of the hereafter
is reserved for bad philosophers.

Race, class, gender. The mantra deserves a bit of deconstruction. “Race,” as the weight of evidence
from physical anthropology shows, is a political fiction, not a biological fact. As far as one knows, all
human beings who have lived in historically recorded times have been of the same species, as are all
human beings living today. Physical characteristics, of course, are unevenly distributed and “race”
could be a convenient term to describe certain clusters of these characteristics, including skin color. To
speak of a “white race” or a “black race,” however, is to proclaim a political agenda rather than a
scientifically tenable description (even leaving aside the obvious fact that most “whites” are pink and
most “blacks” brown). Let me observe in passing that in future I intend to devote much energy to
raising the consciousness of elderly, overweight, bald males as a clearly superior “race” entitled to a
much larger share of power than is presently enjoyed by its members.

“Gender” is feminist English for “sex.” The very term reveals the ideological agenda. It is a term
derived from grammar, unlike “sex,” which refers to (in this instance) undeniable biological
differences. Grammatical gender is freely variable. Thus the word for “sun” is feminine in German
(die Sonne) and masculine in French (le soleil); these gender assignments are arbitrary and could just
as well be reversed. The ideological implication, of course, is that all so-called “gender roles” are just
as freely variable—men nurturing babies, women ramming bayonets into enemy bellies, and so on.
Comparative anthropological studies do show that the social roles assigned to the two sexes are
variable to some extent. The notion, though, that these role assignments are sovereignly free of all
biological determinants is almost certainly an illusion. Like “race,” the “gender” portion of the mantra
simply serves to obfuscate the realities of human social life.

We are left with “class.” And that is a concept that does indeed clarify certain social realities, though
not exactly in the sense intended by those who chant the mantra.

In the old days, before the current epidemic of intellectual lunacies descended on academia, American
sociologists used the term “stratification” to refer to the phenomenon of ranking in human societies.
(College courses that used to have this term in their title are now commonly titled “Inequality”—or, of
course, “Race, Class, and Gender.”) The term is universally applicable. All human societies are ranked
—that is, organized in strata—though the characteristics and the criteria of the different ranks differ
considerably. Thus strata may refer to the command of economic resources (to wealth, in the broadest
sense), to power, or to status—three privileges of rank that do not necessarily go together. Wealthy
individuals may not be powerful, powerful ones may be quite poor, and status may be based on
characteristics unrelated to either wealth or power. Also, individuals or groups are assigned to
different ranks by different criteria—physical prowess in some societies, descent in many societies,
allegiance to a code of conduct in yet other societies.
This is not the place to go into the complexities of what used to be called “stratification theory,” but
ever since Marx gave a prominent place to “class” in his interpretation of history, there has been
general agreement to use this term to refer to a system of ranking in which the command of economic
resources is the prevailing criterion. Put simply, a class system is one in which, most of the time,
money talks. It does not necessarily purchase power (though, if one wants power, it certainly doesn't
hurt to be rich), but it usually can purchase status, if not for oneself then for one's children.

Marx was wrong about many things concerning class, especially about his most cherished class, the
proletariat. But he was quite right in his understanding of how class triumphed in European history
over earlier forms of ranking. Money did not always talk the way it has since the rise of capitalism.
And class had to struggle hard against the stratification system of the ancien regime, which was based,
not on money, but on descent and honor. As capitalism triumphed, these earlier criteria of rank
increasingly paled in significance, naturally to the immense chagrin of those who had claims to them.
This too is a complex and fascinating topic that cannot be pursued here. But one point can be made
very succinctly: Class, more than any other system of ranking, frees individuals from the accident of
birth.

Another old-fashioned distinction of pre-1960s sociology is useful here—that between ascription and
achievement. In most human societies before the advent of modern capitalism rank was ascribed—that
is, it was based on what an individual was, and not on what he did. The traditional Hindu caste system
was the most perfect form of ascribed ranking: An individual's place in the social hierarchy was fixed
at birth and, at least in principle, remained immutable throughout his life (at any rate, in this life—the
Hindu idea that social mobility could occur in future incarnations is, alas, beyond the scope of
sociology). But birth and descent were also of crucial importance in the social orders of feudalism and
the ancien regime. Here too the game was essentially fixed at birth, with only slim chances of
changing the odds by means of this or that effort.

By contrast, a class system, while it does not do away with the advantages or disadvantages of birth,
leaves enormously more room for achievement. An Untouchable had no chance of becoming a
Brahmin, and a member of the lower feudal orders had few opportunities to make it into the
aristocracy, but the poor in a class society have at least a reasonable chance of making it into the
middle class and some middle-class individuals do make it into the ranks of the rich. Of all the
empirically available stratification systems, class allows for the highest degree of social mobility
(upward as well as downward). It is a relatively open system. This openness is not unrelated to what
people, in ordinary parlance, mean by freedom.

The ideal of equality, even if it were desirable (which I, for one, am not at all sure of), is empirically
unattainable. The options are between different systems of inequality. The most violent project of
creating an egalitarian society, the Communist one, managed to create a grossly inegalitarian society
that curiously resembled feudalism, with the party elite playing the role of the old aristocracy. By
comparison both with it and with other possibilities of social hierarchy, class appears relatively
benign. Its harshnesses can be softened by political means. Its openness goes well with economic
development and with democratic politics. Three cheers for class? Hardly. But, in an imperfect world,
two cheers would seem to be in order.