News your connection to The Boston Globe

Class fictions

In two recent novels set on elite campuses, social class is a figment of the 'neoliberal imagination.'

THE SCARIEST THING about the first day of school in two recent novels-Curtis Sittenfeld's ''Prep" and Tom Wolfe's ''I am Charlotte Simmons"-is finding out what the other girls are wearing (the answer at both schools is flip flops and shorts). But the hardest thing is surviving the moment when your family meets your new roommate's family. Wolfe's Charlotte is relieved when she sees the flip flops and the shorts, since she's wearing shorts, too; Sittenfeld's Lee is horrified, since she's wearing ''a long dress with peach and lavender flowers and a lace collar."

But Charlotte's advantage disappears when it comes to the families since, although Lee is ''embarrassed" by her father, Charlotte is ''mortified" by hers. What embarrasses Lee is that her father responds, ''No sir, I'm in the mattress business" to her roommate's father who, having heard they're from South Bend, says, ''I take it you teach at Notre Dame."

''I was embarrassed that my father called Dede's father sir," Lee says, ''embarrassed by his job, and embarrassed by our rusted white Datsun."

Charlotte's mortification trumps Lee's embarrassment on every count, from the car-since her Daddy drives a rusted out pickup truck with a fiberglass camper top-to the job: He doesn't actually have one. ''Used to be I operated a last-cutting machine over't the Thom McAn factory in Sparta," he says, ''but Thom McAn, they relocated to Mexico. ''Now," he tells them, ''I take care' -keer -'of a house some summer people got over't Roaring Gap."

Charlotte is at her college (something like Duke) on a scholarship, and Lee is also on scholarship at her prep school-modeled on Groton, where Sittenfeld herself went (and where Charlotte's roommate is supposed to have gone). And the meaning of all the embarrassment is more social than personal. Anybody can be embarrassed by her parents, but these girls are embarrassed by their parents' class-by the fact that (at Groton and Duke if not in the world), everybody else is rich, or at least, richer.

''American writers," Lionel Trilling wrote in ''The Liberal Imagination" (1950), ''have a kind of resistance to looking closely at society," and by society he meant ''class" and, in particular, ''the meeting and conflict of diverse social classes." Writing at a moment when liberalism seemed to him so dominant that there were ''no conservative or reactionary ideas in circulation," Trilling identified liberalism's triumph with the refusal of American writers to acknowledge that class could still make a difference in any individual life.

Of course, it was ''American writers of genius" (Faulkner, Dos Passos, etc.) that Trilling was interested in and, while the verdict is still out on the 30-something Curtis Sittenfeld, it's pretty clear that the 70-something Tom Wolfe hasn't made it. But they do get credit for attempting to imagine an America in which the fact that some people have more money than others matters.

It isn't, however, her actual poverty that makes college life hard for Charlotte; what drives Charlotte and Wolfe crazy is the ''condescension," the way all the students who went to Groton and whose parents never got laid off by Thom McAn and who know exactly what to wear and what attitudes to have-"the liberal elite," as Wolfe would have it-make Charlotte feel as if they are better than she is. And this isn't just Tom Wolfe's issue. The equivalent in ''Prep" is being identified as ''LMC," Lower Middle Class.

So the problem in both these novels is class privilege. And the solution: Poor people shouldn't be made to feel inferior, either in novels or in life. In a recent real world application, The Harvard Crimson is unhappy about a new service, called Dormaid, that offers to clean students' rooms for $85 (neither Charlotte nor Lee could afford the service). The ''obvious display of wealth," the Crimson objected last March, ''will establish a perceived, if unspoken, barrier between students of different economic means" and thus compromise the ''egalitarian nature of dorm life."

''There are both rich people and poor people at Harvard," the Crimson (and ''Prep" and ''I am Charlotte Simmons") tells us, and keeping maids out of the dorms will eliminate what the Crimson calls the ''unneeded distinctions between the rich and the poor."

And yet, it's only in the most literal sense that there are rich people and poor people at Harvard. There are, in reality, very few poor people at Harvard or, for that matter, at any of the 146 colleges that count as ''selective": 3 percent of the students in these institutions come from where Charlotte Simmons is supposed to come from, the lowest socioeconomic quarter of American society, while 74 percent come from the highest, according to a 2003 report published by the Century Foundation. And from this standpoint, we can see that the point of objecting to conspicuous displays of wealth at school is not so much to avoid offending the poor people at Harvard as it is to pretend that there are meaningful numbers of poor people at Harvard to be offended.

Indeed, that's what the attraction of these novels is all about-the work they do is not in exposing the injustices of class difference at Groton and Duke but in imagining that there are class differences at Groton and Duke.

Schools loom larger in the neoliberal imagination than they did in the liberal imagination because where the old liberalism was interested in mitigating the inequalities produced by the free market, neoliberalism-with its complete faith in the beneficence of the free market-is interested instead in justifying them. And our schools have a crucial role to play in this. They have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty, or, to put the point the other way around, they have become our primary mechanism for convincing rich people that we deserve our wealth.

Everybody gets that people who graduate from elite schools have a sizeable economic advantage over people who don't; that's one reason why people want to go to them. And as long as the elite schools are themselves open to anybody who's smart enough and/or hard-working enough to get into them, we see no injustice in reaping the benefits. It's OK if schools are technologies for producing inequality as long as they are also technologies for justifying it.

But the justification will only work if, as the Crimson hopefully imagines, there really are significant class differences at Harvard. If there really aren't-if it's your wealth (or your family's wealth) that makes it possible for you to go to an elite school in the first place-then, of course, the real source of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can't just buy your way into Harvard.

Naturally, novels about scholarship students make only a minor contribution to convincing us that the students in elite colleges are there because they deserve to be. Affirmative action-designed to convince all the white kids that they didn't get in just because they were white-plays a somewhat bigger role (hence the passionate support for it among upper-middle-class white students: Every black face they see on campus makes them feel better about themselves).

But, of course, the biggest role of all is played by the intense competition among the rich kids to get into the most prestigious of the elite schools. No moment in ''Prep" is more believable than when the bad behavior of a senior is explained by the fact that he's bitter ''because he's going to Trinity" instead of to one of his top choices. But while it no doubt matters to your self-esteem if you go to one of the really prestigious elite schools instead of to one of the not-so-prestigious ones, it doesn't much matter to your economic position.

The difference, in other words, between the people who go to Trinity and the ones who go to Harvard is a difference in status, not class. And if status, as the sociologist Richard Sennett says in ''Respect in a World of Inequality" (2003), ''usually refers to where a person stands in a social hierarchy," it's crucially not reducible to where a person stands economically. In fact, the inequalities of status presume a certain equality of wealth. If we can't imagine that we competed on a level playing field, how can we take any pleasure in winning?

The imaginative world of neoliberalism, then, is a world where it's OK for a few people to be rich and a lot of people to be poor but where it's definitely not OK to make anyone feel bad about being poor. As Lee's mom says, ''being rich doesn't make you a better person." Indeed the very thing wrong with the liberal elite-the thing, at least, that right-wing neoliberals like Wolfe are always taking them to task for-is that they think being rich does make them better people, or at least that being better people is what made them rich.

On this model, then, class is turned into clique and, once the advantages of class are redescribed as the advantages of status, we get the recipe for what we might call right-wing egalitarianism: Respect the poor. Which is also, as it turns out, the recipe for left-wing egalitarianism.

If in 1950 Trilling thought there were no conservatives or reactionaries, we might say today that there are only conservatives and reactionaries. Where the neoliberal right likes status instead of class, the neoliberal ''left" likes cultural identity, and its version of ''respect the poor" is ''respect the Other." That's why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management technology in about 10 minutes.

Today, what Trilling called ''diverse social classes" has turned into what we just call diversity. And diversity gives us what we might call the fantasy of a left politics-a politics defined by its opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia and hence by the idea that what we should do with difference is not eliminate it but appreciate it.

Classism is the key here because classism is the pseudo-problem that brings left and right, conservatives and reactionaries together, and it's why otherwise utterly anodyne texts like ''Prep" and ''I am Charlotte Simmons" have a certain interest. Classism is what you're a victim of not because you're poor but because people aren't nice to you because you're poor.

For neoliberals, in other words, it's prejudice not poverty that counts as the problem, and if, at the heart of the liberal imagination, as Trilling understood it, was the desire not to have to think about class difference, at the heart of the neoliberal imagination is the desire not to have to get rid of class difference.

Almost always it takes the form of insisting that class doesn't matter, that, ''In America," as New York Times columnist David Brooks, anticipating Charlotte's mom, once wrote, ''Nobody is better, nobody is worse." Of course it might be objected that, when it comes to being healthier, safer, freer, and happier, being rich does indeed make you better and that a more just society would imagine a more just distribution of money, health, safety, and freedom. But the politics of the neoliberal imagination involve respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty.

Walter Benn Michaels is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His most recent book is ''The Shape of the Signifier: American Writing from 1967 to the End of History," and he is currently completing a book on how American liberalism has learned to love inequality. A longer version of this essay appears in the new issue of the journal n + 1.

illustration of girl holding books
Classism is the pseudo-problem that brings left and right together: It's prejudice not poverty itself that counts. (Illustration by Tim Lane)
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives