Defining Class and the Freedom of X

(Part One here.)

Followers of the sociologist Max Weber tend to say class when they’re talking about the amount of money you have and the kind of leverage it gives you; they say status when they mean your social prestige in relation to your audience; and they say party when they’re measuring how much political power you have, that is, how much built-in resistance you have to being pushed around by shits.
There are two unique things about America’s classes. One: No one who’s in any of them wants to talk about them. Two: The illusion that they are surmountable, that any American can move easily between them with a little elbow grease and can-do spirit, limits our freedom.

The latter notion is not an explicit thesis of Fussell’s book, but it is there, always, between the lines. The Uppers endeavor to protect their standing, from a threat that isn’t really there. The Middles remain hopelessly Middle, as any aspiration of upwardness is subverted by rigorous efforts to avoid the appearance of Prolism. Proles manage their inevitable dismay at being at the bottom of this pecking order by mounting a counterproductive bravado, eschewing the things (intellectualism, education) that are their only hopes for ascension from lowly circumstance. Americans are trapped by their classes, and it is why, despite the conventional wisdom about upward mobility in this country, we have less of it than other Western countries.

It is in the discussion of the X class in which this reality is most evident.

“X” people are better conceived as belonging to a category than a class because you are not born an X person… You become an X person, or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable. …What kind of people are Xs? The old-fashioned term bohemian gives some idea; so does the term the talented.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I imagine there are a lot of Shakers who fall into the X class (or category), because Xs tend to be writers and other creative types, often self-employed, including “actors, musicians, artists, …confirmed residers abroad, and the more gifted journalists, those whose by-lines intelligent readers recognize with pleasant anticipation.” Xs tend to not give a shit about a lot of the trappings that are class identifiers—they’re not house-proud, they’re not fashionistas, they’re not voracious capitalists and collectors of “stuff,” and they often have friends of every class, feeling just as much at home in a McMansion as a double-wide. Some more about Xs:

X people are independent-minded, free of anxious regard for popular shibboleths, loose in carriage and demeanor. …Since there’s no one who they think is worth impressing by mere appearance, X people tend to dress for themselves alone, which means they dress comfortably, and generally “down.”

…X people seldom eat at stated mealtimes, hunger and convenience being their only motivations for eating. Like the uppers, Xs generally eat late rather than early, and their meals tend to last a long time, what with all the prolonged comic and scandalous narrative at table.

…Regardless of the work they do, the Xs read a great deal, and they regard reading as a normal part of experience, as vital as “experience” and often more interesting. …X people have usually “been to college,” but they generally throw out unread, together with other junk mail, their college alumni magazine.
Xs are “as interested in the styles of directors as of actors.” They don’t go to church, even though “they may know a great deal about European ecclesiastical architecture and even about the niceties of fifteen centuries of liturgical usage.” They live where they like, not where they have to, and their houses are old, and understated (if not outright sloppy), and unimpressive, with the “readiest way to describe an X living room is to say that anything recommended in a sound home-furnishings magazine will not appear there,” and its floors are “either entirely bare wood or covered irregularly with thick rugs.” They have ironic décor and tumbling bookshelves and “pursue remote and uncommonplace knowledge—they may be fanatical about Serbo-Croatian prosody, geodes, or Northern French church vestments of the eleventh century.” They are highly verbal, worldly, and curious—and they couldn’t imagine being any other way. And therein lies their salvation.

Being an X person is like having much of the freedom and some of the power of a top-out-of-sight or upper-class person, but without the money. X category is a sort of unmonied aristocracy. …X people tend to make their own rules and to get away with so doing, which means that many of them are writers. …Impelled by insolence, intelligence, irony, and spirit, X people have escaped out the back doors of those theaters of class which enclose others. …It’s only as an X, detached from the constraints and anxieties of the whole class racket, that an American can enjoy something like the LIBERTY promised on the coinage.
America is designed around class. Neighborhoods, schools, social activities, politics. Even many communities’ churches are delineated by class—St. Joe’s is for the rich Catholics; St. John’s is for the poor Catholics, which everyone knows, but nobody would ever say above a whisper. The color of your color—white, blue, pink—designates your class. The university you attend. The language you use. The labels in your clothes. The car you drive. It’s all about defining yourself, but always in terms of your class.

Unless you’re an X.

And because the country is designed to group people conveniently by class, the classless Xs often feel adrift in America. We are the ones who say we’ve never quite fit in, the ones who are the odd pieces. In big cities, there are always neighborhoods that are appealing to Xs, but in the rest of the country, we tuck ourselves in wherever has the best, if not perfect, fit—and we find one another online, wondering amongst ourselves about those people who have no passion, only think in partisan win-lose terms, don’t read, don’t care, don’t feel as if their freedom is being lost.

Because it isn’t. They don’t have any freedom. They have Class.

Fussell ends with this:

The society of Xs is not large at the moment. It could be larger, for many can join who’ve not yet understood that they have received an invitation.

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