“It’s not what you own its what people think you own” (Ewen 183). Consumerism is fueling today’s “middle class”. Stewart Ewen’s “Chosen People” goes into detail about the rise of the materialistic middle class. As Ewen begins by describing the two contrasting perspectives of social reality. “It described factory industrialism as producing the accoutrements of a democracy, one which invites every man to enhance his own comfort and status. Equating democracy with consumption” (Ewen 187). Ewen recognizes that “Mass production, according to this outlook was investing individuals with tools of identity, marks of their personhood” (Ewen 187). One side of the perception of social reality is production. Being able to identify oneself with the help of mass production could be a way for people to deal with the identity crisis described earlier in his essay. Ewen then goes into the second perception of social reality. “For those laboring in many of the factories, however, industrial conditions systematically trampled upon their individuality and personhood” (Ewen 187).
Industrialization did not create a way for people to deal with the identity crisis in the industrial revolution; it created even bigger problems of identity. Ewen then illustrates that out of the two ways to look at the new social reality came two ways to differentiate status and class. “One way of comprehending class focused on the social relations of power which dominated and shaped the modern, industrial mode of production” (Ewen 187). The first way to comprehend class is in terms of production in which a person’s success is defined by what they do for a living. Ewen then explains the second outlook of comprehending class. “American society gave rise to a notion of class defined almost exclusively, by patterns of consumption”(Ewen 187). Ewen finally makes his point in defining the American middle class as consumer based. To further explain his point, Ewen introduces Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who go into more detail about the different ways of identifying class and status. Marx and Engels hoped that people would identify themselves and others by class position, or in other words, where they were in the objective relations of power (188).
However they recognized that Class identity was primarily dictated by images. “By the middle of the nineteenth century, the expanding market in appearances was helping to feed a notion of class defined primarily in consumptive rather than productive terms” (Ewen 189). The American middle class was destined to be defined by appearances rather than on the person’s job or productivity. Later in his essay Ewen explains that “judgment about a person is not based on what one does within a society, but rather upon what one has” (Ewen 194). Ewen then adds the perspective of Karen Halttunen who describes Europe’s “middling class” and America’s middle class to points out their differences. “the term middling class referred to the people who occupied a static social position between the extremes of peasantry and aristocracy, a position believed to offer only modest opportunities of advancement” (qtd. in Ewen 189).
Halttunen believes that the “middling class” is different from the American middle class in many ways, “in America however, middle class began to take on a new and volatile meaning, one which assumed that more and more people were engaged in a passage from a lower to a higher social status” (qtd. in Ewen 189). While Europe’s middling class was static and had little opportunity to rise or fall, Ewen uses Halttunen’s argument to explain how the American middle class were “defined as men in social motion, men of no fixed status” (qtd. in Ewen 189). Ewen describes how dependent the American middle class has become on the American dream.
In other words the dream that anyone, no matter what conditions they are born into, has the chance to “strike it rich”. Ewen explains that this dependence on the American dream was influenced by the industrial revolution. “This middle class commitment to the ideal of social mobility was fed by the expanding market in appearances that characterized nineteenth-century industrial life”(Ewen 189,190). As Ewen wraps up the correlation between the American dream and social mobility he concludes that the middle class became increasingly more obsessed with their appearance.
Ewen then presents the reader with Ira Steward, a weaver and leader in the Massachusetts movement for and eight hour workday. Steward goes into further detail of the reason that the middle class felt the need to focus so much on their appearance. “To advertise one’s self destitute, is to be without credit, that tides so many in safety- to their standing in society- over the shallow places where ready resources fail” (qtd. in Ewen 192). Ewen uses Steward to explain that “the poor man is an unsuccessful man” (qtd. in Ewen 192). In America, we are judged by what we own. Being poor not only means that the person is unsuccessful but it is almost as if that person isn’t even a citizen. Keeping up an image that looks good is almost like buying your way into citizenship and acceptance. “The more expensive and superior style of living adopted by the middle classes must therefore be considered in the light of an investment, made from the soundest considerations of expediency- considering their risks and their chances-and from motives even of self preservation, rather than the mere desire for self indulgence.” (qtd. in Ewen 192).
Ewen presents the idea that a person’s image is created as an investment. The consumer isn’t even enjoying the things that they are buying. They are simply buying things to make sure that no matter what they will not let themselves seem poor. After all “to depend on charity is an advertisement of one’s destitution and poverty that the public is very slow to forget” (qtd. in Ewen 192). Ewen, along with other scholars such as Anthony Smith believe that as time moves forward, wealth finds its ways into fewer and fewer hands. In a book review on The Super-Rich: The Unjust World of Global Capitalism by Stephen Haseler, Smith elaborates on the idea that the rich continue to accumulate wealth while the poor are left to suffer. “The rich are not just getting richer, but getting “super-rich”, while the poor are getting poorer”(qtd. in Smith 237).
The economic gap continues to get larger. Smith is therefore illustrating Ewen’s argument by stating in almost the same exact words how the gap between rich and poor is growing. In Ewen’s words it was industrialism that sparked the rapid increase in unequal distribution of wealth. . “In mid-nineteenth century America the gap between the rich and poor was widening” (Ewen 188). As industrialism grew and really boomed in the mid 1800’s, so did the difference between the rich and the poor. Ewen points out the problems of “factory capitalism” and argues that the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth between the rich and the poor was “linked to the impoverishment of those labor was being drawn into its sphere of influence” (Ewen 188). Smith believes that while the concept is easy to wrap your head around, it is likely underestimated. To explain the significance of the problem in more detail he argues “for example the 500 individuals which the UN cites as owning 50 per cent of global wealth” (Smith 237).
500 people is about the size of a graduating senior high school class which is mind boggling to think that half of the world’s wealth is in control of such a small group. Smith extends Ewen’s argument by offering a more in depth understanding of the extent in which the worlds wealth is so unequally divided. Smith does exactly what Ewen asks of his readers which is to, “look beneath the surface of things with unprejudiced eyes are painfully conscious that wealth, though year by year still on increase, goes now into fewer hands; that the results of industry are very unequally divided” (qtd. in Ewen 186). Although Smith and Ewen have similar understandings of the unequal spread of wealth Smith goes into greater depth to help the reader understand the enormous gap between the poor and the “super rich” and extends Ewen’s argument. Smith both illustrates and extends Ewen’s beliefs on the increasing gap between the very wealthy and the very poor.
While Ewen believes that growth in the middle class can only result in a bigger identity crisis and more focus on materialization, others believe that the growing middle class has had a positive impact on society. “Middle-Class African American Pilots: The Continuing Significance of Racism” by Louwanda Evans and Joe Feagin describes that the growth rate of the middle class has led to more and more African Americans gaining new ranks of social status, “African Americans were praised for achieving the American dream and lifting themselves up into the middle-class at increasing levels” (qtd. in Evans and Feagin 651). Obtaining status in the middle class is a symbol of achieving the American dream. Evans and Feagin are therefore complicating Ewen by proposing that gaining acceptance into the middle class is considered to be a great accomplishment. Ewen, on the other hand, believes that if being a part of the middle class means that, “stress and stress induced conditions are endemic; loneliness and emptiness are common in their accounts of everyday life” (Ewen 196).
On the contrary Evans and Feagin believe the expansion of the middle class to be a good thing. “Race has been declining in significance as African American professionals make great strides in levels of education and positions of power” (Evans and Feagin 651). Evans and Feagin extend and complicate Ewen’s argument by implying that because of the growing middle class, many more African Americans are finding their way towards greater opportunities in the U.S. While Ewen’s beliefs on the growth of middle class being a good thing or bad thing may be different from Evans and Feagin’s, one thing they can all agree on, is that African Americans and other cultures besides whites, have struggled for acceptance into the middle class. Ewen describes that in the past the middle class was primarily white. “Middle class identity was still limited to a white, primarily Anglo-American population. Working-class people, largely white immigrants and blacks, had little access to the goods or necessary income to make this social presentation of self possible” (Ewen 194).
Ewen concludes that African Americans have had little opportunity to enter middle class status because of the lack of access to goods and income. Likewise, Evans and Feagin actually agree with Ewen by “Carrying the burden of dealing with prejudice, racial framing, and discrimination on a recurring and consistent basis must be understood through the consequences and costs of entering employment settings that have historically been all-white” (Evans and Reagin 651). Therefor Evans and Feagin agree with Ewen that the middle class was once very white and that lately has opened up to more and more cultures and people entering the “orbit of the middle class” (Ewen 194).
However Evans and Feagin insist that the being a part of the middle class is a good thing and do not see the problems of entering the middle class that Ewen argues. Evans and Feagin thus complicate Ewen in two ways: first by presenting the idea that Ewen’s argument is over dramatized and needs to be strictly qualified. And second Evans and Feagin challenge the magnitude of the inherent problems in the middle class that Ewen bases his argument on. “Never say I’ll be right over. Don’t ever let ‘em see you sweat. It doesn’t matter how anxious you are …Never let ‘em know you’re anxious” (Ewen 196). Being a part of the middle class doesn’t mean having accomplished the “American Dream”. It means being a part of the anxiety filled, image based, materialistic population who call themselves the middle class so they don’t have to deal with the shame and hardships of being thought poor.
Evans, Louwanda, and Joe Feagin. “Middle-Class African American Pilots: The Continuing Significance of Racism.” American Behavioral Scientist, 56.5 (2012): 650-665. SMITH, ANTHONY L. “The Super-Rich: The Unjust World of Global Capitalism.”ASEAN Economic Bulletin, 18.2 (2001): 237-239. Ewen, Stuard “Chosen People. Literacies 2nd Ed. Brunk, Diamond, Perkins, Smith. W.W Norton & Company Inc. 2000. Print.