Marx’s Theories on Social Class Applied to Modern-Day Brooklyn

The dust covered books, mostly by Marx, that where on the shelves is what my first encounter was in researching the concept of class. Social Class, being a taboo subject in American society, offers little account of how involved the separation and struggle is between classes. It affects our everyday lives, our past and our futures. Marx set the foundations upon which we define and understand class. In his work, Manifesto of the Communist Party, he claims the history of all society is the “history of class struggles,” {Massey, 159}.

Marx’s theories can be loosely applied to modern American society today; the differences are in the emergence of the dominant middle class. For Marx “class is quintessentially a relationship of exploitation and conflict,” {Katz, 9}. What happens when that conflict is hidden even deeper than it was in Marx’s time?

Marx; Dead or Alive?
Marx’s theories focused on the class struggle between the “bourgeoisie and the proletariat”{Massey, 159}. Modern society and economics have created many mutations and variations of these two class brackets. The attempts to clearly define what class means today have been few and far between and often lack the passion to which Marx held his theories. This is why his theories have sustained the impact they made more than a hundred years ago.

“Means of production” were the defining lines of class for Marx where two groups, the owners and those who sold their labor power, made their living, {G&D, 170}. In this class separation existed a struggle where the proletariats were exploited by the bourgeoisie. Both classes worked towards profit, but only the owners, or the bourgeoisie, reaped of its rewards. The proletariats suffered long hours, low pay and increasing alienation as the upper class bourgeoisie profited from the fruits of their labor.

The bourgeoisie developed out of another group called the burghers. The burghers were a class of men that “traveled freely” conducting trade and planting the seeds of capitalism, {}. This bourgeoisie class built industry and spread a capitalist wildfire to the west. As Marx put it, “The discovery of America opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie,”{Massey, 160}. For Marx this spread would increase the rising separation between the two classes. There was no way for him to predict this accurately, as America generated its own class lines.

Marx was right in predicting that the rich would grow richer and the poor get poorer, but a varying middle class has blurred the lines of class separation. The changing times have taken away, as well as added to Marx’s theories of class. The single line between bourgeoisie and proletariat is now a latter we can either climb up or fall down. People are relatively “much better off” in today’s economic climate, {G&D, 171}. Just as the laws of Marx’s time cushioned the rich and sustained the poor, the laws of today offer more opportunity for both classes. Even though Marx’s enemy was the capitalist, “ownership means something very different under feudalism as opposed to under capitalism,” {}. Capitalism has run rapid across the world, but acts of democracy have controlled it, along with allowing opportunity to more sectors of society.

Choice of a New Generation:
This is a slow progress of course, and the United States has proven to be “more unequal than most other industrial countries,” {G & D, 173}. Even though this inequality has reached new heights in the United States, the opportunity to climb the latter of class status prevails. This opportunity lies within society having more choices. Choices of work, education and where to live are abundant. People are capable of sliding between classes of different status. Class separation can exist even between a parent and child. These may be rare exceptions, but ‘adds a bar to the graphs,’ as a friend of mine would say.

As globalization spreads, along with more nations enacting democratic governments, the middle class internationalizes. The tastes and attributes of upper and lower class diversify. Hybrids of the American class structure are developing as it gives and receives influence from around the world. Author Paul Fussell’s, “Category X” best exemplifies the choices made by this mutated class structure, {Fussell}.

American Class:
“Class is not just a matter of finance,” but a matter of taste, leisure time and attitude, {Fussell}. Within American society, class differences spread between six different categories. This is the latter of opportunity that is a discouraging climb from bottom up with many glass ceilings to break through.

At the top is the upper class, where “the top one half of the 1 percent hold over one-fourth of the nation’s total private wealth,” {Massey, 244}. The upper class is still largely what Marx would call the Bourgeoisie. The middle class consists of the majority of the population having an upper-middle and lower-middle level. It mostly consists of white – collar workers and professionals in respected fields. Marx’s proletarians still thrive in the working class or the blue – collar workers. Just below the poverty line is the lower class, a destitute population struggling with welfare and homelessness.

The sixth category is Fussell’s, Category X, which influenced author Douglas Coupland to coin the phrase ‘Generation X.’ Along with the baby-boomers, Category X has acquired the tastes and ideas of the upper class, while they are financially classified as middle or even lower class. An abundance of choices and accessibility to information has allowed this chameleon category to emerge. Class can no longer be judged simply, elements of appearance, style, income, wealth, education, and lifestyles cross boundaries.

Class in the United States is closely rated by an individual’s risk of poverty. The higher the risk, the lower the class. This risk becomes greater for more Americans as the issue of class stagnates as a taboo subject and is often avoided by Americans. Class has become a quiet contest in which we fulfill our self – actualization needs by claiming a place in society.

The Ignorance of Class
The American media reinforces this risk by creating a “strong sense of we-ness in their audience,” {Massey, 172}. The media speaks to its audience as one class, a middle class that consists of everyone. They glorify the upper class telling stories of rises to fame and fortune. At the same time they cast shadows on the poor as misguided victims of their own demise. The middle and upper class population continually avoid addressing the fact that drastic class differences exist in this country. Our political leaders remind us that there is no such thing as class or they make empty promises to strive towards a classless society.

The American middle class sees “poverty as personal failures,” but only if it is not a risk to them personally, {Massey, 246}. Those living in the lower class have a sense of poverty and of the risk as many barely get by every year. I myself have been cushioned by a middle class family and have never felt at risk. Class was never an issue discussed, yet third world poverty and important subjects were always discussed openly. The educated middle classes tend to overlook the destitute in their own front yards. Having been raised in New York City in the 1980s, signs of poverty were everywhere and so I was not totally unaware of a class separation. Even amongst the obvious differences between class groups, it was a topic of taboo in my, and most of my middle class friends’ surroundings.

It was while living in other areas of the country, in plush suburban middle – America, where I noticed class was completely ignored by everyone. There are so many blurred lines of class separation no one can judge where their place is on the latter. Most everyone, and they are asked rarely, claims to be middle class. Most people who would be considered middle class are “highly class sensitive, even class -scared to death,” {Fussell, 5}. It is hard to tell if the middle class is on their way up or being held down the class latter.

The middle class does not feel the everyday struggle of being on the brink of poverty. People worry about their credit card bills and mortgage payments at worst. They are ignorant in that most don’t even realize the struggle those less fortunate undertake. The ‘less fortunate’ are as mentioned before the personal failures and victims of their own demise. How can it be that millions of people, “one out of every seven people,” are less fortunate and just victims of bad luck, {Massey, 246}?

Brooklyn Class Project:
Bad luck runs through Brooklyn as much as the wealth does in several affluent communities. Brooklyn is diverse in many ways, including the social class structure. The two extremes of class can be seen on any one street at the same time, and of all the New York boroughs has the widest variety of classes intermingling. The class struggle is highly evident and people do not have the choice to overlook it, yet most people intentionally still do. This intermingling of the classes is not on a personal level, and the interaction is only in passing.

Living in the Midwood area of Brooklyn, class separation can be seen by the block on a walk to the Brooklyn College campus. “When people are free, they interact in many unplanned and unforeseen ways,” {}. Class separation has no boundaries in how people interact together, only in how you are rated in status. The separation creates boundaries and hinders people from interacting beyond the surface level. This interaction may only be an upper class person paying the cashier, who is of lower class status, at the corner store.

Social Class distinctions influence where and how people interact with each other. In Midwood, for instance, the upper middle class people rarely utilize the grocers and restaurants that operate on the closest major avenue; Coney Island Avenue. The middle classes will go out of their way to shop and eat in more upper class neighborhoods such as Prospect Park and Cobble Hill. Other factors contribute to this such as ethnic differences in diet, but it still has the taste of class differences. If the local restaurants boasted five star reviews and catered $30 a plate meals, the middle classes would consider it exotic cuisine.

It is common in abandoned industrial areas of Brooklyn to revitalize the neighborhoods with trendy restaurants and shops. The lower class residents are driven away to make room for pricey real estate that plays off the novelty of abandoned industry. This heightens the class struggle and makes a clear distinction that class status is often just a price tag. This follows a continuing class war in New York as upper class wealth sweeps up the poverty-stricken streets, pushing the people into more condensed neighborhoods with worsening conditions. Within this class war, the middle class sits idle on the sidelines buying into the trends set by the upper class and ignoring a lower class left out in the cold on welfare lines.

Unemployment rates in Brooklyn have dropped significantly in the past 4 years, from 102,000 people in 1997 to 65,000 in 2001, {}. Yet even as more jobs are created and offered to help those on welfare, these jobs are often “fraught with insult and stress,” {Ehrenreich, 224}.

According to the US 2000 Census, most residences in Midwood are one and two family houses or multi family houses, {}. It is mostly middle class families and even some who would consider them selves’ upper class. On some streets are the manicured gardens and lawns, with the shiny new cars parked in the driveways. The next street up can present a completely different picture, with houses in need or obvious repair and tell tale signs of lower class living compared to their neighbors around the corner.

This separation exists across the street from one another. The dividing line of Avenue H, puts middle class housing on streets with prestigious titles such as Westminster Road, Rugby Road and Argyle Road. Directly across Avenue H, the same streets are named differently only numbered by 12th, 13th and 14th Street. The distinct lines of class are literally separated right across the street. There are very limited amounts of interaction between these classes, as much of it is either forced or unavoidable. People will go out of there way to avoid the class conflict, yet living so close to one another makes it almost impossible.

Class distinctions can be seen in the way people dress, their demeanor and the cars they drive (or don’t drive), among even more subtle aspects. Dress is often the most obvious identifying mark of class and is reinforced constantly by what can be called shoe stereotypes. Fashion experts have influenced through magazines and other media how people judge one another by the shoes they wear. Especially riding the subways, you can notice people’s judgmental gazes as they survey the shoes that supposedly say so much about our personalities and positions in social class. Fashion and the accessories we carry can effectively reflect who we are, at least in light of where we identify others and ourselves in social class.

Yet this is still a boundary that is crossed, as are many other socially identifying class distinctions of the past. Ethnicity and creed are often used by some to identify class status, but like most distinctions of class are just assumed. These assumptions are backed by stereotypes that are continually reinforced and hold new meaning culturally and socially. Living in Midwood, class separation is not easily seen just by ethnicity, as it is a diverse area where many varieties of people interact within different classes.

Racially the neighborhood is mixed, about 35% white and 39% black, the remainder being Hispanic and Asian, {}. Religious communities hold a presence, with a mosque, a synagogue, and a Mormon church all within a 6-block radius. For the most part income, education and wealth distinguish the class separations in Midwood. Even these categories of income, wealth and education, crossover from one another or cancel out of the distinction of class case by case.

People in Midwood, as well as across the US who were born into wealthy families and given all the opportunities in education and occupation sometimes waste it away. Whatever their means of decline were, they end up in a lower class bracket, some even into poverty. Others have climbed the class latter, through attainment of education, or even by illegally dealing drugs, to reach high levels of income that place them in the upper class spending arena.

The lines of class have been blurred beyond recognition from Marx’s time. Even though the bourgeoisie and proletariat classes still exist, the middle class is a dominant presence of the Twentieth century. It is the middle class that keeps Marx’s theories in the past, but he respectively laid the foundations for what Weber and modern sociologists used as groundwork to further to study.

Class is mostly an issue of money, as in how much wealth and income you obtain and how you spend it. As wealth is held and redistributed amongst the upper class, one can’t help but wonder how that affects the drastic levels of poverty in the US. Can Poverty be looked at as the greed and excesses of a few elite, upper class groups? Is the middle class a solution to the bourgeoisie – proletariat gap or just the cloak of capitalism further escalating the bourgeoisie?

These are not just rhetorical questions. Researching Social class has raised more questions than answers and applying Marx’s theories is out dated and simplified in comparison to the complex social structure of the World today. Paul Fussell’s book has helped many to identify with his Category X, and the displacement many have enacted to avoid being categorized by class. Still, this has just created more mutations of the structure, which recalls that “since we are boundâÂ?¦to have class in any case, why not learn as much as we can about it,” {Fussell, 147}.

Works Cited:

Massey, pg. 159 – Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company

Katz, 9 – From Feudalism to Capitalism: Marxian Theories of Class Struggle and Social Change, by Claudio Katz, Greenwood Publishing, 1989.

Massey, pg. 159 – Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company.

G & D, pg. 170 – Introduction to Sociology, by Anthony Giddens and Mitchell Duneier, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company. –

Massey, pg. 160 – Manifesto of the Communist Party, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company

G&D, pg. 171 – Introduction to Sociology, by Anthony Giddens and Mitchell Duneier, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company.

G & D, pg. 173 – Introduction to Sociology, by Anthony Giddens and Mitchell Duneier, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company.

Fussell, pg 9. – Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, Touchstone Books, 1992

Massey, pg. 244 – Imagine a Country, by Holly Sklar, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company.

Massey, 172 – Media Magic: Making Class Invisible, by Gregory Mantsios, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company.

Fussell, pg. 5 – Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, Touchstone Books, 1992

Massey, pg. 246 – Imagine a Country, by Holly Sklar, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company. – –

Ehrenreich, pg. 224 – Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, Readings for Sociology, Garth Massey, 2000 W.W. Norton and Company. – –

Fussell, pg. 147 – Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, by Paul Fussell, Touchstone Books, 1992

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