The New York Times has begun a three part series on “Class in America” with a discussion of income mobility. The big news, that income mobility has declined in recent years, was discussed by Paul Krugman last December in The Nation. It is good to see the Times picking up on this story, but it is disappointing that it conflates class with consumption practices.
Because the cost of consumer goods has been steadily driven down, the average worker today can enjoy all kinds of consumer goods that were not available fifty or a hundred years ago. Liberals (in the classical sense of the word) like this definition because it makes it possible to argue that inequality doesn’t matter. After all, who cares if a few people have gotten super-rich, when the poorest members of our society can afford a CD player, if not an iPod?
In fact, there are a surprising number of people in America who have to choose between putting food on the table and getting the cheapest CD player you can buy in Chinatown. But the argument for the importance of looking at inequality does not depend on such depravation. I wrote the following in my blog last February:
As Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen argues, it doesn’t matter if the total bundle of goods received by the poorest is getting larger if, at the same time, social inequality is increasing. That is to say, it is harder to function as a poor person in a rich society than in a poor one, even if you have more material possessions. An argument borne out by the fact of lower life expectancies amongst poor and minority populations in industrialized nations when compared with materially poorer populations in developing nations.
Sen’s point is different from that made by Brad DeLong, who conflates power with prestige.
To the extent that goods are valued not for the services they provide by themselves but as indices of exclusivity, it is pointless to produce them for more people because then they become less exclusive and so less valuable.
Exclusivity is not why the underprivileged of the industrialized world live shorter lives than those who can purchase a much smaller bundle of goods and services in the developing world. The difference is power. (What Sen confusingly refers to as “freedom.”) Power means control over your own life. Risk management is one way to talk about such control. Daniel Davies discusses a
project that has been going on since the Thatcher-Reagan years; the attempt to load risks on to the working class which have historically been borne by the owner class
Much of the conservative agenda is precisely about shifting the burden of risk on to those members of society who are least able to handle that burden: bankruptcy reform and privatizing social security are two prime examples.
At the heart of Marx’s contribution to social theory is his effort to shift the study of economic behavior from the arena of exchange relations and consumption to the social relations of production, where power relations matter most. At the same time, he showed that the very structure of capitalist exchange serves to obscure the social relations of production:
Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange.
Marx drew upon contemporary anthropological theory in terming this “commodity fetishism.” Unfortunately, today’s anthropologists seem to be increasingly fetishizing the commodity. There are lots of reasons for this, studies of consumption offer a useful way to explore how local cultures are affected by the processes of globalization. Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia is a wonderful example of such scholarship. Studies of consumption are also popular with students. However, I worry about this growing emphasis on consumption, especially as such studies can obscure the very nature of social inequality which is about much more than what we can consume.