American Perceptions of Class

When, in 1906, the German sociologist Werner Sombart quipped that in America, “all socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie,” he offered a ...

When, in 1906, the German sociologist Werner Sombart quipped that in America, “all socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie,” he offered a memorable answer to a question that was much on the minds of the social scientists of his day: why is there no socialism in the United States? It’s a question that has long confounded observers of the American political scene. But lately, the question itself seems questionable. The recent electoral success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), in New York’s 14th congressional district has been cause for celebration for the left and anxiety for the right. Other openly socialist candidates, from judges and district attorneys to city council members, governors, and even a senator, garnered unprecedented shares of the vote in recent elections in Michigan, Texas, Vermont, and California.

Just last month, a Gallup poll found that just more than half (51 percent) of all Americans aged 18–29 now view socialism positively. Meanwhile, the proportion that views capitalism positively has dropped precipitously in just the past two years—from 68 percent to 45 percent. The New York Times reported in April that the DSA undergone explosive, seven-fold growth since 2010, from 5,000 to 35,000 members, while the number of local chapters has jumped from 40 to 181. The growth is driven in large part by younger Americans who, like Ocasio-Cortez, came of political age during the Great Recession, when, for the average American, roast beef and apple pie were in short supply.

So, again, why is there no socialism in the United States? Perhaps when the millennial generation comes to power, the question will no longer make much sense. But if these enthusiastic young fans of socialist democracy are ever to win big in American electoral politics, it’s going to be because they will have figured out a new way to talk about class in America. And to do that, they will need to understand some of the different ways that Americans have thought—and felt—about class. And to do that, they might want to read a neglected classic of American sociology—The American Perception of Class, by Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Cannon, just reissued as an open access title by Temple University Press and available for free download here.1 The book is a classic example of how to use sociological reasoning and methods to debunk widely held myths. In this case, the myths were about the lack of class consciousness in America, myths that can be traced back to Sombart.

Drawing in part on the Tocquevillian trope of American exceptionalism, Sombart posited that American capitalism was exceptional in the way it offered workers a relatively good deal compared to that offered workers under European capitalism. That he penned his influential thoughts at the dawning of the era we now call Fordism (so named after Henry Ford’s decision to pay his assembly-line workers enough money to actually afford the cars they built) made his insight seem especially prescient. What was exceptional about American capitalism, Sombart observed, was the way it turned workers into consumers of the very same high-value goods they produced. America became the place where a Detroit auto worker could one day own a Cadillac.


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For much of the 20th century, Sombart’s view echoed again and again through the halls of American academe. While there was wide-ranging debate about the reasons for the absence of a broad socialist movement in the United States, there was little debate about whether American workers were truly class conscious. In the eyes of most observers, they simply weren’t. By the 1960s, the dominant narrative was that American workers had eschewed class consciousness in favor of status consciousness, harboring (and often achieving) an aspirational American Dream of social mobility through higher wages and home ownership, the “roast beef and apple pie” that fed the growing consumer appetites of postwar America. The lack of a viable socialist party in mid-20th-century America was offered as prima facie evidence of the muted class consciousness of its workers.

This narrative took somewhat different forms. One story line argued that American workers consistently failed to recognize the capitalist system as the root cause of their lower social and economic status. Another story was that workers overestimated how much social mobility there is in America. Another still proposed that in leaning, as they sometimes have done, toward conservative politics, they tended to vote against their own interests. There are different morals to each story, but the common gist was that, in one way or another, American workers held a false image of the American class system, and this “false consciousness” was ultimately their undoing as a class.

Given the scholarly consensus, the 1987 publication of The American Perception of Class came as something of a shock. Many in the social sciences, particularly those affiliated with the New Left, seemed not to know what to make of the renegade ideas put forth by Vanneman and Cannon, whose central claim was simple and elegant: one should not mistake the absence of class conflict for absence of class consciousness.

To do so, Vanneman and Cannon believed, was to engage in a form of psychological reductionism, where individuals’ actions and behaviors followed logically and inexorably from their attitudes and values. Yet Americans were, they showed, acutely conscious of class divisions, and they devoted most of the book to backing this up with empirical findings from a wide array of sources, drawing upon interviews and surveys with thousands of Americans.

But if false consciousness did not explain the weakness of American unions or the absence of a viable socialist party, then what did? While Vanneman and Cannon did not offer anything like a substantive theoretical or empirical answer to this question, they hypothesized that the question could only be answered by looking at the unparalleled strength of the American capitalist class compared to that of the working class: “We believe that any attempt to understand the character of the American class struggle must focus on the exceptional character of American capitalists and on the resources that they bring to the struggle. It must also attend to the resources that workers have and to the battles they have already waged and continue to wage on a daily basis.” In short, the solution to the American puzzle of class, they reasoned, was to understand that while working-class resistance to capitalism was strong, the power of the American capitalist class in the second half of the 20th century was much stronger.

Vanneman and Cannon’s central claim was simple and elegant: one should not mistake the absence of class conflict for absence of class consciousness.

If all of this makes them sound like typical Marxists, they weren’t. They explicitly distanced themselves from Marxist social scientists like Michael Burawoy, whose views they believed did little more than blame the victims of capitalist exploitation for lacking a properly proletarian consciousness. Instead, they insisted, what was needed was critical attention to the power and strength of American capitalism as a historical variable, rather than the constant (and inevitable) source of domination that doctrinaire Marxists made it out to be. American workers, they pointed out, made some of their most important historic gains during and after the Great Depression, when American capital was at its weakest. Worker resistance looks strongest when capitalist power is at its ebb.

So why revisit Vanneman and Cannon’s book now, more than three decades after its original publication? There are two reasons. The first is that in these highly polarized political times, the book serves as a useful reminder that while class has never been perceived by Americans in the same way that it has in many other Western industrialized societies (that is, as a fundamental obstacle to equality that must be addressed through socialist politics and strong unions), Americans do perceive class divisions, and they perceive them in multidimensional terms.

Americans understand that some have authority in the workplace, and that others don’t. They understand that some workers do mental labor and others manual labor, and that the former is overvalued and the latter is undervalued. And they understand that some people work for others and some work for themselves. Moreover, they can classify the rank and prestige of American occupations pretty accurately (that is to say, they classify them the same way that social scientists do). Vanneman and Cannon demonstrate all of this empirically through a rigorous and innovative statistical analysis of results from the General Social Survey, the American National Election Study, and other comprehensive surveys and interview data, including their own.

If consciousness of class divisions among Americans was strong in the 1970s and 1980s, there are indicators that it is even stronger now. The Great Recession immiserated and bankrupted millions of lower- and middle-income Americans and spawned, among other forms of economic discontent, the Occupy movement, which began near Wall Street, in 2011. Occupy made “the one percent” a target of global unrest, focusing class-based anger and moral outrage on the sharp rise in economic inequality during what many have referred to as America’s Second Gilded Age. French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a best-selling title here in 2014, sparking further doubt about the economic fairness of the American economic system.


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The growing divide between the haves and the have-nots (or really, the have-lesses) was now headline news not just in the seldom-read pages of The Nation, but also in mainstream media like the New York Times and USA Today. Class became a frequent topic of discussion on radio and TV talk shows across the political spectrum. And the successful campaign and election of Donald Trump in 2016 was widely interpreted as an unbridled expression of class hostility and resentment, as American workers in the Rust Belt joined forces with angry Tea Party conservatives to elect a president they believed would take on and take down urban, liberal, blue-state elites, along with everything they supposedly stood for, like cosmopolitanism, higher taxes, and gun control.

The second reason to revisit Vanneman and Cannon’s book is that in the intervening decades between its 1987 publication and now, the power of American capitalism vis-à-vis American workers has grown enormously. In June 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled on the case of Janus v. AFSCME, which challenged the right of public-sector unions to collect dues from nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements. As was widely expected, the Court ruled against the unions, a decision that will deal a potentially fatal blow to one of the last strongholds of unionism in the US, as many local chapters and national unions will be unable to cover the costs of organizing and collective bargaining.

And this legal case is just the latest in a decades-long assault on working-class power, an assault that has been aided partly by technological change (e.g., automation in the workplace), partly by neoliberal globalization (e.g., massive deregulation and multilateral trade agreements such as NAFTA and the European Union), and partly by credentialism and the professionalization of occupations (e.g., the requirement of an increasingly expensive BA degree or better for higher-paying careers in the US). These macro-level forces have put more power into the hands of corporations and the ownership class by increasing the choices available to employers and limiting those available to their employees.

But to focus on these seemingly inevitable global trends is to overlook deliberate changes in American law and policy that have tilted the playing field further in favor of capitalists over workers, such as the Janus ruling. These changes have created so much uncertainty and vulnerability for the lowest ranks of American workers that the term social scientists frequently use to describe them now is not “the proletariat,” but rather “the precariat.” This condition of economic precarity, in which millions of workers face episodic or chronic underemployment in low-skill, low-status, low-wage jobs that offer zero benefits, is grossly advantageous for corporations and their shareholders, as it allows them to reduce the high, fixed costs associated with maintaining a stable, long-term workforce.

What the recent past has shown us is that Americans can possess a high degree of worker consciousness and still have no viable socialist movement.

What we have been seeing, then, in the three decades since the publication of this book, is, simultaneously, a sharp increase in class consciousness and a sharp increase in the political and economic power of the corporate ownership class. If Sombart and his legion of followers were right, then we’d have expected the opposite to have occurred: as American workers became more conscious of their objective status as an exploited class, they should give up feasting on roast beef and apple pie, and instead organize for better wages, benefits, and workers’ rights. And, as noted above, some in fact are doing that. Increasingly, however, workers find that the courthouse doors are closed to their legal efforts; that the major political parties offer no candidates who truly represent their values and needs; and that, despite their increased productivity, workers’ share of after-tax corporate profits has declined precipitously, in the range of 25–30 percent. Who can afford roast beef and apple pie on that?

Does this simultaneous increase in working-class consciousness and in capitalist-class power vindicate Vanneman and Cannon? Readers can answer for themselves, but what the recent past has shown us is that Americans can possess a high degree of worker consciousness and still have no viable socialist movement. In fact, workers’ resistance to capitalism can actually become weakened, as the declining trend in unionism and the growing power of corporate power so visibly demonstrates. This is because, as Vanneman and Cannon insist, it is not class consciousness or political ideology that in the last instance determines who wins and who loses in a given society. It is the political, economic, and legal institutions that set the rules, and in doing so, preordain the outcome. The primary role of the dominant ideology is to consecrate the winners, making them seem like the better players of the game, when in fact the game has been rigged in their favor all along.

This is not to say that Vanneman and Cannon got everything right. Reading the book today, it is remarkable how little attention is paid to the role of race and racism in the making of the American working class. Within just a few years of publication of The American Perception of Class, David Roediger published The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, an instant classic of labor history that persuasively argued that, beginning in the 1830s, the reluctance and refusal of white workers to ally themselves with their black counterparts in interracial unions doomed American worker struggle from the very start of the industrial era. Roediger’s influence has made any narrative of the struggles of American workers that does not account for the dynamics of race, racism, and class seem, at best, naive.


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If white working-class racism was a blind spot for Vanneman and Cannon, so was a related issue: the possibility that working-class consciousness in the US could, under the right conditions, be turned away from socialism and toward its dark alternative, fascism. Authoritarian demagogues have long played important roles in American political theater, and in many cases their political power rested on their ability to turn class resentment away from ruling capitalists and toward a scapegoat, typically racial minorities and recent immigrants. This kind of ideological commitment to racial or ethno-national supremacy is a regularly occurring feature of fascistic social movements. It is an ideology that justifies and legitimates the unequal treatment, social exclusion, and even genocide of those designated as ethno-racial outcasts.

Writing in 1987, Vanneman and Cannon would have been hard-pressed to foresee what would shortly come: a rising wave of white supremacist movement, one that began in 1993 with the Oklahoma City bombing and continued more or less unabated to the 2017 Unite the Right march of neofascists and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, which ended in lethal violence and mayhem. Yet consider the moment we are in now, when the president of the United States refuses to condemn his white supremacist supporters and instead equates the morals and actions of neofascists with those who protest them. There is no straightforward path from working-class consciousness to the palace of socialism. As both world history and the current moment attest, that forking path can also lead to the doorstep of fascism. We may be headed that way now, but we might also be on the path to democratic socialism. Where we end up depends on whether or not we understand the political, economic, and cultural forces arrayed against American workers.


This article was adapted from the author’s foreword to the digital reissue of The American Perception of Class, available from Temple University Press for free download here. icon

  1. This book, and other titles like it, are being made freely available through a partnership between university presses and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Open Book Program.
Featured image: American Bliss (2018). Photograph by Mark Koellmann / Unsplash