From International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.3, Fall 1959, pp.122-123.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The Status Seekers
by Vance Packard
David McKay Company, Inc., New York. 376 pp. $4.50
“A number of influential voices have been advising us that whatever social classes we ever had are now indeed withering away. We are being told that the people of our country have achieved unparalleled equality ... Such a notion unfortunately rests upon a notable lack of perception of the true situation that is developing. Class lines in several areas of our national life appear to be hardening. And status straining has intensified.”
With this opening theme Vance Packard undertakes in The Status Seekers to probe class reality in American society. Although lacking in class-struggle perceptions, the book is nevertheless valuable for its factual analysis of present-day class relations and class trends. On the whole it packs a wallop similar to The Hidden Persuaders in which the same author examined devious advertising techniques used to manipulate public opinion to ruling-class advantage.
Among various economic changes affecting the class structure of society, three factors examined by Packard are particularly revealing. “A trend toward large, bureaucratic organizations,” i.e., the growth of monopoly capitalism. Shrinkage in the scope of small business, in the number of self-employed. And throughout industry the breaking down of jobs into narrow, simple specialties at lower-skilled wage rates.
With his productive role fragmentized and impersonalized a worker tends to become bored on the job, losing any basis for pride of initiative or creativity. In this situation he also has little aspiration. “And it is not because he is lazy. He is just realistic.” The only visible way left for him to advance in the world is “by acquiring material possessions.”
But a worker does not move up into another social class just by being able to buy a limousine, either by cash or installment.
“In terms of his productive role in society — in contrast to his consuming role—class lines in America are becoming more rigid, rather than withering away.”
Among middle-class people, divided by the author into a “semi-upper” class and a “limited-success” class, social climbing runs rampant. Several chapters are devoted to forms of status seeking in general practice. Snob appeal prevails in planning the home, impels the shopper toward prestige stores and brings submission to oppressive social manipulation of community life.
Concern with status prerogatives on the job is illustrated by the case of a Ford executive:
“As his position improved, his office grew larger, his name went on the door, he received a rug for the floor and a spot in the indoor garage. Then came keys to the executive washrooms ...”
Status striving exerts a price in human happiness going beyond the worry of trying to live above one’s income. Friends are sought or discarded according to their usefulness in gaining higher status rather than for the warmth they may bring into one’s life. Acceptance or exclusion hinges even more brutally on questions of “differentness” in color, national origin, or religion.
“Members of minority groups who have managed to succeed financially ... seek to move out from the blighted, over-crowded central areas where their people have been confined.”
However their new neighbors “make no distinction between these successful, well-educated people, who by all socio-economic standards are their own kind of people, and the masses who have the same foreign-sounding names or dark skins ...” To give another example:
“In the past, the Jews have survived by being able, in many cases, to prosper in their own enterprises. This assured them they would not be at the mercy of a prejudiced Gentile employer ... Now, however, many Jews face the economic necessity of working within the hierarchy of the large corporations ... And it is the rare large corporation that considers Jews on their qualifications alone in filling all its ranks. Some corporations shun Jews almost entirely.”
Prejudice and social snobbery have given impetus to the exclusive private school as an educational medium. It is coming to loom “larger than the family coat of arms” in determining whether a young person is acceptable in upper circles. The private school, of course, remains democratic: “You can’t tell a millionaire’s son from a billionaire’s.”
In a chapter on religion Packard puts church membership at more than 104 million. He examines the reasons why about two-thirds of the nation’s Catholics are in the lower class and touches briefly on the special attention paid to organized labor by the church hierarchy. A contrast is drawn between the tendency of upper-class churches to generate a feeling the social system is pretty fine just as it is, and the policy of lower-class religions to offer consolation for failure.
Inability of the latter preachment to allay social unrest is suggested by the remark:
“As you get near the bottom of the social scale, there is an abrupt rise in a disorder called anomie—feeling isolated, loosely attached to the world, and convinced that things are tough all over.”
Politically, a similar state of mind finds its reflection in the “frustration-boredom” factor conditioning voting trends. Analysis of election returns indicates a significant yearning for a political housecleaning and new faces. A tendency is growing “to vote against the party that has been in control of the Administration, faces being equal. And the longer the party has been in power, the more compelling this urge becomes.
Last updated: 21.1.2006