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Middle Class as Historical Category of Legitimation of the American State: its Rise and Fall in the Twentieth Century

In 2008 William Novak denounced how US history was still at odds with the European history: the weak American State was the effect of an anti-state culture and of an historiographical approach that read national history as exceptional. In the United
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   Middle Class as Historical Category of Legitimation of the American State: its Rise and Fall in the Twentieth Century. In 2008 essay The Myth of the Weak American State  , William Novak has argued that, during the Cold War, the consensus school   fashioned a national narrative explaining the exceptional path of  American history as the AmericansÕ preference for private initiative over public regulation and market over State. In order to read middle class as a historical category of legitimation of the  American state, I will first of all point out that this national narrative has fueled and has been fueled by another historical myth: the idea of the United States as a middle-class society or as a classless society. This myth clearly emerged in the preface of the 1960 Italian translation of The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), where Louis Hartz clarified that American history ascribed a peculiar meaning to the European notion of freedom:  A common sense of equality, an individualism not invalidated by the old feudal sense of class, a confidence in the opportunity that has been made here [in the US] like no other place on earth. More importantly, he argued that American freedom rested on the Òegalitarian frame of the middle-class lifeÓ since the revolutionary age and, consequently, Òthe triumphant middle class [of the Fifties] could be taken for granted.Ó  The liberal tradition of consensus school explained therefore not only why in the US the European notion of State was used in the plural states  , being replaced by terms such as  government  , administration or union  . It made also clear why the European term bourgeoisie had no place in  American vocabulary and why middle class   acquired a positive meaning that Ð unlike in Europe Ð did not imply class distinctions, but intended to turn them down. During the Cold War, middle class defined the epistemological foundation of the double-edge national narrative of classlessness and statelessness.  This narrative had such an impact on academic culture that, even when the new social history and labor history shifted the focus from consensus to conflict as the master key for reading  American history, middle class   remained an essential category for historiography. In the last quarter of Twentieth century, new generations of scholars reconstructed the making of the middle class within the social tensions opened up by industrialization, bringing to light social groups forgotten by previous literature 1 . 1  O. Zunz,  Making America Corporate 1870-1920 , Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990; B.J. Bledstein, The Culture of Professionalism. The Middle class and the Development of Higher Education in America  ,   New York, Norton & Company, 1976.   They historicized what the consensus school gave for granted. However, they read the biographies of public officials, managers, technicians and employees as exemplary of the peculiar modernizing character of American history. Especially in the organizational synthesis  , professionalism, scientific and bureaucratic ethos, work ethic and consumerism not only characterized the rise of the middle class, but also revised the relation between society and State 2 . What characterized the revisionism of the Òage of reformÓ 3  was the understanding of middle class as an historical subject that fulfilled its destiny through administrative means.  Thus, middle class   has again emerged by Òa courtesy of historianÕs afterthoughtÓ (Wiebe, The Search for Order  , 1967): not as the foundation of statelessness, but as a historical category of legitimation of the American state. It is no coincidence that, starting from the effort to Òbring the State back in,Ó scholars interrelate the history of American state with the making of middle class: by reconstructing the administrative role of intermediate institutions such as corporations and unions, universities and foundations, philanthropic orders and voluntarism, the associational synthesis (Balogh, The Associational State  , 2015) explains how the American art of government had met with the approval of middle-class groups by delivering welfare-state policy through private mechanisms. In the light of this historiographical picture, I will focus on the intellectual srcins of the  American middle class from the progressive era through the New Deal, by highlighting the way in which US social sciences placed middle class   at the core of American society and political development. I will first of all consider the University of Wisconsin scholar John Commons, because he not only framed a pragmatic approach to the study of the State: in his view Òthe State in realityÓ was no more than Òofficials in action.Ó As expert appointed in governmental commissions, Commons studied also the transformation of work process looking for a new class. 2  While Richard Hofstadter stated that progressivism was the failed attempt by the old middle class of small property owners and independent entrepreneurs to fight against trust and monopoly, Robert Wiebe has argued that progressivism conveyed the ambition of the new middle class of salaried employees to fulfill its destiny through bureaucracy. Louis Galambos, The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern American History  , in Business History Review  , 1970; Jerry Israel (ed.) Building the Organization Society  .  Essays on Associational Activities in modern America  , 1972. 3  Daniel T. Rodgers, In search of progressivism  , in Review in American History   vol. 10, no. 4, pp. 113-132  In 1908 essay Is Class Conflict in America Growing and Is It Inevitable?  ,   he pointed out not only the expanding number of white-collar workers, but also the increasing opportunities for manual  workers to become foremen or superintendents. In his opinion, the ongoing change in industry, while it Òtends toward class solidarity, offers means to circumvent it.Ó This was the case because the new division of labor offered promotions that made it possible for workers to Ògrade by easy steps all the way to the top.Ó Commons did not use the term middle class  , but classified these new groups of white- and blue-collar workers as the Ògreat third classÓ between the struggling classes of capital and labor: the ÒpublicÓ whose interests and skills would shape the officialsÕ action. His analysis was relevant because it influenced the statistician Alba Edwards Ð researcher at the Census Bureau in the Thirties Ð that distinguished between unskilled, skilled and semi-skilled  workers, depending on the training received. His study was not merely descriptive: the new classification of occupations was meant to play a prescriptive function over society on behalf of the State. Since the economic depression brought class conflict back in, society was developing not according to promotions offered by industry, but toward class solidarity. Consequently, the political aim was to split the skilled and semi-skilled labor force Ð mostly white Americans Ð from the unskilled one Ð mostly black and migrant workers Ð, by making the former the social hub of a reform policy that would embed growing segments of the working class into Ð and I quote from his 1936 essays on Composition of the NationÕs Labor Force   Ð É a large middle class, comprising the clerical group, the skilled group, the semiskilled group and the professional group. President Roosevelt popularized this political aim in September 1936, the day before Labor Day, in one of his fireside chats:  There is no cleavage between white-collar workers and manual workers [É] Tomorrow, Labor Day, symbolizes the hope of all Americans. Anyone who calls it a class holiday challenges the  whole concept of American democracy  4 . 4    As a result, the American society could no longer be represented as Òa pyramid with a large unskilled group as the base and a small professional group as the apex.Ó A.   E DWARDS , Composition of the NationÕs Labor Force  , ÇAnnals of the American  AcademyÈ, CLXXXIV, Mar. 1936, pp. 10-20.   The new ranking system of Census Bureau can therefore be read as part of an ideological involvement of the American state in the public debate that the crisis of capitalism 5  opened on the future of American democracy when confronted with class struggle and communist propaganda. It is relevant that in 1935 Lewis Corey Ð founder of the Communist Party of the United States Ð published The Crisis of the American Middle Class  , where he argued that the descent of salaried employees into the proletariat was the sign of a shift towards a political alignment between blue- and white-collar workers under Marxist symbols of class struggle. It is difficult to state whether the unionization of clerical and professional groups tended towards class solidarity. For example: while in  Middletown in Transition (1937) Robert and Helen Lynd criticized CoreyÕs argument, in the Yankee City   series (1941-1959) William Warner found evidence in the expanding number of white-collars turning to unions that, when social mobility did not operate, people tended to act as a class against the business. However, it is noteworthy that the Works Progress Administration not only implemented white-collar programs, but also financed the Department of Social Sciences of Columbia University for the translation of German monographs of Weimar sociologists, that during the Twenties had identified in white-collar workers a new middle class capable of mediating and overcoming class conflict. In light of such literature 6 , American social scientists were publicly committed to consolidate what they considered the nexus between middle class and democracy that had historically characterized the American state.  Among them, Harold Lasswell Ð scholar of propaganda and Chief of the Experimental Division for the study of War-Time Communications established by federal government at the Library of Congress Ð was convinced that Ð and I quote from his 1953 essay The Moral Vocation of the Middle-Income Skill Group  Ð the Òfuture of Marxism as the principal unifying myth may depend upon its capacity to win the middle classes.Ó In order for this not to happen, he believed that, through welfare-state policies and programs of mass communications, the skilled and semi-skilled workers, the clerical and professional groups needed to identify themselves  with a large middle class  . 5  Parsons characterized the depression as the Òmajor failure of business.Ó T. P  ARSONS , Structures and Process in Modern Societies  , 1967. 6  At the beginning of the Thirties Weimar sociology had acknowledged its political failure by denouncing the Nazi orientation of the German middle class.  In the roundtable War and Middle Class   transmitted by the National Broadcasting Company, July 18 th  1943, Lasswell discussed the fact that some American communists were predicting that the  war would crush the middle class. Against this Òfallacy,Ó he argued that the US had no middle class in a European sense, because the American middle class did not merely represent an economic condition. It was rather a Òstate of mind,Ó based on the Òmoral attitudeÓ which pushed individuals to work hard and contribute to society, and thus able to undermine the Marxist reading of society in terms of class struggle. 7   These pictures of scientific literature bring to light the hidden hands of US social sciences that, behind the scenes of government, conceptualized and popularized a peculiar notion of middle class as a large middle class of white- and blue-collar workers that legitimized the State of New Deal. What is relevant is that the American middle class did not exist ready-made in reality  8 : it can neither be taken for granted as the subject of the liberal consensus, nor be historicized as the conscious actor that built the organizational society of the progressive era or the associational pattern of the American political development. Its historical rise was instead related to the normative role that the American State played in the economic and racial, material and symbolic, struggles waged within and between classes. In other words, the skilled and semi-skilled workers, and the professional and clerical groups became middle class when the State not only gave institutional continuity to their interests and skills, but also provided them Ð as Daniel Bell argued in 1979 Ð with an Òideology,Ó namely Òsymbols of recognition and code of behavior.Ó 9   The Òmiddling classing of AmericaÓ was therefore a scientific and political project that the  American state and the policy-oriented social sciences fulfilled in order to overcome the class conflict that had being taking shape during the depression. 7  H.D. L  ASSWELL , The Problem of World-Unity: In Quest of a Myth  , ÇInternational Journal of EthicsÈ, 1/1933, p. 78; H.D. L  ASSWELL ,   The Moral Vocation of the Middle-Income Skill Group , ÇInternational Journal of EthicsÈ, 45/1935, pp. 128-129. 8  L.J.D. Wacquant,  Making Class: The Middle Class(es) in Social Theory and Social Strictures  , in Bringing Class Back In: Contemporary and Historical Perspective  , eds. S.G. McNall, R.F. Levine, R. Fantasia, 1991. 9  D. B ELL , The New Class: A Muddled Concept   (1979), in D. B ELL , The Winding Passage. Essays and Sociological Journeys 1960-1980 .
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