Adventures With Class Status



Paul Fussell wrote Class (New York: Summit Books, 1983) as an early 1980s satire on the American status system. The book covers Fussell’s nine classes (p. 27) and their behavioural manifestations in personal appearance, housing, consumption, intellectual interests, and speech. Although some of Fussell’s insights are dated this book is filled with behavioural gems that can be eye-opening and, at times, painful to read.

Fussell’s nine clases have three main layers. In the first, the Top Out-of-Sight would now be called the 1%. The Upper and Upper Middle are visible via conspicuous consumption. In the second, the Middle is anxious not to slide into the lower middle class, which Fussell calls High Proletarian, Mid-proletarian, and Low proletarian. In the third, the Destitute and Bottom Out-of-Sight rely on welfare or institutions.

Fussell defines each of the nine classes in terms of specific emotional signatures. Class for Fussell is about more than income: it is a life orientation to aesthetics, style, taste, and modes of social presentation. The Top Out-of-Sight “lives on inherited capital entirely” (p. 29). The Upper class has benefited over the past three decades from financialisation. The Upper Middle “suffers from a bourgeois sense of shame, a conviction that to live on the earnings of others, even forebears, is not quite nice” (p. 33). The Middle Class has “earnestness and psychic insecurity” (p. 39) and “a salesman’s style” (p. 43). The High Proletarians “are in bondage–to monetary policy, rip-off advertising, crazes and delusions, mass low culture, fast foods, consumer schlock” (p. 44).

Class evokes the early 1980s in several sections. Fussell quotes sociologists and management advisers who mentor in the behavioural strategies of Upper Middle class looks. “Upper-middle clothes . . . lean to the soft, textured, woolly, nubby” (p. 60). Ostentatious cuff links are Prole (p. 65). TVs and technology are either Middle Class or Prole (p. 92). The New Yorker displayed in a city apartment is the Middle Class girl’s aspiration to be Upper Middle Class (pp. 102, 146). Proles stick to the known on restaurant menus (p. 106). Tourism and luxury defines Middle Class: it’s what the cruise ship industry is built on (p. 109). Fussell spends an entire section on mail catalogues and collectibles aimed at the Middle Class and High Proles (pp. 117-127). You could apply the same logic today to Jeff Bezos’ empire at

Fussell — who was a Professor of English Literature at Pennsylvania — spends a chapter on the higher education sector. His major concern is the distinction between elite universities, and institutions given university status that are really religious or teaching colleges. What Fussell identified has become part of the bubble dynamics (#16I) of student debt in the United States and other Western nations. It is likely to continue with the increased competition in the higher education sector, and the emergence of free online options.

Many historical books on class deal with aspirational social climbing. Fussell focuses a chapter instead on two dynamics: social sinking and Prole Drift (pp. 171-173). Social sinking is the drive to lower your social status and to adopt the behavioural strategies of lower classes. Prole Drift is Fussell’s massification of society in the media, bookstores, newspapers, and television. These concerns foreshadowed the recent debates on income inequality.

The major escape route from Fussell’s nine classes is a category: X. “You become an X person,” Fussell notes, “or, to put it more bluntly, you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery in which curiosity and originality are indispensable” (p. 179). X people are aesthetes, inner-driven, parodists, and personal stylists. They may know several languages; study personal topics; and play with social status conventions.

Reading Class gave me several days of testing my reality tunnel. I did an inventory of my household, clothing, belongings, and media consumption. I thought about my PhD and employer universities, and their class-based differences. I studied Fussell’s class based-indicators in my neighbourhood, whilst commuting, and at a business-university awards dinner. I reflected on familial influences. 30 years later, large parts of Class still hold up. Who will write a contemporary update?