Picks & Pans

Losing Reality: On Cults, Cultism and the Mindset of Political and Religious Zealotry by Robert Jay Lifton (New York: The Free Press, 2019). Lifton is a United States psychiatrist who helped to conceptualise the 1970s and 1980s debate on ‘thought totalism’ and brainwashing. This small book is a collection of Lifton’s insights on topics ranging from the Korean War and Nazi doctors to Aum Shinrikyo and President Donald Trump’s political psychology. Lifton observes that we have a ‘protean’ Self that can change and transform under existential and psychosocial pressures. A doorway to understanding the contemporary metapolitical issues in liberal democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian societies.

The Twittering Machine by Richard Seymour (London: The Indigo Press, 2019). Seymour is a United Kingdom and Marxist-influenced social critic who has previously profiled the UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, prior to his disastrous 2019 election campaign. In this polemical book, Seymour looks at the addictive psychology that underpins the ‘social [media] industry’, and its emergent phenomena such as internet celebrities and trolling. One of the side-effects of this industry is a new immersive dynamic of writing, Seymour observes. This book is a reflective primer to think more deeply about how you interact with the internet and social media in a more mindful and strategic way.

Status: Why Is It Everywhere? Why Does It Matter? by Cecilia L. Ridgeway (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2019). Ridgeway is a Stanford University professor and sociologist and her publisher the Russell Sage Foundation is a major philanthropic investor in social inequality research. In this book Ridgeway advances a cultural schema of status as a form of social inequality, and how this informs the importance of status beliefs and the microdynamics of status. Ridgeway’s cultural schema framework builds on the earlier insights of sociologist Charles Tilly and others to explain how social stratification works in the United States.

The Man Who Solved The Market: How Jim Simons Launched The Quant Revolution by Gregory Zuckerman (New York: Penguin Books, 2019). Jim Simons is a former National Security Agency-affiliated cryptographer and Stony Brook University mathematician who in 1982 founded Renaissance Technologies: the world’s most profitable quantitative hedge fund. Zuckerman’s investigative reportage provides a glimpse of Renaissance’s black box and how Simons used pattern recognition to generate record profits from the financial markets. Robert Mercer – Renaissance’s co-Chief Executive Officer – was a major donor and strategist to President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

The Gig Academy: Mapping Labor in the Neoliberal University by Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola and Daniel T. Scott (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University, 2019). In the past two decades the elite status of academic tenure has steadily been eroded in the United States and in many other countries. This book surveys what has replaced it: a ‘neoliberal university’ of more short-term and fixed term contracts, a focus on obtaining external, competitive-based research funding, and resulting social stratification. The authors trace recent developments in the academic labour market to the ‘gig economy’: labour practices adopted from Uber and similar platform capitalists.

Poisoner In Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control by Stephen Kinzer (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2019). Sidney Gottlieb (1918-1999) was a United States chemist who spearheaded the Central Intelligence Agency’s now infamous MK-Ultra research program. Kinzer fills in some gaps about Gottlieb’s life; the medical and ‘special interrogation’ projects he oversaw in MK-Ultra; and how he dealt with United States Senate and public investigations into MK-Ultra’s abuses and legacy. There is plenty of conspiratorial myth-making about what Gottlieb did and what he did (or did not) achieve: Kinzer’s investigative reportage gets closer than most to what probably happened.

Capitalism Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World by Branko Milanovic (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019). Milanovic is an influential economist and senior scholar at the City University of New York’s Stone Center on Socio-Economic Inequality. In this book he examines the political economy success of Liberal Meritocratic Capitalism; its challenger in Political Capitalism; and the implications for globalisation and the future of the capitalist economic system. An insightful and empirical data-informed analysis of the ‘hypercommercial’ world that is highly likely to emerge in the 21st century.

Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Soviet World by Ilya Yablokov (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). United States political discourse since its 2016 election outcome has been dominated by allegations of Russia’s political meddling. Less well understood is the metapolitical function of conspiracy theories in Russia itself and in post-Soviet nation-states. This book based on Yablokov’s doctoral dissertation advances some new explanations as to why and it also profiles some of the more leading and influential practitioners. For contrasting views, see Eliot Borenstein’s recent book Plots Against Russia: Conspiracy and Fantasy After Socialism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019) and Peter Pomerantsev’s This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (London: Faber & Faber, 2019).

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 Amazon.com.

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?