Rediscovered: C. Wright Mills’ 1951 book “White Collar – The American Middle Classes”

by Hannes Antonschmidt*

If he could look into the faces of work commuters on public trains of Western cities today, C. Wright Mills would be quickly convinced of the continuing relevance of his 1951 book, “White Collar – The American Middle Classes“.

The core thesis of his work is that the ongoing mechanization and automation of the factory halls has caused the same unpleasant symptoms that had become normality at the assembly lines. Estrangement from the product and oneself, demotivation and a sharp spatial and emotional split of work and leisure, according to Mills, no longer only hit the proletariat but increasingly also the “white collar” employees.

In postwar America his book caused mixed reactions. Criticism, however, was mainly directed to the rigidity of his conclusions with its harsh and sometimes dark views and prospects. Mills’ general analysis was largely appreciated. The New Republic said the book “offers an absorbing though somewhat bitter picture of the new white-collar middle-class personality”, while the New York Times even lifted it to the level of a seminal publication “that persons of every level of the white collar pyramid should read and ponder.”

Let me first summarise Mills’ argument, before relating it to today’s situation.

Mills regards the US farm crisis of the 1920s as the starting point of the rise of the new, mass middle classes. Mills writes that it was the farm crisis that lead to a market consolidation and concentration which, in turn, made the former independent farmers and their sons and daughters, no longer able to find employment on their farms, available for the labour market. Instead of operating as autonomous market actors in the free interplay of supply and demand, they were absorbed by the expanding administrative apparatus of the new main influencers of America’s economic fortune: the increasingly powerful big industries and central government. (Chapter 2 “The Transformation of Property”/Chapter 4 “The New Middle Class, I”)

Mills’ argument was that, additionally fuelled through this new supply of labour, the trend towards bureaucratization, mechanization and professionalization then began to reach the whole middle class. The old traditional middle class professions, such as doctors and lawyers, were commercialized, the independent entrepreneur became an anachronism, the free intellectual dies out. Instead, a management stratum arose within the corporations, which, completely removed from the production process, manipulatively steers the army of small employees while having to obey the nervous orders of their capital investors. (Chapter 5 “The Managerial Demiurge”/Chapter 6 “Old professions and New Skills”)

Accordingly, the common daily routine of this new middle class, according to Mills, consisted of two parts: The working part, dominated by superficial, calculating friendliness, a striving for power and money and an increasing loss of the meaning of technical abilities, on the one hand; and the leisure part that allowed for a temporary escape in an unreachable glamour world, on the other. This short-term fulfilment of the personal craving for recognition which Mills called a “status cycle”(1969, p.257), for example on holidays, gained further importance, as the previous status bases (higher education and training, income, or origin) noticeably lost their exclusivity, as the new middle class became a mass stratum. (Chapter 10 “Work”/Chapter 11 “The Status Panic”)
Those who, driven by “status panic” (Mills 1969, p.240) wanted to keep their sinecures were compelled to take the path of agility and sell themselves on the personality market. The self-reliable entrepreneurial personality was thereby replaced by the well-trained hierarchy climber, who, on his way to the corporate Olympus, has to assert himself or herself against an army of likeminded careerists. (Chapter 8 “The Great Salesroom”)

Opportunism also shaped the process of politicization of the new middle class. Mills saw unions and parties as becoming polluted to become instruments for gaining the biggest share within the distributive struggle of the political economy. Systematic change was hindered because the members of the new stratum would always attach themselves to any political stream that just possessed the most power within the prevalent political order. (Chapter 15 “The Politics of the Rearguard”).

It is astonishing that Mills 60 years ago recognized trends and phenomena that do not only shape the lives of members of the middle class today, but also significantly influence political decisions in industrial democracies in the ‘west’.

This political dimension can be demonstrated by reference to a very adequate example of recent public sector reform in Europe: The Bologna Process, a university reform agreed upon by then 30 European countries in 1999 that established the so called European Higher Education Area (EHEA) (Benelux Bologna Secretariat 2009). Its aims, to harmonize European degrees, while at the same time increasing graduates’ mobility and labour market readiness, implied a change of the role of universities which are now expected “to equip students with the knowledge, skills and competences that they need in the workplace and that employers require” (Working Group on Employability 2009, p. 5). Higher education institutions are seen as “partners [of politics and economy] in a joint venture that will create a good future” (Fejes 2008, p.525). Key player in this process is the (newly constructed) European academic citizen characterized in political planning as autonomous, flexible and mobile (ibid.).

The commercialization and its influence on graduate’s personalities were also two major findings of Mills’ analysis of the American university sector of the 1950s. His dark discovery that “high schools, as well as colleges and universities, have been reshaped for the personnel needs of business and government” (Mills 1969, p.266) is by the same time a complaint against a nation that has become a “great salesroom” (Mills 1969, p. 161). Mills finds the finished product of the educational machine to be “the successful man” (ibid.), a good employee within the “society of specialists” (ibid.), yet no “good citizen” (ibid.).

“Little Man, What Now?” – Hans Fallada’s famous appeal is only rudimentarily addressed by Mills. The upheaval, the revolution must come – but what should it look like, who can start it, what comes after it – the Texan professor abandons the reader alone with these important questions. Considering that many trends Mills describes have neither slowed down, nor attenuated, in the past 60 years, we must pose additional questions: Was this course of history simply inevitable fortune? Was it the result of an (implicit) agreement? Or did people just fail to realize and discern the underlying processes? The latter seems rather unrealistic if one recognizes the apparentness with which the European Union can pursue goals that caused Mills’ outcry in his days. A third explanation might be that postmodernism has (with few exceptions) made even academics apathetic enough simply not to mind what is going on with themselves.

Especially in this respect, Mills’ book remains enormously relevant, since his relentless look behind the scenes sheds light on the constituting processes of everyday life and provokes a consciousness for reality that has become a scarce social good in modern mass society.

References

Benelux Bologna Secretariat. 2009. Bologna beyond 2010 – Report on the development of the European Higher Education Area. Background Paper for the Bologna Follow-up Group Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Ministerial Conference, 28-29 April 2009. [online]. Available from: http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/Irina/Bologna%20beyond%202010.pdf [Accessed: 29 March 2014].

Fejes, A. 2008. European Citizens under Construction: The Bologna process analysed from a governmentality perspective. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 40(4): pp. 515-530.

Mills, C. Wright 1969. White Collar. The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press

Working Group on Employability. 2009. Report to Ministers, Bologna Conference. Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve 28-29 April 2009. [online]. Available from: http://www.ehea.info/Uploads/LEUVEN/2009_employability_WG_report.pdf [Accessed: 28 March 2014].

– – –

Hannes Antonschmidt (h.antonschmidt@dwif.de) received his Bachelor (Honours) in Business Management with minor Politics and Administration from the University of Potsdam, Germany, before moving to Scotland where he graduated in Management Accounting at the University of Abertay Dundee in 2011.

He was enlightened when he rather accidentally found an old edition of Ralf Dahrendorf’s “Homo Sociologicus” that first led to a passion for sociology in general and later for C. Wright Mills in particular. Sociological thinking as a great way to reflect on economic phenomena also inspires his work as a consultant at the German Economic Institute for Tourism in Berlin.

 


Categories: C. Wright Mills

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *