The human sciences in America are in a state of advanced and seemingly irreversible decay. One look at the programs for the annual meetings at which the practitioners of these disciplines gather suffices to convince one of this diagnosis. There are exceptions, of course. Here and there one finds people doing honest scholarly work, but most of them are in a position of “inner emigration” within their professions.
The agenda of the majority consists of more or less esoteric incantations of miscellaneous “progressive” dogmas. The most common incantation, indeed a sort of mantra, is “race, class, and gender,” referring to categories that supposedly describe the most important realities in human society. All of them have to do with power or lack of power. No wonder that Nietzsche is experiencing a surprising revival in these circles. No longer repudiated as a spiritual ancestor of Nazism (a charge that was quite unfair to begin with), he is now made to legitimate every variant of political correctness on the left; one can imagine his discomfort if news of this reaches him in whatever sector of the hereafter is reserved for bad philosophers.
Race, class, gender . The mantra deserves a bit of deconstruction. “Race,” as the weight of evidence from physical anthropology shows, is a political fiction, not a biological fact. As far as one knows, all human beings who have lived in historically recorded times have been of the same species, as are all human beings living today. Physical characteristics, of course, are unevenly distributed and “race” could be a convenient term to describe certain clusters of these characteristics, including skin color. To speak of a “white race” or a “black race,” however, is to proclaim a political agenda rather than a scientifically tenable description (even leaving aside the obvious fact that most “whites” are pink and most “blacks” brown). Let me observe in passing that in future I intend to devote much energy to raising the consciousness of elderly, overweight, bald males as a clearly superior “race” entitled to a much larger share of power than is presently enjoyed by its members.
“Gender” is feminist English for “sex.” The very term reveals the ideological agenda. It is a term derived from grammar, unlike “sex,” which refers to (in this instance) undeniable biological differences. Grammatical gender is freely variable. Thus the word for “sun” is feminine in German ( die Sonne ) and masculine in French ( le soleil ); these gender assignments are arbitrary and could just as well be reversed. The ideological implication, of course, is that all so-called “gender roles” are just as freely variable”men nurturing babies, women ramming bayonets into enemy bellies, and so on. Comparative anthropological studies do show that the social roles assigned to the two sexes are variable to some extent. The notion, though, that these role assignments are sovereignly free of all biological determinants is almost certainly an illusion. Like “race,” the “gender” portion of the mantra simply serves to obfuscate the realities of human social life.
We are left with “class.” And that is a concept that does indeed clarify certain social realities, though not exactly in the sense intended by those who chant the mantra.
In the old days, before the current epidemic of intellectual lunacies descended on academia, American sociologists used the term “stratification” to refer to the phenomenon of ranking in human societies. (College courses that used to have this term in their title are now commonly titled “Inequality””or, of course, “Race, Class, and Gender.”) The term is universally applicable. All human societies are ranked”that is, organized in strata”though the characteristics and the criteria of the different ranks differ considerably. Thus strata may refer to the command of economic resources (to wealth, in the broadest sense), to power, or to status”three privileges of rank that do not necessarily go together. Wealthy individuals may not be powerful, powerful ones may be quite poor, and status may be based on characteristics unrelated to either wealth or power. Also, individuals or groups are assigned to different ranks by different criteria”physical prowess in some societies, descent in many societies, allegiance to a code of conduct in yet other societies.
This is not the place to go into the complexities of what used to be called “stratification theory,” but ever since Marx gave a prominent place to “class” in his interpretation of history, there has been general agreement to use this term to refer to a system of ranking in which the command of economic resources is the prevailing criterion. Put simply, a class system is one in which, most of the time, money talks. It does not necessarily purchase power (though, if one wants power, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be rich), but it usually can purchase status, if not for oneself then for one’s children.
Marx was wrong about many things concerning class, especially about his most cherished class, the proletariat. But he was quite right in his understanding of how class triumphed in European history over earlier forms of ranking. Money did not always talk the way it has since the rise of capitalism. And class had to struggle hard against the stratification system of the ancien regime , which was based, not on money, but on descent and honor. As capitalism triumphed, these earlier criteria of rank increasingly paled in significance, naturally to the immense chagrin of those who had claims to them. This too is a complex and fascinating topic that cannot be pursued here. But one point can be made very succinctly: Class, more than any other system of ranking, frees individuals from the accident of birth.
Another old-fashioned distinction of pre-1960s sociology is useful here”that between ascription and achievement. In most human societies before the advent of modern capitalism rank was ascribed”that is, it was based on what an individual was , and not on what he did . The traditional Hindu caste system was the most perfect form of ascribed ranking: An individual’s place in the social hierarchy was fixed at birth and, at least in principle, remained immutable throughout his life (at any rate, in this life”the Hindu idea that social mobility could occur in future incarnations is, alas, beyond the scope of sociology). But birth and descent were also of crucial importance in the social orders of feudalism and the ancien regime . Here too the game was essentially fixed at birth, with only slim chances of changing the odds by means of this or that effort.
By contrast, a class system, while it does not do away with the advantages or disadvantages of birth, leaves enormously more room for achievement. An Untouchable had no chance of becoming a Brahmin, and a member of the lower feudal orders had few opportunities to make it into the aristocracy, but the poor in a class society have at least a reasonable chance of making it into the middle class and some middle-class individuals do make it into the ranks of the rich. Of all the empirically available stratification systems, class allows for the highest degree of social mobility (upward as well as downward). It is a relatively open system. This openness is not unrelated to what people, in ordinary parlance, mean by freedom.
The ideal of equality, even if it were desirable (which I, for one, am not at all sure of), is empirically unattainable. The options are between different systems of inequality. The most violent project of creating an egalitarian society, the Communist one, managed to create a grossly inegalitarian society that curiously resembled feudalism, with the party elite playing the role of the old aristocracy. By comparison both with it and with other possibilities of social hierarchy, class appears relatively benign. Its harshnesses can be softened by political means. Its openness goes well with economic development and with democratic politics. Three cheers for class? Hardly. But, in an imperfect world, two cheers would seem to be in order.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University.