If Everyone Is Broke, Is There Still A Class System?

Will The Great Recession dissolve our system of symbols and affluence and remake America into a classless society? Nah, not only would that be boring, but it’s impossible. A river with less water is still a river. Speaking of conspicuous consumption and water, here’s what Paul Fussel, snarky author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, says about cruise ships:

The middle is the class that makes cruise ships a profitable enterprise, for it fancies that the upper-middle class is to be mixed with on them, without realizing that that class is either peering at the minarets of Istanbul or hiding out in a valley in Nepal, or staying home in Old Lyme, Connecticut, playing backgammon and reading Town and Country. Tourism is popular with the middle class because it allows them to “buy the feeling,” as C. Wright Mills says, “if only for a short time, of higher status.” And as he points out, both cruise (or resort) staffs and their clientele cooperate in playing out the charade that really quite an upper-middle-class (or even upper class) operation is going forward: lots of ‘served meals,’ white napery, ‘sparkling wine,’ mock caviar. If you’ll notice how often, in tourist advertising, the term luxury appears (as well as the word gourmet), you’ll see what I mean.

Witness the latest Carnival Cruise ads which feature a schlub in cruise-ship supplied tracksuit pranking around the floating prison…

…while two years ago, judging by the ads, cruise ships were for horny singles or families of ecstatics. New tagline: “Fun for all, all for fun.” Translation: we’re letting in the riffraff and that means you!

Class reacts to economic crisis like magnets of the same polarity, it adjusts automatically.The only to do to is adjust. Cruises move down-market and “having it all” becomes being able to buy a big-screen at Wal-Mart and watch Netflix with the whole family. The affectations of affluence don’t disappear when the money does, they simply get redefined.

Or, as one Metafilter commenter put it, “Did you all realize that even thinking about buying a Toyota Prius makes you noticeably more smug?”

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