Driving after Class: Anxious Times in an American Suburb / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Driving after Class
Anxious Times In An American Suburb
By Rachel Heiman
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Introduction: Common Sense in Anxious Times
A paradoxical situation emerged in the late 1990s: the dramatic upscaling of the suburban American dream, even as the possibilities for achieving and maintaining it diminished. This book explores middle-class anxieties and suburban life during those years. It was the "dot.com boom," and the media overflowed with unbridled enthusiasm for the state of the economy, with only sparse attention paid to those who were feeling the downside of its effects, financial or otherwise. And yet, contradictory conditions of middle-class life could be seen everywhere: in suburban towns, as countless new subdivisions of ever-larger homes sprouted up while municipalities struggled to maintain their infrastructure; in people's jobs, as wages increased and stock options proliferated but job security became ever more fleeting; in aspirations for children's futures, as expectations for achievement intensified while public resources for education diminished; on credit-card statements, as credit lines expanded but were matched by new "had to have" consumer items and once-considered luxuries that had somehow become "needs"; in retirement and college funds, as balances grew dramatically on paper but were increasingly vulnerable in a volatile market. A decade later, the economy would head into a tailspin and the media would start to unpack why the middle class had come to be less secure in the late 1990s than at any time since the Great Depression. But during the 1990s, before the extraordinary amount of public discussion about the "squeeze" on the middle class, people's anxieties about transformations under way were largely dismissed amid celebrations of the generous benefits of the booming economy.
In a time before a settled narrative emerges to explain disconcerting changes in people's lives, what becomes of the anxieties produced out of this disorientation? Where do these anxieties play out in the intimacies of everyday life and the intricacies of public debate? How do they intersect with other enduring fears, hopes, and aspirations? What effects do they have on people's subjectivities, their families, and their communities? What might children and youth be learning by coming of age during a time of major class transformation? How will their new habits of everyday life shape the political-economic future and the future (or lack thereof) of a commitment to the social good? Moreover, since ways of being classed change in different historical moments, might we be able to see the friction of old and new ways of being middle class as they rub up against each other?
To explore these questions, I conducted ethnographic research in a suburban New Jersey town in the late 1990s among families who were experiencing firsthand the uneven and shifting structural conditions undergirding middle-class life and who were living in a town that embodies late-twentieth-century changes to the postwar American dream. Danboro (a pseudonym) had been a farming community until the mid-1960s, when suburbanization began with the arrival of white- flight émigrés from the outer boroughs of New York City, particularly Brooklyn. The families who flooded the town in the late 1970s and early 1980s moved to Danboro from working-class and lower-middle-class urban neighborhoods to get their piece of the suburban American dream. They were doing so, however, just as the glory days of middle-class security were coming to a close and "keeping up with the Joneses" was transforming into "keeping up with the Dow Jones." The changing architectural and infrastructural landscape of the town over the years since they first moved in provided a powerful iconic expression of the shift. The houses built in the subdivisions of the 1960s and 1970s were moderately sized (by American standards) colonial-style homes, the size and style of which signified the suburban American dream in the early post-Fordist period. During the late 1980s, a few developments of larger colonial-style homes were built. But in the late 1990s, the architectural landscape of the town began to change profoundly. Huge homes, which some disdainfully refer to as "McMansions," were built adjacent to older subdivisions. These new houses dwarfed their neighbors and produced jarring juxtapositions. When compounded with increasing concerns about overcrowding and limited public resources—whether in regard to never-ending traffic, overflowing public schools, or diminishing open space—these architectural shifts provoked anxieties and aroused uncertainties about fiscal and discursive boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in the imagined future of the town and of the middle class itself. Like gentrification in urban areas, changes in the grandeur of suburban housing reflect a transformation of the class makeup of a town and reveal shifts in the larger class structure and the structuring of people's social locations.
To understand the manifestation of class anxieties in the intimate spaces and quotidian moments of family life and the ways they shape public discourse and municipal governance, I moved to the Danboro area in the fall of 1997. Drawing on the tools of ethnography, my research mined the habits, practices, and sentiments of everyday life for insights into the cultural politics of class in the late 1990s. Over the course of two years, I conducted participant observation and interviews in sites of public and private life, including people's homes, their town hall, and even their sport-utility vehicles. I spent time with several families and worked as an "ethnographic babysitter" to have particularly focused time in the everyday life of one family. The ethnographic sites, spaces, and situations in which I spent my days and nights included family dinners and gatherings, shopping trips to the mall and the local strip malls, workouts at the gym where stay-at-home moms gathered after kids went to school, drives around town and through neighboring areas, TV- watching parties and Nintendo-playing hangouts, after-school activities, pre-prom parties, and a host of other ordinary aspects of suburban life. I also spent many evenings at public meetings in the town and the school district of which Danboro High School is a part, including those of the zoning board of adjustment, town council, planning board, and board of education.
During my research I found that even as middle-class stability continued to be undermined by neoliberal policies, people's sense of entitlement to the privileges and accoutrements of the middle classes was nevertheless amplified. Anxieties emerging from these conditions played out in a nervous and somewhat aggressive struggle for the appearance and feeling of class security, rather than coalitional efforts to address structural conditions threatening middle- class life. Each chapter of the book depicts how people were trying to create for themselves "a little security in an insecure world," to borrow a tag line from a Chevy Blazer advertisement during the late 1990s. Hence I use the phrase rugged entitlement to capture this structure of feeling, which I witnessed in the town. The central argument of the book is that rugged entitlement-a product of neoliberalism and its limited commitment to the public good- participated in furthering conditions that intensified middle-class anxieties in the first place. This ironic state of affairs-whereby habits, practices, and purchases that temporarily appease class insecurities end up making people feel and be less secure-is what the book vividly illustrates.
Each chapter draws attention to a variety of vehicles that paved the way for the development of the sensibility of rugged entitlement. As families struggled to reorient themselves to the changing material conditions undergirding middle-class life, the ways that they were doing so produced the kinds of class-encoded habits, desires, and practices that entrench neoliberal logics: hyperconsumption and overspending that benefit corporate capital; spatial strategies that further segregation along race, class, and age lines; and privatized solutions that divert a politics of demand on the state. The economics and cultural politics of rugged entitlement, however, ended up steering many Danboro children, youth, and parents into ambivalence about the structuring and texture of their everyday lives: it is exhausting work to be strategically and persistently driving after class. But more often than not, unable to imagine the possibility of crafting another way of life, most curbed these unsettling doubts and resolutely fueled up for the ride.
A ROBUST U.S. MIDDLE CLASS: NO LONGER NEEDED AND NECESSARY?
Being middle class is inherently unsettling. As Barbara Ehrenreich has noted, "Whether the middle class looks down towards the realm of the less, or up towards the realm of more, there is the fear, always, of falling." Yet in different historical moments, middle-class security can vary significantly, depending not only on the global economy and the United States' dominance within it, but also on how the state uses its power to manage and regulate capital accumulation among the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class. To put it crudely, the late 1990s was a time when the U.S. bourgeoisie no longer needed the U.S. middle class to the same extent that it had before, not unlike its decreased dependence on the U.S. working class. To better appreciate the circumstances of those years, I offer here a brief (and thus necessarily simplified) historical sketch of key moments in the development and decline of the U.S. middle class. It is a story not only of the rise and fall of the bourgeoisie's need for U.S. middle-class workers, consumers, and citizens, but also of a state that has, more often than not, aligned with bourgeois interests.
There has been a middle class in the United States since the late colonial period, whose members ranged from small producers, artisans, farmers, and shopkeepers to doctors, lawyers, clergy, and teachers to small-scale wholesalers, importers, managers, and salesmen. These "middling sorts" were doing significant work for the capitalist system, but their numbers were relatively small, as was their political strength. It was not until the Progressive Era that the fortification of the middle class took place through the growth of the professional managerial sector. The great expansion of production under late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century monopoly capital required not only more workers for factories, more consumers for goods, and new forms of expertise in industrial engineering, but also experts to manage (and create) the "new" American worker, consumer, and citizen. The expanding workforce was heavily composed of new immigrants in a time of growing labor unrest and escalating anxieties about the possibility of socialist revolution. The role of the "middlemen" (i.e., those who not only made production more efficient but could produce hegemonic formations to contain unrest, such as Henry Ford's educators who "Americanized" his workers) became crucial, and so a portion of surplus capital went to fund the growth not only of the sciences, but also of the social sciences and social-engineering reform projects. The crucial need for these forms of expertise enabled the middle class to benefit and to grow. Yet they toiled on terms set by the bourgeoisie, and since they did not own the means of production, they were not of capital, and many "possessed a class outlook which was distinct from, and often antagonistic to, that of the capitalist class." At the same time, the nature of the work of the middle class—particularly those who were psychologists, social workers, and other "helping" professionals and reform experts—placed them in an often directly antagonistic and paternalistic relationship with the working class. This small but growing middle-class workforce thus emerged in an unstable and uncomfortable position of being in-between. Anxieties about securing a place for themselves fueled the expansion of this type of work, over time providing more solid ground for the class itself.
The post-World War II period was the next key moment in which the middle class proved essential for resolving the conflicts and contradictions of capital accumulation. The Great Depression had tempered economic growth (and the growth of the middle class), but its unmatched severity gave rise to new forms of regulation and state-sponsored entitlements. The New Deal, combined with the wartime economy and the donation of federally funded wartime inventions and manufacturing processes to private companies, set the stage for the postwar period to be extremely lucrative for the U.S. bourgeoisie. Yet the postwar period also was an extremely anxious time. As veterans returned from war, a housing and employment crisis ensued, and ideological contention over the threat of communism escalated. It was a do-or-die moment for the future of American capitalism. The solution was a form of redistribution known as Keynesianism, enacted most notably through government funding, backing, and infrastructural support of expanded educational and small- business opportunities and mass home ownership in the form of suburban housing. Financed and administered through a variety of bills (e.g., G.I. Bill, Federal Highway Act, National Defense Education Act) and agencies (e.g., Veterans Administration, Federal Housing Administration, Home Owners' Loan Corporation), these efforts sparked spectacular job growth in related industries, including "white collar" work to manage the production and circulation of commodities created through new manufacturing capabilities, ranging from cars to real estate to home goods. In turn, a vast new consumer demand for those goods was created out of the new "needs" of those workers, as they became home owners and car drivers. Yet there was a segregationist logic written into the building of the suburbs in the postwar period through the federal government's recommendation that federally backed housing loans not be granted for neighborhoods or towns with people of color. As declared in the Federal Housing Administration's Underwriting Manual, "If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes." So while the wealth created in the immediate postwar period was brought within reach of a newly flourishing middle class, enabled the class to grow, created new routes of class mobility through giving more Americans a piece of the pie, and tempered another moment of potential political-economic unrest, it also ripened the conditions for the civil rights and feminist movements to follow.
Equally as significant as the material achievements of Keynesianism was the ideological entrenchment of equating being in the middle class with success and with being American. By the 1950s, a good portion of white (and soon-to-be white) Americans had begun to view themselves as members of the middle class. They earned decent wages, owned homes with yards, bought the latest consumer goods, drove around in cars, sent their kids off to college, and saw their lives reflected in the mass culture of the time. Middle-class suburban life came to represent what it meant to be an American. This new version of the American dream took hold, no longer a rags-to-riches story but rather class mobility that hinged on the accoutrements of the postwar middle-class ideal. It was an ideological realization of the Keynesian dream of a "revolutionary American capitalism" that would get rid of economic inequality through eliminating the working class and replacing capitalists with middle-class managers. Even though that material reality was not realized, and the policies and cultural politics undergirding suburban growth directly undermined cities and attempts by people of color to acquire asset wealth through home ownership, the myth that "everyone is middle class" was one its lasting legacies, as those who "made it" started to feel secure in their class positioning.
Excerpted from Driving after Class by Rachel Heiman. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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