Prole Drift

by Paul Fussell

26 July 2004

[Chapter 8, "Climbing and Sinking, and Prole Drift" from Class, (Ballantine, 1984)]

The difficulty of changing class deters the millions trying to ascend as little as the thousands trying to sink, and it would be sad to calculate the energy wasted in both pursuits. "Strainers" rather than "climbers" is the name the sociologist August B. Hollingshead gives those who try to move upward without in any way making it. Among the strainers, we can gather, are the clients of Rozanne Weissman, a Washington, D.C., status therapist, who instructs the ambitious there in the technique of social climbing. She advises aspirants to get their names into local gossip columns with the expectation that invitations to embassy parties will ensue. That is pitiable, embassy parties being close to the very social bottom. Outright lying is sometimes useful, if only temporarily, to the class climber. One janitor says: "When you meet somebody at a party they ask, 'What do you do?' I bullshit them. I tell 'em anything....'I'm a CPA.'"

Some of the most assiduous class climbers are university professors. C. Wright Mills has their number: "Men can achieve position in this field," he perceives, "although they are recruited from the lower-middle class, a milieu not remarkable for grace of mind, flexibility or breadth of culture, or scope of imagination. The profession thus includes many persons who have experienced a definite rise in class and status position, and who in making the climb are more have acquired 'the intellectual than the social graces.' It also includes people of 'typically plebeian cultural interests outside the field of specialization, and a generally philistine style of life.'" Thus the deep instinct of the professor to go bowling, although another part of him will tug upward, dragging him toward costly summers among persons of inherited money at the most solid resorts.

The mail-order catalogs we've looked at do a lot of business with middle-class people who aspire to rise but whose circumstances enable them to do so only in fantasy. By buying items like a T-shirt reading "Preppy Drinking Shirt," the middles can persuade themselves that they're sending up their own upper-middle tradition rather than hankering after a status they're never really going to achieve. (The actual audience for this Preppy Drinking Shirt is all too plainly indicated by such other items offered in the same catalog as a musical dustpan, which, when deployed, plays "Born Free"; and "The World's Smallest Harmonica.") Fantasist class climbers are well served by anothr mail-order firm which offers a nine-by-twelve-foot wallpaper panel, a photographic mural in deep, rich browns, depicting a doorway with adjoining bookcases in an upper-class library: the floors are parquet, the cabinetwork hardwood, the books bound in leather, and there's lots of molding around the impressive, wide double doorway. You stick this up on your middle-class wall -- "Goes on like wallpaper" -- and every time you view it, especially if you squint your eyes a bit or are slightly drunk, you can imagine your class rising gratifyingly.

If social climbing, whether in actuality or in fantasy, is well understood, social sinking is not, although there's more of it going on than most people notice. Male homosexuals and lesbians, respectively, exemplify these two opposite maneuvers. Ambitious male homosexuals, at least in fantasy, aspire to rise, and from humble origins to ascend to the ownership of antique businesses, art galleries, and hair salons. The object is to end by frequenting the Great. They learn to affect elegant telephone voices and gravitate instinctively toward "style" and the grand. Lesbians, on the contrary, like to sink, dropping from middle-class status to become taxi drivers, police officers, and construction workers. The ultimate male-homosexual social dream is to sit at an elegant dinner table, complete with flowers and doilies and finger bowls, surrounded by rich, successful, superbly suited and gowned, witty, and cleverly immoral people. The ultimate lesbian social dream is to pack it in at some matey lunch counter with the heftier proles, wearing work clothes and doing a lot of shouting and kidding.

Like lesbians, men of letters sometimes display an inordinate desire to sink in class. There's T.E. Lawrence entering the RAF as a ranker and Norman Mailer allying himself with the murderous prole Jack Henry Abbott. Are they motivated by guilt over the advantages their classy educations have given them? Drinking too much is a standard mechanism for class sinking, as a glance at the Bowery will confirm, and since authors traditionally are drinkers, we'd expect many to solicit a drop in class by that means. Writers and the sophisticated also try to sink by affecting the garb of the prole classes, like Ivy students who wear house-painters' overalls or join communes. Or they will dress like the low-status young, becoming what Leslie Fiedler has called "teenage impersonators." But the idea is seldom to sink just one class. To sink successfully, if you are upper-middle or middle, you have to sink deep. But as few sink successfully as rise credibly. No matter how much effort you expend, if your language doesn't give you away, your grammar will, or your taste in clothes or cars or ideas. The upper-class person caught slumming is as worthy of the scorn of the proles for not dropping his g's as the prole among the upper classes betrayed by revealing that he has no idea how to eat an artichoke. Of course, much social sinking is not at all intentional. Inflation, unemployment, a static economy, and lowered productivity have made all too apparent what Paul Blumberg calls "the Europeanization of the American class system," which means "a more rigid structure and greater inequality." After decades of moving up, "the mass of Americans now find themselves...bumped down." There used to be room at the top. Now, says Blumberg, "there...seems ominously to be ample room at the bottom."

In a melancholy sense, the whole society could be said to be engaged in a process of class sinking. Prole Drift, we can call it, a term that will suggest the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized. Prole drift seems an inevitable attendant of mass production, mass selling, mass communication, and mass education, and some of its symptoms are best-seller lists, films that must appeal to virtually everyone (except the intelligent, sensitive, and subtle), shopping malls, and hte lemming flight to the intellectual and cultural emptiness of the Sun Belt. Prole drift is another term for what Blumberg calls the Howard Johnsonization of America. "The characteristic of the hour," says Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930), "is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace and to impose them wherever it will." As a result of this process, the wine of life, as Donald Barthelme notes, turns into Gatorade, a redaction for a later time of Ezra Pound's earlier observation that the pianola is rapidly replacing Sappho's barbitos. Prole drift is what they're all talking about.

Evidence of prole drift is everywhere. Look at magazines and newspapers. Serious historical students of prole drift would find significant the disappearance during the 1940s of the table of contents from the front cover of The Atlantic and its replacement by a "picture." Why did this happen? A close critic could infer only that the former audience for language was dying off or going blind with senility and not at all being reconstituted in the old way by the newly educated. More evidence of prole drift is to be found by looking at newspaper features. The anthropologist Marcello Truzzi, examining this country's newspapers in 1972, found that while twenty years earlier only about 100 of the 1,750 daily papers carried astrological columns, now 1,200 did. Or look at the ads in The New Republic, formerly a magazine whose audience was thought, even by advertisers, to consist of liberals, skeptics, atheists, intellectuals, and programmatic nay-sayers. Here's an ad that appeared in 1982:



Past Present Future


3 Questions -- $10

"High Degree of Accuracy."


Another ad aimed at the "new" New Republic readers assumes that, presumably because they've passed through an American high school, they are incompetent at simple arithmetical procedures. For them, an indispensable crutch, a


TIPPER'S TABLE. Wallet-size card for figuring 15% tips. $1.00 Rithmetics, Box 720, Tillamook, OR


The drift of the New York Times audience prolewards assumed by advertisers there is to be gauged from a recent expensive quarter-page ad. This was getting off an "American Eagle Commemorative Belt Buckle," in silver plate, depicting an eagle against a mountain background, the sort of artifact normally appealing only to a shabby dude cowboy or adolescent youth. "These buckles," said the ad, "will be minted in a strictly limited edition" and for one year only, "after which time the dies will be permanently destroyed." This will easily be recognized as the sort of con that formerly would have found its audience among the readers of Popular Mechanics, naturally susceptible to the come-on of "collectibles." Now it is addressed, and we must imagine with considerable effectiveness, business being business, to an audience of brokers, foundation executives, university presidents, scholars, physicians, and attorneys. Prole drift is hardly better illustrated, except by an announcement which appeared only four days after the Times belt-buckle scandal, this one in the formerly sacrosanct London Times Literary Supplement. This weekly used to be virtually identical with ideas of rhetorical meticulousness and verbal class. But look at it now.


So far, not bad, despite the illiterate omission of THE before TIMES. That oversight we might impute to a printer's error, but now what follows:

It is, therefore, an ideal media in which to advertise your senior management and editorial vacancies.

Similiar evidence of prole drift will confront you the minute you inquire into what has happened at your local bookstore. It's not so much that it now sells calendars and posters of funny cats and greeting cards and paper toys. It's that in its vending of books it perfectly illustrates Roger Price's First Law: "If everybody doesn't want it, nobody gets it." You used to be able freely to order any book in print and pick it up at the bookstore within a week or so. No longer. Now it's such a big deal that all but the most pushy will refrain from this behavior. Chain bookstores -- are there now any others? -- not only charge a $2 fee for orders now but often require a deposit of half the price of the book. These impediments they try to rationalize by renaming what used to be orders: to emphasize the rarity and difficulty of this procedure, they now call them special orders. This makes them sound very outré and difficult, indeed all but impossible. The effect of this is clear. Customers will be encouraged to cleave rigidly to the best-seller list, permitting themselves an interest only in things which the bookstore manager (formerly bookseller) has thought it profitable to order in quantity. The customer will quickly learn that he should never be so foolish as to walk into a bookstore and say something like "Have you a copy of Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy?" or "Do you have Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents?" Why be curious about commodities like these when stacks of Leon Uris and Ann Landers are all conveniently laid out before you? Further evidence of prole drift in the book world is the replacement of the National Book Awards by the American Book Awards, so cunningly similar in name, so totally different in import. Where the National Book Awards used to signal critical merit, being determined by disinterested and intellectually impressive judges, the American simulacra, determined now by publishers and editors, advertising and merchandising people and bookstore employees, recognize not a book's excellence but its popularity and sales potential. These two novelties, the new bookstore practice with "special orders" and the commercialization of the book awards, may seem small things, but intellectually they are close to a national disaster, an illustration right around the corner from where you live of Ortega's gloomy finding that "the mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select." Which is a way of saying that proles, who superficially look like losers, have a way of always winning. For Ortega, writing in 1930, the emergent prole was a "vertical invader," pushing his way up to contaminate a heretofore sacrosanct domain of art, culture, complexity, and subtlety. Time, however, has shown that the prole is staying right where he is and is not invading anything. Rather, the world on top is sinking down to fit itself to his wants, since purchasing power has increasingly concentrated itself in his hands.

Further evidence of prole drift (if more is really needed) is the behavior of customers in stores and markets and banks and post offices. Queuing -- whether in Eastern Europe or the Free World an infallible signal of proletarianization -- is now commonplace everywhere, and the supine clients wait with animal-like patience while the clerk interrupts proceedings to chat with friends on the phone or simply disappears for long periods. And why not? The customer, quite used to conceiving of himself as a slave and a nonentity, never complains. No one objects when a retail transaction takes three times longer than it did ten years ago because now it's enacted on a computerized cash register. The more normal, necessary, and acceptable the delay seems, the more proletarianized you know we've become. Normal and acceptable also is the disappearance of service and amenity everywhere, the virtual universality of "self-service" (as if it were a good thing) in stores and outlets of all kinds. Self-service is ipso facto prole. Proles like it because it minimizes the risk of social contact with peole who might patronize or humiliate them. All right for them, but because of prole drift we're all obliged to act as if we were hangdog no-accounts.

There used to be different audiences for things. Those who went to see My Fair Lady were not the people who liked to watch, on TV, Diff'rent Strokes. But now Broadway musicals routinely advertise on TV as if the two audiences were identical, and producers of musicals solicit for their products the audience which is the avowed enemy of wit, nuance, subtlety, and style. The musical Forty-second Street is so devoid of anything but the most prole stereotypes that it naturally attracts the same viewers as Three's Company or The Love Boat, as its producers revealed by advertising it extensively on television.

A related sign of prole drift (or rather, precipitate lunge) is the current replacement of two good traditional New York theaters by one bad New York hotel. This operation, which took place in the spring of 1982, coincided with the announcement by the maker of the Checker Cab that he was discontinuing production of this vehicle, the only civilized taxi available in the United States. At the same time American brewers made public what the more sensitive wits have known for years -- that prole drift is grossly apparent in American beer. The brewers noted that they have greatly reduced the hop content, because hops give beer taste and bitterness. Proles want blah and sweetness, and thus, as a brewing spokesman says, "The level of bitterness in American beers has decreased in the last ten years by maybe 20 percent and the whole flavor level has come down." That's the beer you and I have to drink, friend, and there's no escape except emigration. Or having enough money always to consume beer brought in from Germany and Holland.

It may not yet be quite true that, as Auden puts it,

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,

but it seems the more true the more you meditate on the proletarianization of architecture since the Second World War. Now the same rectangular brick box will do for a church, a school, a hospital, a prison, a dormitory, a motel, a fire station, or a business building. The implicit point this universal brick box makes is not merely that no one's interested in fine distinctions between functions. It's that no one's interested in distinctions at all. And of course the use of civilized allusion in public architecture disappeared some time ago. Now you can look in vain for acorns, wreaths, balustrades, finials, metopes and triglyphs -- all the decorations that used to point to a world larger than the local and a purpose nobler than the utilitarian. The sad thing is that we do not get what we deserve. Societies in the grip of prole drift may expect prole architecture, a point nicely developed in Kingsley Amis' "Aberdarcy: The Main Square":

By the new Boots, a tool-chest with flagpoles
Glued on, and flanges, and a dirty great
Baronial doorway, and things like portholes,
Evans met Mrs Rhys on their first date

Beau Nash House, that sells Clothes for Gentlemen,
Jacobethan, every beam nailed on tight --
Real wood, though, mind you -- was in full view when
Lunching at the Three Lamps, she said all right.

And he dropped her beside the grimy hunk
Of castle, that with luck might one day fall
On to the Evening Post, the time they slunk
Back from that lousy week-end in Porthcawl.

The journal of some bunch of architects
Named this the worst town centre they could find;
But how disparage what so well reflects
Permanent tendencies of heart and mind?

All love demands a witness: something "there"
Which it yet makes part of itself. These two
Might find Carlton House Terrace, St Mark's Square
A bit on the grand side. What about you?


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