Richard Florida argues “class decides everything”

In an excerpt from his new book, Richard Florida argues “class decides everything”:

But numerous indicators and metrics suggest that class does structure a great deal of American life. America lags behind many nations – from Denmark to the United Kingdom and Canada – in the ability of its people to achieve significant upward mobility. America’s jobs crisis bears the unmistakable stamp of class. This past spring, for example, the rate of unemployment for people who did not graduate from high school was 13 percent, substantially more than the overall rate of 8.2 percent and more than three times the 3.9 percent rate for college grads. At a time when the unemployment rate for production workers who contribute their physical labor was more than 10 percent, unemployment for professionals, techies and managers who work with their minds had barely broken 4 percent…

As fallible as Marx might have been about some things, his focus on class (not to mention his analysis of the tendency of capitalism to sporadically lurch into crisis) was eerily prescient. Marx was the first to see that class was deeper than income or education, or where different groups of people lived or what they could buy. It stemmed from their relationship to the economy, or as he referred to it, “the social relations of production.” Capitalism had only recently overturned the old feudal order of the agricultural age and replaced it with a distinctive class structure of its own, defined by two principle classes. Marx identified the bourgeoisie or capitalist class as those who owned and controlled the means of production; the proletariat or working class was comprised of those who performed physical labor. The rub, of course, was that members of the working class were only paid for a portion of the economic value they created. The owners’ profits were derived from the workers’ “surplus value” — the value they created but were not compensated for…

Three classes now predominate. In addition to the Working Class, which makes up just one in five workers (down from more than half in the 1950s) are the 40 million plus members of the Creative Class, who use their creativity in their work, roughly a third of the workforce; and the 60 million plus members of the Service Class who prepare and serve food, perform janitorial functions, take care of children and old people, and perform routine clerical and administrative functions. The Service Class accounts for some 47 percent of the work force.

These new class divisions undergird virtually every feature of American life.

I detect some ambivalence here: does class really decide everything or is that the interpretation of the headline writer? Perhaps more importantly, how do the effects of class stack up in (substantive) significance compared to other factors like race, gender, educational attainment, and where people live? This goes back to some older debates in sociology involving scholars like William Julius Wilson: is it really race or class that drives outcomes?

This excerpt also does not make clear all the classes into which Florida would place Americans. Three are mentioned here (service, creative, and working) but they would make up roughly 150 million people (hard to figure exactly from this cited paragraph), leaving out over 150 million Americans. Of course, Florida has some interest in the doings of the creative class so I wonder if his analysis is equally adroit in assessing the other categories.

All that said, I assume sociologists would like that another voice with some clout is reminding people that class matters whether some Americans want to believe it or not. It will be interesting to see, however, how many people buy Florida’s larger analysis and claims or whether they would prefer to stick to the creative class ideas which have proved popular.

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