Review: White Collar: The American Middle Classes , by C. Wright Mills


New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 416.

C. Wright Mills is best known for writing The Power Elite, in which he offered an analysis of the uppermost strata of society and its institutions (business, governmental and military). However, it was not his only sociological bestseller, his first being 1951’s White Collar, which dealt with many of the same concerns, but with a central focus on the much vaster “white collar” salariat beneath those strata.

In approaching this subject Mills begins by attempting to situate it in the larger social context as it has traditionally been understood, and in particular as part of the “middle class” — the fuzziness of which term Mills addresses by drawing a distinction between what he terms the “Old” and “New” Middle Classes. The Old Middle Class is characterized by its economic independence, which is based on its ownership of the means of production with which it works — the small farmer cultivating his own land, the merchant running his own store, and the like. The New Middle Class consists of dependent employees who work with means of production owned by others, at the direction of those others, inside of a context of centralized property and bureaucratized and rationalized business operations — as with the personnel of large businesses.

Mills holds that industrialization has sharply reduced and marginalized the Old Middle Class, which is a far cry from the Jeffersonian mythology surrounding it. What remains of small business, contrary to popular belief, is generally an exercise in futility, afflicted by a high rate of turnover as small businesses fail and are typically replaced by other small businesses which fail in their turn. Even this activity is largely confined to particular economic sectors, namely the retail and service industries (by contrast, “Manufacturing is no longer a small business world” (24)), and when even these survive for any length of time, they tend to do so by “becoming direct satellites” of Big Businesses of various kinds (27) (as with retailers which are “maintenance agencies and distributors for big manufacturers”). He also contends that, for all their free market rhetoric, the “scared” small entrepreneur, especially sensitive to the ups and downs of the business cycle, is in practice preoccupied with seeking protection from marketplace competition (through “fair trade” laws, the prices set by national brands, and the like).1 Indeed, Mills argues, the old image of small business persists principally because it serves the big business interests that, despite some imagined solidarity, have in reality pushed them to the fringes of economic life.

The result is that they have largely given way to the New Middle Class as the predominant “middle” group, and its character is the book’s focus: the ways in which it works, what that work means to it, and the political significance of these facts. In examining these he finds a number of parallels between the New Middle Class and the Marxist proletariat, extending beyond their mutual lack of property to the terms of their labor. As Mills notes, the office and the salesroom, “the two great locales of white collar activity” (226–227), have become rather more like the factory, and undergone the same evolution in the direction of rationalization, mechanization and deskilling, so that their staff operate machines under the supervision of a small cadre of specialists — the secretary at their typewriter, the cashier at their cash register not so different from employees of a light manufacturing facility. Medicine has traveled the same path, the old-style general practitioners giving way to narrowly specialized, hospital-based M.D.s, backed up by large numbers of less well-trained support staff (the better to hold down the number of working doctors, and restrict the supply of their skills), while the legal profession has followed a parallel line of development with the emergence of the large firms once termed “law-factories.”

Given the circumstances of their work, neither the Protestant work ethic, nor the ideal of the Renaissance craftsman, has much relevance to their actual experience.2 Rather they tend to experience their work as alienated labor, time taken away from living instead of a crucial dimension of life, let alone a development of themselves as human beings. (Indeed, Mills even deepens Marx’s analysis of worker alienation by considering a new dimension of it — the alienation of white collar workers not just from their labor, but from their very selves as they “sell themselves” in the “personality market.”3) Such satisfaction as they derive from their work is a matter of the income, status and personal power the job affords, with the result that satisfaction is strongly correlated with socioeconomic ranking — professionals, for instance, far more satisfied with their positions than clerical workers that are part of the same white collar category.

Mills notes alongside this change in the manner of work, and the attitude toward it — which make the experience of the white collar worker closer to that of the blue collar employee — a tendency to equalization in their incomes and job security. There is also an equalization of their prospects for upward mobility — closed off not just by the aforementioned deskilling and rationalization (which eliminates the chance to, for instance, “learn the whole operation” at an enterprise), but by the rising level of education among the work force (which has created a credentialing crisis, and even talk of “surplus graduates” and the “management” of ambition). Unsurprisingly, older ideals about the pursuit of “success” through a cultivation of traditionally “middle class” virtues associated with Victorian entrepreneurship, or later, the salesman-like attitude and demeanor supposed to make possible a successful ascent up the corporate ladder, seem decreasingly relevant, even discredited. In their place there is a greater willingness to pursue unionization (especially among those most inclined to feel that “the way up” is blocked or inaccessible).4

Nonetheless, Mills rejects the idea that white collar workers will “go politically ‘proletarian’” (353), however much their objective circumstances come to resemble those of blue collar workers. The option is simply not on the table, there being no proletariat for the white collars to join, politically speaking, even the organized “blue collars” failing to count as such (in their unions’ emphasis on bettering the conditions of their members’ employment rather than broader or more principled social change) — which points to the larger story determining their political future, namely the apathy with which Americans regard politics in the mid-twentieth century. The combination of their relative material contentment, their intensely private way of looking at their concerns and attitudes (a reflection of the history of immigration and American geographical mobility in Mills’ view), and their distance from the centers of decision, leaves them detached, scarcely interested spectators. This tendency is reinforced by a mass media which utterly fails (after hardly trying) to make politics comprehensible and meaningful to them — while being consistently excellent at distraction, especially by way of fantasies of personal status and consumption (with which he identifies the content of most pop culture, and leisure activity more generally).5

Moreover, generalized as this apathy is, white collar workers seem even more susceptible to it than other groups. The significant division between Old and New middle class aside, white collar workers’ weaker consciousness of themselves as a class, their more limited and more belated organization, their greater response to the kind of distraction he describes, leaves them more atomized and less likely to emerge as an independent political force. Indeed, they seem bound to follow rather than lead, and to do so opportunistically.

In making this case, Mills’ book offers a formidable combination of sweep and detail. Portions of the analysis have admittedly dated, perhaps the most significant of these his discussion of unionization — a trend which has long since been reversed. However, this is more than outweighed by what remains valid in Mills’ study for our own time, not least the corrective he offers to the pieties of his day, which all too often remain the pieties of our own, regarding such matters as the character of social class in America, the role of small business in the economy, and the prospects for genuine personal satisfaction through post-secondary education and the “right” career (recently characterized by Barbara Ehrenreich as a case of “bait and switch”). Indeed, some of the problems he described have, in line with his expectations, grown only more pronounced, like the problems raised by a credentialing crisis, and the withdrawal of much of the public from political life. The result is a book well worth reading not just for its insights into mid-twentieth century America, but its grasp of our situation now, with which few works written in the six decades since can compare.

1. By contrast, in the world of the large corporation, the “Unseen Hand” of executive decision has to a great degree displaced the “Invisible Hand” prevailing in a less thoroughly organized economic field.
2. Mills refers here to the Renaissance vision of the life of the craftsman as “a fully idealized model of work gratification” entailing no “split of work and play, or work and culture,” a laborer’s work “and his entire mode of living” instead comprising a single whole(220). This model has its requirements, however, among them the worker’s control of “his own working action”; the absence of “ulterior motive,” enabling their concentration on the product and process; and in this process, his opportunity “to learn from his work; and to use and develop his capacities in its prosecution” (220); none of which is operative in today’s business environment. Indeed, Mills notes that “as practice, craftsmanship has largely been trivialized into ‘hobbies,’ part of leisure not of work” (224).
3. As he notes, workers are obliged to “instrumentalize and externalize intimate features” of their “person and disposition” (225) as part of the process of production.
4. Mills also identifies an emerging “new style of aspiration” (282) focusing on “the peace of the inner man” (283) rather than material accomplishment (with which he identifies such works as Arthur Miller’s play Death of A Salesman).
5. Mills also notes that those who would be intellectuals are co-opted by the ideological machines of vested interests, which they must represent (or to which they must at least make themselves acceptable), or face marginalization. In either case they are reduced to irrelevance as a political force, with one result their tendency to style themselves “technicians” outside or above politics, or succumb to the cult of alienation. (College professors in particular are constrained by the expectations of academic life, not the least of them the expectation of specialization — or in his view, overspecialization.)

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