We have now entered a new age which will not have a name or a designation until, I think, at least one or two centuries from now: But then, such is the evolution of historical terminology.  Yet we should be able to recognize at least some of its apparent characteristics.  One (to my old-fashioned mind, the most repulsive and dangerous) of these characteristics is the oceanic flood of what is abstract, rather than natural or real, over- and underwhelming the thinking of people: the flood of images not merely being components of realities but accepted as if they were realities themselves.  There are innumerable examples of this tendency.  One example: What are “possessions” now?  What are “assets”?  The President has acclaimed the presence and the ideal of an “ownership society,” when, in reality, the vast majority who inhabit houses are not true owners but debtors: that is, renters.  We are in the presence of an inflation of language, when terms and words not only cease to mean what they meant not so long ago but their usage has become inaccurate if not meaningless.

The definitions of social classes have often been somewhat imprecise, but not meaningless.  Some of their unavoidable imprecisions: An “upper class” has not been necessarily a “ruling class”; “aristocracy” has not been necessarily the same as a “nobility.”  About 30 years ago, I wrote, on occasion, of the then-imprecise confusing of “middle class” with “bourgeois”:

In the 1920s Charles A. Beard, one of the most original and independent historians of the United States, wrote that the United States had only one class, “the petty bourgeoisie. . . . The American ideal most widely expressed is the embourgeoisement of the whole society—a universality of comfort, convenience, security, leisure, standard possessions of food, clothing, and shelter.”  Yet standard possessions of food, clothing, and shelter are middle-class aspirations, not bourgeois ones.  Beard’s equation of bourgeois and middle-class was wrong.  Every society (even some animal populations) has a more-or-less recognizable segment, situated in the middle, between its upper and lower classes.  But not every society had, or has, a bourgeoisie.  The bourgeois has been a particular phenomenon, a historical reality.  Edmund Wilson, a very different man than Beard, was wrong too.  In 1932 he wrote that “the writer who has made me feel most overwhelmingly that bourgeois society was ripe for burial . . . was Proust”: but Proust wrote mostly not about the bourgeois but about a Partisan upper-class, including aristocrats.

There was a bourgeois and an urban—and, here and there, urbane—era in the history of the United States, too, from about 1880 to 1950.  This is a very large country, and there were vast exceptions, portions untouched by that, but so it was.  America and Europe (including England) grew closer.  America entered two world wars to help Britain and Western Europe endure.  After 1880, American cities grew larger than London, Paris, Berlin.  The New World was no longer the antithesis of the Old.  It became the repository of its civilization, culture, arts.  It was spared the catastrophes that befell Europe in the two world wars.  Its institutions represented many of the standards of a constitutional and liberal order.  But my main argument now is not the dissolution of what was once bourgeois in America.  It is the disappearance of the American middle class, as such.

Middle class must mean something in the middle between upper and lower.  Yet an American upper class no longer exists.  There was such a class in the past: Its power and its ambitions were limited, but its social prestige was extant and attractive.  But the convictions of its members were lamentably superficial, and their self-confidence, regrettably weak.  During the 1960’s, this class dissolved and disappeared.  There are still many rich people in America: But whereas the “new rich” in the past were marginal, newcomers to an upper class still then existing, just about all of the American rich now are new-new rich, with standards and possessions that are ephemeral.  By 1960, Celebrity had wholly replaced “Society”; and publicity absorbed, and replaced, privacy.  The middle-class habits (and virtues) of permanence, of saving, of passing their assets—and values—on to their children disappeared.  As did the once, often rightly excoriated, bourgeois habit of hypocrisy—doing and saying the right thing for the wrong reason; or, the tribute vice is paying to virtue.  But this, too, is no longer extant among people whose ideas of right and wrong are formed by publicity, and where indeed virtue often feels compelled to pay tribute to vice.  So did the recognizable cultural and civilizational distinction between upper-middle and lower-middle classes (the first bourgeois and sometimes even patrician) disappear.

Since the 1960’s, the United States was becoming, by and large, a classless society.  Of course, there were, and are, many poor people.  (Has not Jesus said that “the poor you will always have with you”?)  But, like upper and middle, working class, too, has lost much of its meaning when there is no upper class left, and when the poorest among us are not habitual workers.

It may be significant that the now colloquial (and sloppy) use of class as an adjective has become current at the same time of the disappearance of class as a concrete noun (as has the usage of the stupid stumbling new adjectives upscale and tony).  Here is a telling example: In 2004, former President George H.W. Bush (who had translated himself and his family from Connecticut to Texas) exhorted the U.S. Olympic team in Athens to behave “with class.”  With class!  And this by someone whom many Americans still describe—wrongly—as an aristocrat.  This is the same man who habitually speaks of his grandchildren as “grandkids.”  No gentleman would have ever used such a word.

We now live in a largely classless society.  The conditions and the consequences of this are unforeseeable.  (Not unforeseeable is the eventual emergence of a new kind of ruling class—but who, and how, and when, no one can tell.)  Hundreds of millions of isolated individuals, men, women, couples unsure of where they belong or should belong, unaware of their neighbors and of the community where they temporarily reside.  These conditions of lonesomeness and impermanence include a breakdown of real communications between people who are otherwise told that they live amid the marvels of the Information Age.

This has, and will have, enormous consequences not only in the arts and in literature but in the very assets of people, including their families and homes.  Family, house, home—the meaning of each of these words has been leached out from the minds of so many people.  More than 200 years ago, Samuel Johnson was—and remains, as almost always—right: “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor.”  (Dr. Johnson, too, regretted the lives of people who are “afraid to go home and think.”)  To be happy away from home is now the aim of much American endeavor—surely of the young and, alas, of so many adults, too.  A centripetal tendency—and part and parcel of the disappearance of a once estimable and recognizable middle class.