Review. In ‘History of a Fetish,’ the Italian sociologist Matteo Battistini articulates how the middle class category was born and established itself in the myth of a country free of social conflict.

America’s dream of the middle class

About 30 years ago, one of Italy’s best sociologists, Ferruccio Gambino, dedicated a pioneering study to the middle class as a category of normality in American sociology (Tensioni e tendenze dell’America di Reagan, “Tensions and Trends in Reagan’s America,” ed. by E. Pace, Cedam, 1989).

Following in his footsteps and widening the scope of the research, the Bolognese Americanist Matteo Battistini, in his new book Storia di un feticcio. La classe media americana dalle origini alla globalizzazione (“History of a Fetish: The American Middle Class from its Origins to Globalization”) is offering us a study of great depth, which seems particularly well-timed in the red-hot atmosphere of the U.S. presidential elections, with the usual references to the vote of the elusive middle class.

Elusive because, as Battistini writes, in the last decade, published works and research on the other side of the Atlantic “have obsessively announced the decline, disappearance or end” of this category, so central and hard to grasp in public discourse. However, what remains unchanged, the author adds, is what Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called “the fetishization of the middle class.” That is, the “historical claim that even today, despite the enormous inequalities and poverty that are afflicting their society [for this, see B. Cartosio, Dollari e no. Gli Stati Uniti dopo la fine del secolo americano, ed. DeriveApprodi], Americans are still rising up to become members of this class.”

How can one explain this? Battistini tries to answer this question with an “intellectual history” of this category, as it emerges from an in-depth analysis of the social sciences of the so-called “American century.” In four dense chapters, he leads us on a tour de force of authors, works and debates, presented, among a tide of footnotes and references that Battistini employs with great skill, among academic articles, books and journals. He paints a picture that is powerfully descriptive and of significant philological depth.

The analysis starts from 19th and 20th century European thought on the middle class. And it shows how the vision of this layer, in the harsh confrontation with the terrible disasters of the Great War, becomes increasingly negative and pessimistic. Then, when it crosses the Atlantic, after many twists and turns that the book documents with great care, this category finally finds a central place in the American scientific debate and politics in the years of the New Deal, which Battistini accordingly identifies as a “historical project of construction of the middle class.” That is, in light of the strong racial bent of the social policies of the period, “affirmative action for the white American family.”

In this context, and even more so in the post-war period, thanks to the ideology provided by the “clash of civilizations” of the Cold War and the material legitimacy guaranteed by the spread of mass consumption, Battistini says that the middle class assumed the appearance of an indisputable fetish, “a cultural and political identity that established a code of conduct organized around the values of white and Protestant America,” under the banner of exceptionalism and the imperial self-image of the country.

Both the social sciences of the pluralist and structural-functionalist “Great Celebration” current and historiography have contributed to its configuration. The latter, both in the version of the polished-up consensus history (Boorstin and Hartz), which in the 1950s placed the whole of American history on a path that has always been miraculously free of class conflicts, and in that of the “organizational synthesis” which, during the following decade, with a progressively developing functionalist twist (Galambos and Zunz, based on the original work of the more troubled Wiebe), placed the middle class at the center of the processes of modernization and management of social tensions between the 19th and 20th centuries.

This lasted until the short-circuit between the heated social conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s and the response—in the form of a class struggle with no quarter given—by the capitalist side during the last 40 years, during which the material base of the category itself, swallowed up in the vortex of deindustrialization, financialization and social desertification, has been put on the ropes more and more.

The middle class survives, Battistini concludes, once again as “a political indicator of the legitimization of capitalism,” but in this case as an “illusory subject… an out-of-vogue symbol, incapable of determining a shared and recognizable, ordered and ordering mode, which is bereft of a future precisely because it is loaded with history.”

It is a conclusion that sounds like a call to engage in research once more, from intellectual history to social history, on the concrete forms in which this category has been lived and practiced over time.

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