The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain

Article excerpt

David Cannadine The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain Columbia University Press, 2000. pp 320 ISBN 0-231-09667-4 (pbk) Cll.97 ISBN 0-231-09666-6 (hbk) C24.00

Cannadine writes well. His prose is limpid, elegant and rarely strained. As I read the first chapter of this book I was persuaded for a while that here is an intelligent critic of Marxism whom I would be recommending others to read. By the end, I was deeply depressed that wide reading had produced in this instance such empty and almost wilfully blind erudition. Cannadine taught for ten years in the Department of History at the University of Columbia. During this period he seems never to have actually visited anywhere that is recognisable as the United States of America. Here is Cannadine's United States of America that, for him, is the `pioneering and prototypical classless society':

Undeniably, there are great-and growing-inequalities of power in the USA. But these do not translate into corresponding inequalities of social prestige or social perceptions. Unlike the British, Americans do not conceive of their society hierarchically. Nor do they think of it triadically, as the overwhelming majority of regard themselves as middle class. And nor, therefore, do they think of their society as being fissured one deep fundamental way. (Or if they do, it is on the grounds of race, not class.) (p. 190).

Cannadine apparently went to his USA in 1988. Only three years before my Californian, white, Quaker, brother-in-law, Lind, went to an inter-denominational church conference in Richmond, Indiana. He offered to fetch in pizza for a working lunch for himself and his colleagues. A local pastor recommended a good roadhouse for pizza. Whilst Lind was waiting there to order, he chatted to the man in front in the queue. The man gave his order, was given a chit with a number on, and went outside to wait for his pizza in the freezing winter cold. Eventually, the pizza for the man in front of Lind was passed out through a special hatch in the wall. Whilst he was waiting in the warm for his large order of pizzas, Lind, a very big man indeed, was approached by a local who belligerently advised him that, `Round here, we don't talk to niggers.' Lind replied that he did not come from round here. He was told to keep it that way. When he returned to the conference, he asked the local pastor he had spoken to before if they had a race problem in Richmond, Indiana. The pastor thought deeply, screwing up his face and looking up at the blank ceiling so he could scan the recesses of his memory: `Well, we did until about ten years ago,' he confessed. `But,' he continued, `we hung the nigger and everything has been fine since.' This anecdote finds some expression in the Gulag of the USA: `one in nine of AfricanAmerican males aged 20-29 is in prison at any one point and one in three is either in prison, on probation or parole' (Young, 1999: 147 citing Mauer, 1997). …