A Theory of the Lower Class: Edward Banfield: The Maverick of Urbanology

“The lower-class individual lives in the slum and sees little or no reason to complain. He does not care how dirty and dilapidated his housing is either inside or out, nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities as schools, parks, and libraries: indeed, where such things exist he destroys them by acts of vandalism if he can. Features that make the slum repellent to others actually please him. He finds it satisfying in several ways.”
—The Unheavenly City by Edward C. Banfield

THE Atlantic

by Richard Todd

Strange sentiments. Written, as they are, in 1970, by a social scientist, they might easily be heard as Swiftian irony. But in fact they are delivered in earnest, and as these lines suggest, Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City contradicts almost every received idea about urban problems, including the widespread assumption that they have reached a new point of crisis.

The “urban crisis, Banfield argues, is largely a matter of perception. In the first place, our social problems are not predominantly urban, except in a nearly useless statistical sense. (Most urban statistics depend upon the Census Bureau’s definition of a city as any place with a population greater than 2500.) The bulk of poverty and substandard housing exists outside the big, or even the medium-sized, cities. Cities, Banfield says, have historically been creators of wealth, and so they are today.

His second objection to the notion of “urban crisis" is considerably more complex and more vulnerable. It has to do with what has been called, in another context, “the revolution of rising expectations.”But in this case, it is the doers, not the beneficiaries, of good works who have undergone a revolution in feeling. Banfield argues that in all quantifiable ways life for the least privileged has improved, but that the society’s decreasing tolerance for hardship—our heightened expectations for the general welfare—have outstripped this progress: “. . . although things have been getting better absolutely, they have been getting worse relative to what we think they should be.”

There is an obvious question: Are ever higher standards not a good thing? Banfield replies quite earnestly that, on balance, no, they probably are not. A “crisis mentality” breeds actions that have effects contrary to what they intend, and it stirs hopes that cannot be fulfilled. All of this assumes, of course, that there are rather narrow limits to what money, goodwill, and even intelligence can accomplish, and this is precisely Banfield’s opinion.

Banfield, who is fifty-three, is professor of government at Harvard. The Unheavenly City is his tenth book, and by far his most ambitious and outspoken. Its themes have been present in his writing from the start; a deep skepticism about the possibilities for human cooperation is the quality that unites Banfield s work. But in this book he is questioning one of the fundamental changes, over the past century and longer, in our way of seeing the world: the progressive reassignment of responsibility for human welfare from the individual to society.

As iconoclastic as it is, The Unheavenly City has arrived propitiously, for its purposes, at the dead low tide of liberal confidence. At the end of a decade in which more money and energy than ever before has been mobilized to solve the problems of the cities, we perceive failure, program after hopeful program ending in disappointment. Still, it is commonplace to say that if only we truly shifted our effort to the cities we could succeed; that the war has sapped our moral energy; that a country cannot pursue two policies so contrary to one another as our foreign and domestic policies have been: convincing commonplaces indeed. But they may be wrong, and if so, we are left singularly ill equipped to hear a contrary idea, as was plain in March with Daniel P. Moynihan’s famous memo.

Moynihan’s two purloined words seemed to contradict the best impulses of the decade. Neglect could not possibly be benign: neglect was the sin we had to expiate. The New York Times said of the memo that it “can only encourage the most retrogressive elements in the White House, the Cabinet and the Congress.” Moynihan’s explanation of what he meant resembled, as it happened, Edward Banfield’s analysis: . . . as things get better” [Moynihan said] “the perception for the last couple of years has been that things are getting worse. If we go into the 70’s with the idea that there were no advances in the 60’s . . . then we will lose what we have gained.” Moynihan’s second controversial memorandum, which urged that the solution to the problems of the ghetto was the generations-long task of “dissolving” the Negro lower class (by which he meant transforming it into a working class) , happens also to be Banfieldian philosophy.

All of this is not to cast Banfield as the shadowy figure behind the Moynihan affair; it is only to suggest that a reading of The Unheavenly City would have nicely prepared one for those incidents, just as an understanding of the book may be essential for urban debate of the next years. If Banfield is right, at least, the noblest efforts of the past thirty years have been wrong, what progress has occurred has been accidental, and only a 180-degree shift in sensibility can begin to save us.

The questions the Moynihan memo raised, questions of class and race, are central to The Unheavenly City. It is Banfield’s overall contention that we have exaggerated the one problem of race—at the expense of the more relevant problem of class. Banfield argues that American class structure, more than any other single thing, limits what the society can do to improve life in the cities.

Class structure, of course, has been a difficult concept for America to deal with. Insofar as we defined our classes at all, we have tended to do so strictly according to visible symbols of prestige, of which the main one is wealth. The primary study of American class structure, Lloyd Warner’s Social Class in America, has a revealing subtitle, “The Evaluation of Status.” The assumption is that one’s class standing is a matter of who “looks up” to whom. The indices of prestige are tangible items: if not money, then a big house, a degree, an old family name. This objective view of class structure may be the most useful one possible; it is, in any case, the one that is most easily reconcilable with the American Dream. If mere objective differences separate the classes, in time those differences can be erased. Another American student of classes, John Dollard, concluded in 1937, “the dominant aim of our society seems to be to middle-class-ify all of its members.”

If this is so, Banfield says, we have failed and we cannot hope to succeed. The drift in our society now is not toward a grouping around the middle, but toward polarization. But it should be said at once that Banfield has unconventional things in mind when he talks about class. For traditional concepts of class, Banfield substitutes a subjective definition; one determined not by the cars you own, or the clubs you join, but by values. In this, his work owes more to anthropologists than to American sociologists. The central value in Banfield’s class hierarchy is the concept that anthropologists refer to as a “time-horizon.”

A time-horizon, roughly speaking, is the amount of future an individual (or a culture) can comprehend and accommodate. That primitive tribes cannot see beyond the autumn has been a useful way of defining their world view. Banfield argues that the same criteria are applicable to a civilized society. Time-horizons have been mentioned in previous discussions of class as a secondary characteristic: the poor tend to have short time-horizons because they face overwhelming immediate needs. But Banfield makes this characteristic primary. Banfield’s lower class is lower-class because it is, in his phrase, “radically present-oriented.” A continuum of increasing time-horizons describes the other classes: working, middle, and upper. Banfield’s upper class is “the most future-oriented . . . expects a long life . . . is concerned also for the future of . . . the community, nation, or mankind.”

Of course, the upper classes also tend to have more money. There is at least a rough correspondence between conventional class groupings and Banfield’s, a point of constant confusion in The Unheavenly City. If most lower-class people are poor and most upper-class people rich, it is nevertheless not their money that defines their class. Banfield is at pains to make this clear: “a person who is poor, unschooled, and of low status may be upper class; indeed, he is upper class if he is psychologically capable of providing for a distant future. By Lhe same token, one who is rich and a member of ‘the 400’ may be lower class: he is lower class if he is incapable of conceptualizing the future or of controlling his impulses and is therefore obliged to live from moment to moment.”

Thus Banfield’s lower-class slum dweller whose slum “pleases” him becomes a somewhat more complicated figure than is suggested by the quotation with which this discussion began. Banfield is not saying all slum dwellers love their slums, or that the poor love squalor. But he is saving that a squalorvaluing culture exists, and he chooses to call this culture “lower class.”

Lower-class behavior in Banfield’s mind is “pathological,”the behavior of other classes “normal.” But he allows that some proportion of what appears to be lower-class pathology may be, in reality, an intelligent response to perverse conditions. A man caught in machine-gun fire is “radically presentoriented,” and rightly so; similarly, a man living in desperate poverty may be quite rational in taking his pleasure in drugs and violence rather than planning for a future that he has no reason to believe exists. Banfield’s contention, though, is that social scientists have tended to see all lower-class behavior in this way, as a normal response to abnormality. This is an oversimplification, he says, and often a rather conscious one, intended to influence policy.

Banfield asserts that the true situation is more complex: a pervasive lower-class culture exists that inculcates violence, self-destructiveness, and an inability to look beyond the immediate present. These aberrations become values, not subject to easy remedy; perhaps not soluble at all.

There are sufficient opportunities for confusion when this is taken abstractly, and they only multiply when one stops to ask who the members of the lower class actually are. Most of them are black. Banfield is not unaware of the difficulties of this position. He denies emphatically that race determines class. “Despite all that was said to the contrary . . . some readers may suspect that when the author uses the words ‘lower class’ what he has in the back of his mind is ‘Negro.’ ”

One of his colleagues, James Q. Wilson, has said in Banfield’s defense: “He is one of the few men who is truly free of racism: he thinks that race simply doesn’t matter.”

There are lower-class members of every group, Banfield argues, and most blacks are not lower class. If Negroes are disproportionately represented in his lower class today, Banfield says that they occupy a role that long antedates their arrival in the city. In Boston, in 1817 (he offers), there was one female prostitute for every six males over the age of sixteen, and gambling houses were open twenty-four hours a day. The lower class then was white, AngloSaxon, and Protestant. It became, in Boston and elsewhere, largely Catholic and immigrant in composition. Had Negroes been able to enter the “inner city" in large numbers with the immigrations of the nineteenth century, the urban lower class would be racially mixed, and the city would be surrounded by racially mixed environs.

The black situation, Banfield insists, is complicated, but not dominated, by prejudice: prejudice “was not the main disadvantage of the Irish, Jews, Italians, and others. Nor is it the main one of the Negro . . . today.” The Negro’s main disadvantage is that he is the latest comer to the central city, poor, unskilled, and so an inhabitant of the slums and a likely victim of class culture, as well as of class prejudice.

Banfield insists that there is, in fact, more class consciousness at work in the land than racial prejudice, and that Negroes misperceive (and are encouraged to misperceive) hostility against them as racial, when it has its true origin in class hatreds and fears. (For a white man to assume of a middleclass Negro that he is lower class is racial prejudice; for a white man to regard a lower-class Negro as he regards a lower-class white may be prejudice, but it is class prejudice.) All of this can be expected to seem highly artificial to a Negro who has experienced the brutal facts of discrimination, but Banfield argues that the distinctions are not only more accurate but socially more useful than responses (such as the Kerner Commission’s) which blame “white racism” for the plight of the blacks. Banfield strikes out, for example, against the notion of the “ghetto,” a word that began as an angry metaphor and in a few years has become simply a denotation. Banfield remarks: “. . . the overemphasis on prejudice encourages the Negro to define all his troubles in racial terms. Driving it into him that he is forced to live in a ghetto, the victim of white man’s hate and greed, and so on, makes it all the more difficult for him to feel that he is a man first and a Negro second.”

In a chapter called “Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit" Banfield applies this attitude to the racial violence of the sixties; his argument is that, in fact, the riots were not primarily racial. He is tartly impatient with the conventional rhetoric that accompanied the riots: “The assumption that if Negroes riot it must be because they are Negroes is naive.”

“Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit” illustrates much of what is strong and what is weak about The Unheavenly City. Banfield suggests that if we look at the riots in terms of the motivations of the rioters, we see several separate things going on, ranging from the “rampages and forays” of youth to spontaneous outrage and calculated demonstrations. It is a mistake to call the former type racial, and Banfield feels that the riots of the sixties were largely rampages and forays. He points out that at the start of the incidents, in 1964, his view was in fact the common analysis among people of various political dispositions. Thus Kenneth B. Clark said that calling the Harlem riot of that year a race riot was not simply an explanation “after the fact” but “independent of the fact.” A few years later, Clark said: “The dark ghettoes now represent a nuclear stock-pile which can annihilate the very foundations of America.”

Banfield suggests that the facts had not changed as much as the interpretation—though the interpretation had acted to change the facts. The riots accelerated as explanations for them became more prevalent. Banfield believes that the riots did indeed have political content, but that those rioters who were politically minded couldn’t have been sustained without the majority of rampagers and looters. To the extent that the riots were racial at all, he contends, they depended on the existence of substantial numbers of working-class blacks amidst the lower-class residents of the slums. (Only in this sense could discrimination be blamed for the riots: without discrimination the working-class blacks would live someplace else.) But far more important, Banfield feels, was the influence of television and restrictions on police activity.

This case is rather impressionistically made, and that is typical of the book. Banfield approvingly quotes an observer: “One thing that impressed me was that these Negroes who were hurling stones, were throwing them right into their own people. That’s why I believe this didn’t start out to be a race riot. These were just young hoodlums working off their frustrations.”

Who is to say what weight this observation ought to have? The instinctive liberal response is to point out that behavior which appears to be irrational may, in the context of years of oppression, be supremely logical.

It is just this sort of response on which Banfield casts a suspicious eye. He quotes a number of very familiar reactions to riots of the sixties, from such figures as Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy: unless “major steps” are taken, Kennedy said, “we will reap a whirlwind that will be completely uncontrollable.” Banfield asks embarrassing questions about this sort of rhetoric. What is its effect? Whom can it benefit? (The speaker profits, not the spoken-about, he implies.) “Even if these predictions had been based on actual knowledge, and even if by making them—and only by making them—it had been possible to secure the needed reforms, one would have to say that making the predictions increased the probability of there being riots. . . .”

Riots conceivably are a good thing, Banfield allows, but we can’t be very sure of that. What sense of identity they lend the black lower class may be offset by the harm they do the black working class. They may encourage reforms, but those may be the wrong reforms. They may simply cause injustice and repression. “Explaining as ‘racial‘ behavior what can as well or better be explained in other terms would seem to be a dangerous game. he concludes, “even when played with the best of motives.”

It is on this level—an intricate questioning of assumptions that normally are attacked only by the mindless right—that Banfield operates most persuasively and valuably. It is useless to read The Unheavenly City as a prescription, though Banfield does offer ten possible actions—of which he quickly says that they are not politically feasible, and wouldn’t do much good anyway. (Samples: Define poverty in terms of the nearly fixed standard of ‘hardship’ . . . and bring all income above the poverty line. . . . Make it clear in advance that those who incite riot will be severely punished.”)

The substance of the book is Banfield’s continual insistence that we see the country through an artificial filter, that we must understand the grip of class culture on our lives before we can make some limited efforts at improvement. As long as there is a substantial lower class, the worst of our difficulties can never be eradicated. This is true: it is true by definition, if the lower class really exists. But Banfield’s vision of that vast undergrowth remains speculative. How much of the behavior that destroys self and society is a class-cultural phenomenon? How much is merely “situational”? We truly don’t know. We must find out.

In the meantime, Banfield’s pursuit of this thesis leads him down some alleys one is not likely to visit elsewhere in American social science. If the lower class, for example, was once almost exclusively white anti now is largely black, it is logical to ask what happened to those white lower-class individuals, and to their descendants. If they rose in great numbers to other classes, that fact would seem to contradict the whole notion of “a radically presentoriented lower-class culture.” Banfield’s explanation is that the lower class probably has, in the past, failed to reproduce itself. Its high birth rate was offset by a corresponding death rate. But if the lower class was dying out in the nineteenth century, its ranks renewed only by immigration, that is probably no longer the case today. The lower class is swelling, Banfield suggests, as improved public health lowers its death rate, and its birth rate remains high.

What might the society do about that? How to rescue infants from a fatal class culture? Banfield toys with some solutions that are worthy of Herman Kahn: “As a matter of logic, the simplest way to deal with the problem—and one which would not involve an infringement of parents’ rights—would be to permit the sale of infants and children to qualified bidders both private and public.” He goes on to say that such a plan wouldn’t be advisable: selling infants is morally unpleasant, and it might also encourage the lower classes to have children as a cash crop.

Amusingly, and somewhat disingenuously, Banfield remarks: “This book will probably strike many readers as the work of an ill-tempered and meanspirited fellow. ... I should like therefore to assure the reader that I am as well-meaning—probably even as softhearted—as he. But facts are facts.” That is never really quite true—that Banfield seems ill tempered—though it is true that he betrays an occasional delight in being dour about the human condition, and an excessive ease with reason divorced from feeling. But these are the dark side of a sensibility that constitutes much of the book’s value, its revelation of a complicated conservative mind.

Banfield was born in 1916, on a farm outside Bloomfield, Connecticut. He has the look of a rural man—tall, slouching, with a broad, weathered, greateared face; he moves across Harvard Yard as if he would like to plant corn there. He is a rural man now by choice, retreating to a 400-acre farm in Vermont. At Harvard he is known for his privatistic ways. Though he lunches regularly at the faculty club, he scrupulously avoids faculty committees and politics.

Banfield’s political history drifts steadily rightward. After graduation from Connecticut State College, he put in a short stint (as reporter and advertising salesman) for a small Connecticut weekly, and subsequently went to work in Washington and elsewhere for the Farm Security Administration. By the conclusion of his first project, a study which showed that a loan program to small farmers was making them poorer, he had become a skeptical bureaucrat. During his New Deal experience Banfield became close to Rexford Tugwell, and Tugwell later brought him to the University of Chicago, where he taught and earned his Ph.D. He was heavily influenced by Milton Friedman and Leo Strauss and the laissez-faire atmosphere in political science that prevailed at Chicago.

Banfield remained a nominal Democrat until Stevenson’s second attempt at the presidency, but ever since he has supported the Republican ticket. Supported, but not voted for. It has become a Banfieldian quirk not to vote, a policy he defends with his theory of “voter rationality.”(Briefly, that the inconveniences of voting are only in extraordinary circumstances offset by the rewards—that is, the possibility of affecting the outcome. Banfield sometimes illustrates this idea with an anecdote about a Cambridge couple who drove several hours from their Vermont summer home to the Massachusetts polls, one to vote for Edward Kennedy, the other against.)

By 1958, with his first published book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, Banfield had already, in a quiet way, assumed the tone and the attitudes of his later work. The book, which he wrote with his Italian-speaking wife, described life in a severely impoverished Italian village, for which Banfield has a cold and antiromantic eye; he recalls the effects of the death of a pig on a peasant family: the “laborer and his wife were desolate. The woman tore her hair and beat her head aganst a wall while the husband sat mute and stricken in a corner.” The villages exist in the grip of a class-cultural ethic that Banfield calls “amoral familism,” in which the individual’s concern never extends beyond his family, and thus cooperative ventures for the common good are impossible. Banfield remarks, in a familiar voice, that although a solution to the village’s problems might appear simple, “Under the most favorable conditions it might take three or four generations for nature to restore and reinvigorate the social bonds which have been withered and desiccated for a century or more.”

The problem Banfield finds in the United States, in The Unheavenly City, is of course quite different, but his wary vision remains intact. The dominant cultural dictate in this country, he feels, is a perilously optimistic belief in the chance of wholesale reform.

Banfield is a conservative in the broadest sense, unlike, for example, Milton Friedman, with whom he simply shared a preference for market solutions over governmental solutions. In Banfield’s case it is skepticism about all solutions that characterizes his outlook. He is willing—more sometimes than that —to entertain a tragic sense of life and of the United States. He sees in everything complexity and uncertainty, including his own philosophy.

“I wonder about myself,” he has said. “I try to feel the things other people feel, but I don’t. It seems that in everything I’ve done I’ve seen problems and no solution. So you wonder. Is that the nature of reality, or is it the personality of Edward C. Banfield?”

Banfield maintains that things are better than they seem, but he also insists that they cannot ever be what we pretend they might be, and that our pretense is dangerous. It is hard to think of a time when this predisposition has enjoyed less favor than it does today. Our perception of “crisis” extends far beyond the cities to the planet, and it stirs (contrarily) that impulse in American culture which has believed in the possibility of the new, the whole, the perfect. Even to nonradical minds, existing in a thicket of practicalities and contingencies, alternative visions persistently break through: we live in discontinuity, the old processes don’t work, we need new mechanisms of government and new ways of connecting with each other, with the earth. But believe that it can happen, Banfield intones, and you ask for ruin.

It is an alien contemporary mind that is able to survey the country and conclude that one of its most serious problems is the growth of an unreasonable ethic of hope and charity. An alien mind—but surely one to attend—that feels able to say, as Edward Banfield has, “. . . vast numbers of people are being rapidly assimilated into tlie ethos of the altruistic classes and are coming to have incomes—time as well as money—that permit them to indulge their taste for ‘serving’. . . . How preoccupied can a society be with reform without thereby loosening the bonds that hold it together? If there is an urban crisis, perhaps this is its real basis.” □