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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

A Split Society

In those cities where immigrant groups settled, the upheaval was profound. It quickly became apparent that the presence of more people was not only a quantitative phenomenon but a qualitative change as well in which a compact, unified society was replaced by a divided one where two worlds were at odds with each other. For an unforeseeable period of time, the city would contain two coexistent and juxtaposed societies. Brought face-to-face in the beginning, they subsequently lived in a state of permanent confrontation. It has been a slow, difficult, conflict-ridden commingling that is not yet complete.

One world was the traditional society, composed of well-defined classes whose tensions and lifestyles went on within an agreed upon system of rules: a regulated society. The other was the immigrant group, consisting of isolated individuals who converged upon a city. All the immigrants had in common was their location in the city; as a group they had no links, and therefore no system of rules. It was a society without norms, without standards, teetering alongside the other like a peripheral group.

When the immigrant group appeared in the Latin American cities after World War I, before it could undergo the complex social process that would convert it into the basic core of the urban mass, it looked like a mixed collection of humanity: families, single men, and single women, all taking the risk upon which their new lives depended. They came from rural areas—generally nearby, sometimes far away—or from small cities abandoned because they held no opportunities. These immigrants reached the edge of the cities that were their final destinations. In Lima, José María Arguedas recounts, those who arrived first managed to find domestic work in the homes of wealthy people from the same town who had also moved to the capital. Once familiar with the city, these early immigrants took in those who arrived in successive waves. In Yawar Fiesta, Arguedas writes:

And without anyone organizing it, arrivals, like those from the highlands, were handled in orderly fashion: the ‘chalos’ helped the ‘chalos,’ . . . the ‘mistis’ helped the ‘mistis,’ . . . introducing them into their company of friends. . . . Students were also helped in the same way, depending upon their parents’ money; the poor looked for small rooms near the university or the engineering school. They took rooms originally set aside for servants, in attics, under staircases, or in old stately mansions that, because they were on the verge of collapse, were now leased out to workers and poor people.

In some cities, there were preset places where immigrants camped, as the Brazilian Jorge Amado recounts in Gabriela, cravo e canela [Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon] when describing the immigrant encampment in Ilheus. “To get there, one had to leave downtown, go beyond the market place where the stalls were being dismantled and the merchandise collected, and then between the railroad buildings, and”, Amado continues, “to the place at the foot of Conquista Hill where the migrants camped while waiting for work. Someone had once referred to the place as the ‘slave market’ and the name had stuck; now no one ever called it anything else.” That was where the backlanders camped. These were people who had fled the drought, the poorest of the many whom had left their homes and their land to answer the call of the cacao. In other cities the arrival was even more formal. In Argentina, the emigration was by train, and the arrival was at the railway stations. There dozens of strange-looking families laden with tattered luggage descended from each convoy, hoping to find whoever had come to receive them, perhaps someone who had migrated earlier and had some accommodations planned. Elsewhere rural buses unloaded the same cargo. And from the platform the pilgrimage began, sometimes in the direction of the old, poor neighborhoods of the city, like Tepito in Mexico City, other times to the unpopulated edge of the city, a no-man’s-land where one could set himself up provided he was willing to forego services: the hills surrounding Caracas or Lima, the low-lying areas outside Buenos Aires, the trash dumps outside Monterrey, or the salty earth of dried-up Lake Texcoco in Mexico City. A tiny shack, perhaps assembled overnight, assured the immigrant’s place. But starting the next day, he or she would begin the difficult job of becoming part of mainstream society, a process that could take more than a generation.

The immigrant group was not yet a society and could not compare one system with another. By contrast to mainstream society, the immigrant’s world was a defenseless human conglomerate, without ties to keep it together, without the rules and standards that give society homogeneity, without any real reason to control its instincts or to combat the desperate urge to satisfy its own needs in whatever way it could. It was a conglomerate of human beings that were struggling to put roofs over their heads and simply survive. Yet they were also struggling to live, however high the price. And both struggles meant that one had to find his niche in the structure of established, normalized society, without authorization, perhaps in violation of some rule or of those who belonged to that society and looked upon the intrusion with surprise.

The other society could offer a roof and a job to the intruder; it could extend the hand of charity to care for his health and educate his children. But it would be a long time—no one could say how long—before immigrants would discover and accept that everything about the structure of mainstream society belonged, and applied, to them as well. In the meantime, they functioned as if everything belonged to someone else: the water tap, the sidewalk bench, the hospital bed. Nothing was theirs; someone else always had a greater claim to what was there.

Established society looked upon the immigrant conglomerate that was filtering through its cracks as a uniform whole. In its eyes, they constituted the “other society,” whose existence they had heard about but from whose presence they fled. When any member of that other world appeared outside his ghetto, normalized society looked upon him with curiosity, recognized him as being different from the established working class, and basically ignored him. But it was different when the “other society” seemed to be coalescing into a group. By then, immigrants had managed to strengthen certain ties that were beginning to bind them together. Perhaps they were starting to realize they could bring something to bear on the established structure that was more persuasive than their individual expectations: their group strength, a strength that much greater because it was exercised without having to adhere to rules, in an irrational way. It was the strength of one who feels alien to that which he is attacking and has no means to put a halt to his actions. One saw it in the streets of Mexico City, Bogota, and Buenos Aires: compact groups, alien to the rules of urban life, trampling upon the system upon which others had agreed and taking over or destroying what belonged to “the others” in normalized society.

Naturally, the emergence of a mass society without rules had a profound effect on established, normalized society, precisely because the new group’s target of attack was the system of norms that were in force. Established society regarded the new arrivals not only as upstarts but as enemies as well. As resistance grew, society close down not only the avenues that immigrant groups needed in order to move closer to, and ultimately be assimilated into, its ranks but also its own capacity to understand the strange social phenomenon right before their eyes. Among the factors that shaped this attitude was the increasing numbers of the anomic society and the overwhelming impression that their numbers and their aggressiveness made. That anomic society was decisively shaped by its confrontation with normalized society, which they viewed both as their target and as their model. The conflict was resolved as established society slowly and steadily coaxed the other one into agreeing to abide by certain basic rules and then offered them the means for the assimilation that, after a period of time, was inevitable. And with that, the two societies unwillingly found themselves in a silent process of integration, the possibilities of which were, and continue to be, manifest in daily existence and in the social and political life of those Latin American cities flooded by the tide of immigrants.

Mutual integration began when the immigrant got a roof over his head and, above all, a job. With the job came needs and obligations that forced contact and familiarization. One had to learn how to take the bus, where the streets were, how to reach the soccer stadium; perhaps one had to arrange for identification papers or go to a police station one day. It was undoubtedly an important phase when immigrant groups established contacts among themselves, strengthened the ties that united those from the same town or from the same region, and acquired the sense of solidarity that would give them confidence and strength in the difficult job of trying to break into the structure. But it was the next phase that was decisive, when contact was established with those who belonged to traditional society and were in a position to initiate them into its secrets. The first groups, within normalized society, to yield to the pressure exerted by the new arrivals and to begin to communicate with them were naturally the working classes. Yet there were also groups in the lower middle class—as depressed as the working class, if not more so, and in some sense marginal as well—that showed some kindness and ultimately some sense of solidarity with immigrant groups.

Naturally, not everyone felt this way. There was envy, fear of competition, and above all, that sense of superiority that city people tend to assume over rural people. Here and there, however, cracks began to develop through which the new group could make its way, sink roots, and begin to marry or build friendships with people who were already well established. Adversity brought these groups even closer. Although immigrants were unemployed, the traditional working classes also had their unemployed. When poverty became widespread, people began to move from the inner city to find shelter in some small shack along its outskirts. There a new arrival could meet someone with established roots, just as he could in the employment lines that formed as people searched for the odd job that opened up here and there. The two might even meet in the soup kitchens that some government or charitable institution opened for the poorest of them all. Women tended to be less reticent than men and were quicker to establish bonds or friendships that men would not form until later.

It was this blend of immigrant groups, the working class, and the lower middle class of traditional society that formed the masses in the Latin American cities starting around World War I. The name “masses,” which became more common than that of “multitude,” acquired a narrow and precise meaning. The masses were that diverse assortment of humanity that lived on the fringe of established society and that appeared to abide by no rules. They formed an urban group, although by varying degrees, since some had lived in the city for years, while others came from rural backgrounds and were just beginning to be “citified.” But they quickly acquired a distinctly urban look and behavior: they formed a huddled, compact group and, no matter the city, they were invariably at odds with the compact society that was already there. Thus the new urban society was a divided one: a new, rejuvenated baroque society.

The urban mass was not only anomic but fundamentally unstable as well. It comprised, in principle, immigrants and some well-rooted groups that, for one reason or another, were beginning to pull apart from traditional society whose values and principles they had embraced until just recently. This heightened the sense of anomie, which was perhaps further exacerbated by each new generation in all the sectors of the mass. Each of these generations created a new index for integration, new expectations with respect to the structure of traditional society, new strategies for taking on the monster that they feared less than their predecessors did. The game was becoming a vicious one, because the greater the degree of assimilation, the greater the anomie. Yet the urban mass began to acquire a radical homogeneity and soon to gain clarity about its objectives. It became self-evident that the mass did not want to destroy the structure that it had set out to become part of; on the contrary, it had a respect for that structure and for the principles upon which it was based. Its plan was not to change society in any substantive way, as certain established groups thought, but rather to embrace it and to adjust it only insofar as necessary for it to open up. The ultimate objective of the mass was for each of its members to be incorporated into that structure so that he might enjoy its benefits and then climb its ladder. As simple as those objectives were, they were not easily achieved. Since those who did succeed in accomplishing those objectives quickly divorced themselves from the mass, a hostility toward the structure and the established society that controlled it gradually grew within the mass, and the original desire for inclusion began to cool off. As the hostility of the mass became more and more pronounced, traditional society, now on the defensive, renewed its old hostilities. Many policies were hatched to break what seemed to be a vicious circle.

In the cities of Latin America, the formation of the urban masses coincided with industrialization and bore a special relation to employment. Many people, especially women, believed their only hope for making it into the established structure and prospering within it was to work for someone who was part of mainstream society. That was the hope nurtured by Gabriela in Jorge Amado’s novel: “I’m goin’ to stay in Ilhéus. I’m goin’ to hire me out as a cook or a washerwoman or a housemaid.” Then she added, as a happy memory: “I used to work for rich folks. I learned how to cook.” One had a house, meals, wages; most important of all, however, one had a tutor, someone from whom one could learn how the system operated, someone whose help would enable one to build upon that first relationship established within the structure. From that one relationship, a vast network of relatives and an endless line of friends and paisanos could take advantage of the crack in the structure.

Men, however, especially the more ambitious types, were not lured by that prospect. Many sought the high industrial wages and did not rest until they had what they needed to pull down those wages. Men who had a capacity and a willingness to learn became members of the new elite of the working class: they were the industrial proletariat. Others were not very clear about what they wanted, or perhaps did not have sufficient wherewithal to define their goals. Many were content to find unskilled employment, in public works or in construction—an obsession of governments besieged by these new and growing urban masses who were seeking work—or perhaps in the municipal services that were spreading as the urban population grew. There was no shortage of those who tried street vending; some had more success than others with these tiny, mobile businesses that could be started with virtually no capital. Others learned some trade or craft to earn their daily wage. But there were also those who succumbed to abject poverty, some of whom eventually drifted into criminal activities—drug trafficking, prostitution, robbery, and gambling—to strengthen their position in cities where population growth increased their chances of evading the law.

Such a wide range of possibilities did not, however, offer much in the way of security to the members of the new society forming in the cities: neither to immigrants, nor to the established working-class groups who joined them in this desperate search for social advancement. The game continued to be a vicious circle: the more opportunity a city offered, the greater the demand from normalized society, from the first immigrants to arrive, and from the almost uninterrupted stream of immigrants that followed them. The city continued to grow, and competition became tougher and tougher. As keen as competition was within established society, it was ruthless among the urban masses that had no standards or conventions to follow. That competitive sense, an “every man for himself” attitude, conspired against the solidarity of the masses. Every day there were “winners” who managed to get a firm foothold in the established structure and immediately separated themselves from the mass.

Thus it became evident that the mass was not a class at all, but rather a seedbed. Those who managed to move up socially left the mass in their wake. Those who remained were the ones who had not managed to move up socially. They would become a permanent fixture in the working-class sector and might even drop down a rung on the social ladder. The mass, therefore, was unstable. Its members never considered themselves part of a common class, except when it came to enemies. Its members never wanted to be a “separate” society; they wanted to be a part of that society that they had worked so hard to join. But the society—for which they felt a combination of admiration and envy—loathed and rejected them. It was a love-hate relationship that individuals understand very well but that societies rarely perceive.

While the personal ambitions of each member of the mass tore at its social fabric, the sense of failure shared by those trapped within it occasionally gave them a sense of solidarity. Established society—conventional, fearful, and unable to understand the magnitude of the social phenomenon that was playing itself out before their very eyes—saw the mass as an enemy. They watched the mass on downtown streets on holidays, perhaps from a balcony or from an automobile, and regarded it as some kind of monster with a thousand heads. They saw the masses in the soccer stadiums, in a frenzy of excitement. There may have been times when members of established society saw the masses in its own milieu, the slums and encampments: an abstract mass, an anguished body of human beings overwhelmed by poverty and despair, impotent in the face of the monster that held them down, whose designs they never managed to understand.

If the masses ever expressed their feelings, it was when they functioned as a group, new arrivals united with those who had already become integrated and who joined with them to voice their protests. This happened in certain cities, triggering unusual phenomena that exposed the depth of the transformations which the emergence of an anomic mass society was capable of bringing about within a city controlled, until recently, by a normalized society. Once it resorted to violence, the mass showed the power it was capable of marshaling when it managed to galvanize itself; but it also exposed the weaknesses and cracks in the structure of traditional society. This is what happened in Buenos Aires on October 17, 1945, and in Bogota on April 9, 1948. Both cities had grown rapidly as a result of internal migration. In both, working-class neighborhoods formed a ring around the traditional city; the new mass—a combination of immigrant groups, the working class, and the small middle class that had suffered most from the economic crisis and recession—united against traditional society.

At the time of the uprising to demand the release of Colonel Juan Perón, the power structure, then in the hands of Perón’s followers, threw its support behind the masses in the form of the army and the police; the General Confederation of Labor, whose membership included established labor as well as new arrivals, also took part by going on strike. But the masses that filled the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires on October 17, came in large part from the working-class districts in the southern part of the capital: Avellaneda, an important industrial center; Berisso, the center of the meat-packing industry; Lanús, Llavallol, and other lesser centers, all populated by the very humble classes and by newly formed industrial groups. But they also came from the city itself, from the working-class and lower middle-class neighborhoods. The color was perhaps a little darker than one might have found in downtown Buenos Aires, and undoubtedly darker that the predominant color in traditional society. Whereas traditional society identified the mass by the color of its skin, calling its members cabecitas negras, the popular caudillo called them descamisados (“shirtless ones”) in an allusion to their poverty. The crowd in Plaza de Mayo threatened violence, and traditional society feared looting. Yet there was no violence. The only act of what might be called civil disobedience was a symbolic one for traditional society: washing their tired feet in the fountains of the Plaza. The mass was not entirely certain what it wanted. But because of a split in its ranks, traditional society was able to offer the mass something: power was lodged in the hands of the single individual in whom they placed their hopes.

In Bogota, the mass that swept through the city in a desperate response to the murder of its caudillo, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, left traditional society in a state of shock, stunned not just by its numbers but by its attitude as well. Unlike the crowd in Buenos Aires, Bogota’s mass already had little to hope for, since the individual in whom they had invested their aspirations was dead. The mass did not come out to defend him but rather to avenge him, and the violence was much greater. Bogota’s established society was very much aware of its traditional components: there were, as people in the nineteenth century were in the habit of saying, either gentlemen in frock coats, or men in ruanas. The two groups had clashed often, ultimately fueling a civil war in the classic terms of a patrician or bourgeois society. But in 1948, traditional society discovered that the mob that filled its streets on the day of the bogotazo were not just men in ruanas—established members, however marginal, of a society governed by rules and norms—but a different multitude with many new arrivals, immigrants from rural areas who still had no sense of attachment to the city. Their numbers increased the strength of the established marginal groups, thus giving the new mass a distinct style of social behavior characterized by indiscriminate aggression against the city that all its members, established or newly arrived, now regarded as something alien, something that belonged to the “other society.”

When J. A. Osorio Lizarazo, in his book Gaitán, describes the forces that together constituted the bogotazo multitude, he does not stress the presence of the immigrant group, although it surely figured in several factors that he enumerates. He does, however, describe the combination of minority groups that joined that multitude and brought with them their radical ideas and facile slogans.

The anonymous molecules that comprise the people were swept up in a whirlwind. They came from everywhere. It was the middle-class man, condemned to live in the most unspeakable state of anguish, in a struggle between the lie that his life had become, silent hunger, and the need to feign a social position by some pathetic game; his will had been weakened and his soul corrupted by the cruelty of the struggle. It was the ingenuous, loquacious worker seeking some empty compensation for his misery. It was the sullen laborer of dark passion, emboldened by the alcohol that the State had given him to subvert morality with the instrument of bureaucratic recompense. It was the thug, involved in crime because he had no education to guide his instincts, who had suffered terrible persecution since childhood, never able to find anyone to defend him, acquainted only with the dark and ugly side of life. It was a jumbled mass, made up of many types, a monstrous mob burning with revenge, hatred, and destruction.

Ever-changing and enormous in number, the new urban mass would gradually lose its hostility and aggressiveness in the decades that followed. As a result, the process of industrialization became more pronounced, and job opportunities increased. If not all, certainly many members of that unstable and misdirected mass were finding avenues to pursue or strengthening their insertion into the social fabric. Three decades is too short a time for such a process to complete itself, so that in the ‘70s it was still in progress, constantly changing, with features that, if less dramatic, were no less disturbing. The masses are virtual social formations, and almost any circumstance can become their unifying force. It is clear that both the lower middle-class and the working class have retained their capacity to become a mass, especially in those urban societies that have become so large that they are no longer able to exert much social control over the individual. The masses virtually make the mega-cities. Even though something resembling mob behavior may occur from time to time, however, individually the members of the mass are more and more inclined to weave themselves into the fabric of society.

Both the lower middle classes and the working classes were obviously dislocated after their first experiences with mass-formation. There was doubt as to whether the economically deprived individual would be able to improve his lot by his own effort, as the ideology of upward mobility had promised; instead, he might have to resort to collective pressure. That doubt had an influence on ideologies and behaviors.  The entire social structure, moreover, felt the effects of mass-formation. For some groups, perhaps even for the majority, it ironically served to increase their appetite for individual economic success and upward mobility, stimulated by industrialization and economic recovery. The boundaries between the working classes and the lower middle classes, however, became more and more fluid and blurred. Advertising promoted greater consumerism and served to erase those boundaries altogether, as objects that had once been status symbols were, in one way or another, put within many people’s reach.

Migration from the countryside to the cities did not stop altogether, and that kept the urban working classes unstable. In the meantime, however, immigrants and members of more settled groups had together produced a new generation within the masses. Many were born and raised amid protest, as the class structure became better defined. Since so many were being born, many young people, once they reached a certain age, naturally began to look for work in an economic structure that was growing, but never enough to satisfy the demand fully. With so much unemployment among the young, gangs of juvenile delinquents began to form, like Bogota’s gamines (“street urchins”), who were cunning and fearless as they worked Seventh Street. There was adult unemployment as well; more serious still was the increasing underemployment that left thousands of families uncertain about their next meal.

Without an adequate and steady income, living in run-down housing that generally lacked the essential services, and with no way to keep a family together, large sectors of society—the lowest strata of the mass—formed a world that was marginal in two respects: first, they lived on the urban fringes; second, they were not part of mainstream society and its lifestyle. The anomie of that marginal world—the world of the encampments and other districts—was exposed for everyone to see. It was not exactly a working class, although there were workers within it; and even though women and children worked too, this was a social conglomerate that lived below subsistence level. For established society, this group was the “other society,” irreconcilable and unsalvageable. Thus, a physically split society, a baroque society, came into being. In some cities, from their shacks on the hillsides, thousands of human beings in the anomic society contemplated the spectacle of wealth—an opulence similar to that of the baroque courts—that established society offered up. Initial aggressiveness was followed by a certain tamed resignation. But at the same time, as in the Parisian “court of miracles,” no one could enter those encampments without protection.

The “other,” anomic society might have also included some middle-level workers—laborers and unskilled temporary hands who never fully belonged to the system and tended to move down rather than up. But the ones who certainly did not belong to that “other society” were those who held down the new, well-remunerated industrial jobs. In many cities, a relatively large industrial proletariat took shape within a matter of decades. They became the working-class elite, with aspirations of moving out of the working class. With high income levels, considerable purchasing power, and a certain degree of unionization, the industrial proletariat could achieve a status to which other working class groups could never aspire. Within a short time, the industrial working class had transformed itself into a major power factor capable of winning considerable benefits for itself. Housing plans, with long-term financing provided either by the State or by the unions, assured many their own separate apartments in good neighborhoods, within areas that had undergone urban development, in stark contrast with the encampments that sprang up on the hillsides, in areas subject to frequent flooding, or in garbage dumps. Health care services, clinics with excellent facilities, insurance, and vacations at affordable prices in good hotels at the shore or in the mountains, gave the unionized industrial proletariat a lifestyle that put an enormous gulf between them and the rest of the working class. The shift of its members into the ranks of the lower middle class became even more pronounced once they were able to offer their children a secondary-school education and eventually even to send them to the university. This was how the industrial proletariat consolidated its position within normalized society and gradually divorced itself from the rest of the working classes.

The tertiary sector was a shortcut for crossing the boundaries between the working classes and the middle class. Traditionally, the tertiary sector was the domain of the middle middle class. But as secondary education became more widespread, many young people from the working classes were able to move into mercantile or administrative activities. The relations between employers and employees were an expression of the blurred boundaries between the working classes and the middle middle class. Ability was undoubtedly important, but even so, the transition was not an easy one. Style of dress, speech, and manners betrayed a person’s origins and would often make the difference when a decision had to be made between two people who were virtual equals. Middle-class people had that obnoxious superiority that comes from an educated family rooted for several generations within established society.

Moreover, industrial development and greater economic activity increased the opportunities for the middle middle class: its numbers increased, and so did the volume of tertiary activity in almost all cities. Someone with family backing or important connections could be confident that he would have a job or begin his professional career without too much worry. Little by little, however, the competition became tougher. The number of people in the middle middle class continued to increase and eventually was more than the structure could absorb. Middle-class people were not the only ones vying for the positions that had traditionally belonged to the them. People with middle-class expectations, both from above and below, were also competing for those jobs. It might be the son of some industrial worker or some upper-class youth who had fewer possibilities and had lowered his expectations. Thus the middle middle was becoming part of the masses just as it was becoming narrower and losing its traditional freedom of movement.

Unlike what had happened two generations earlier, the sons of good families without any other claim to fame did not automatically find jobs. The State and businesses knew that they could be more selective and began to demand certain studies for any job: an elementary education at the beginning, then a secondary education, and even in many cases a university education. The professions began to close up as well. Apart from the fact that universities were graduating thousands, professional practice became more difficult. Mutual aid and union sponsored clinics set limits to the individual practice of physicians and dentists; industrialization of medical products narrowed the field for pharmacists; big law firms restricted the opportunities of independent lawyers and big construction companies those of architects. It was not long before talk of a professional proletariat became a commonplace. Even mercantile activity, ranging from the supermarket to the boutique, became massive and depersonalized. For people of daring and imagination, the only areas that were steadily growing and offered real opportunities were brokerage (work on commission, insurance and real estate businesses) and the new activities that were developing in the cities (modeling, advertising, radio, television, and film production). Opportunities were also growing for those who joined the ranks of the developing technocracy. Public and private entrepreneurial organizations adopted new methods that improved their operations and increased their need for technicians, ranging from those who operated electronic computers—the masterpieces of the new technocracy—to the specialist in studies of costs, feasibility, or management organization. The big corporations wanted engineers, physicists, economists, statisticians, sociologists, and psychologists to form teams that would plan and execute the complex tasks that industrial development called for. There was also a growing demand for professional services in the fields of health, social work, and education. Professionals in these fields rapidly grew in numbers and became more narrowly specialized in response to the new problems posed by an ever more complex social reality. The whole of society was becoming massive and depersonalized, as were the functions that society required: social services, a new concern that would emerge in the mass world; medical care not just for the working classes but also, gradually, for the other classes as well; most of all, education, where growth in numbers seemed to condemn it to decline in quality, especially in the university, which had once been restricted to the elite but gradually became an institution for the masses, especially in the big cities.

It was therefore understandable that those who engaged in all these activities and professions should not have—or not concern themselves with having—the conventional distinction of the old fashioned salesman in a luxury shop, or the old-style family lawyer, or the reassuring family doctor, or the prestigious attorney. In the middle middle class of professionals and employees no one had any time to waste, since almost everyone had to hold two jobs in order to be able to survive. Husband and wife both worked and still found it difficult to maintain a certain lifestyle. But the formation of a mass culture brought about a radical change in traditional schemes. The middle middle classes began to scorn the prudish concern for appearances that had been their most distinctive feature only two generations before. As they became increasingly depersonalized, these middle-class groups freed themselves of many prejudices; like London’s middle middle classes, they decided to abandon the white collar.

What the middle class did not surrender was its desire to move up both economically and socially. As in any hierarchical institution, one had to move on to the next level. Out of some desperate effort could come the long-desired promotion to the upper middle class, which was almost—albeit not quite—the upper class. To the upper middle class belonged all those who had succeeded in their chosen profession, in business, or in commerce and therefore had amassed the kind of fortune that allowed them to free themselves from everyday work and to slip, ever so timidly, into a life of leisure. Being able to play golf on a work day, or to take three weeks to vacation in the Bahamas at a time of year not normally set aside for vacation, were triumphs over routine that only those who had reached the highest level of the structure could enjoy. In the meantime, others who had just reached that level, were still trying to consolidate their position and could not yet begin to think about idleness and leisure. High-ranking executives, a sector that grew considerably from the 1940s to the 1970s, were known for their zealous dedication to work, which they tended to overdo, making themselves premature victims of heart attacks. It was demanding work, because it added to the intellectual task of defining a direction all the worries that come with making important, irreversible decisions. It also involved all the paraphernalia of public relations, including the necessary entertainment—dinners and banquets, nightclub meetings, cocktails, theater engagements—required to set big businesses against a backdrop very much akin to the leisure life of the upper class. But these executives were carrying on business after office hours, at a time when they had already exhausted their strength in discussing some contract or plan for a major operation. An almost delirious pursuit of status symbols—indicative of the status to which one aspired—coupled the commitments and concerns of social life with those of private life. One had to live in an exclusive neighborhood, be a member of exclusive clubs, frequent certain places, and have everything that was considered “indispensable,” because a high-level executive who wanted to consolidate his position was in fact also aspiring to move up the social ladder and become a member of the upper class.

This was a difficult but not impossible proposition. The upper classes, too, had suffered the effects of mass-formation and were in crisis. The first sign of that crisis was that the patrician class was no longer the elite of society, a role that it had played until only a few decades before. It was no longer as united as it had once been; one could become a member of the upper class more easily, provided certain requirements were met. Of course, a traditional patrician class, one that desperately defended its position and privilege, continued to exist in many cities. But by now social privilege simply meant that the upper class opened its ranks as little as possible, stressed its aloofness, and preserved the cult of ancestry and surname. Many of its members abandoned it for the new upper bourgeoisie and became entrepreneurs and industrialists in order to save family fortunes. Thus, a path was opened that connected the old upper classes with the new ones, both equally disconcerted by the new mass society, which they wanted to lead but at the same watched in fear and astonishment. Being pragmatic, these upper middle classes opted to control the areas they best understood—mainly the economic and political processes—and to remain watchful for the social problems that from time to time would erupt along the surface of daily life and alter their plans. They never managed to become the elite of the entire divided society; instead they were the elite only of the establishment. Their attitude toward the “other” society was a defensive one, calculated to keep them in control when circumstances told them that forceful measures were needed or that the “other” social groups might be placated with certain well-chosen and opportune concessions.

In the industrialized, mass consumption society, opportunities for enrichment increased. Great fortunes were amassed, and their owners, without hesitation, set themselves up in the upper class, regardless of their own backgrounds. Within a short time, they were familiar with all of the status symbols. Even the traditional upper classes—which the conservative newspapers continued to call the aristocracy—succumbed in the face of their economic power. Lineages were disappearing, giving way to economic clans in which fortunes of varied origin commingled, as attested to by the names on the boards of directors of banks and big enterprises: a surname that carried social prestige was appropriate for the office of chairman; behind him came other surnames representing various lines of social ascendance. But even the upper classes were undergoing the conversion to mass society. Wealth did not make its owner impervious to the hustle and bustle of the streets or spare him or her from having to wait in elevator lines. Travelling first class on an airline involved almost as many inconveniences as traveling tourist class. And if the trappings of privilege failed, then one could not be certain of finding a cab, or a table in an exclusive restaurant, or getting a telephone line.

It was inevitable that the emergence of a mass, diverse and in a constant state of flux should have an impact on the rest of urban society. The original masses became a marginal and anomic society that lived alongside, and up against, the established one. Both societies suffered the impact of industrialization, but the presence and the nature of the masses also affected the establishment. Established society maintained its identity but not completely: it became somewhat depersonalized, as a prelude, perhaps, to integration.