by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - May 7, 2012) The rich seem to need more help than the rest of us. They certainly want more help and they can afford to pay the help handsomely. In northern California, where I live and work, the help tend to be white and Latino. They are rarely African American. In fact, I do not know any African Americans employed by a wealthy family in the counties to the north of San Francisco: Marin, Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino. The African American population is very, very small. How do I happen to know about the help? I know the help personally. For the most part, I do not know the rich. But many of my northern California friends work for wealthy families.
They are servants, though they don't think of themselves as servants and no one refers to them as servants, either. Some are even encouraged to think of themselves as members of the family. In fact, they are intimate with family members, cooking, and serving meals, shopping, making beds, washing clothes and linens, cleaning house, and attending to other personal needs. I would say that the servant class falls into two groups. The servants in the first group tend to identify with their employers and want to live like them. They would like to be rich and to have servants of their own.
The servants in the second group tend to be what I would call "class conscious." They are aware of how much money they make and the difference between their income and that of the rich families for whom they work. They think of themselves as working class and have no interest in moving up the ladder and becoming members of the bourgeoisie. Those who identity with the upper class often land in debt because it is impossible to live a bourgeois lifestyle on a servant salary. Buying luxury cars and toys and taking luxury vacations usually brings financial misfortune. That seems obvious, but the dream of living as the rich live can blind the dreamer to economic realities. I have seen it happen, and watched as friends have lost their houses and their jobs. Of course, those who identify as working class also have economic woes.
The rich often don't want to be known as "rich." They would like to be perceived as ordinary Americans. One woman I knew and was writing about for a magazine objected to my use of the word "rich" to define her. She had inherited millions from her father and then made millions more in the wine industry. One of the favorite rhetorical questions in wine country goes, "How do you make a big fortune in the wine industry?" The answer: "Start with a small fortune."
This particularly wealthy grape grower and wine maker asked me to write that she had "the wherewithal" and not to say that she was rich. I did make the change she asked for. She was afraid that if word got around that she was wealthy she might be kidnapped and held for ransom.
In northern California, in addition to the famous wealthy grape growers and wine makers there are also wealthy film producers and directors who appear in public disguised as paupers, or at least dressed like the rest of us in jeans and in T-shirts.
Jack London was probably the most famous, wealthy celebrity in northern California at the start of the twentieth century. London made his money writing books and articles and selling the rights to Hollywood producers. He also wrote about his beautiful home and gardens and his servants whom he deemed necessary for his work as a writer and as an advocate for socialism. A member of the Socialist Party, London traveled across the United States in 1905 and 1906 advocating revolution, by violence if need be. Mark Twain couldn't resist the suggestion to London that he might tone down his remarks because disgruntled workers might want to seize possession of his possessions.
So far the Occupy Wall Street movement, as afar as I know, has not occupied the homes of the rich, though I have seen movies in which criminals and terrorists seize control of mansions, and hold the rich hostage. If occupiers were to occupy mansions I would not expect that members of the servant class would break ties with their employers and join the politically motivated occupiers. Most servants I know belong to the 1% and identify with the 99%. Not all of them, but most of them. Some of my friends who work for wealthy families know that they belong to the working class and want to go on belonging to the working class, though they also comment that the working class of old no longer exists. The sons and daughters of white men and women who hold working-class jobs and are skilled tradesmen, and women don't want jobs as mechanics, electricians, stone masons, chauffeurs, carpenters, and house cleaners. They want office jobs. They'd rather be on-line servants than servants using their hands in physical labor. I would have to say that when I think of servants I think of England and English novels. Indeed, there would not be an English novel if it were not for servants both in the novels and in the homes of the novelists, cooking and cleaning for them. Perhaps some of them ought to have received credit along with names of authors such as Thackeray and Dickens.
I had a brief spell as the servant of a Hollywood producer and I rather enjoyed the position I held. I gardened for the fellow and was amply paid. I liked knowing him and liked discussing with him the movies he was making. I have also enjoyed the gossip I have heard from friends who have worked for the likes of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. I've learned that the rich can and do overeat and have eating disorders, that they're messy and even slobs and wouldn't think once of cleaning up after themselves. Some of the employers are dictatorial and enjoy bossing their servants and pushing them around. It's fun to be the voyeur at the party, especially when the revelers are rich -- or should I say, have "the wherewithal."
So, as we go on thinking about the 1% and the 99% we might also include in the equation the Americans who work in the homes of the wealthy, eager to join them and to be like them and those other class-conscious servants eager to maintain their own places in society as skilled craftsmen and women.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, and For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)