Monday 26 March 2018

On Classism and Inequality

Posted by Keith Tidman

In various forms, and to many degrees, classism, meaning prejudice against people belonging to a particular social class, and social inequality are pervasive, pernicious, and persistent. And they are unbreakably bound: classism and inequality engage one another in a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship. The two phenomena are therefore best explored together.

The casualties of classism, predominantly poorer, less educated, working-class people, not uncommonly internalise the discrimination, resenting and yet accepting censure at the same time. The victims may find it difficult to dismiss the opprobrium as unjust  they might, in resignation, wrongly see it as fitting to their station in life. The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to rationalise why, dismissively stating that: 
 “The order of castes is merely the ratification of an order of nature.
At the same time, class has appeared hard-wired across generations within families. For many, there are no or few available strategies to exit the cycle theyre caught up in. Measures of influence, power, wealth, job status, and knowledge — along with verdicts about decency, heritage, behaviours, habits, and who deserves what — are the filters through which stereotypes and biases pass. Identity, labels, entitlement, and rationalisation are among the tools instigators use to perpetuate classism. Their claim to merited privilege becomes the normative standard. That standard, however, can run into the immorality of social and economic inequality that’s arbitrary, often non-merit based, and stems from self-indulgence.

Appropriately, the 18th-century Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith pushed back against Nietzsches dismissiveness, laconically offering the optimistic, affirmative view that:
 “... the  difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of.” 
A notion that all people, of all classes, can build on. 

Yet classism and inequality aren’t figments; they are real social constructs that bear concretely on citizens’ lives. Certain groups, believing their economic and sociopolitical advantages endow them with higher class rankings, enjoy yet another consequential privilege: they get to pull the levers on how government, the law, institutions, entitlements, and cultural foundations are designed and operate, and whom those levers favor. This instrumentalist perspective serves as a means to acquire additional benefits. The privileged are adept at influencing the running of nations and leveraging the hand they get to play. They project their influence on society in ways that primarily attend to self-interests, with modest resources to be shared among the rest.
The effect of those residual resources doesn’t make inequalities right, or more bearable or fixable; the effect is duplicitous. In a paradoxical way, the privileged exert a powerful, dominant grip, while dexterously advancing their interests. The exercise of power often happens veiled — though it needn’t always do so, as out-in-the-open brazenness is no barrier to political manipulation. An offshoot among the privileged is increased self-determination and sovereignty over choice — their own and their nation’s. Distrust of the financially oiled powerbrokers — among those who feel disenfranchised and denied fairness and opportunity — emboldens disunity and strident polarisation. Sometimes the outcome is the rise of extreme factions on both the left and right of politics, clashing over matters of both policy and heart-felt beliefs.

The underprivileged classes see that, in an increasingly and perhaps irresistibly and irreversibly globalised world, there’s merely a larger platform on which those already holding capital, and the levers of influence that accompany it, extend their gains all the more. The so-called common good isn’t always seen as an enlarging, sharable pot — where zero-sum resources go only so far and are seen to be acquired at the expense of other groups. The less-advantaged members of society might question whether equality and merit really matter, as opposed to an unfair 'legacy' grip on claims to influence, wealth, and power. 

Liberal economics promises the opportunity to rise among the ranks, though serving as more an aspirational, albeit elusive, brass ring. Identity — such as race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, language, and history — is integral. Identity serves as a means to decide how to share access to rights, choice, fairness, justice, goods, safety, and well-being — and ultimately recognition and legitimacy in the marketplace of ideas — according to the governing arrangement. Yet inequality endangers these benefits.

As an ideal, the observation by the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still highly relevant to the debate  duplicated around much of the world  over class, inequality, the public good, sociopolitical advantage, and nations responsibility to rectify egregious imbalances:
It is therefore one of the most important functions of government to prevent extreme inequality of fortunes; not by taking away wealth from its possessors, but by depriving all men of means to accumulate it; not by building hospitals for the poor, but by securing the citizens from becoming poor.
Yet, the reality — whether in liberal democracies or in patriarchal autocracies, and most systems of governance and social philosophies in-between — has seldom worked out that way. Classism and inequality continue to march conspicuously in unison and without remedy, their rhythms bound irremediably together, each still used to justify and harden the shape of the other.


Tessa den Uyl said...

Where does the idea of having the right to accumulate wealth stems from?
I guess one question is: who approves to what?

Keith said...

Per your queries, Tessa: Inequality and concomitant social hierarchies — not just economic, but also sociological, attitudinal, and philosophical, across many axes — have arguably been among us throughout history. A contrast of the few and the many — an ordering of people, if you will, within the group, where 'who approves what' is both self-appointed (often in the case of the few) and appointed by others (often in the case of the many). To be sure, some instances of inequality and class have been more, or less, flagrant, rooted, and persistent than others. But inequality and classism are, I suspect, deeply etched. What people irresistibly covet, in a misleadingly zero-sum competition over resources and rights, is perhaps one discernible cause; another may be the flexing over control and power in their many guises, stemming from entitlement; another may be embedded in the clawing search for self-worth, uniqueness, and exceptionalism. And perhaps so very much more as to the range of causes — from the abstract and instinctual to the concrete and palpable — limited only by people’s imagination.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Complementing Tessa's question: on what does one base equality? The problem you describe is of such magnitude that the answer would, I think, need to become the abiding focus of every society.

One often comes across groups of people who practice classism, although one might find it impossible to accuse them of it. I look at Facebook friends. These serve as a mirror of who one is dealing with.

Tessa den Uyl said...

There have been populations, like the Zuni, where individuality was not seen as something that had to be expressed. Even when distinctions were made in regard to functions, those distinctions did not serve to enhance the individual but served the community as a whole, simultaneously interpreting a way of how to be in the world. Antagonism does not have value this way to accumulate identity the way we ‘understand’ it.

Maybe one reason we (apparently) still give value to classism today, is rather due to not knowing which community we serve.
Another reason might be the approval to an idea that to become someone, one has to distinguish him/herself within a set of closed interpretations about self. To adhere, means to approve to certain ideas that are highly vague though approved. And here hides something that should push us beyond the surface about classism. Maybe it starts with the simple question when people say: “ you are not on Facebook?” by returning the question, “ Why are you?” The replies move straight to an unconscious approval about what exactly?

Keith said...

I agree, Thomas, that the matter of inequality (in particular, civil, political, and economic inequality) is best tackled nation by nation, and to some extent, even by localities within nations. As to your question “on what does one base equality?,” there are various dimensions and features, I believe — which can only be touched on the surface here.

There is what one might call ‘constitutional equality’ — the codification of civil and political rights. It includes freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly. It includes access to fair and equal justice. It includes the right to own property. It includes universal adult suffrage. And much more, of course — reflecting national and regional values, depending on how liberal or illiberal those values happen to be and on embedded systems of governance. The test for constitutional equality is in the doing — not, of which some countries are culpable, merely in the (disingenuous) saying.

Then there is what one might call ‘natural equality’. It includes recognition that everyone is indubitably born with equal rights and equal opportunity (though, to be clear if perhaps obvious, not equal capacities and talents, whose endowment is more through natural order).

As for ‘economic equality’, the term, I believe, is not quite accurate — or is at least misleading. Unmitigated economic equality — everyone possessing an equal slice of a nation’s and the world’s goods and capital — isn’t achievable, and may not even be desirable (hard-tack socialists notwithstanding). The robust dynamics of the marketplace still matter. Here, the issue is not ‘absolute economic equality’; rather, in my view, the issue is ‘fair, limited inequality’. That is, that economic inequality — in both income and assets — is not unfairly, even unethically, egregious and unbounded.

I refer here, as just one among many possible examples, to the famously massive and still widening disparities between the incomes of heads of business and their workers. One thorny challenge, in the related broader context, is to define ‘primary needs’ — often a matter of much dispute, but not irreconcilably so. I contend it’s strikingly unjust as billions of people live — or fail to live — off a dollar or two a day. All the while in eye-popping contrast to the world's magnates. How societies mitigate the perniciousness of worst-case economic inequalities — decisions about ‘reasonableness’, and how to recalibrate systems to get there — should be a prime objective in societies’ policymaking.

Keith said...

Your interesting reference, Tessa, to a population “where individuality was not seen as something that had to be expressed” brought to mind a number of rhetorical questions. I wonder, for example, whether a sense of self-identity might ever, nonetheless, have a place in a culture where “distinctions did not serve to enhance the individual but served the community as a whole.” I wonder if self-identity might therefore be expressible only in terms unique to that society and, by extension, entirely unfamiliar to other communities around the globe — except, of course, to the likes of anthropologists. I wonder if, in the context of the community’s primacy, self-identity might ever be associated with there being ‘outsiders’ — marginalization, even. I wonder if self-identity might ever hew to any of the standard identity groupings that help define most other societies, such as social class, educational attainment, gender, economic class, religion, political affiliation — assuming that in the case of the Pueblo people you refer to, categories like race and ethnicity may be largely (and perhaps entirely) one.

Tessa den Uyl said...

IMHO, like this Keith you agree to the regularity of the same procedure. Where do you position reasonableness? There cannot ever be equality as long as you approve to a system that is far from that vision.

Keith said...

As to ‘reasonableness’, Tessa, I’m referring to society allowing realistically for ‘merit’ as to income, assets, and means. Merit is, after all, among the key catalysts of robust economies, including in the mildly fuzzier realm of rewards. A system that doesn’t provide room for acknowledging merit would severely disincentivise people — not just the most highly talented but also those moderately talent — and undermine effort, innovation, inventiveness, perseverance, and flat-out caring. On the flip side, an economic model that recognises — and rewards — talent ultimately benefits everyone. But figuring out what are ‘enough rewards’ to incentivise and keep the economy healthily humming along is exceptionally difficult, given the imprecision of matching economic theory, practice, and outcomes. The hard sledding involves societies getting to that ‘sweet spot’ in the merit–reward equation — between extreme inequality and the (unrealistic) absolutely equal divvying up of goods and capital. That’s the tough part. There is, of course, no single solution — no single formula — as it’s probably more practical, as well as efficacious, to think in terms of a broad range of how merit–reward–income–assets gets balanced out. It’s doable, however. Not insignificantly, getting to ‘reasonableness’ in these contexts depends on societies’ values — a mix of the abstract and concrete, but not beyond reach, and all the while directly bearing on policymaking — and what kind of social system those societies seek.

Keith said...

Of possible interest, one variant of the translated sentence below the image illustrating this post is “One should hope that the game will end soon.” Might the elites shown bumptiously perched on the back of the stooped worker willingly dismount soon? Might the worker, instead, eventually rise up and shake them off in quasi-revolutionary defiance? Or is this ride fated to continue as far as the mind can see? (Thank you, Martin, for providing the illustration.)

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