Class Anxiety of Privilege Denied

There were yet more outraged upper middle class people at work last night. It’s not an isolated incident, working as I have in a parking ramp for the past two decades. I see all types and it’s not as if working class and minority people never get upset, but never quite so often or to the same degree.

This particular couple was so angry that, if it were a cartoon, steam would have been blowing out their ears. They were screaming and honking their horn. They got out of their car a couple of times. I was starting to fear violence and made sure the doors were locked to my booth. It goes without saying that I don’t normally fear for my life while cashiering.

Fortunately, several large muscular police (all of them white) showed up and set these people straight. It’s nice when the police have your back, as a fellow city government employee. It might help that I’m a white guy and so, even as working class, I get some amount of privilege. I’d probably be more worried if I wasn’t white, as there is a history of systemic racism in this town (one of the highest racial disparities of drug arrests in the country; not to mention the last time a well off white guy started a fight with a poor black guy, it was the poor black guy defending himself that the police shot — see below*).

This couple was yelling at me not just because of some abstract notion of privilege, as so much about our society promotes that sense of privilege with concrete results. No doubt they are used to telling people what to do and getting their way. It’s at such times that I’m glad I’m unionized because I have no doubt they will contact my boss and try to get me fired (this is why every worker should be a union member and every workplace should be unionized). What they don’t understand, in their privilege, is that I don’t back down from rich assholes. Then again, neither do I treat anyone differently no matter their socioeconomic class. If someone is nice to me, I’ll do my best to be nice to them. I didn’t care that they have privilege in our society, not in and of itself or not anymore than privilege in general bothers me, but I do care that they flaunted their privilege in trying to intimidate me into submission.

After the incident, I was thinking about why they were so angry. I hadn’t seen anyone that angry in a long time. Even most upper middle class white people are perfectly fine. I rarely have trouble with any customers. Still, why is it that when there is conflict it disproportionately involves those with privilege? What does privilege mean in a high inequality society such as the United States? People like this are among the few who are socially, economically, and politically secure in American society. They have few worries. Paying the 23 bucks for a lost ticket is nothing to them (filling the gas tank of their SUV would cost far more than that). But being treated like a normal person felt like a threat to their entire sense of reality. And indeed it was a threat because without entitlement their identity of superiority can’t be maintained. Probably at stake, in their minds, was the very social order and their place within it.

Few poor minorities would dare to escalate a situation to that level. That is because they have proper respect for the police showing up. This couple, however, had no concept that any and all authority figures wouldn’t automatically take their side no matter what. And they knew that no matter how much trouble they caused the police were unlikely to shoot them or arrest them, as they might do to a poor minority. I intellectually understand that. Yet what really is at the bottom of that fuming outrage? It’s such a strange thing to observe. And I don’t even take it personally. From my view, they really are no different than any other customer. As a unionized government employee, I take it all in stride because I’ve seen it all before. It’s just another day on the job.

I considered the possibility that they had a really bad day for a thousand different possible reasons. Or maybe they had been drinking. But that doesn’t really explain anything. Unhappy drunks and unhappy people in general are as common as they come. Most people, no matter what is going on in their life and no matter their state of mind, don’t have public tantrums that lead to altercations with the police. It was plain weird. I could sense how shocked, flabbergasted they were that they couldn’t get me to do what they told me to do. I do what my employer tells me to do, not what a rich asshole tells me to do. That is how capitalism works. Now if my employer were a rich asshole, that would be a different situation.

This reminds me of Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. He explains how high inequality stresses out everyone, including the rich. It creates a social condition of pervasive anxiety, divisiveness, conflict, aggressiveness, short-term thinking, etc. That last one applies here, since it wasn’t only anger but an inability to think of consequences. That couple was completely lost in the all-consuming moment of blind rage to the point of an apoplectic fit. I’d argue that their behavior was morally wrong, at least according to standards of basic humanity, but more than anything their behavior was supremely stupid. That is a point Payne makes, how as inequality worsens so does decision-making ability.

What stands out is that such relatively wealthy people would argue over such a small sum of money, as if they were poor people and I was trying to take away their last dollar. Payne explains this, in demonstrating how people feel poor and act poorly in a high inequality society, even when no poor person is involved in any given situation. The sense of class conflict and status insecurity is a shadow that looms over the lives of us all, rich and poor alike.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to inequality or rather not only to socioeconomic inequality, as there are many forms of disparity between individuals and groups. Any stressor will have similar consequences, but few stressors are likely to have much impact without one kind of inequality or another already being present. It is the differences and divides of inequality that transforms an individual stressor into large-scale and pervasive social stress. This among much else, as Payne explains, leads to the clinging of social identity — from race to politics, but often class. And that is how we come to see our neighbors and fellow citizens as potential threats, as enemy others to be fought and defeated or to go down trying.

In such a state of anxiety and fear, every incident can become a perceived existential threat. But the seeming point of contention focused upon, whether a ramp charge or a political argument, is rarely if ever the real issue. What matters most is how this cuts to the heart of identity and, in these reactionary times, turns the mind toward the reactionary — it not being all that relevant what is being reacted to. Lots of heat, little light.

* * *

The Broken Ladder
by Keith Payne
pp. 2-4 (see earlier post)

As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flightSince an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.

* * *

*Let me note one thing, for sake of fairness.

Even with the proven history of racial bias around here, I have to admit that in my personal experience the Iowa City Police are quite professional. Blacks living here very well might have different experience than my own, of course. All I can say is that I’ve observed no police bias, racial or class, in my years as a city employee. Maybe the police are more careful these days about biases, as it does seem they’ve sought to increase diversity of officers.

They dealt with this white upper middle class couple with a calm but firm authority, effectively de-escalating the situation. But I’ve seen them do the exact same thing with a black guy in my cashier lane some years ago. In neither case, did they threaten the customer nor did they have to resort to arresting them. The police here don’t seem to look for trouble, even when the problematic individual is looking for trouble.

I wanted to give credit where it is due. The police handled the situation well. Of the times police have showed up when I was dealing with a customer, I can only think of one time where the officer in question was less than helpful. It’s nice to be able to expect a professional response from the police, considering that evidence implies that isn’t always the case with police departments in some other cities.

Class Divide and Communication Failure

There is a class divide that makes communication almost impossible.

If you are part of the population that is upwardly mobile and/or economically stable (mostly upper middle class and above), you aren’t feeling desperate and any political concerns are rarely immediate threats to your life, your family, or your community. Such people live in relative comfort, security, and privilege. They may not be super wealthy and still have problems like anyone else, but none of it is overwhelming most of the time.

It is far far different for the rest of the population, the downwardly mobile and economically precarious, struggling working class, the poor, and the unemployed. These people know in their personal experience that society is dysfunctional, that the economy is rigged, and that the government doesn’t represent them. They directly and personally feel what it means to mistrust and sometimes even fear one’s government, to know that they are on their own with little to save them if everything goes wrong.

These two classes live in separate worlds. The minority who are doing fairly well or, for some, doing great have absolutely no clue what is going on with majority of the population. It is a total disconnect. They don’t understand what it means to feel desperation, anger, outrage, and outright fear, verging on paranoia at times. In the middle-to-upper class defending the status quo, the lower classes unsurprisingly see them as part of the problem, even though the reality is most comfortable people are simply ignorant and only complicit to the degree that ignorance is willful, but mostly it is passive ignorance.

Most Americans no longer trust the government. Most Americans no longer think there is a functioning democracy. Yet the middle-to-upper classes are still acting as if nothing has fundamentally changed, just some reform needed, maybe an occasional signing of a petition or the joining in a march, but just keep on voting for the lesser evil. This is why Trump has been such a shock. Some of the comfortable people are suddenly feeling a bit uncomfortable, a feeling that the lower classes have been feeling for a long time.

Will we finally get to a point where the class divide breaks down? Will the comfortable finally start paying attention, instead of remaining selfish assholes seeking to maintain the status quo? Will those on the bottom of society finally realize the average middle class professional is not the ultimate enemy and instead is simply a clueless ignoramus who, in reality, is no more represented by government than the poor? Will the American public, across all divides, finally see that the problems we face are shared concerns?

American Class Bigotry

“The system is still structured in such a way that one percent of the population owns 43 percent of the wealth, you end up with an embrace of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, especially upper–middle class and above, but the gay poor, the lesbian poor, they’re still catching hell . . . It’s not just black. It’s white. It’s brown. It’s the structure of a system . . . it’s worse [than ever].”
~ Cornel West

American society is divided by class and, ideology and parties aside, united according to class. Class identity and class conflict are the defining features.

That is because the lives of Americans are determined by class more than anything else, more than even race. Poor whites and poor blacks have more in common than either has with wealthy whites and wealthy blacks. This is seen in the most basic aspects of lives. The poor are more likely to live next to, work with, attend school with, be friends with, or even marry a poor person of another race than they are to do any of those things with a wealthy person of the same race. The class social order creates entirely different realities that Americans live within.

Racial animosity among the poor is often a result of proximity, not distance. But even then race is rarely the most important issue in the average person’s life. Most people simply worry about daily concerns of life, of getting by and making ends meet. It’s primarily the more economically privileged who have greater ability to racially segregate themselves by living in suburbs, gated communities, and gentrified neighborhoods, by attending elite colleges and sending their kids to private schools.

It is the middle-to-upper classes, a minority of the population, that hold not just most of the wealth but also most of the power and influence along with the privileges, opportunities, and resources that go with it. They don’t tend to worry about their next pay check, medical bills, paying rent, factory closings, home foreclosures, etc. In their greater luxury, these people are free to concern themselves about political galas, partisan campaigning, fundraising events, party primaries, political activism, identity politics, and culture wars. The rest of the population is mostly too busy living their lives and too disenfranchised from the system to worry about what concerns the economically well off.

It’s only the political class, not the majority of Americans, that are divided or like to pretend to be divided. But when it comes to issues of real political power and social privilege, most Republicans and Democrats of the political class are equally neocons and neoliberals. The political rhetoric that is used to create a mood of melodrama and divisiveness is rather superficial and misleading. Most Americans agree about most issues. Most Americans are for BOTH gun rights AND gun regulations, for BOTH abortion rights AND abortion limits, etc. Yet the divide and conquer strategy is quite effective, if only in terms of a sleight-of-hand diversion. It’s easy to rile people up momentarily or simply to demoralize them with the media-propagated sense of conflict.

There is a cynicism in how the political and media elite use these kinds of issues. They create an image of public opinion that doesn’t match the reality of public opinion. The ruse would be shown for what it is, if more of the population were to vote or revolt. It works so effectively because each individual realizes that the media-portrayed reality doesn’t match their own positions and experiences, which makes them feel disconnected from others and alienated from mainstream society, never realizing that people like them are the majority. It’s a highly developed form of social control, since it’s much easier for an elite to rule if the majority doesn’t realize they’re a majority.

The elite have a superior and often condescending attitude toward the rest of society. This expresses itself in many ways, from smug paternalism to righteous judgment, from fear of the dirty masses to opportunistic manipulation. You find it in how politicians of both parties act and in how the media talks. Listen to what Charles Murray says about poor whites in Fishtown, how Thomas Sowell talks about redneck culture, J.D. Vance’s admonishments of hillbillies, Bill Cosby’s criticisms of inner city blacks, etc. And that is just from the political right. The liberal class is known for this as well, specifically among the Clinton New Democrats and the mainstream media that is aligned with them. Smug liberalism was particularly bad this past campaign season and the arrogance of the liberal media was breathtaking.

Speaking of an elite can be misleading, though. The class divide can be remarkably slim at times. With economic troubles increasing and economic mobility decreasing, it’s getting easier and easier for the  upper class to slip down to the middle class and the middle class middle class to slip down to the working class while the working class itself falls further behind. But class identity maintains itself long after such changes occur, because as the entire class spectrum shifts downward almost everyone maintains their relative position within the hierarchy. It’s easy to forget how many Americans are on the bottom of society and how little it takes to gain a bit of class privilege.

The perceived or self-identified elite isn’t always extremely distant, either economically or geographically. Most Americans are working class without a college education. So, simply getting a college education leading to even the most minimal of professional jobs makes one a class above most of the population. It doesn’t matter that the public school teacher or county naturalist may make less money than someone with a good factory job. Class is ultimately an identity and having a college education can give someone a sense of superiority, no matter how slight it can sometimes be in economic terms.

What the college education can give an individual is potentially a position of authority, as even the most lowly of professional jobs can offer. A public school teacher can speak with authority to parents and the county naturalist can speak with authority to small farmers, and in both cases they have government backing their authority, even if that authority has little real force of power. It’s still a greater social position within the social hierarchy and that comes with certain privileges that are easily seen by those further down the ladder of respectability.

This is even seen in some traditionally working class jobs. Someone I know recently got a college degree and was hired on with the city department of parks and recreation. The previous head of the department liked to hire people who grew up on farms as they have practical knowledge about machinery, tools, etc. But the new head of the department prefers to hire college grads who have professional training as naturalists and so have expertise in forestry management, prairie restoration, controlled burns, etc. So, the newly hired employees are treated with more respect in the department and likely they’ll be promoted more quickly and paid more than the older workers. Working class experience and abilities are becoming increasingly irrelevant and of less economic value, hence of less social value. This person, simply by going to college, is now in a better position than most Americans. That certainly creates conflict in society and in the workplace.

It isn’t just that someone goes to college. It’s also what makes that possible. This person was raised upper middle class by college-educated parents. They made sure he took college preparation classes in high school, always encouraged him to go to college, and were willing and able to pay part for his college education. Plus, they modeled certain behaviors for him and helped him in school when asked. Most Americans never get these kinds of advantages that are the norm for middle-to-upper class families. At the most basic level, this is a very real class privilege, even when it is far from being part of the ruling elite.

I know many liberals who didn’t spend most of their lives in big cities in coastal states. They have all resided more years in rural farm states than anywhere else, but that has included living in liberal places like this Iowan college town. This creates a different mentality from someone in the same state who grew up on a farm or in an industrial town and who never went to college or lived in a college town. There are many college graduates in this liberal college town with working class jobs, but it is nothing like being working class in most places in the country working at some crap job like McDonald’s or Walmart.

I see how this different mentality effects people. Many of the people I know are good liberals. None of them are wealthy, often only a generation from working class, and yet they tend to have a strong sense of class identity, not unusually looking down on the poor. One liberal I know has made fun of coworkers for missing teeth. And another refuses to let his daughter play with the poor white children in the neighborhood. They dismiss poor whites as methheads and talk about tweakers for Trump. This also includes some fear and judgment of poor minorities, perceived as moving in from Chicago. It’s a strong sense of those other people being somehow inferior and unworthy, sometimes simply condescension but not unusually mockery. It’s not that they would openly be cruel toward the poor, but the attitude of superiority has to leak out even if unconsciously and I’m sure others pick up on it.

Some of that class consciousness was probably inherited from the larger society, learned from the behavior of older generations and absorbed from the media. That still wouldn’t explain how it came to be expressed so strongly in those who one might think, as liberals, shouldn’t be prone to class bigotry. Maybe it’s because many people I know, as with many of our generation, haven’t done as economically well as the previous generation. This creates class anxiety which is clear in many people having economic worries. The one thing they’ve got going for them is a college education. It’s what they have to prove their worth in the world and they hold the class attitude of seeing the lower classes as ignorant. Many of these people are of the liberal class of professionals, even if only barely.

This isn’t limited to liberals, of course. It’s just that I’ve become more aware of it among liberals. And it somehow seems worse when I observe it in liberals, as it contradicts how liberals see themselves. Many conservatives see no shame in class bigotry, as it is part of the conservative worldview of meritocracy and Social Darwinism. But in liberals, it feels particularly hypocritical.

For liberals, this also mixes up with identity politics. I’ve heard Democrats try to dismiss Bernie Sanders supporters and Donald Trump supporters by invoking what, to the liberal mind, are supposed to be protected groups. It was assumed that minorities, women, and LGBTQ people all supported Hillary Clinton. This was total bullshit, but it’s how a certain kind of liberal sees the world. In reality, Sanders won the majority of young and the poor, including among minorities and women and probably the LGBTQ as well. Then some of these people apparently went over to vote for Trump, as impossible as that seems to the liberal class.

This is an example of class disconnection. Economics doesn’t seem all that important when one has no serious and immediate economic problems. If you are of the liberal class, even on the lower end, most of the minorities and gay people you know are going to also be of the liberal class. This creates a distorted view of demographic identities. If you are a poor minority woman, Clinton’s middle class white feminism means little to you. If you are a working class gay man who lost his job when the factory closed, your most pressing concern at the moment isn’t same sex marriage. Worrying about such things as transgender bathrooms is a class privilege.

For most lower class people, gender and sexuality issues are far down the list of priorities. Even among working class straight white males, they don’t particularly care about culture war issues. Democrats have been pushing social liberalism for decades and yet the majority of the white working class kept voting for them. It was economics, stupid. The white working class isn’t going to vote against their own interests. It’s just that this election they didn’t see a corporatist candidate like Clinton as being in their best interest, whether that meant they chose to vote for another candidate or not vote at all.

The response of the liberal class is a clueless class bigotry. And if they’re not careful, Democrats will become the new party of class bigots, protecting the interests of the shrinking middle class against the interests of the growing working class. That would be a sad fate for the once proud working class party. The working class would be abandoned, left to fend for themselves with no party that represents them. Then the class divide will be complete, as economic inequality becomes a vast chasm. And the further the divide grows, the worse conflict will become. We might see some real class war, of the kind not seen for generations.

Is the smug satisfaction of class bigotry worth the harm it causes? As the economy worsens, perceived class position won’t save anyone nor will a sense of superiority be much comfort. Instead of Americans turning on one another, it would be to everyone’s advantage to see their interests more in line with the lower class majority than with the wealthy ruling elite. Even the rich would be better off in a society with less wasteful divisiveness and greater benefit for all.

Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects

Privilege is a tough subject. For most people, there are always plenty of others who are both more privileged and less privileged. Still, nuance and complexity isn’t how we tend to think about such things. It depends, as always, on what we focus upon and what we ignore—this typically being shaped by unconscious biases.

We don’t objectively compare ourselves to the larger social reality. And we don’t base our perceptions on intricate demographic data and comprehensive surveys. What we usually do is create a sense of our place in the world through personal anecdotes and vague media-filtered experience, through narrative frames and political rhetoric. This causes us to compare ourselves to the distorted and often fictionalized narratives portrayed in MSM news reporting and Hollywood movies—not to mention the influence of now near endless political campaigning and the subtle class war rhetoric that is drilled into our psyches. Besides that, it is human nature to focus on and, when possible, aspire toward what is above us. Even the wealthy will look with envy at the even wealthier. This is exaggerated in a high inequality society, where the gap between the rich and super-rich is as vast as the gap between the upper classes and all the rest, and such gaps continue to grow ever more vast. Only those near the bottom might bother to spend much time looking down upon those below them in the social pecking order, whether the differences are real (class) or perceived (race).

I’ve pointed out how this plays out for liberals—the privilege of the liberal class, the bias and benefits inherent to greater wealth and status, opportunities and resources. The liberal demographic is among the most economically well off and well educated. And, related to this, the wealthier of any demographic (race, ideology, etc) the more liberal people tend to be, often both in terms of social liberalism and classical liberal economics. It’s not only about those who self-identify as liberals. A similar pattern is found among libertarians and other right-wingers, from objectivists to anarcho-capitalists. It’s true of the Republican political elite and activists, the conservative pundits and think tank intellectuals, the business managerial class and inherited old wealth. But it’s also true of most people on the far political left: Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, feminists, etc. Even the typical minority activist and politician is going to be far above average in wealth and education. To hold and defend any particular ideology or identity politics largely depends on a privileged status in society. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to commit to such activities—especially if one makes a career out of it. The poor, whether working or unemployed, whether white or minority, don’t have this kind of luxury.

There is an odd dynamic here. The middle-to-upper class are more ‘liberal’ in many ways, including for those on the political right. Those far down the economic scale are less concerned about defending liberalism in any of its forms, whether leftist standard liberalism or right-wing classical liberalism. In Western countries, even radical left-wingers who often are critical of ‘liberalism’ are more culturally liberal than the poor. On the other hand, the lower classes (i.e., the majority of the population) are more liberal/leftist in concrete ways than the political elite that claims to represent them—supporting: higher taxation of the rich and corporations, stronger social safety net, more effective regulations, less wars of aggression and military adventurism, etc. The supposed conservatism of the lower class majority is primarily symbolic, not necessarily based on specific political principles and policies. But it could be seen as genuinely conservative in the lower class’ demand for more emphasis on social capital and culture of trust, family and community—the very things that are undermined by upper class politics and economics, especially neoliberalism. Anyway, it’s a class divide more than an ideological divide, as the differences between partisan/ideological elites is negligible in terms of practical politics and actual results.

The main thing, anyway, is that there are these fundamental divides in our society. They lead to endless disconnections and conflicts. Our thoughts are distorted and our vision narrowed, causing endless confusion and misunderstanding. This is why privilege is so hard to see and understand. We rarely ever get the sense of the full context of our lives. This has worsened because of the segregation of not just ghettos, housing projects, and rural isolation but also of suburbs, walled communities, and gentrified neighborhoods. Physical distance leads to psychological distance.

Obviously, it’s not just about the hypocrisy of self-identified liberals living comfortable lives, even though their example is egregious based on the politics they outwardly support. This is a collective failure, not just of the dominant liberal order of post-Enlightenment society, or rather at this point we are all liberals complicit in this failure, even those who spend their lives complaining about liberalism and blaming liberals. Hypocritical liberals simply make explicit what is implicit to the world we live in. Even poor Westerners are part of the problems involved in a long history of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, exploitation, etc. Living in the West, we are all legacy beneficiaries of immense crimes against humanity in the past but also continuing into the present. This is particularly true of a country like the US, for being a subject of an empire has its advantages even for the poorest of subjects, not that it’s all that great of a fate even though there are worst fates.

As a liberal, much of my focus has been on other liberals. But I want to clarify this. There is a reason I identify as a liberal. It’s because of, not in spite of, my criticisms. According to my most utopian ideals and futuristic visions, I could identify as a left-libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist, democratic-socialist, etc. I could grab hold of some ideology as a way of distancing myself from liberalism. I don’t want to do that. Instead, I want to emphasize that I’m complicit in all that goes on in this society. I don’t want to merely stand back from it all or worse still pretend I’m above it all. That is what irritates me about many left-wingers. It’s true that left-wing politics has little overt power in the world today, certainly not in the United States. But I think it’s a cop-out for left-wingers to play intellectual games with detached righteousness, lost in their highfalutin abstruse historical and economic analyses, as if they aren’t stuck down in the sewers covered with shit like the rest of us.

Joe Bageant was a Marxist and considered himself far left of the far left, but he never forgot his roots in poor white Appalachia. He complained about liberalism and yet at times admitted he was a liberal of sorts—worse still, an educated liberal and an old hippie at that. He was trying to make his voice heard from within the belly of the beast, not observing the beast’s behavior as if a zoologist studying from afar. From the opposite end of the class spectrum, there was someone like Theodore Roosevelt. His class solidarity apparently was a bit lacking, as he didn’t espouse an ideology for the wealthy and business interests. He took socialists seriously, in that he argued they made some valid points. Unlike many mainstream partisans today reacting to the supporters of Sanders and Trump, TR didn’t just dismiss the perceived radicals as loud-mouthed rabble-rousers and malcontents. He argued that many socialists were simply social reformers, not utopian ideologues, and that the issues they brought up should be taken seriously—it being better to allow genuine reform if it prevents violent revolution. Both Bageant and Roosevelt were making the simple point that we should listen to those making complaints and try to understand where they are coming from—i.e., don’t shoot the messenger.

Here is what has been on my mind, a specific demographic that is some combination of middle-to-upper class, well educated, professional, and mostly white. Out of this demographic comes the politicians and activists, community organizers and social workers, intellectuals and academics, writers and artists, musicians and actors, journalists and reporters, etc. Despite being a minority of the population, they have greater power to be heard and influence than all of the rest of the population combined. They are, of course, more economically secure and comfortable than most of the population, along with greater opportunity for economic mobility. They particularly dominate the political and media spheres and so they determine the terms of public debate and controlling the framing of issues and narratives. These are the people who are most invested in the system and likewise benefit the most from the system, but they aren’t the people who experience the greatest harm from and costs of the system.

These are the privileged. These are the people who have the most insulated lives. They either don’t see or don’t understand many of the divides in our society. Certainly, they have little experience of those who live on the other side of those divides. They argue among themselves within a narrow frame of interests and ideas. Even the supposed radicals among them are safely contained within the dominant paradigm. Yet fissures are beginning to form in their walled reality. And the voices from outside are beginning to be heard. This disturbs their comfortable lives and puts them in an irritable mood. They realize their position in the social order is being threatened.

Even so, I don’t get the sense that most of these middle-to-upper class gentlefolk realize how bad it’s gotten for the majority of the population. Some do get it, but many more don’t. When I hear the criticisms of the supporters of Sanders and Trump, it becomes obvious that these critics are oblivious to the point of utter cluelessness. It’s not just economic problems getting worse: increasing poverty among the disadvantaged and growing inequality across society, higher rates of unemployment and underemployment (permanent unemployment no longer even being measured), the falling behind other developed countries in economic mobility along with the size and wealth of the middle class, stagnating or falling real wages and buying power, etc. It’s also a worsening of rates of mental health issues, suicide and other mortality causes, delayed marriage and divorce—and the destruction of all that held the social fabric together: deteriorating tight-knit farming communities and factory towns based on strong local economies, loss of high membership rates in labor unions and civic organizations, undermining of culture of trust and civic participation, weakening of democratic process and representation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement and demoralization of the lower classes, economic segregation and isolation, underfunding of schools and libraries and infrastructure and public services, and so much else.

This isn’t directly impacting most of the people the comfortable middle-to-upper classes. They usually don’t even see it’s impact on others, except occasional reports about it in the news media and occasional portrayals of it in the entertainment media. But even then, no real sense of what it means for those suffering and struggling. When they dismiss demands for reform from those below them, what they don’t understand is that these aren’t unreasonable requests. Those at the bottom of society don’t have the luxury to wait for slowly implemented moderate reforms. The system is broken. For the worst off, this at times can be a life or death situation. Some people are barely hanging on, at the end of their rope. As the economy worsens and the divides widen, desperation gets pushed to the breaking point with the inevitable result of soaring rates of mental health issues and suicides. Push it far enough and you will see even far worse consequences for all of society. The presently comfortable might find themselves increasingly uncomfortable, if they continue to ignore the victims of these oppressive problems. It’s not wise, much less moral and compassionate, to dismiss the pleas of the desperate.

* * *

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Republicans: Party of Despair

Rate And Duration of Despair

What is the majority and who represents it?

There is an interesting dynamic involving race.

The racist stereotype is that blacks are lazy and irresponsible. Therefore, white burden falls upon the superior race in their privileged position of greater wealth and power. This is a modern paternalism similar to the slaveholder’s noblesse oblige, the greater the power the greater the responsibility. It’s the job of the wise, benevolent father to take care his children, even against their will.

Yet actual behavior belies such claims. For the exact same crimes, blacks are arrested more, convicted more often, punished more harshly, and imprisoned longer. Heck, even for crimes whites commit more, blacks still get it worse. It seems that blacks are treated as if they are more responsible for their actions than whites, as if whites lack a full sense of responsibility and must be treated with kids gloves.

Isn’t that strange?

There is something hidden behind the overt attitudes. It’s not that people of each race are being treated as equally responsible, some failing that standard and others demonstrating their greater moral character and capacity. If whites were genuinely superior in their sense of responsibility, they wouldn’t be treated less harshly for breaking the law. If anything, they would be treated as clear moral agents deserving to be held more accountable—as we treat an adult more accountable than a child, a highly intelligent individual more accountable than the mentally retarded.

There is an interesting example that gets at this mindset. This is from Dangerous Frames by Nicholas J. G. Winter (Kindle Locations 451-463):

“Wittenbrink and colleagues conducted an intriguing experiment that demonstrates this sort of reasoning in the context of an extremely subtle framing that drew an implicit analogy across very different domains (Wittenbrink, Tenbrink, Gist, and Hilton 1997). After priming racial stereotypes for some participants, they showed them a series of animated videos involving the interaction of a single fish with a larger group of fish. These videos involved conflict between the fish and the group, but were ambiguous as to the individual fish’s and the group’s motivations (to the extent, of course, that animated fish can be said to have motives). They found that participants’ racial beliefs affected how they interpreted the videos. Those who believe blacks are lazy tended to hold the individual fish responsible for the interactions; those who believe blacks are discriminated against held the group responsible. What was crucial was that structural congruence between schema and situation mattered: racial stereotypes did not influence interpretation of a different video that did not involve conflict among the fish.

“This study makes clear the extent to which a schema can influence evaluation of a situation that bears little or no surface resemblance to the contents of the schema. In their example, the race relations schema contains cognitions about white and black Americans and the nature of and causes for their interactions. This schema affected interpretation of a cartoon about some fish. Two elements were necessary: accessibility and fit. First, the effect held only among participants who were primed for race – that is, who had the race schema activated and therefore made more accessible than it otherwise would have been. Second, the schema only influenced interpretation of a video that shared a structure with the schema. The race schema includes elements representing minority and majority groups and conflict between those groups. It also has a causal attribution for that conflict and corresponding evaluations of the majority and minority groups. When participants saw a video with that same structure (minority and majority groups of fish and conflict), they applied the schema and transferred the attributions and evaluations from the race schema. When they saw a video with a different structure (no conflict), they did not apply the schema.”

The racial frame elicits a psychological schema that appears to have at least two basic elements. It definitely involves conflict, but it’s not just group conflict, as one might assume. The other important part is that it is perception of majority versus minority and conflict thereof.

What catches my attention is that only the perceived minority is treated as an individual. The racially-primed individual fish is seen as in conflict with and hence a threat to the group of fish. As such, whites are the majority, those who get to define society. And in defining society, the white majority represents society. Whites are society. They are of the dominant group and, to that extent, they aren’t held accountable as individuals. That group of fish consists of individuals, but in the racially-primed mind they aren’t perceived as individuals.

The same pattern is seen with class. That is to be expected, specifically in a society such as ours where race and class have much overlap.

The wealthy may only be a minority, but they are the dominant minority. Also, they gain symbolic dominance in part by the fact that most of the wealthy are white and so members of the white majority. Wealthy whites get to represent all whites, just as they represent the entire white majority social order. As such, wealthy whites are the least likely to ever be held accountable as individuals. A wealthy white can never simply be an individual in a wealthy white society.

Unsurprisingly, wealthy whites are the least likely to be charged, arrested, and convicted of crimes. This is true often when it is well known that they are guilty. They hire expensive lawyers, they can stall court procedures, they get plea bargains, judges and juries give them the benefit of the doubt, etc.

Class is important not just for the wealthiest. Our entire society is a hierarchy of socioeconomic classes. This hierarchy is important for maintaining the social order. It creates distance, disconnection, and division.

It’s one of the ways that races are kept divided. Even poor whites don’t on average experience the same severity of poverty and economic segregation. It’s not even just race, but also skin tone. Lighter-skinned blacks are more likely to be wealthier. The middle class is full of light-skinned blacks. And as one goes down the economic ladder, the average skin tone gets darker and darker.

I’ve always known that socioeconomic class issues are important. But I’ve become increasingly aware of how central they are.

Even when you’re informed about such issues, they still effect you and often unconsciously. It is what creates conflicts between middle class and working class whites, between middle class and working class minorities.

These class issues don’t just take form as different life experiences but also different political ideologies and interests, problems and concerns. Obviously, most middle class people simply don’t get the problems of those less well off than them. There are also some less commonly understood factors, such as how the middle-to-upper classes tend to fall at ideological extremes and so are disconnected from the more politically moderate lower classes.

Despite the lower classes consisting of the majority of the population, the light-skinned middle-to-upper classes perceive themselves and portray themselves in the MSM as the social norm of the light-skinned majority social order. Oddly, when the moderate lower classes demand basic reforms to the system, they are seen as radical and threatening or simply irritating.

It’s as if the middle-to-upper classes, including liberals, don’t know what to do with the working class when they speak out. The middle class liberals in particular feel like they should listen to the lower classes and yet they also realize that these people, if they get too demanding, are a threat to the system they are part of. They can’t just overtly dismiss the poor, not even the poor minorities, as would many on the political right.

This creates cognitive dissonance that can’t be easily resolved. This puts the liberal class in an irritable mood. It puts the entire upper end of the economic spectrum on the defense against the challenges to the status quo. Their majority status and hence moral authority is being questioned. And if they aren’t the majority nor hold popular support of the majority, by what right do they rule in a supposed democracy?

The blatant force of political power and blatant privilege of wealth becomes harder to hide behind standard rhetoric. As a minority majority arises, racialized class conflict no longer is as effective as it once was. Now who are the individuals to be blamed?