The Class Project 7: Playing by the Rules

What everything I’ve said up to this point comes down to is that different classes play by different rules, and a good deal of class conflict, and interpersonal conflict, results from this.  Members of one class will look at another and brand them either losers or cheats.

The middle class looks at the working class and considers them losers because they have less money.  The working class looks at the middle class and considers them losers because they’re so obsessed with money.  The lower class looks at the working class and considers them losers because they’re so risk-averse, tied down to jobs and family.

A lot of people misjudge class conflicts because they fail to recognize this difference in rules.  Marxists often assume that the working class must and should hate the upper classes because the upper classes have an unfair share of the world’s wealth, but this simply demonstrates that such Marxists are middle class in their attitudes — neither the working class nor the upper class considers money to be the most important thing going.  A lot of working class folks are perfectly happy letting someone else have all the money and power as long as they use it well and treat people with respect.  We are, as I said, hierarchical animals, and not everyone feels any great need to be at the top of the hierarchy.  There’s no need to squash the pyramid into a plane; people like feeling there’s a structure and that they fit into it.

Of course, you can go too far the other way, telling people they should know, and stay in, their place.  The problem there is that you don’t get to decide someone else’s proper place.  People find their own place, through a combination of choice and circumstance.  If someone rises above his station, well, good for him!

If someone plays by different rules than yours, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

So when that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses suburbanite with thirty grand in credit-card debt looks at the working class folks in their little old house with the hand-me-down furniture and considers them losers, he’s wrong.  They aren’t losing at his game; they aren’t playing his game.  They’re playing a game where he would be a loser.

Sometimes people can switch from one game to another; people do move from one class to another, and I don’t just mean making more or less money.  Ambitious lower-class or working-class folks may move into the middle class and start using money to keep score — and burned-out middle-class folks may drop out of the rat race and find a slower-paced job where they’re more concerned with self-respect and a sense of accomplishment than with money.  Class isn’t inborn, it isn’t destiny, and it isn’t just money.  It’s attitude, belief, and the rules by which you determine your status and decide whether you’re a success or a failure.  Most people learn those from their families while they’re growing up, and never fundamentally change.  Others rebel against their upbringing, with varying degrees of success.

And that, except for a footnote about race and ethnicity, is pretty much everything I have to say on the subject.

As for that footnote — certain groups are disproportionately represented in certain classes.  The lower classes in the U.S. come in all colors, but are disproportionately black and Hispanic.  This has often resulted in a confusion between class prejudice and racial prejudice.  If you ask me, this has muddied the picture horribly, and trying to sort it all out is far beyond anything I want to tackle in a blog.  If you, dear readers, want to discuss it among yourselves, feel free, but I don’t think I have much to say on the subject.

8 thoughts on “The Class Project 7: Playing by the Rules

  1. I thought this discussion was interesting the last time you posted it, but this particular essay has more resonance now than it did before. Changing classes is something my sister and I have been discussing. Our parents were poor students when they married – Dad was using the GI bill and Mom dropped out when she got pregnant with me. My dad worked his way up from draftsman to salesman to sales mgr to CEO before his death. My parents were always firmly middle class – my dad most definitely used money to keep score, even though he died with a Whole Lot of money by middle class standards.

    My husband and I have remained middle class in our attitudes, with touches of upper class. My sister dropped to working class and then moved back up as time progressed. One of my brothers dropped to poverty-class and seems happy there. The other brother married a woman who was born poverty-class and is trying to drive my brother from working class into the middle class.

    It is interesting how four siblings from the same background can end up in different classes, taking different routes through life. My sister, who has changed classes and attitudes most often sees herself as someone who is by nature upper class with just temporary drifts to lower classes, even though she has never actually lived with the money of upper class. She indeed has some of the markers you noted – she’ll buy the best that she can afford of whatever and then use it on and on and on. She doesn’t have to keep score that what she has is the best, even though our sister-in-law is always trying to be bigger, better, faster and farther than either my sister or I.

    I don’t know where this is going, but your essays have provided a lot of discussion points to this ongoing discussion between my sister and me.

    Thanks for reposting them!

  2. Actually, Part 7 is entirely new; the version I wrote back in 2001-2002 ended midway through Part 6.

    For years I’ve wanted to finish the project, but didn’t remember what I’d intended to say next, or even whether I’d known what came next. When I was moving Part 6 over, though, it was suddenly obvious what else I wanted to say, so I wrote it.

    It feels surprisingly good to have the entire thing done, and if it’s provided entertainment or food for thought, I’m pleased.

  3. Status in class, and children.
    Lower class-Kids are proof you are attractive to ladies, and that’s all.
    Working class-Kids are your most important product. Grandkids are more important than college graduation for kids.
    Middle class-Kids are your most important product. College graduation for kids is more important than grandkids.
    Professional-Kids are optional, but if kids, college graduation for kids is more important than grandkids.
    Upper class-Kids aren’t part of status.
    My father mentioned that the number and class of degrees by children was a minor rivalry with his brothers and sisters. Uncle Ed was winning, then dad moved back into the lead.

  4. That’s an interesting point, and one I maybe should have addressed. Thanks for bring it up!

    I’d say my own assessment pretty much matches yours.

  5. My impression of “class score” has always had more to do with time as well as method of scoring. The higher your class, the longer the time span with which you are concerned. This is similar to what wkwillis said, but with some modification (and expansion).

    * Lower class- Time horizon; Days. Scorecard; Immediate gratification (pleasure; obtained through chemicals/physical/social). Score is wholly internal (do I receive respect? Am I enjoying my life?) because anything else is too transitory. Status is tribal; choice of the best mates, first cuts of meat, etc. Kids are an incidental side effect a common method of gratification (status achievement combined with physical pleasure), but don’t automatically count as anything of themselves. Money is a convenient means to an end, when available. It’s particularly ironic that this is the “class” many kids who are (mis)raised wealthy find their trajectory directed towards; Food and shelter may not be concerns to these individuals, but the concerns they have bear more in common with this class than any other (immediate gratification). Generally they are perceived to be glorified by members of this class and failures by most other standards. I’m sure a glance at the local tabloid will give a catalogue of examples of this.
    * Working class- Time horizon; weeks. Scorecard; Responsibilities. While a member of the lower class is interested in making sure they’re enjoying the moment, a member of the working class is concerned with making sure their responsibilities are met. Guilt replaces impulse as the primary, if not preferred, driver. Similarly, being able to provide for your responsibilities is more important than bettering yourself. Kids are generally the result of a failure of responsibility or meeting the responsibility to continue the family. Money is a concern, but only as necessary to meet existent responsibilities. Relating to the footnote regarding race/class divisions, this “class” is the stereotype of the traditional housewife. While her husband may rise in class, the wife is expected to live in sort of genteel poverty where her needs become a part of the running of the house. This reaction to responsibility is most clearly demonstrated in the stereotype of dynastic pressure (the “biological clock”) of higher class women and the parallel with the (sterio)“typical” 8-5 grease monkey is graphically displayed by the WWII posters of Rosie the Riveter and the like.
    * Middle class- Time horizon; Months. Scorecard; keeping up with the Joneses (stuff). Rarely do members of the middle class have the financial security to worry beyond a year- which is ironic because money, or the stuff you can buy with it, is important as an end unto itself. While members of the working class can decide to have kids, it’s at the middle class that you generally start to plan when one has children. Kids generally exist, but (thanks to planning) are optional. However, the financial returns of a college degree for those kids are more important than grandkids.
    * Professional- Time horizon; Years; Scorecard; personal improvement. Money is the gateway and means of access to schooling/training/whatever betters the self. Kids are highly optional but, if kids do exist, they are generally seen as an extension or perpetuation of the self/couple- thus college graduation and at least middle-class success for kids overrides other concerns (grandkids).
    * Upper class- Time horizon; Decade(s?). Scorecard; Legacy. Individuals who work their way into this category, or grow Kids may be a part of status, but so are buildings, recognized donations to charitable institutions and the like. Purely pragmatic concerns generally keep this limited to the rich- it’s hard to plan for years when you’re trying to pay next month’s mortgage and to worry about legacy when one is in immanent danger of starving usually implies madness or sainthood (or both).

    My disagreement with wkwillis regarding the attitude towards kids as a measure involves both the blurring between some classes regarding that attitude and the differences within class regarding kids. For example, The Kennedy’s, Rockefeller’s, and Bush’s (just to name a few) are clearly upper class and have had no shortage of heirs- suggesting that “kids are optional” is not an entirely accurate statement for scoring in the upper class… In fact, scoring in the upper class over children (including having any) can get even more heated than it does in the other classes.

    Anyway, that’s slightly more than $.02, for which I apologize, but it’s a subject I’ve some interest in. Regardless, I’ve found these thoughts on the subject interesting.

  6. That’s a thoughtful assessment there, and again, looking at an aspect I gave short shrift. Thanks!

  7. I would like to hear more about class X. It wasn’t really written about. Is it just that they have odd jobs (artist, living statues,world record setters) or is it more about their values? Do you personally think that people ought to have at least two generations to be Xers? How are Xers different from just being eccentric peoples of their class? What sort of influence would an Xer carry?

    I really enjoyed the whole thing. I just stumbled onto it now. Excellent job on writing clear and concise things, along with given examples, and really, thank you for not making this an emotional bugaboo. Additional points for not once using the word “pathetic” as is (i’ve found) so often employeed when taking about class.

    Could their be intellectuals in all classes? I mean in countries with libaries and internet acess, knowlege is pretty much free, right?

  8. I’m not sure I believe in X class; that was Paul Fussell’s idea, not mine.

    I’m not sure whether you can have intellectuals in all classes, either. Probably.

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