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.