aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

On social classes in America

There are two basic social classes in America. The Have-nots (the poor) and the Have-a-lots (the rich and/or powerful) in fact constitute a single class, the trifling difference in their personal wealth notwithstanding. Their values, their personal behavior, and their political outlook are basically the same. This is not news; it is a commonplace among sociologists.

What defines this double-ended social class is a firm belief in elites. The Have-nots hope or expect the elites to do something for them. The Have-a-lots -- the elites in question -- firmly believe it is their prerogative to order society; the better angels among them say that includes doing something for the Have-nots. The Have-nots and the Have-a-lots are thus what psychologists call "co-dependent." The elites give the poor benefits; or rather, they mostly legislate benefits for the poor. The poor give the elites virtue; that is, they furnish the elites with a sense of satisfaction for having done their righteous duty, which then enables them to go off and do for themselves whatever they want. All this is very much as it was in ancient or medieval times, when it was called noblesse oblige.

The other social class is what we call the middle class, which is more than an economic term. The middle class believes in doing for themselves, not petitioning the elites to do for them. The middle class believes in the rule of law (both the poor and the elites believe that a rule that would constrain them equally with everybody else is something to be gotten around), since it is only if the law is the same for everyone that one can improve one's situation and keep the advantages one has gained. The middle class believes in giving to charity as a regular discipline, and in fact is responsible for most of the charitable giving in our society. The middle class believes in personal responsibility. The middle class believes that poverty is, or should be, a temporary condition and that you can escape the limitations you started out with.

The middle class in England and America was profoundly shaped by the Methodist revival of the 18th Century. John Wesley's preaching to the poor of his day was accompanied by a set of firmly stated expectations. God loves you; therefore, your response to him ought to include a re-ordering of your life. No more smuggling, no more drunkenness, and so on. But what do you do with all the wealth that new-found discipline creates? Wesley's dictum to "earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can" became the mantra of a new social class.

Margaret Thatcher ended her career as a Baroness, but she was a Methodist grocer's daughter. (The communion rail at Wesley's chapel in London is a gift from her and her husband; they were married there.) When she said that "the problem with socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people's money," she was articulating the worldview of the middle class that grew out of the revival. Barack Obama was elected on a platform of Hope and Change. But only the middle class, which he despises, offers real hope and the possibility of real change.

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