A couple of weeks ago I was contacted – via the What About Classism? website – by a group of students from the University of South Alabama, in the United States. They told me that they are taking a module titled Power, Privilege and Oppression and said that they would like to ask me some questions about classism. Here are their questions followed by my answers…
Do you feel that your parents class or the class you are born into limits the opportunities that you have later in life? If so how do you think people transcend these boundaries of class?
From quite a young age, I felt this to be the case. However, it was not until I read the work of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel that I could actually make proper sense of it. According to Albert and Hahnel, we live in a three class system made up of the capitalist class, the coordinator class and the working class. Combined, the capitalist class and the coordinator class constitute the elite who own and manage (respectively) the economy. The working class rent themselves out for an hourly wage and follow orders from above. As already indicated, the economic elite each has its own source of class power. For the capitalists it is private ownership of large parts of the economy. For the coordinators it is the monopolisation of empowering tasks within the workplace. The only source of class power available to the working class is solidarity – which is why they organise themselves into trade unions.
With this in mind we can now ask your question, but a little bit more specifically: Does a child born into a working class family have the same opportunities as a child born into the family of one of the elite classes? I think that the answer to that question is pretty obvious. Once we see the structure of the economy and the sources of class power it becomes clear to us that this is not a level playing field. Access to resources, educational experiences, confidence levels, networking opportunities all vary dramatically and have equally dramatic ramifications throughout our lives.
This is not to deny that there can be some class mobility. For example, it is possible for a person born into a working class family to move up the economic hierarchy and into one of the elite classes. The best way to do this is to acquire skills and knowledge that make you better able to serve power. Today, this primarily means serving the interests of state and corporate elites. This can and does happen – although probably not as much as we would like to think. However, it is important to understand that class mobility is not the same as transcending the boundaries of class. To do that we would have to restructure the economy.
What do you think is most important for higher-income people to understand about lower-income people?
The first thing to understand is that the disparity between the higher and lower income people is a product of the way in which the economy is structured. Socialisation of the different classes – including their educational experience – helps to prepare people for this. The way jobs and tasks are distributed out, and the criteria for remuneration, are features of the economy that are consciously organised in that way. However, these structures can be redesigned to have very different outcomes. The same is true with regards to the educational system and the unfounded classist assumptions that limit our expectations of ourselves and others.
As already mentioned above, the class system tends to perpetuate itself from one generation to the next. Working class people simply do not have access to the same opportunities as economic elites, making it harder for them to develop the skills, knowledge and confidence to perform at that level. In this way the class system seems to validate itself.
What do you think is the most common misconception about classism?
Some people seem to think that we can address the issue of classism by making the economy more meritocratic. According to this argument the people at the top of the economy are there because they have worked harder and / or are particularly smart. In reality, however, luck and privilege play a much larger role. Learning to serve power effectively is also an important factor in making ones way up the hierarchy. But as already noted, increasing class mobility does not even begin to address the issue of classism.
Another common misconception about classism is that we live in a two class system. There is the 1% and the 99%. There are the capitalists and the workers. According to this view, if we disempowered the 1% (i.e. socialised ownership) then we would live in a classless society. From a three class perspective socialising ownership would address one source of class power. That would be a move in the right direction but if we want to address classism fully we also have to address the source of class power for the coordinator class. That means redesigning jobs for equal empowerment.
How do you think that classism affects the society that you live in?
Society is affected by classism in many different ways. Here I will highlight what I think are perhaps the three most important.
Classism is a form of social discrimination that, at the individual level, gives rise to differences in social status. As it turns out, social status is a very good indicator for what are called the social determinants of health. We know that people with higher social status tend to be healthier and live longer.
Another consequence of classism is social inequality. Evidence shows that as the inequality gap widens we see a corresponding increase in major social problems including; substance misuse, mental health issues and crime rates.
Both social status and inequality also have a distorting effect on the democratic process. Those with more status and / or wealth are in a position to get governments to represent their interests, often at the expense of the general public. We see this most clearly, of course, with the behaviour of corporations who, amongst other things, use their vast concentrations of wealth and power to lobby political elites and governments to promote their interests. The distorting impact that classism has on democracy is of particular importance because it makes it harder for the public to address issues such as those highlighted above, as well as others. For example, those that threaten organised life as we know it – the threat of nuclear war and global warming.
How do you think that the young generation in the world help with the classism issue that the world sees today?
There is all kinds of good work taking place in many parts of the world by young people. However, I am not really aware of that much going on – either by younger or older people – that focuses on classism as a form of social discrimination in the way that I have talked about it. My feeling is that if people really want to address many of the more serious social justice issues we face today then this will have to change.
Why do you think that there are not more organizations that deal with classism and the few that there are close their doors?
I am not sure who or what you are referring to when you say “the few that there are close their doors” but one possible reason why there are not more organisations setup to address classism is that, unlike say racism and sexism, it is simply not recognised as a form of social discrimination by the establishment. This is typical of Liberal style democracies where the political elite define equality in such a way as to ensure that the interests of the economic elite are not effected. When we have anti-discriminatory legislation formulated in this way I imagine that it becomes much easier to tap into funding and initiate projects around racism and sexism, for example, but much harder for classism. In effect, due to the way in which elites define equality, anti-discriminatory organisations setup to focus on classism have to operate outside of the system.
The mainstream media also plays an important role on this. When social discrimination is discussed the debate tends to focus on areas covered by the official definition encapsulated in anti-discriminatory legislation – which does not include classism. This gives the impression that we live in a society that is already fully committed to equality and geared towards social inclusion. As we know, the media is a very powerful tool that, when used in this way, can result in important areas of concern being neglected. I think that this constitutes a very good example of how elites use and abuse language to get the general public to conform to a system that really doesn’t benefit them.
The class that this project is for is called Power, Privilege, and Oppression. Do you think that this class would be beneficial for people in businesses or just managers to take in general?
Generally speaking, we all tend to operate from a set of unexplored assumptions. Taking timeout to identify and reflect upon these is always a good thing. In a functioning democracy, I imagine that this would be standard practice. Exploring assumptions around power, privilege and oppression would be particularly important, I think. The question is, who in todays society would send managers on such a course? Why would business leaders send their managers on a course to explore the classist assumptions on which their business relies? What is needed is a change in management culture and that is not going to come voluntarily from above.
What would be the best or most efficient way to get classism listed as a form of discrimination so that the government could be more helpful with this issue?
The best way to get classism recognised as a form of social discrimination would be exactly the same as those employed to get other forms of discrimination – such as racism and sexism – recognised, namely popular and sustained pressure from members of the general public. What is needed is a well organised pressure group that supports existing anti-discriminatory legislation but that also makes demands for additional features. My suggestion would be to highlight classism by making rigged economics a human rights issue.
How do you think classism has become the issue that it is today?
First of all, I would say that classism isn’t really an issue on many peoples radar today – and that includes most progressives. However, I do sense that classism is beginning to become more of an issue. The reason for this, I think, has to do with the gap between establishment rhetoric and reality. So we have an establishment that constantly pays lip service to values like equality and a system organised and managed by them that accommodates vast inequality. People experience this everyday and (at least some of them) are bound to ask, what the hell is going on? If they look into it they will find that the reason this can happen is because elites formulate anti-discriminatory legislation in a way that exclude certain forms of discrimination. The one that stands out today is what we might call classism. I think that more and more people are beginning to see this. Perhaps what is missing, however, is the analysis of where classism comes from. That is to say, people who are interested in tackling classism need a good understanding of the specific features within the economy that structurally bias it to primarily function in elite interests.
What else do you think needs to be known about classism?
I think that it is really important to understand how classism impacts on activist organising. As mentioned earlier, the general public only really have one source of power and that is solidarity. Unfortunately, however, most progressive organisations today operate along classist lines. Basically, they duplicate the classist structures that exist within establishment organisations. There are a number of reasons for this but the outcome is the same – namely, they alienate lots of people (i.e. their potential power base) from engaging in progressive politics. I would suggest that this shows up in a particularly striking way within the trade union movement which is ironic to say the least. But this irony is also very useful as it can be understood as an indicator for where effective organising could take place.
If you don’t mind please telling us a little about yourself.
I work at the local hospital as a health care assistant on a neurosurgical ward. I have done this for over ten years now. Before this I had lots of different jobs. During this time I also undertook my nurse training – specialising in mental health. Part of this training included looking into equality and diversity and it was during this module that I first became really aware of how anti-discriminatory legislation is formulated in such a way as to ensure that the interests of economic elites are not impacted negatively. Although I successfully passed my training I was unable to go on to work as a mental health nurse as I found the realities of the practice too controversial.