Against first class travel: the moralization of wealth

Large disparities of wealth have been a constant feature of civilized life; strong resentment to these disparities has not.  This is, I think, an important historical/sociological dilemma.  The story of the Athenian and Roman republics is largely the chronicle of battles between the upper and lower classes.  Class antagonism was also the dominant political issue in western Europe throughout the nineteenth century.  This is not always the case, however.  Class antagonism was not a dominant force in feudal Europe during the High Middle Ages.  Nor was it, prior to westernization, a significant issue in caste-organized India, the most stratified and hierarchical society one could imagine.  In both the Hindu and Muslim worlds, explicit class warfare was so rare that historians desperate to find it have been driven to interpret religious movements as hidden agents of class antagonism.  It’s as if the English proletariat had expressed its solidarity by converting to Methodism and not forming the Labour Party.  Why were the non-western working classes so docile before Marxism was exported to them?  Also, why do we hear so much about anti-clericalism in the Middle Ages and so little about anti-aristocratic sentiment?  After all, the nobles did much less good and caused far more grief to the third estate during these centuries.

There are several possibilities.  First, economic exploitation may be harsher in some times and places than in others, and workers only start making noises when their lot becomes unbearable.  I find it hard to believe, though, that London wage laborers in 1850 were really more put upon than low-caste Indians or Eastern European serfs.  There is also a reverse possibility:  maybe the worst-off workers can’t compain because they’re so powerless.  Then strikes, insurrections, and other class-warfare acts would actually be signs that the working class is comparatively well off.  I think there’s probably something to this–workers on a subsistence wage can’t save enough that they could afford to strike.  On the other hand, worker and peasant rebellions aren’t unknown in the “docile” centuries, just very rare.  I suspect that rebellion was, therefore, possible during these times, but class resentment was being kept below the boiling point.  How was this accomplished?

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels point out that capitalism has served what they regard as the useful purpose of destroying the ideological props of the old order.  All the things that made class distinctions seem natural–long-standing traditions, guild solidarity, religion, etc–were being swept away, leaving the bare facts of economic power naked and unadorned.  This is, I think, quite true.  As Marx and later sociologists have shown, cultural context can significantly affect how wealth is perceived.  In what Marx would call “ideological” times, wealth is not objectionable when it is meaningful.  For example, a patriotic Frenchman of the ancien regime would approve of the king living in a fabulous palace.  In fact, he might take it as a point of pride that the French king has a bigger palace than the English king.  The visible splendor of the monarchy is a symbol of the invisible splendor of the nation.  The king, nobles, clergy, and guild-masters held privileged positions, but their privileges made sense to the populace because these people represented aspects of the social order in general.  Because the king represents the nation, there’s nothing degrading in bowing before him.

The west has produced surprisingly little anti-aristocratic literature.  In contrast, it has produced a deluge of anti-bourgious literature.  The difference was that the noble had a definite place in the social order–nobility was a station with at least hypothetical responsibilities.  Noblesse oblige.   The bourgious, in contrast, has no station or duties; his superior wealth seems arbitrary.  Of course, one could argue that he earned his wealth, that his enterprises benefit society more than anything the nobles do, and that the burdens imposed by the new rich are less onerous than those of the old nobility.  None of this blunts the hostility.  For a man’s wealth to be legitimated in the public mind, it must be made to symbolize something.  Wealth can’t just be the reward for hard work and luck; it must be the accompaniment of a station.  This is why Louis de Bonald approved of wealthy men purchasing their way into the aristocracy.  In fact, he encouraged this aspiration.  In his mind, when a man had built up a fortune, he should renounce private business and dedicate himself to the public service.  A general pattern of men becoming wealthy to win their way into a public service would color both the pursuit of wealth and its possesion.  Needless to say, Bonald’s view of the nobility bore little resemblance to the non-tax-paying-club of 1788.  He thought the nobility should have real duties.  The basic idea, I think, was this:  Disparities of wealth are an uneliminable fact of life.  The conservative’s task is to moralize the arrangement for both the rich and the poor.

America is a land of enormous wealth disparity with essentially no ideological legitimation.  This is a dangerous situation.  Consider one situation where wealth distinctions are made visible.  Airplanes divide their passengers into first-class and coach.  Objectively speaking, first class is for suckers:  stupid rich people pay more to get to the same place at the same time.  From the symbolic point of view, the whole think is pretty obnoxious.  The first-classers board first, sit in the front, have bigger seats and their own bathroom.  It’s hard to avoid the impression that those of us in coach are second-class.  The symbolic statement is that the people in first class are better than us, but what makes them better is just the ability and willingness to spend extra money.  They don’t symbolize anything but their own profligacy.  This is the opposite of the moralization of wealth.  It’s rubbing wealth differences in our faces and creating an impression of class opression where it doesn’t even exist.

One Response

  1. And this is what we liked about flying on Southwest…no first class and boarding was first come, first served.

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