Day 9 – Classes

Yesterday, I brought up the subject of social class. One interesting thing about the internet is that when you have people reading what you write in other parts of the world, it makes you stop and define what you are saying a little bit more precisely sometimes.

Many societies have had hierarchies. In Europe in the Middle Ages there were Royalty, Hereditary Nobility, Non-Hereditary Nobility, Freemen and Serfs. Social class was baked into the laws. The word privilege comes from the Latin word privilegium, meaning a law pertaining to an individual that gives some advantage. In the Middle Ages, privileges were laws that applied to a particular strata of society, variously called ranks or estates. Sumptuary laws decreed that people couldn’t wear articles of clothing above their station. People in the lower classes could not own land. Some groups were exempted from some taxes. Different groups were allowed or disallowed roles in governing, and so on. It was not directly related to wealth. Some peasants could become quite wealthy.

With the rise of cities, a new class began to emerge, the bourgeoisie.

In the 17th and 18th cent., the bourgeoisie supported principles of constitutionality and natural right, against the claims of divine right and against the privileges held by nobles and prelates. The English, American, and French revolutions derived partly from the desire of the bourgeoisie to rid itself of feudal trammels and royal encroachments on personal liberty and on the rights of trade and property. In the 19th cent., the bourgeoisie, triumphantly propounding liberalism, gained political rights as well as religious and civil liberties. Thus modern Western society, in its political and also in its cultural aspects, owes much to bourgeois activities and philosophy.

A bit of free association… Boy, do I ever love Ingres!

So, to some extent, today’s social classes in Europe and her legacy cultures outside of Europe proper are derived from those older European ranks.

Most famously, Karl Marx took a look at that history and derived his notions about history and class struggle, which I won’t go into here because other people have explained it so much better than I could in a short paragraph.

I’m brought back to the book I mentioned the other day, The Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch. Lasch points out that nineteenth century perceptions of social stratification were not the same as we have today. Robert Rantoul was a lawyer and politician who lived from 1805 to 1852.

Robert Rantoul thought he was stating the obvious when he told an audience of working men that “society, as you very well know, is divided into two classes – those who do something for their living, and those who do not.” These terms, staples of nineteenth-century political discourse, did not necessarily refer to the privileged classes at the top of the social scale and the hardworking but impoverished masses at the bottom. The class of “idlers” included vagabonds and beggars as well as bankers and speculators, while the category of productive workers, as Rantoul defined it, was broad enough to include not only those who worked with their hands but anyone who “superintends the employment of capital which diligence and prudence have enable him to acquire.” In the language of nineteenth -century producerism, “labor” and “capital” did not mean what they mean to us. The term “capitalist” was reserved for those who, producing nothing, lived off speculative profits, while the “laboring class,” as a Democratic party broadside explained, referred to “the producers of wealth; the yeomanry who till the soil; mechanics, manufacturers, operatives, traders, whose labor sustains the state.” Whigs no less than Jacksonian Democrats took an expansive view of the “working classes,” defined by Levi Lincoln as the “practical agriculturist and husbandman, the manufacturer, and the mechanic.” Rufus Choate considered it appropriate to speak of the “laborious, trading, and business portions of the community” in the same breath. Daniel Webster claimed that “nine tenths of the whole people belong to the laborious, industrious, and productive classes.” They typically owned a little capital, he said, but no so much “as to render them independent without personal labor.” Those who “combine capital with their labor” were referred to interchangeably as working-class and middle-class.

Levi Lincoln, Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster were all politicians during the first half of the nineteenth century. There were two Levi Lincolns, father and son. I’m not sure which one Lasch has in mind.

In Lasch’s book, it is the upper middle class that is highly criticized.

The upper middle class, the heart of the new professional and managerial elites, is defined, apart from its rapidly rising income, not so much by its ideology as by a way of life that distinguishes it, more and more unmistakably, from the rest of the population.

Since this discussion of class was started with yesterday’s post about Aaron M. Renn’s essay about J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, it is worth noting here that the upper middle class is the one to which Vance migrated.

Class is a difficult subject to pin down and people disagree quite a bit about how many classes there are and who belongs to which, but I’m going to have to leave it here for today.

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