As the name of this blog is Edge Induced Cohesion and the formation of identity through crisis and conflict is an obvious subject of interest to this blog   . Today I would like to talk about the very thorny issue of how class identities form. One of the threats to cooperation between people is the existence of class rivalries that pit people against others because of how each side threats the interests and legitimacy of the other. What I would like to talk about is the way in which these identity conflicts are formed, and therefore at least implicitly how they can be avoided.
A Question of Class
It has always struck me as curious and intriguing that while in Europe and much of the world there is a very strong class division between the “working class” and the “middle class” while in the United States there is a broad belief in a “middle class” and correspondingly less harsh class divisions and a related lack of interest in officially socialist politics except among labor unions (largely concentrated these days among public employees) and privileged racial minorities. This particular question of American exceptionalism has long interested me, especially as many people in Europe and South America in my acquaintance have (falsely) assumed that any socially conscious and cosmopolitan person would be fond of socialism, only to find out otherwise in often heated discussions.
What is it that made socialism so taboo in the United States, and the identity of the “middle class” so broad and what made it so commonly accepted elsewhere in the world by its open name, with a harsh conflict between the bourgeois (middle class) and working class (proletariat) with hostile perspectives and interests? The answer, as usual, relates to history and the politics of identity in the United States as compared to other countries. In examining how this hostile class identity formed in most of the world, hopefully we may learn some lessons in how to avoid forming such undesirable identity conflicts in the future.
Divide And Conquer
The way of preserving empire is to divide and conquer. The only way for a selfish elite, always a minority within a given society, to preserve its corrupt and ungodly rule over others is to pit one group of people against another to keep them from uniting and opposing the corruption that is on top. Lamentably, such divisions are easy in societies–they can be divisions of ethnicity, religion, culture, class, gender, region, or profession. There is no shortage of factors that can divide us, and no shortage in the melancholy course of human history of corrupt leaders to exploit those divisions.
In the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, all over the Western world, there was a widespread crisis of legitimacy in governments not too different from the present crisis. During this time the ancien regime felt itself under great pressure as some nations sought to gain or regain their independence from imperial rule (including Serbia, Poland, and the United States), while other nations sought to remove or reform their corrupt monarchies (especially France). In Europe, after a long struggle, the counterrevolutionary forces were eventually successful as monarchies were restored in Europe and the new independent states of Latin America were so divided among their own peoples that no broad national or ethnic identity could hold (except a loose one in Argentina and an often ignored one in Chile that would lead that nation to become of South America’s most powerful nations in the 19th century).
In the United States, though, the attempt by the Federalists to preserve class distinctions in the early Republic were unsuccessful as cheap land (helped by the purchase of some lands–like the Louisiana Territory, and the conquest of others–like the northern half of Mexico in 1846-1848) and the broad suffrage for white males allowed for a broad identity within white males of various wealth as being equally a part of the Middle Class. Whatever elitist snobs might do in their own plantation homes or uptown houses to sneer on the common masses, when it came time for them to compete against other elites for political office the respectability of the broad classes was proclaimed, much like the early Roman Republic, allowing even immigrants and their children to feel American and like they belonged, so long as they were of the right sort.
Meanwhile, European leaders, desperate to maintain their power in the face of rising nationalist and class-based resentment over the preservation of corrupt aristocracies and the division of homelands apart numerous petty and useless states in Italy and Germany, or under foreign oppression in the Prussian, Austrian, Ottoman and Russian empires (for the case of the Jews, Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croatians, Hungarians, Greeks, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Albanians, Romanians, Serbians, Lithuanians, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians–and those are just the major European peoples held captive in those empires who eventually received their own nation-states). In addition to this, the vote was limited to a very small elite, on corrupt terms even in the most advanced of nations like Great Britain, where in some “rotten” boroughs there was not a single voter to decide a member of Parliament while some of the nation’s largest cities had no vote whatsoever. No taxation without representation indeed.
And therein lies the rub. In the United States cheap land and a broad suffrage to include the common sorts of whites in all areas led to the development of a broadly legitimate government that had a large enough base of support to ensure its survival against all but the most brutal conflicts (like the Civil War), where sectional balkanization led to horrible bloodshed. This was not the case elsewhere because elites sought to preserve their rule for a time by dividing the great mass of commoners against themselves, giving preferential treatment to the bourgeois who owned some property while denying rights for several decades more to the mass of workers in the laboring classes who felt (and were) exploited by their employers.
It is that difference in treatment that led to a different identity. The lesson is simple–if you are a corrupt elite and you want to divide your opposition, the best way to do so is to give preferential treatment to one group on whatever ground, and that particular ground will cause the development of a harsh boundary line between two distinct and mutually hostile classes. What that line is is entirely irrelevant. Its mere existence will be enough to provoke conflict. Humans are tragically predictable and easily manipulated. In the United States, this line did not develop in the early 19th century on a class basis, as happened in Europe, but rather on an enduring racial basis that pitted poor whites against poor blacks rather than having them unite against arrogant and wicked slaveowners.
Death By Slow Poison
What makes these dividing lines so nasty is that they are most fiercely defended not by the elites that profit the most from the corrupt regimes that populate the world and have since time immemorial, but by the people who are just above that dividing line and fear that any improvement in the state of those on the other side of the line will attack their own dignity and pride of station. So it was that poor whites who could never hope to be slaveowners themselves were often the foot soldiers of wars to protect slavery because they were appealed to as part of a great dignified and united class based on racial grounds. Likewise, the preferentially treated “middle classes” in Europe formed their own national guards in times of trouble to protect their property against working class radicals. Draw the line, expand your regime, and you now have a larger group of people to defend the legitimacy of your corrupt regime. It works like a charm–at least for a while.
The problem is that it merely changes the form of the original issue into something potentially more dangerous. Let us provide a religious example that I am particularly familiar with in the Church of God to demonstrate the nature of this question. In a system of one-man rule, as has been a common regime in Oriental despotism or in Church of God hierarchies, only the opinion of the man (and throughout history it has almost always been a man) at the top mattered. All politics consisted of seeking to become the favorite of that one man at top and become his vizir or head of ministerial affairs and then trying to exercise some kind of subsidiary power in the reflected glow of the man at the top.
In 1995, in the face of a widespread loss of legitimacy by this corrupt and satanic form of government, my own particular denomination (the United Church of God) set up a system of rule where the suffrage was expanded from one man in total control or one man with his small clique to the entire body of ordained elders, a very substantial increase of political participation. Mind you, it is not democracy by any means, but it instantly gave hundreds more people and their families a stake in an organization that was not present for decades before. This is the sort of expansion of the suffrage that the European nations did–the creation of a broader but still minority elite. Ironically enough, this expansion of the elite to include unpaid elders (quite a few of whom are my personal friends) was considered too much reform too fast for some of the Tories who wished to preserve the power of a ministerial elite of paid ministers and regional pastors and who wished to preserve their ancient hierarchies in the face of reformist pressures that might (at some blessed future date) include the brethren at large.
It is to avoid this death by slow poison that angry elites, whether they be a Duke of Wellington in 1830 England or a Cogwa regional pastor, or a South Carolina plantation owner in 1860, react to the loss of power not with an acceptance that one enjoyed decades of ungodly and corrupt rule and that time has reached its end but often a desire to fight it out–in court or on the battlefield–rather than to accept defeats. The possession of unrighteous mammon leads to a sense of pride and entitlement rather than the stoic acceptance that this too shall pass, and all is temporary and fades away like the grass or the lilies of the field that neither toil nor spin.
So, in examining the formation of identity we find that preferential treatment, especially political (as men love dignity and honor and respect) creates divisions in identity that pit those with privilege as the support of a partially reformed order against those outsiders who still struggle against unrighteous and unfair exclusion. Each gradual bit of expansion of rights creates new “ins” and new “outs,” new people upset about their loss of comparative station (and therefore potentially in support of conservative and reactionary regimes) and new “outs” who have formed a common identity based on their exclusion from the dignity and honor they feel they deserve because of their status as beings created in the image and likeness of God, an honorable status shared by all men, women, and children that draw breath or take in nourishment in the womb. Where does it all end? All the lines we can draw are arbitrary, and so all of these divisions into which we are pitted are in some way artificial and unnatural. How is everything to be put together again? It is so easy to divide, and so hard to join together.