Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Physical Appearance of Class Differences

As someone (nominally) adhering to a leftist political ideology, the
continued existence (and strengthening) of social class differences is
quite a major issue for me. Obviously, as all leftists, I believe
that the lack of equality in opportunity (or rather, the existence of
double standards in which people at higher social classes get better
access to education, job training, and business relationships that
enable them to have greater chance of obtaining higher
incomes...elitism, in short) is the fundamental reason for class gap
to emerge. With elitism, social mobility that allows for descendants
of lower class to move upward in social hierarchy exists just as an
idealized principle.

But at this point in time, I would like to question a basic premise of
this argument. In modern society, we define social class as simply as
a matter of income, as we assume that better educated people with jobs
that require more sophistication is bound to make more money.
Furthermore, we assume that the higher classes, because of higher
income, will have better standard of living, greater access of higher
culture, and appreciation for sophisticated arts, literature, etc.
All in all, more than income itself, the white collar is assumed to be
better than the manual laborers in what we can call "human
disposition," consisting of often quantitatively unmeasurable things
as manners, sense of refinement, and general quality of character
displayed in social interactions.

Is this measure of social class an accurate one? It is indisputable
that higher income leads to higher social class, but is there really a
more sophisticated, clearly definable higher culture and higher human
disposition that comes with being in a higher social class? To answer
this question precisely, there needs to be an analysis of how this
higher level of income is obtained. When Marxists first came up with
the concept of class conflict, what profession belonged to which class
was very clear. The aristocracy, business owners, and high-level
government officials are upper class, white-collars are middle, and
blue-collars and farmers at the bottom.

This arrangement follows "higher education=higher income=higher social
class" model that underpins leftist thought. It completely ignores
the ever-so-common circumstances today where level of education does
not at all correlate to wealth. Strokes of luck (gambling, lotto,
people offering insane amount of money to buy your family plot) and
organized crime (corruption, taking bribes, blackmailing, kidnapping
for ransom, the list goes on and on) can all lead to enormous wealth
unimaginable for the aristocracy of not that long ago.

In fact, in the case of organized crime, lacking sense of shame, an
exact opposite of high "human disposition," is becoming a sure sign of
high social class. A story a taxi driver told me yesterday serves as
a good example. One day, as his passenger opened the car door to get
out, a guy on a bicycle slammed into the door. the guy collapsed on
the ground, saying that his leg is broken and asks for a 1000 RMB

The taxi driver calls the police, who asks whether the guy on the
bicycle needs an ambulance for check-up in the local hospital. The
guy immediately opposes, saying that he has no time and need to leave
now. Yet, he refuse to go without getting some cash. So the taxi
driver gives him 200 RMB in front of the police, the guy jumps on the
bicycles and get away at full-speed, without any sign of injury. No
need to mention, the taxi driver was pissed.

Now say the guy on the bicycle pulls off this stunt once a day every
month (I wouldn't be surprised if he does it 2~3 times a day given
that it only took him 40 minutes or so to squeeze out the cash), he
would have an monthly income of 6000 RMB in a city where even the
average white collar makes 4000~5000 RMB a month. Just by deceiving
taxi drivers, the guy has put himself in solid middle class. All it
takes is not feeling any sort of shame in repeatedly feigning injury
in front of honest people trying to make a living.

From appearance, this guy has no quality of traditional middle class.
Looking like any other peasant who came to Shanghai to work for low
wages in a factory, he probably has little education, not mention
access to (or desire for) "higher culture." He is not the only
example. Coal mine bosses in Shanxi, my home province, got rich
simply because there is that black stuff below their family plots,
making them millionaires even though many of them can't even read or
write above an elementary school level.

Surely, loaded with cash, these guys are trying to appear more "high
class." On their bodies and in their homes are full of the same
luxury goods enjoyed by European aristocracy, but once they open their
mouth, their mental lower class immediately comes out. As much as I
believe that the lower class deserves opportunities to become higher
class, but this sort of opportunity, based simply on the lack of
sufficient law enforcement and not on education and hard work, should
not exist. The existence of these rich people without any "rich
people" mentality is a shame for a country like China.


  1. And who are you to judge such people? As a student of social stratification and inequality, you should know that our life circumstances are not within our control. The ability to pursue education and to put in effort/hard work is a blessing. Not everyone is lucky enough to receive an education or to be able to strive hard in life. Your arrogance is startling. What is the difference between someone "born" into an upper social class and someone who make use of poor law enforcement to earn a living? How is the person who found natural resources underneath their houses any different from someone who is born with a silver spoon? Shame on you

  2. sounds like someone is feeling a little jealous of others' "privileges." Of course, I dont at all disagree that some people are simply lucky to get the opportunities they get by being born to the right family in the right country, but thats precisely what I think is wrong with humanity from a socialist internationalist position.

    Our end goal, ultimately, is to ensure that children are not punished at birth for their parents' and families' incompetence. All should have opportunities to receive the same education, same access to job opportunities that allow them to more up the social ladder with equal possibility.

    As for those who did remain poor despite existence of such opportunities, society must introduce a rigorous system of retraining and basic welfare to ensure that they can be motivated to survive and learn a new set of skills rather than turning to criminal activities.

  3. "...but once they open their mouth, their mental lower class immediately comes out" - You come out against classism, but this sentence as well as the general disposition of some of your argument comes off as classist, I have to say.

  4. Well, it really depends on how you define the concept of "class" right?