FLORIDA, September 25, 2012 — Even though many profess that we live in a classless society, virtually everyone realizes that all communities have an established social order of some kind.
Since the dawn of humanity, social classes have been a factor in just about every known culture. While much is often made of them, they are surprisingly simple to define; a group of individuals with similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Classes create, essentially, separate universes within a specific geographic area. For example, an upper-class housewife is unlikely to have her children enrolled in a public school. Therefore, she has no necessity to mingle with the average public school parent, who is typically lower-middle to working-class. Likewise, a working-class male seldom has the spare time to play a round of golf, or money for course membership. Therefore, he is left with no need to socialize among his wealthier contemporaries.
Such scenarios, and countless more like them, are the reasons for a great deal of society’s culture clashes. Very few are rooted in the idea of those in opposite groups actively despising one another on an individualistic basis. Rather, one group establishes norms which conflict with the other’s. Themes such as ethnicity, race, religion, gender — and most importantly — economics can be counted on to play huge roles here.
Because social classes exist in a seemingly contradictory manner — being easy to define yet complex to describe or analyze — it should come as no surprise that different sociologists have quite different takes on how it is that classes are formed and interact.
The most popular perspectives on class differentiation can be squarely attributed to two men: Karl Marx and Max Weber. Both agreed on very little, if anything at all, but nonetheless brought serious questions to the table about the core elements of civilization.
Marx, the godfather of revolutionary socialism, was the son of an affluent German-Jewish vineyard owner. Despite initially enjoying the benefits of his family’s wealth, he would grow to viscerally despise capitalism upon studying literature and history. Viewing class differentiation as the reason for all social, financial, and political inequality, he honed in on what he saw as the two competing mega-classes.
A combine of businesspersons and aristocrats made the bourgeoisie, and principally non-landowning workers were the proletariat. Marx believed that the proletariat was being badly exploited, and the bourgeoise continuing this would trigger a mass revolution. He hoped that, as a result of this upheaval, the moneyed would be overthrown and replaced by the poor. Then a system of government could be forged that would allow for unparalleled equality.
Weber, on the other hand, saw inequality as a natural occurrence. A German as well, he was born into a prominent political family. Inspired by his father’s electoral and intellectual pursuits, he would go on to make a remarkable career out of examining human societies with excruciating detail.
Regarding social stratification, he did not feel that the affluent and impoverished were locked in some sort of epic duel. Finding great interest in what Marx deemed as the bourgeoisie, Weber did not consider this to be a monolithic entity. He devised a system in which class membership was divided between the materially wealthy and the socially prestigious. In his opinion, it was useless to be concerned about reserves of monetary capital if social ones were not considered too.
Irrespective of whose approach is taken, the chasm between what is commonly referred to as the haves and have nots is readily apparent. One of the most notable instances of this being portrayed in a motion picture was in 1996, when director James Cameron made his international blockbuster Titanic.
Released the following year, it details the fictional romantic relationship between destitute artist Jack Dawson and wealthy socialite Rose DeWitt Bukater. Making a very long story short, after the Titanic crashes into an iceberg in the North Atlantic, its upper class passengers are given primary access to lifeboats. This is despite them being the minority of boarders. Rose, who faced endless discrimination for falling in love with someone below her stature, loses Jack in the end due to his perishing in the frigid waters.
Though highly theatrical, Titanic serves as a fairly accurate testament to what the differences between social classes really mean. The affluent receive better health care, have better living conditions, and greater life expectancies than the less fortunate do. Not to mention the immense stigma felt by members of differing classes should they try to form non-professional relationships.
Interestingly enough, this bigotry can arise from both ends — it is definitely not a case of the wealthy holding the poor back, or vice versa.
From my standpoint, Marx was dangerously extreme in his idealism. The worst of this had to do with his disregarding of human nature, which has competition as an essential component. Weber was far more practical in his conclusions about social stratification, recognizing inequality as an unfortunate, but undeniably reoccurring phenomenon.
This is a harsh reality, no doubt, but so are the greatest of life’s challenges. Looking the other way is merely delaying a problem, not averting it.
Much of this article was first published as Class Consciousness: A Question of Titanic Proportions on Blogcritics.org
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