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Class essentialism January 17, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class, Culture, Economy.

Here’s an interesting piece on Slate that deals with perceptions of class essentialism, i.e. beliefs that genetic and or other factors determine class position. It’s unsurprising to discover that those who perceive themselves to be in “higher” class positions hold to this view more than those who perceive themselves to be in “lower” class positions. Discussing how Boris Johnson suggested that inequality can be linked to some degree to IQ when he said “I am afraid that [the] violent economic centrifuge [of competition] is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability,”, Matthew Hutson – who wrote the piece – notes that:

That’s a satisfying worldview for someone who is successful and considers himself unusually bright.

As Hutson also notes, though, those in the top percentage of household earnings are unlikely to be ‘200 times as smart as the rest of the field… or have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week’ and therefore other factors including luck enter the picture.

Hutson continues:

But say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.

Now, I’ve noted previously how this line of thinking is coming into vogue. Only recently Prospect had a most confused article on same where a sort of class essentialism was reflected in a belief that class structures and social mobility, or lack of same, reflected some sort of intrinsic intellectual, educational and work/career aptitude – an attitude that was obviously in error one would think but one which wasn’t for the most part picked up on the Prospect website by those commenting on it, or in letters subsequently. And worse again this was part of a broader ‘discussion’ which Hutson notes:

A top adviser to the U.K.’s education secretary just produced a report arguing that “discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics.” He claimed that school performance is as much as 70 percent genetic and criticized England’s Sure Start program as a waste of money. (As Scott Barry Kaufman, an intelligence researcher at NYU and the author of Ungifted, points out, “Since genes are always interacting with environmental triggers, there is simply no way to parse how much of an individual child’s performance is due to nature or nurture.”)

Hutson suggests that:

There is a grain of truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). It makes sense that talent and drive, some portion of which are related to genetic variation, contribute to success.

But as he concludes:

… that’s a far cry from saying “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining his or her genes.” Such a statement ignores the role of wealth inheritance, the social connections one shares with one’s parents, or the educational opportunities family money can buy—not to mention strokes of good or bad luck (that are not tied to karma).

One can quibble slightly about the use of the term ‘social’ as if this is divorced from economic, though as can be seen he’s not ignoring economic factors.

And there are other issues too. There’s been such a massive social and societal churn in the last few centuries that concepts of genetic inheritance determining class position are deeply unlikely, frankly the changing nature of societies has been too great to allow of that. Take this state as an example where the self-perceived uppermost layer in class terms was effectively sidelined in the independence struggle. Hard to argue any sort of class essentialism in regard to their right of inheritance or intrinsic excellence.

Hutson, unhappily, notes that:

Social class essentialism is basically inciting social Darwinism. This distortion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in one interpretation, is the belief that only the fit survive and thrive—and, further, that this process should be accepted or even accelerated by public policy. It’s an example of the logical fallacy known as the “appeal to nature”—what is natural is good. (If that were true, technology and medicine would be moral abominations.) Social class essentialism entails belief in economic survival of the fittest as a fact. It might also entail belief in survival of the fittest as a desired end, given the results linking it to reduced support for restorative interventions. It’s one thing to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s not waste our time.” It’s another to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s lock them away.” Or eradicate them: Only four years ago, then-Lt. Gov. of South Carolina Andre Bauer told a town hall meeting that poor people, like “stray animals,” should not be fed, “because they breed.”

This too is part of what we have to contend with.

On a tangent that links back into this, consider how even quite recently our societies had a certain orientation, for example the idea that all workers should work. That’s not a uniquely left wing position but it is one that has a currency on the left and can be regarded as being a part of social democrat and other left thinking. Now that approach has been diluted, note how in the current crisis unemployment is no longer regarded as the paramount issue as the market itself, in various forms – but most immediately its financial aspect, is reified as the central issue where all else is secondary. And those who are involved in the market are then reified as well and so on and so forth…

Of course one must be cautious about in part psychological analyses, but given the force of those behind attempting to shift discussion and policy on this area onto new and further rightward ground it appears to have some substance. Hutson, to judge from his piece, isn’t really attacking class structures in the way that many of us might wish, let alone aspiring to replace them, but any discussion of class – even, or particularly, in this area, begins to point out the contradictions and negatives aspects in relation to current structures. That’s no bad thing.


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