Wealth is about power and control. Those extremely rich in this country have the power to take advantage of the poor while controlling the main public discourse. If this were a real democracy, capitalism would be just fine. The people would be able to check the government and would actually have a say in what goes on. But the system of government we have right now is essentially a puppet show when it comes to unequal distribution of wealth. The wealthy is able to do whatever they want while everyone is distracted by other things. When the people start asking too many questions, the government distracts them with laws that do nothing to lower inequality. The entire nation will debate about a poor persons right to get free healthcare, but no one notices how much money we pour into military spending, the “war on drugs” and the incarceration of a large chunk of the nations black men. All the Wall Street “reform” act did was give big corporations a new set of rules that their lawyers will find loop holes around. The regulations we do pass are just designed to pacify the American public as the rich elite continues to maximize profits and take advantage of the working poor. But Americans don’t know that… and they never will because the government was able to pretend like it was doing its job.
“Natural childbirth preparation requires time, money, and a willing alliance with professionals. Within the feminist movement, the focus on middle-class concerns of access to professional jobs and consciousness-raising has alienated many working-class women who face employment problems of a very different cast and who are less able to live independent of their husbands' paycheck. Moreover, an 'educated' contempt for professionals is easier for those who live among them than it is for those who may have to submit to experts in a wider range of life experiences. The failure of middle-class feminists to make contact with working-class concerns have been noted frequently: this analysis merely points to an additional consequence of failure. Consumerism depends on a steady income, mobility, and time. Middle-class women can afford to shop around for goods and services. But working-class women pay more out of necessity, not out of choice; clinic clients see the doctor assigned to them. And a rejection of technology is a luxury of those who have already benefited from it. That class of women who have always had access to the most sophistical medical technology may make the decision to reject some aspects of that class privilege; those who have not yet consistently received these benefits may not be ready to abandon them. ”—
“Working-Class Women, Middle-Class Women, and Models of Childbirth” by Margaret K. Nelson
Let me just emphasis this part: “A rejection of technology is a luxury of those who have already benefited from it. That class of women who have always had access to the most sophistical medical technology may make the decision to reject some aspects of that class privilege; those who have not yet consistently received these benefits may not be ready to abandon them.”
Drawing Blood: Being a Poor Person in America
Drawing Blood: Being a Poor Person in America
Last night, I met my classmate’s significant other, let’s call him L, at a Ghostface concert. Waiting for the opening act to finish, four of us (my classmate, L, and another friend of mine—all grad students) sat in a booth and did the usual getting to know each other stuff—talking about where we were from, where we went to school, what our areas of interest are in our respective fields.
Both my classmate and L are from Southside Chicago. When he asked me what my parents do for a living, I answered the same way I’ve been answering for years: my mom used to be a phlebotomist (she drew blood) and is now a caregiver, my dad was a bar manager but he passed away a few years ago. He responded that his mom is an administrative assistant and his dad recently got promoted to regional manager of some company.
We both used tricks to make our parents’ jobs sound as respectable as possible. My mom hasn’t been a phlebotomist in over a decade, and when I was growing up, she was a pull-tab lady at a couple bars (if you’re not from Minnesota, you probably don’t know what that means, and that’s fine, don’t worry about it)—but I always mention phlebotomy first. Likewise, L said “administrative assistant” instead of “secretary.” I didn’t mention that my dad was unemployed for years before he died. Etc.
We did it because of shame—specifically, class shame.
I want to talk about being poor.
Much of my experience as a poor person in America is either invisible or unrecognizable to my middle- and upper-class friends. In order to get to a place where I can fully understand my own experience and background, and to help facilitate my friends’ own journeys in acknowledging intersections of power, oppression, and privilege in their own lives, I want to describe some of my experiences.
I think it’s always a good idea to start any dialogue about power and privilege by acknowledging my own privileges. I benefit immensely from white and male and able-bodied privilege, both in the world-at-large and with regards to my own social class. Because of those privileges, nobody ever assumes that I’m poor, and I am not asked to represent my social class. If I make a mistake in school or at a fancy dinner or whatever, nobody assumes it’s because I’m an uncivilized poor person (while people of color are more often assumed to be poor, in addition to the other systemic oppressions they face). I think we can call this a kind of “passing privilege.” Moreover, as a poor person in America, I still have access to comforts and securities that poor people in developing countries don’t have—I have air conditioning, computer and internet access, cell phones, etc. All these kinds of privileges are written about extensively online and in books, so I’m not going to go in-depth, but you can definitely just Google that shit.
Today, my mom told me that a process server has been trying to find her, stopping by her sister’s house and her place of employment regularly (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve definitely seen it in movies: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service_of_process). She doesn’t know which debt she’s being served over. The only way for her to find out what it’s for, and to get the server to stop harassing her sister and bosses, is to let them serve her the papers, which probably means she’s getting sued. In some cases, if a process server has exhaustively tried (and failed) to find you, they’re allowed to advertise in local newspapers about you. My mom could get fired, her family could get pissed at her, and she could be publicly shamed, if she doesn’t accept these papers. This is all legal.
A few days ago, I paid our family plan phone bill, as I have been doing off and on for months. My mother and I both make similar wages—and you know how grad students get paid, probably. Sometimes, I’m down on my luck and she’s able to send me a little money. Other times, she’s down on her luck and I’m able to send her a little money. While some of my friends are regularly able to borrow money from their parents—as uncomfortable and mortifying as it might be—I often give my mom money.
Early last summer, my mom got evicted from her apartment for non-payment of rent. My friends were frantically trying to finish their final essays for the semester, and I was frantically trying to figure out a way for my mom to have a home.
In junior high school, there was a week where we went to the career resource center and researched our parents’ careers to get ideas of what we wanted to do when we grew up. I lied and pretended my dad was a doctor because I knew there wasn’t a career file on bartending.
There was a time during college when a debt collector was calling me regularly—I was afraid to answer, because those people are scary, so I don’t know if they were calling about me or about my mom. It was nice, though, when they woke me up at 8am every day, because that meant that my cell phone hadn’t been shut off.
Around the same time, I slept with a fan on every night so that, immediately upon waking up, I could tell by the sound of my room whether my utilities had been shut off.
I still don’t answer calls from numbers I don’t recognize.
Because of some poor decisions when I was a teenager, I’ve been more or less blacklisted by a company that checks credit scores and histories for banks. I am not able to open a bank account. I have a pre-paid debit card that I have to refill at Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart Money Center is the most depressing place I have ever been. And I’ve been to a Nickelback concert.
At this point, I probably sound like a wholly irresponsible moron who deserves debt collectors calling me all the time. This, too, is part of the way in which power operates on my life: growing up working class, I was never taught how to be financially responsible because my mother was never taught that, either. Instead of understanding how deeply this kind of cultural skill is tied to class upbringing, I’m afraid that my friends will judge me as personally inferior because of my debts and mistakes. Two of my more progressive (and middle/upper-class) friends have angrily lectured me about money. One of them made his then-girlfriend (who grew up working class) cry over money at least once. He’s not a jerk; he just doesn’t understand his own privilege.
The idea of publishing this essay is terrifying. It feels like coming out of the closet.
In addition to lacking an understanding of finances and responsibility, I also was very unprepared for college—not in an intellectual way, but fiscally. Because I’m a first generation college student, my parents knew next to nothing about college or how to pay for it. A friend told me to apply to private colleges because they have more scholarships, not mentioning that those schools are also, like, five times more expensive, so that’s what I did. I spent three years at a $30,000 / year institution, and, while I did get a fair amount of scholarships, I paid for my tuition and housing with student loans. I will likely pay back over $100,000 in student loan debt. I can’t ignore it, because I had family members co-sign my loans. 6 months after I stop going to grad school, I have to start paying these things back, and so I’m forced to get a high-paying job immediately out the gates. This is also true for a lot of my middle-class friends, but I imagine that many of them had a more thorough understanding of what they were doing when they took on the debt, whereas I had no clue.
I think that most of my progressive friends basically understand the material differences between being poor and having money—being able to go on vacations, owning houses and garages and cars, having health insurance, etc.—but it’s the cultural differences that are what make me ashamed to be poor. There are all kinds of things I was never taught or prepared for due to my social class, that all of my non-poor friends were taught and prepared for.
Lots of people criticize hiphop for being overly materialistic. But honestly, the reason “Juicy” speaks to me so forcefully is because fantasizing about having money is one of the funnest things a poor person can do. Last night, Ghostface did “C.R.E.A.M.” and I danced my face off.
There are ways of reclaiming a kind of power or pride in being working class. I can claim I’ve never had anything handed to me, I can say I’m a “real” American, I can boast about the cultural values I learned by being poor. Moreover, I am constantly reminded of how good I am at being broke, at how I can survive and even thrive when money is tight. Still, for the most part, I harbor great amounts of shame about my social class and what it means about me and my life.
One day, I will be a university professor, I will have paid back my student loans and debts, and I won’t be part of the working class anymore. Even then, my understanding of life and my place in culture will be haunted by the specter of poverty. I will be surrounded by people who grew up eating kale and vacationing overseas. When my colleagues, whose parents were professors or doctors or anthropologists, ask me what my parents did, I’ll say my mom was a phlebotomist.
erasure of the poor and the glorification of the rich
the problems of the rich are marketed as everyone’s problems. We ignore the fundamental problems with our economy and instead focus on superficial issues. We listen to those with the loudest voices and best reputations, because we’re distracted by charm and glamour. The nation’s poor are rarely given a voice in the national discourse, nor do they have the time or the resources to fight for a voice. They are simply forgotten as the rest of America indulges in the illusion that we are all middle class. Thus, class is perpetuated. The wealthy does as they please while the rest of America works at trying to be as successful as the wealthy. No one wants to stop and give voice to those at the bottom of the ladder, because everyone else is to busy staring at the top of it.
In Scott Horsley’s “Why The Haves Have So Much” on NPR, he points out the following:
Studies show there’s less upward mobility now than there used to be, and less movement between income groups in the United States than in Germany, France, Canada or the Scandinavian countries.
Listen to the full report above.
Is The Social Network Disrupting Social Class?
Rob Horning at Marginal Utility noodles on our bonding too closely with the individualism of the ‘social graph’ (a term he dislikes at face value, just as I do). He suggests that we may have painted ourselves into a corner by rejecting a class consciousness:
Social graph vs. social class – Rob Horning via The New Inquiry
Social media support, obviously, a view of society as a network, in which individual “nodes” define themselves (and their worth) in terms of their difference from other nodes. Each individual’s value lies in developing and expressing that difference, finding comparative advantage relative to others. There has to be something unique that you provide to make you worth linking to, though that uniqueness may consist of the unique access you provide to a bunch of other people as well as the unique information you are in a position to supply. At any rate, establishing connections to others serves to spread awareness of that difference, meaning that the relations charted in that network (aka the social graph) draw lines of competition as well as of mere affiliation.
This interpretation of how society is organized — the one that anything labeled as “social” by the tech world helps sustain — precludes an interpretation that acknowledges the possibility of class, of concrete groups with shared interests that they work to construct and then use as the basis for forcing concessions from capital. In the network, you are on your own; its ideology suggests we are all equally points on the great social graph, no different from anyone else save for the labor we put in to establishing connections. This obviates the issues of pre-existing social capital and class habitus that facilitate the formation of better connections and the ability to reap their value instead of being exploited by them.
Since the social graph traces intricate constellations that are always becoming ever more complex, it requires massive computer power and elaborate algorithms to interpret and trace out underlying patterns of significance. Generally, only capital has the resources to summon such power, so the commonalities called into being through such analysis of network data are commercial ones. Retailers can figure out what demographic and lifestyle pattern you fit into, whther you know it or not, and then you with advertising that reinforces your belonging and takes advantage of it. (The third episode of Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self has a section on the roots of this in Values and Lifestyles analysis devised at Stanford in the 1970s.)
But to forge a social class, a different sort of work is required, called forth by a different conception of society, based on antagonisms between blocs (and ongoing fights that require long-term strategies), not antagonisms between individuals (whose spontaneous skirmishes require more or less ad hoc tactics). Think E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which treats class not as a statistical artifact but as something that’s as much forged deliberately by members than ascribed by outside forces. The social graph purports to passively record social arrangements that emerge organically and thus reflect some sort of true and undistorted account of how society works. That conception discourages the possibility of those plotted on the graph from making a social class. Social media users don’t take advantage of their connectedness to undertake the work of finding the bases by which they can see their concerns as being shared, being in some way equivalent. Instead, their connectedness drives them to preen for attention and personal brand enhancement. One must work against social media’s grain to use it to develop lasting, convincing political groupings.
I buy some of what Horning is offering up, but not the fundamental conclusions.
First, I do agree that we are living precariously in the world today, as many — like Zygmunt Bauman — have spelled out. We are unable to find solidarity in our situation, and so, Horning’s analysis has weight: we cannot organize ourselves into the blocs that perhaps would allow us to push for change.
However, I don’t think it is our conscious affiliation into social networks — mediated by Twitter, Facebook, and so on — that is the root cause of our lack of solidarity. On the contrary, I believe that the increase in weak ties that social networks afford may be a way forward into a new-found awareness of our shared condition, and the creation of ways to work together to better our shared situation.
The are larger forces at work in the world — economic inequality, globalism, and misinformation at a massive scale — that have had decades to take root. The upward striving of Americans, most convinced they are soon-to-be millionaires living a middle class life, led to a rapid erosion in the past 50 years of the one-time working/middle/upper class identification. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of post-normal America.
Horning’s piece is an over-shuffled house of cards: he pulls together a smattering of political theory, and ends with a pile of worn out cardboard:
Like neoliberalist ideology and post-Fordist management techniques, social media work to “restore the salience of particularities” and “construct a world sensitive to differences,” to use Boltanski and Chiapello’s phrases. This yields a “confused, fragmented universe, composed solely of a juxtaposition of individual destinies.” We all flounder to get ahead personally but never unite in a meaningfully political way. The 99% dissolves and all that’s shared is statuses, photos, and tweets. And everything remains fucked up and bullshit.
People are actually made better by the sum of their connections, and so are their connections.
One truth buried in there: our identities are increasingly fragmented, based on the spectrum of social contexts we use, and we can become alienated by that.
Personally, my sense is that there are communities with social tools like Twitter, where people are doing something more than a world of one-upmanship, where people are actually made better by the sum of their connections, and so are their connections.
We may not have replaced social class with tranches of social networks, at least not yet. But there is an entire world rigged around the fading promises of class identity, telling us we are first and foremost middle class or upper class or working class. Our entire political debate is centered on that as the foundational ideology, that and the sovereignty of nation states based on geographic cultural inclusion, and exclusion.
We may someday get to a zeitgeist where these ‘givens’ are considered as anachronistic as the divine right of kings and the superiority of white males, but we aren’t there yet. Not by a long shot.
“Plenty of my school fellows did just OK in high school, went to second-rank universities, where they majored in having a good time, crammed for the LSAT...and squeezed into second-rank law schools or business schools. They emerged on the other side with a credential that allowed them to make a pretty good living...A young man from an inner-city school in Philadelphia who took the same relaxed approach to study and career would never have made it to law school or business school.”—Michael Goldfarb on American social mobility, “A U.S. View of the Class System”, BBC News Magazine
Can You Feel It?
The Ground’s Severed State
Of What Used To Be So Level, So Equal
The Water Flowing Right
The Sun’s Warmth Hitting Every Spot
Can You Feel It?
The Ground’s Wrecked Space
Covered In Black Tar
A Sense Of Comfort
Can You Feel It?
The Ground’s Infested
The Ground’s Isolated
The Ground’s Condensed
The Ground’s Claustrophobic
The Ground Is Looked Down Upon
The Ground Is Judged By The People
The Ground Is Judged By The Houses
The Ground Is Judged By The Sky
The Ground Is Home
And I Despise Home…
“There is a move away from a society made up of individuals with distinctive combinations of knowledge, experience and learning to one in which most people have socially constructed, rapidly acquire views that are superficial and veer towards group approval rather than originality. ”—Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class
In my social 30 class this one guy wrote his number on the board and said call for a good time, he didn’t get any calls. So the teacher decided to change it to call for addiction counseling, still no one called.
Yesterday in class the guy was like “just erase it no one is calling”, after he changed his mind and asked the teacher to put up he is selling his car. So the teacher put up the info about the car and his number. In class my friends decided to call him. He was like wtf is this?! So we kept calling…. he got pissed. Cause we are still calling his number today in class :) I think this is going to continue for a few more days.
Why The Caste?
I remember in middle school, when we were young and naive, we divided ourselves by “stereotypes” based on what we liked, how we dressed, acted, and what we did. While it is normal to group with people we have more in common with, these divisions were also the cause of problems and alienation. On a larger and more serious scale, those divisions are present in societies all over the world - including India.
I thought this must be a good starting point for exploring the influences that family structures in India faced (and, on some levels, continue to face) and how it might affect people today.
The caste system is a hereditary social order of people in India. What does social status have to do with family? A lot more than it does in our culture today. There was a time when interracial marriage was taboo but now it is more accepted. The caste system originated in Hinduism, (which believes in the rebirth, and Karma affecting the status of one’s next life) but can and is used in other religions. Here are the four classes (varnas):
Brahmans - priests and scholars.
Kshatriyas - rulers and warriors.
Vaishyas - farmers, merchants, and traders.
Sudras - slaves, servants, artisans, and laborers.
The reason why castes affect family life is due to the simple fact that there are lines, or, more accurately, walls, dividing people from different classes within the caste system. These divisions go as far as permanently separating a higher caste from the lower caste, interacting with which will cause one to be defiled. Marriages are done within castes and inter-caste marriages, causing much disgrace, has consequences. Likewise, life in one class would differ significantly from life in a lower of higher ranked class.
It also must be added however, that the caste system is not as strict as it was in the past due to the modernization and westernization India continues to undergo today.
Caste and Class. (2001). In World of Sociology, Gale. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.aacc.edu/login?url=http%3A%2F% 2Fwww.credoreference.com/entry/worldsocs/caste_and_class
Hindu Beliefs. Religion Facts. Retrieved from http://www.religionfacts.com/hinduism/beliefs.htm