Revising Plato’s Republic for Philosophy, I came across the concept of ‘the noble lie’. For Plato, in his ideal state, the class system would be based upon a myth that would make the citizens believe they came from different natures.
The rulers of the state would be told that they had gold in their body and the farmers and craftsmen that they had iron and bronze. This would become so embedded into the state that even the rulers would begin to believe it.
The most disturbing aspect of this ideal state is the absence of choice. There are only three possible ways of life that citizens are assigned on the basis of their aptitudes, and they are then expected to live an appropriate life for that class.
As I was reading this, I began to see parallels (albeit inverse ones) with the United States. America has a sanctified vision of the working and middle classes, similar to Plato’s emphasis on the ruling class.
The American classes’ successes are based upon a ‘dream’. If granted a Calvinistic work ethic and tenacity to succeed, anyone in the lower classes was told they possessed the ‘gold’ within them to achieve economic prosperity.
Rather tyrannically, if anyone dares question the validity of this reverie, you are deemed to be anti-American. So universally heralded is this dream, that even the politicians and CEOs of the state try to portray themselves as the lower classes, exemplifying within them the inner gold which accounts for their success.
This American state I have sketched is far from a hyperbolic depiction. Almost universally, America has bought into this ‘ad populum’ fallacy of equal opportunity, but the people are starting to wake up from the dream.
The New York Times reported in early January (“Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs”) that although Americans perceive themselves as possessing the land of opportunity, they have less intergenerational economic mobility than other developed countries.
Therefore the chance that a person born into a low-income family will end up with high income is lower in America than north of the border in Canada or across the Atlantic.
In fact, Paul Krugman notes that during the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of black households in the top 20 percent of the income distribution nearly doubled. Yet around 1980 the economic standing of blacks halted and income disparities in the US began to expand significantly, turning us into a society more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.
A lecture by Alan Krueger, chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, showed that those nations that have high inequality have low mobility.
He coined this the ‘Great Gatsby Curve’, signifying the greater the gap between the bottom and top rungs of a society, the greater the extent that an individual’s economic status is determined by their parents’ status. (Nothing earth shattering there.)
However, what would surprise many Americans, is that by 2035 there will exist even less mobility than at present – effectively showing that if the status quo continues, deep trenches of class division will well and truly be dug in.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote that ‘there are no conditions of life to which a man cannot get accustomed, especially if he sees them accepted by everyone around them’.
Americans, including myself, have accepted the American Dream blindly for far too long.
My own innocence on the matter was first made apparent to me when I began living in Britain.
One of the most obvious things an American first notices when they spend a lengthy amount of time in this country, is how much airtime the subject of ‘class’ is given in conversations in the pub and coffee shop.
Before living here, I had never once described someone as ‘middle’ or ‘upper’ class. I have vocally disdained this aspect of British society, preferring my native country’s naivety on a subject that many in the US regard as an ‘Atlantic’ construct.
The Republican Party has spoken out against President Obama’s highlighting of class divides, and rightly so. They, too, disdain bringing a topic into the political discourse which perpetuates difference and allows the subject far too much impact on lives.
They, like myself, do not want classicism to become a mainstay in our national rhetoric. It is divisive and self-perpetuating. However, this is where I part ways with the Right, for a paradoxical solution now presents itself.
We need to talk about class, to make sure we don’t.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has told the American people that we should only speak of economic inequality in ‘quiet rooms’ (hardly a surprise from someone that made $20.7 million in the last financial year and paid 15% in income tax).
There used to be a time when similar opinions were being whispered about female and racial inequality. To mute the serious fear of increasing unfairness in America is to preserve the system that will subject the economic and social prospects of future generations to mirror the class into which they are born.
This reality is the antithesis to the American ‘dream’, something which will undoubtedly remove the potential ‘gold’ from within the working and middle classes’ souls.
There’s an old joke where a British professor meets an American graduate student and asks him what he’s working on.
‘My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States’.
‘That’s interesting: I didn’t think there was a class system in the United States’.
‘Nobody does, that’s how it survives.’