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Class Consciousness: A Question of Titanic Proportions

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Since the dawn of humanity, social classes have existed in just about every known culture. While much is made of them in the media and academia alike, they are surprisingly simple to define; a group of individuals with similar socioeconomic backgrounds. While each member’s political views might vary, though normally not to radical extents, all hold a relatively common standard of living. Due to this set standard, they often associate with like minds and consequently have little in common with those in other classes.

This creates, essentially, separate universes within a specific geographic area. For example, an upper class housewife is unlikely to have her children enrolled in a public private 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, so 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 cultural 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 exactly how it is that classes are formed and interact. The most popular perspectives on class differentiation and its relative social stratification 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 total equality in the above mentioned senses.

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. With regard to 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.

Regardless 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 can come from both ends; it is definitely not a case of the wealthy holding the poor back, or vice versa. From my standpoint, Marx was overly 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 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.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • Igor

    #1-jam: flies in the face of the evidence. All around the world and throughout history successful egalitarian tribes and societies have existed, often for centuries and even millenia, and in peace with their neighbors.

    For example, here near San Jose the Jaco Indians (egalitarian, as almost all indian tribes were) existed for 4000 years in peace with their neighbors, living opportunistically from acorns and other found food, with an average lifespan of 45 years (while their aggressive agrarian competitive contemporaries in the Fertile Triangle expired at about 35).

    Don’t you guys ever READ anything, or take a college course in something like history or anthropology before you start pontificating?

  • The Capitalist model would work better with less speculation in markets, as well as a flat tax. Robust excess consumption taxes are needed to pay for the downside of the many vices in society at large.

    When such excess consumption taxes are levied, health care will be more available for all. In addition, excess consumption taxes are needed to reduce the adverse health impact of junk food on the society at large.

    Corporate organizations would benefit by having more rigorous financial audits, as well as an independent audit committee of the Board of Directors. At bottom, management cannot and should not audit itself.

    More rigorous education, training and apprenticeship in the trades of the 21st century will be needed to anticipate the supplemental infrastructure needed by a half billion people in the USA alone and 9 billion people worldwide.

    College could be made more affordable by creating a 5 year program for high school and a 3 year program for college.

  • troll

    #2…never is an awfully long time

  • Joseph, I think Cameron did an excellent job of showing the two classes on the ship, juxtaposing scenes of the upper class diners andf then the steerage gang drinking and dancing. It was a masterful social statement in a truly entertaining film.

  • jamminsue,

    It is a difficult thing to accept, but true income equality is just not possible. The innate characteristic of human competitiveness would never allow such a thing, even under the best of political conditions.

  • jamminsue

    Joseph, so true. Anyone who says that there can be equality is not telling the truth