Human beings are, if nothing else, social creatures. Our conceptions of status and superiority have evolved over time through compounding layers of interactions, and the world over, have resulted in the development of complex societies with their own traditions, conventions and expectations. Part of societal development involves the categorization of individuals into groups – every person is an individual, hence why we all have our own names. Next came the division of families, then of alignment upon socio-demographic or socio-economic lines. Soon, the entirety of our individuality could be readily summed up by a series of descriptors of association into various groups – meaning we were the sum of our individual parts. Some groups had greater influence than others, thus affiliation within these categories lent a certain prestige to the individual in question, an inherent power due to the perception of importance associated with membership. As such, social stratification into classes emerged readily as a natural form of complex societal progression in which hierarchies became natural divisions within our communities.
Today’s class divisions vary based upon our definitions of class (Marx defined class as one’s relationship with their means of production, whereas Weber defines class as entirely separate from social status) and the degree to which divisions are explicit. A common example is feminism in the Western world, where a transition has been made in recent years to address the systemic gap between fostering equality and seeking equity between genders. Governments are aware of this, and often recognize that class categorization is a contentious topic within the electorate. Those belonging to a class that bestows certain privileges or prestige have no desire to share it’s inherent benefits – others view classes that hold them as systemic obstacles preventing the necessary steps towards a more equitable world. Balancing this division is important, and one trick that has functioned traditionally in helping balance this divide is the societal awareness of class mobility – if one believes that opportunities exist to move to a more favorable social status, one will be more accepting of systemic inequality within society as a whole. The self-interest associated with changing one’s own social status can have a blinding effect when referencing the more holistic picture of current issues.
Take Britain and the United States as a case study: a widely held assumption is that Americans are less “class-conscious” than Europeans, due to the ingrained perception of ideological egalitarianism in the American Dream, readily described as a graduation framework into a higher social class – the notion that hard work and determination can result in any individual finding themselves within the middle to upper-middle class of American society. The constitutionally-ingrained American focus upon the rights of the individual over the social group places the burden of mobility upon the individual, regardless of whichever ethnic minority / gender / religious faith within which one belongs – within this, Britain differs, viewing class as not just a formal and informal structure, but as an ingrained manner by which power is divided within a society. Named private academic institutions still hold prestige, despite the spread of universal education standards within the primary school system, and there is a more explicit societal understanding that mobility upwards for some results in a need for others to be removed from the ruling class. Simply put, with a limited resource pool, it is impossible for everyone to be “above-average”.
But an examination of each nation, despite Britain’s ingrained acceptance of class divisions and the lack of widespread comprehension in the United States that class structures have primarily informal effects that require addressing after formal steps are taken, inequality between classes (measured in wage inequality) has remained broadly stable since the late 1990s. The increased wage inequality is offset by greater access to education that has shrunk exam performance between rich and poor children. These two can be correlated – a higher educated workforce means that the prestige of a degree is reduced, and the opportunities afforded to those with them are no longer the privilege of an exclusive few. With these actions, the barriers to mobility shift. Well-intentioned parents seeking to provide an advantage to their children take steps of passing on wealth directly, supporting their children as they take on unpaid internships at prestigious firms or pushing their children into celebrated schools. But while this may serve to boost the individuals chance of maintaining their social status, it reduces overall mobility and further cements existing inequality, fostering resentment at an upper class that is seemingly holding hostage existing wealth and preventing the relative ascendance of others.
Different governments have different solutions. Asian societies pride themselves on their status as meritocracies, within which individuals may enter the public service or pass public exams, regardless of social status, to be given preferential opportunities. But no true meritocracy can exist past the first generation – entrance into the ranks of China’s Communist Party is exponentially more likely with a recommendation from a high-ranking official, and being offered the time and capital for tutors for South Korean students to study for exams is yet another privilege offered by wealthy families. But these perceptions, while widely understood, are not viewed as limiting mobility, and therefore citizens are more accepting of less overtly-democratic regimes due to the perception that they may act in the best interests of citizens and foster the mobility needed to maintain hope. This stands as a partial explanation as to why autocratic regimes may be favorably viewed if the electorate feels they play an essential role in creating opportunities for all instead of cementing the hierarchies for some.
If the government is able to put in place policies that remove some of these barriers (inheritance taxes, imposition of minimum wage salaries on all internships and improving public school education standards), it can serve to improve net mobility between social classes, which maintains the hope necessary for lower classes to accept latent societal inequality. But if this selfish self-interest is not maintained as a flame of hope, the blow back can be dramatic, leading to the rise of autocratic-leaning populists mobilizing the masses against an elite whose primary crime is their maintenance of the status quo. Inequality in societies is an inevitable truth of living within the masses of humanity – it is the role of rulers to ensure that these power structures don’t topple over on the backs of the categorized individuals upon whom they are built.