At the Expense of the 99%: the Realities of Social Class & Power Struggles

Aristotle, retrieved from Britannica.com
Aristotle, retrieved from Britannica.com

“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial… is either beneath our notice or more than human” (Aristotle). Leaving beasts and Gods aside, Aristotle’s long-withstanding words from Politics have rung true throughout history and continue to do so today. In so saying, man cannot live alone, free of dependence from other men and social activities, as they are but a requirement in his life and in his existence. It is necessary, then, to acknowledge that social classes, too, are a part of human existence.

This paper aims to cover the discussion regarding the major social classes that exist in the so-called ‘advanced’ or developed countries in the world, such as Canada and the United States of America. Furthermore, this paper will evaluate the existence and prevalence of a dominant social class, one that perhaps enjoys the luxuries and benefits of a developed world, or a socially-segregated world, at the expense of the dominated social classes therein. The case study to be utilized in this paper to explore the concept of social class, income inequality, and wealth distribution will be the well-known recent socio-political movement, Occupy Wall Street. Prior to delving into the details of this specific movement, parameters and guidelines need to be established in understanding the concepts of social class, wealth, power, and related subtopics explored from a political/economic framework.

Class, being the definitive term, refers to “a set category of things having some property or attribute in common and differentiated from others by kind, type, or quality” (Oxford). In today’s world, we find, there are “large variations in wealth, material possessions, power and authority” amongst people, particularly noticeable in developed nations such as Canada and the United States of America (Marks, 2006). Naturally, due to these differences between groupings of people based on their wealth and other power, classes of people are formed. These classes differentiate between the groups of “individuals who occupy a similar position in the economic system of production” (Marks, 2006). It is of worthy discussion to raise the question about the systems of production, too, as well as whom they belong to, and who they take away from.

Firstly, in establishing social classes, we find that social classes can be separated in a number of ways, ranging from ‘dirt poor’ to ‘filthy rich,’ as the colloquial expressions go. Both of these expressions are on opposite ends of the spectrum, evaluating and ranking a social class by way of their collective economic status. As in any other type of scale or classification, there is understandable industry disagreement on these, but Professor Carole Marks of the University of Delaware breaks them down into five main social classes sorted in order of descending economic status: the Upper Class – Elite, the Upper Middle Class, the Lower Middle Class, the Working Class, and the Poor (Marks, 2006). Although Marks’ model refers to the economy of the United States of America, a similar standpoint can be used to establish classes in other comparable developed countries, including Canada, and many nations in Europe, for example.

Social Class by David Simonds, retrieved from SOCL120.Wordpress.com
Social Class by David Simonds, retrieved from SOCL120.Wordpress.com

The Upper Class – Elite represent mostly the “heads of multinational corporations,” and the capitalists who are the “owners of lands, stocks and bonds” who derive wealth from their property and possessions (Marks, 2006). The Upper Middle Class contains the working professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, architects, directors of private and public organizations, university faculty and other people in highly regarded professions, who subsequently have “high incomes and high social prestige” (Marks, 2006). The Lower Middle Class consists of the people that “provide support for professionals” by working in administrative and clerical roles, as well as various skilled trades (Marks, 2006). Next, there is the Working Class, who consists of the general labourers and craft workers (Marks, 2006). This class is followed by the designated Poor, who work or try to work full time hours, according to Marks, but still fall below the poverty line and must make use of the perhaps limited social services made available to them by the government or local through community programs (Marks, 2006).

It is clear by reading the descriptions of the social class designations provided by Marks that there are distinctions between classes or categories of people, based on socio-economic status. These social classes provide perhaps an unfair but undeniable segregation of today’s society.

There are many great theorists who discussed the existence and extent of social class and other dividing concepts in our society. For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was a key influencer, philosopher, and theorist in the years leading up to the French Revolution, was known for his theory of human nature. He said in his work, The Social Contract, that the existence of property and the enforced control over that said property was harmful to the nature of humans” (Rousseau in Joshi, 2014). The idea of property and ownership came about and damaged the natural inclination of humans to fulfill their basic needs only, and this has been prevalent in recent years in developed countries.

Canadians in World War I, retrieved from BillFreeman.ca
Canadians in World War I, retrieved from BillFreeman.ca

To evaluate the existence and effects of a dominant social class, we can look at a historic example in Canada. Prior to Canada’s official Confederation in 1867, Canada was a land with mixed classes. For now, we can divide them not by using Marks’ economic five class system, but perhaps just grouping the classes by type or background of people: particularly, the Aboriginals on one side, and on the other, the Europeans who immigrated to Canada before the country actually came to be. Both these groups of people have “some property or attribute in common” amongst each other and they are “differentiated from [the group of] others by kind,” initially through their characteristic of background (Marks, 2006).

For example, the similarity within a group is exemplified in the case of the Aboriginals, who all shared this land (even though there may subdivisions within that group based on tribe, language, geographic region, etc.); they all lived off the land; and they were the original inhabitants of the land we know now as Canada. In terms of the Europeans who came into this land, they were differentiated from the Aboriginals in saying that even though they were both now inhabitants of the land, the Europeans had a different (arguably more elite) language that they spoke; they were supposedly more cultured (in a very narrow, European sense of the word); and they had access to tools (guns, metal, machinery, etc.) that perhaps the Aboriginals did not. These similarities within the two groups of people respectively can put them under one umbrella or category each, since there is enough dissimilarity between them which differentiates the groups from each other. This is an active example of the way Marks defined social class.

Arguably, in this coarse example, the Europeans may be the social class that is higher up, due to their access to tools, money, and other modern necessities; on the other hand, the Aboriginals, too, can be considered the higher up social class, due to their knowledge of the land and their original inhabitant status.

This example is not to show a basic socio-economic spectrum of social class in the way we would look at it today, but rather to illustrate that certain resources and tools make it both possible and easier for a certain group of people to dominate another, less fortunate, less equipped, and less situationally-fit group of people. This basic principle of social domination of a wealthier class over a poorer class stood centuries ago, and rings true today as well. This type of example, which surely occurred previously in history, may have been the grounds on which Rousseau tried to seek out a social contract that protected “society against factions and gross differences in wealth and privilege among its members” (Delaney).

In addition to Rousseau, there were multiple other theorists that spent their academic lives and careers focusing on the concept of social classes, power, and other related socio-economic issues. One such additional theorist was Karl Marx, a revolutionary economist, scholar, and sociologist, known for his two key works, The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Das Kapital (1867).

Kick, retrieved from MySpace.com
Kick, retrieved from MySpace.com

One of the keys of political economist Karl Marx’s viewpoint was focused on “increasing concentration of wealth” and the subsequent disruption of the wealth equilibrium (“Karl Marx,” 2008). This disruption of the equilibrium carries through to recent times. To highlight this point, we can look at the very recent socio-political movement, Occupy Wall Street (popularized on social media using the hashtag “#ows”). Occupy Wall Street began in 2011 and came to a close in 2015, as per the organization’s official website. As per an online directory of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the movement both inspired and encouraged a total of 1518 occupations worldwide; in Canada, 9 cities participated, including notably: Toronto, Ontario; Montreal, Quebec; and Moncton, New Brunswick. Occupy Wall Street’s motto or tagline is “We kick the ass of the ruling class” (White, 2015). Furthermore, the supplementary concept of ‘We are the 99%’ is a key example of resistance against the concentration of wealth as foreshadowed by Rousseau to occur in future societies of man. ‘We are the 99%’ is an attempt to raise the issue that the 99% of people in the country, in the case of Occupy Wall Street, the United States of America, are suffering at the hands of the rich 1% of the population due to unequal distribution of income, resources, assets, and overall wealth. This is perhaps one of the greatest and largest socio-political movements of recent times.

Cecily McMillian, retrieved from NationOfChange.org
Cecily McMillian, retrieved from NationOfChange.org

Chris Arnade, an ex-Wall Street trader, who began writing special columns and articles for The Guardian in 2012, spoke to Cecily McMillain, who was sent to jail for her role as a protester in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  When Arnade went to visit McMillain at Rikers Jail in New York, he spoke with her about her role in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Over the course of the conversation, he claims, he learned through recounts of her experiences and interactions that the system “is so stacked against those with so much less” (Arnade, 2014). The unfortunate conclusion of his visit after speaking with McMillain was that “the less money you have, the less power you have” in our world. “Any observer of American society would quickly note that… differences in resources… are the basis of inequality” (Marks, 2006).

The O-WSJ, retrieved from AidsOverSixty.Wordpress.com
The O-WSJ, retrieved from AidsOverSixty.Wordpress.com

The unfortunate reality in this case seems to be that anyone who is part of the 99% non-wealthy, non-elite group, is justified in their fight against injustice, but they must realize that they “might [be facing] a system stacked against [them]” (Arnade, 2014). Chris White, co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement, himself, said:

“Occupy was a perfect example of how social movements should work. It accorded with the dominant theories of protest and activism: it was a historical event, joined millions of people across demographics from around the world around a series of demands, [and through it all] there was little violence. And yet, the movement failed. So my main conclusion is that activism has been based on a series of false assumptions about what kind of collective behavior creates social change (White, 2015).

One of the false assumptions referred to is the idea that if many people are on course with a particular idea or movement, with the sheer will to change something politically or socially, that it will happen; in this case, it did not (White, 2015). The 1% prevailed, and the rest of the 99% were left with the majority of their demands unfulfilled. That is not to say that the Occupy Wall Street movement did not create subtle political change – it did change many things. It changed the way we look at social and political change, believing that change can happen, and that no matter how small we think we are alone, coming together certainly makes us stronger against the common enemy. It changed the way we communicate through social media channels and other channels, sharing our opinions and experiences with others. It changed the way that information, ideas, and empowerment is disseminated from one such Wall Street in New York City to any other street in a country half way across the globe.

What it did not change, though, was the fact that social inequality exists. It existed before Canada and the Americas were formed into the entities we know them to be today, and it exists in our current world. There have been and perhaps always be distinctions between social classes, primarily distinctions based on economic status, accumulation of wealth, and amount of income. This non-intentional classification system exists in our world by default, a world in which each man, woman, and child, is subject to economic scrutiny. The results of these proverbial tests yield the answers and judgments about where a person will fall on the social scale, and subsequently, what powers he will have in society. Undeniably, man is a social animal, and he shall be subject to social classification throughout his life in a society as we know it to be today.

Bibliography

Arnade, Chris. “An Ex-banker and Occupier Walk into a Jail. Guess Which One’s Serving Time?” The Guardian. 11 June 2014, UK Edition ed., Occupy Movement sec. The Guardian. Web. 18 Aug. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jun/11/cecily-mcmillan-occupy-protestor-exclusive-conversation&gt;.

Delaney, James. “Equality, Freedom, and Sovereignty.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2161.0002. University of Tennessee at Martin. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. <http://www.iep.utm.edu/rousseau/&gt;.

Joshi, Anushree. “Rousseau’s Idea of The General Will and Its Application to Individual Freedom and Democratic Community.” York University. Academia.edu, Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. <http://www.academia.edu/6984417/Rousseaus_Idea_of_The_General_Will_and_its_Application_to_Individual_Freedom_and_Democratic_Community&gt;.

“Karl Marx.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. 2008. Library of Economics and Liberty. 18 August 2015. <http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Marx.html&gt;.

Marks, Carole. “What Is Social Class?” University of Delaware, Apr. 2006. Web. 18 Aug. 2015. <http://udel.edu/~cmarks/What is social class.htm>.

Oxford. “Definition of ‘class’ in English.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

White, Micah. Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Solidarity Network via GitHub, 2011. Web. 19 Aug. 2015. <http://occupywallst.org/&gt;.

Please note: this essay was originally submitted for a class in Political Economy in August 2015 that I am taking at York University. This report is for academic purposes.

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