In many societies, including our own, those with the most wealth tend to segregate themselves from the poorer people, which serves an important political purpose in that it makes the wealthy tend to believe that they are better and smarter than those below, while also reinforcing the opposite belief in the poorest. “You fucked up, and you deserve what you get,” is the mantra of the capitalist age. It doesn’t matter that “fucking up” for most of us means, “being born into the wrong family and in the wrong place.” This belief is an estimation of our worth as human beings, based on solely materialistic criteria. And that is wrong. But we do it daily.
It is both enlightening and depressing to watch these divisions accelerate in the fertile ground of Middle School, formerly known as “Junior High.” They begin much earlier than that, of course, but Middle School provides grist for the mill, as insecure young humans begin comparing themselves to their peers and fearing they will fall short. Perhaps it’s natural somehow to feel that an expensive pair of blue jeans and an iPhone somehow elevates you above the rest. This happens particularly to young people who have no clue who they are, but only what their parents expect them to be, which may or may not match up with reality.
I went to Middle School in what most people would consider a working class, rural town. There were nine kids in my grade, including me. Most of my classmates considered my family to be “rich,” although in most places, we were lower-middle class at best. I modeled my father’s sense of superiority, as thirteen-year-olds are wont to do, until I was gently taken down by a kind teacher. After that awakening, I was able to learn and grow emotionally. Those years were brutal and, still to this day, the worst of my life. In eighth grade, I was mobbed by all of the girls. If it weren’t for the boys, I would’ve had no friends at all. Being a potentially gay heathen didn’t help my cause. This was Texas.
It wasn’t really until High School that I began to appreciate different kinds of people, no matter where they came from. For my Junior year, I transferred to a larger school in the town a few miles down the road. The popular girls there were the (white) daughters of successful middle-class denizens. They were well dressed, well furnished, and well made up. They seemed like nice enough girls, not a group of Heathers. But the people I gravitated toward tended to come from other backgrounds: working-class kids whose parents worked in the local factory; the intelligent but ardent Jehovah’s Witness, who overlooked my heathen status; and the black kids who lived (literally) across the tracks.
My best friend that Junior year was a Senior who planned to marry and work in the factory after graduation. She would go on to buy a mobile home and put it next to her parents’ small house. She would not hear talk of college. It was a different world than mine, with different expectations. Her family was kind, and loving. Although I may have lived in a “fancier” house, hers had a warmth that mine lacked. Being their guest taught me a lot.
As I made my way through these final years of High School, I saw two worlds: the world of a privileged, mostly white class of well-to-do kids with expectations of college, and the world of everyone else, who had to make other plans for their future because of lack of resources and support. There were white kids in that latter category, and they were given stigmatic labels in accordance with their lower-class status. White girls of poorer means were more likely to be labeled a “slut.” The wealthier, popular white girls were just as sexually active (quietly), but they were never labeled this way. White girls who were known to date black boys were definitely labeled as sluts. It was sad.
As I gained the trust and friendship of some of the lower-class kids, I got windows into their world. Since I drove to school, a black classmate needed a ride home one day and asked me. No problem! As it happened, he lived “across the tracks,” and I realized when I took him there, that it was the first time I had ever even seen that part of town. The area contained black homes and black businesses, and I had no clue. Later, when I graduated, our Baccalaureate ceremony was held at a Baptist church on that side of town (it rotated each year). I appreciated being able to take part in their service. Here was another world, right under my nose the whole time. I felt stupid for not realizing it.
I can see these divisions happening in my daughter’s eighth-grade class. The wealthier girls, who flaunt their privilege like the latest fashion, have learned to look down on those deemed “less worthy,” whether it’s because of their wardrobe, their class status, or their failure to conform, which is the final nail in all social death coffins. Indeed, a lower-class kid can make it into the privileged cliques if they will only bend their personality far enough to make the other kids more comfortable. It doesn’t matter if the distortion makes them unrecognizable from who they were before. What matters is to fit in.
Fitting in is what drives our economy. Everything about who we appear to be, how we look, and how we think we feel is fueled by consumerism. Instagram is full of beautiful people hawking beautiful products, showing us what conformity looks like. Does it matter who is behind these facades? Do these people even know themselves?
I appreciate that my daughter has a strong sense of self, and so far, she has refused to conform. My son also has a strong sense of self, and he says that he knows he’s “weird” and that some kids think he’s gay. Maybe he is, and maybe he isn’t, we don’t care either way. What we care about is that they are free to express their true selves. No products required.
At this age, you can already spot the conformists, the ones who lose themselves into the mainstream (un)consciousness. You can spot the ones who will succumb to the evangelism of their classmates and become Christians or Mormons or whatever kind of fanatic. You can also spot the ones who will hang on to their free will with every last breath, rebelling all the way into adulthood. Others, caught in between, will slide into years-long depression. Most often, these kids are just following in their parents’ footsteps. When they don’t, though, is when family conflict arises.
Can we have a truly open, democratic society that encourages nonconformity? That encourages real free thinking? I think we can, but we have to get materialism out of the way. We have to meet everyone’s material needs, to be sure, but an affluent “liberal” elite who claims to care about the poor while simultaneously looking down on them because of their paucity of material goods is never going to get us there. That is not liberalism at all. It’s a reinforcement mechanism for economic disparity. (“You fucked up, and we didn’t.”)
In truth, capitalism depends on this social stratification. It depends on members of our tribe feeling superior to others. It depends on the lower classes feeling like a certain kind of car or house or phone means “they’ve made it.” With capitalism, there will never be true equality.
Most successful communal communities throughout history were genuinely egalitarian, with little or no hierarchy. For examples, see the Paris Commune (which was destroyed by capitalists) and the early communal arrangements made after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Look at native tribes all over the world, who work together to support the whole in small groups, each contributing whatever they’re best at. Because that’s where it happens: we can forge bonds in our local communities, bonds that last. Capitalism creates atomized societies, filled with people living near but not with each other, without cohesion, and human misery is the result. It is exactly this atomization that can lead to totalitarian regimes and genocide, as Hannah Arendt described in detail.
Can we get off the mouse wheel of bigger, better, faster, cheaper? Can we realize that eternal economic growth is indeed a “fairy tale,” as Greta Thunberg said to the U.N.? Can we look for fulfillment within ourselves, rather in our stuff, which requires bigger and bigger houses to hold? Can we live as brothers and sisters, at last? Or will we watch as the planet, and our societies, burn?