Concepts of both classism and racism have existed throughout known history. Both terms describe a discriminatory relationship between humans in which someone or some group of humans divides humanity into groups based on physical characteristics or upon qualities assumed essential or innate to the group and then concludes one of these groups to be politically, culturally, mentally, or physically superior to the other or others. As we go further back in history, the two terms become synonymous with each other and with ethnicity. For example, both in Plato’s Republic and in the writings of Aristotle, there is the philosophical, political, ethical, and moral conclusion: “The notably born are citizens in a truer sense of the word than the low born … Those who come from better ancestors are likely to be better men, for nobility is excellence of race” (Aristotle); “The race of the guardians must be kept pure” (Plato). The Open Society and Its Enemies, ch. 10, 11, Karl Popper. When referring to “notably born”, the reference was to the materially and economically and thus politically powerful; slaves and wage earners were excluded as were barbarians from other lands, the latter we now call ethnic discrimination. Until recent history, such ethnic discrimination was also synonymous with racism. Even now, the United Nations makes no distinction between ethnic and racial discrimination. However, this “excellence of race” was not based on human skin color. Until recent history, most racism in Western Civilization was between political, social, or cultural groups of the same skin color. A powerful example still exists in the modern ideology called Nazism that differentiates between Aryan races and non-Aryan races.
The limitation of the word “racism” to a discriminatory relationship between human groups of different skin color is a relatively modern concept made for the benefit of polemics on both sides. To the white supremacist, it has the obvious advantage of lumping all “black bodies” — as Mr. Coates refers to his “tribe” or group — into one human group and thus ignoring the complex and convoluted ethnic differences between “black bodies”. For racists such as Mr. Coates who supposedly are against racism, it has the advantage of grouping all “white bodies” into one human group sharing original sin for slavery and thus ignoring the complex and convoluted ethnic differences between “white bodies” and the complex and convoluted history of slavery.
The word “classism” is a modern creation also, created in an attempt to differentiate discrimination among human groups based on social class from racism. Classism became truly separated from race and ethnicity with the industrial revolution and the historical philosophical materialism of Marxism: “The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle”. Classical Marxism does not deny humanity’s spiritual side, in fact it argues that only in the spiritual side does freedom exist, but argues that the human spirit lives in a material world and its fate in this world is decided by the necessities of this material world. When the rules of that material world are capitalism, fate necessarily demands the existence of a ruling class controlling production and the resulting economic wealth and of lower classes that eventually become nothing more than working class wage slaves to a cycle of production and consumption necessary to maintain the ruling class wealth and power. For this view of the material world, class struggle is a struggle between classes defined by economic or material wealth.
With the benefit of history, we know that Marxism was wrong to limit its conclusion solely to capitalism. As I quote in Between the World and Us:
It would be an exaggeration to say that throughout history there has been no progress of a material kind. Even today, in a period of decline, the average human being is physically better off than he was a few centuries ago. But no advance in wealth, no softening of manners, no reform or revolution has ever brought human equality a millimeter nearer. From the point of view of the Low, no historic change has ever meant much more than a change in the name of their masters. George Orwell, 1984.
With the development of Marxism and similar modern philosophies and social theories, classism became a separate concept. As pointed out in an earlier blog, the social activists, labor union leaders, and politicians of the industrial revolution renewed the concept of “wage slavery” from the ancients such as Aristotle and Cicero and compared it to chattel slavery. However, unlike the ancients, these moderns argued that wage slavery was just as evil or worse than chattel slavery.
Classism remains an ambiguous term because unlike race and ethnicity regardless of how they are defined, humans can, do, and want to change class especially when it is defined purely in an economic sense as it is usually defined. When one moves from a lower class to an upper class, one is no longer lower class. The purpose of affirmative action and civil rights laws for racial and ethnic discrimination is not to change a person’s race or ethnicity. However, if fate allows one to go from an economic lower class to an economic upper class, one is no longer lower class and thus one no longer has any incentive to either eliminate class or help out the lower classes in any meaningful way.
Class involves power, power by one group of humans over another group of humans. We live in a material world so a necessary foundation for this power will be material or economic power. However, it is not purely economic nor should it imply hereditary power. As George Orwell pointed out, hereditary aristocracies are weaker and eventually destroy themselves because ruling classes based on hereditary are slow in replacing weak members with those capable of maintaining class power. As developed in http://www.sandpebblespodcast.com on its discussion of ethics and theology, the ruling class of any society or social group can be defined as the group capable of forcing the entire society or social group to go from an “is” statement to an “ought” statement. So, for example, the handful of judges who decided that the entirety of American society must re-define marriage to include gay couples are ruling class regardless of their personal economic wealth and of one’s moral view of that decision. Though many of those judges are wealthy or are trust fund children and their power comes from being bagmen or sycophants to those with economic or material power, having individual wealth is not a prerequisite for being ruling class; the prerequisite is having the power to make other groups or the whole society change its “ought”, its ethics. The workers of the working or lower classes, either individually or in combination, have no power to make any “ought” changes to whatever society or culture enslaves them to their wages. For them, it is always “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Thus for classism to have real pragmatic meaning, social classes and thus “classism” cannot be defined solely in economic terms but in terms of this “ought” power.
We now begin to see how classism is different from other forms of power and oppression by one social group over another such as racism — especially in racism’s modern version dealing only with skin color. Race may eventually disappear in the same way as will disappear many other forms of human differentiation such as those based upon who wears or does not wear bow ties (when people stop wearing bow ties), ride motorcycles (when there no longer are motorcycles), are republican (when this party is gone), or one of the other almost infinite number of ways that humans use to differentiate and then discriminate against each other. (When it does, according to the book Black No More by George Schuyler, humans will find a way to recreate race but his prediction is beyond this blog.) There was a time when all humans differentiated each other by tribes. This differentiation of humans by tribe has disappeared from Western Civilization, except in satirical form or when used ignorantly such as by Mr. Coates, and the same disappearance may some day be true for differentiation by “race.” Classism can never and will never disappear.
Unless humans become completely amoral or engage in mass suicide, the need to look at the “is” of reality and to create an “ought” was, is, and will be a necessary part of human nature. When solitary, an individual can only try to force whatever “ought” they desire upon nature. As soon as more than one individual is involved in anything, “oughts” collide. No two individuals and most definitely no group or societies of individuals have ever, do, or will ever be able to agree for any significant amount of time on what they “ought” to be doing. Someone will eventually win these disagreements. If they are in a group, they will win over the other groups. In this material world, this power over others will necessarily have a material basis. This combination of power creates a ruling class. Power for the sake of power is not bothered by any of the restrictions that hinder those who seek power for other reasons. Thus, within the ruling class, those who seek power for the sake of power will be the ultimate ruling class as verified by all known history and will become, are, or have already become in reality the fictional Inner Party of Orwell’s 1984.
What if anything can be done about classism will be contemplated next.