Politics

Social Status and Right Wing Grievance

Wednesday, 9th December 2020
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/09/opinion/trump-social-status-resentment.html

This article annoyed me to no end. Some people seem enthusiastic about it, like a new toy called “social status” has been discovered and it’s really fun to play with, and it makes sense of everything. Ugh. Isn’t that how anthropologists in the early days of the discipline described life in “primitive” societies, before they realized that all those categories really didn’t make any sense, and were inherently white supremacist? Now we just use these things to describe those in our own society that we think we can’t explain in other ways (or more like, we don’t like the explanations that do work, so we keep searching for others that allow us to not talk about race and class and things like that).

So is there social status? Sure. Social relations are unequal, like money, and that’s how it has value. I demonstrate the money differential to students in class by telling them that I’m the lottery fairy and I grant each of them $50M. They’re happy, of course. And then I tell them that I’m still the lottery fairy and will grant everyone in the world the same amount. They seem much less happy with that outcome. They realize that their $50M only matters if others don’t have that, and once everyone does, there’s no differential advantage.

Same with social status. This isn’t about regaining lost status, but holding on to the status which, in a zero sum game, gets eroded once others have it too.

But here’s the thing that the left never really communicates – it’s not a zero sum game, at least not most of the time. Diversification means that there are many areas where status is available. In the example of money, there’s a single unit of exchange which obscures all that, making us think that there’s just one market and just one set of relations. Same with social status. If you think it’s a single hierarchy and you figure out where you stand on it, then it’s a zero sum game – someone else’s rise comes at your expense, and the rise of a group (blacks, women, LGBT, etc.) comes at the expense of whites, males, etc. That’s not how it works, though, and that’s what social status obscures.

So, we already have ways of talking about social inequality that don’t require this outmoded category. And, the category is too easily pulled into a right-wing zero-sum narrative.

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