I wanted to make a small point about socioeconomic class, immorality, and the gradual acceleration of moral decline. That “small point” gave me more trouble than anticipated, and I vacillated between providing too much background and not enough. To be honest, I wanted to abandon this post, but I had already made the diagrams! So skim, look at the diagrams, and treat the essay as an extended caption.
Vade ad formicam, o piger
There is a moral worldview whose precepts were dictated by Gnon: the cult of Kipling’s Copybook Headings, the creed of Æsop’s industrious Ant; the attitude which permeates the Instruction of Amenemope and the entire teaching of the Proverbs. It may seem anachronistic to call these values “middle-class values”. The middle class, properly speaking, grew out of the feudal order: it is the class which stands above the peasantry, but below the titled nobility. But even though our bourgeois are quite recent, I mean to show that it really is the men and women in the middle of any given social hierarchy (whether or not they have any legal or cultural recognition as a “class”) who most strongly feel the tug of these values.
If you’ve never read Proverbs — shame on you! — and have no idea what we mean by Gnon, bourgeois values are cause-and-effect, moralized. Foolish, short-sighted, whimsical, impulsive, and quarrelsome people suffer as a result of their flaws. Full granaries, teeming flocks and tents stuffed with children and grandchild symbolize everything that is admirable and worthy. Good results come from good decisions and good habits, the defining marks of the good heart of a good man.
The social structure of naughtiness
Being poor is no fun. The consequences of temporary poverty can include permanent harm. Eliminating any chance of becoming poor in the future is an attractive use of the resources the non-poor have.
If you have studied economics or probability theory, you will recognize that this amounts to saying that non-poor people are risk averse. But you don’t need to understand risk aversion mathematically to understand that the steps you are willing to take to avoid a disaster become pointless after the disaster occurs. (Remember the scene from Juno where the protagonist notes that her parents no longer have to worry about her making bad decisions and getting pregnant, since she is already pregnant?) The further you are from that disaster, and the less risk-averse your behavior needs to be to avoid that disaster.
This pattern can be found everywhere you look. The rich are careless with their possession because they can replace them easily; the poor are careless with their possession because they have nothing that is really worth protecting. The rich are careless with their appearance, and even intentionally adopt bizarre and provocative styles, because they don’t care what others think of them; the poor are careless or provocative because no one will think much of them no matter how they dress. The rich experiment with drugs because they can afford an expensive drug habit; the poor, because they wouldn’t be able to afford anything else, anyway.
This pattern — joint rejection of bourgeois values by the rich and the poor — complements another phenomenon associated with risk. Someone from the middle–class who rejects bourgeois values will probably meet with disaster as a result of the imprudent risks he is taking. As a result, he descends into poverty. Yet occasionally such a scoundrel’s frauds, gambles, and extravagancies will succeed beyond anyone’s expectations, and the lucky bastard catapults himself into the ranks of the nouveaux riches.
The scum rises to the top, the dregs settle at the bottom: the human comedy, in all its glory.
The second diagram adds to the graph two phenomena that have been developing over time in democratic societies.
On the left, we see aspirational naughtiness. Remember, the ultimate reward that reinforces the bourgeois system of values is prosperity and status. The bourgeoisie‘s cherished virtues may be excellent in themselves, but what animates this system of values is long meditation, reinforced daily by new evidence, on how pleasing such habits are to Gnon. So it is hard for bourgeois virtues to endure when confronted with vices that reliably improve one’s social status. Indeed, it can even be hard to draw a line between the bourgeois virtue of decency (keeping up a certain comfortable lifestyle out of concern for one’s reputation, and desire to avoid appearing improvident) and its corresponding vice, extravagance (spending more than is strictly sustainable or sensible, in vain imitation of those of higher status).
The problem is that one of the marks of status is behaving like other people of that status; that is, after all, how everyone else learns to recognize the rich and famous. We saw in the first diagram that wealth causes indifference to the bourgeois values, so the wealthy drift into risky and naughty behavior. This naughtiness is one way to recognize the wealthy; and where there is nothing remains of the feudal class structure but wealth at the top and poverty at the bottom, naughtiness is a sign of high status in general.
Even where financial wealth cannot buy a higher status — even where there are symbols of rank that are forbidden to mere plutocrats! — the aristocracy will usually be secure, careless, and naughty in ways that their social inferiors will notice and then try to ape. But as formal prerogatives of rank and station are swallowed up by the symbolic desert of Equality, wealth gradually becomes the primary source of status, and the habits of the rich (including their rejection of bourgeois values) becomes the only possible ways to signal ones status. Step by step, the status-signaling games that the rich play among themselves come to center on their rejection of bourgeois values, consolidating the signal.
From here, the middle-class is sucked into a quagmire. Even if one is not especially vain or proud, decency(!) requires one to send status-signals that are a bit costlier than one would like… or at least, no less costly than the standard for one’s actual social status. So a virtue of a certain sort pushes every middle-class family to signal the status that would truly affordable for a slightly-richer family. Even without vanity or pride, there is real pressure to mimic the slightly-richer, and those who neglect this bourgeois virtue may actually miss out on valuable opportunities because people misjudge their social class! — But for most people, vanity and pride are already reason enough to care about social status.
For those in the upper-middle class, “the status-signals of a slightly-richer family” means the (careless, even naughty) behavior of the rich. So the upper-middle class are naughty to fit in with the rich; but one reason the rich were naughty in the first place was to prove they were not middle class, so now they much be naughtier still, and the upper-middle class will chase them until the competition reach a point where they dare go no further. But meanwhile, the status-signals of the lower-upper-middle class are chasing those of the upper-middle class. And the upper-middle-middle class are hot in pursuit of the lower-upper-middle class, and so on. So more and more of the middle class is dragged “upwards” into the cycle of aspirational naughtiness, pressuring the avant-garde (the upper-middle class, the first to become naughty) to ignore their misgivings and signal harder.
As the signaling spiral intensifies, the naughty behavior in question (ranging from the merely imprudent to the truly vile) acquires more glamor and prestige. Aspirational naughtiness becomes embedded in popular culture, and the same media that once transmitted reliably bourgeois values participate in a transvaluation.
The intersection of aspirational naughtiness with economic and cultural trends would probably take us off on an interminable tangent. Points for further investigation:
- Meritocratic institutions, at every life-stage, bring the most successful members of the middle class into contact with the upper class. In high school, “rich kids” merely have a disproportionate impact on their cliques (because they and their parents subsidize the clique’s escapades); in selective undergraduate and graduate programs, the rich are vastly overrepresented and those who wish to socialize with them must adopt their mores, or at least appear comfortable with them. The same goes for prestigious career path, “the art world”, and so on.
- Economic growth has made the middle class more materially secure in some ways (thus enabling it to push further in its emulation of the rich) without making it so materially secure that its extravagance does not take a toll. Corporations sell consumer goods with a style of consumerism which replaces material comfort with spiritual superiority; young adults who are too indebted to start families have exotic technological devices unknown to their grandparents; keeping up with the Joneses is forbidden, while keeping up with the Kardashians is obligatory.
Decay of the working class
While the top of the middle class swirls around the drain, the bottom is doing no better. The lower middle class, frequently called “the working class” in America, scrapes by from generation to generation through strict adherence to the industry, decency, and frugality which middle-class life demands. They are in the greatest danger of ending up poor, so they are the least able to take risks. They are also scrupulously moral to avoid being mistaken for the poor (whose vicious habits, in any case, they encounter frequently and usually dislike a great deal). However, for every hard-won comfort the working class secures for itself in this way, there is an implicit corollary that if this comfort were lost, it could no longer be taken away, and so the caution and scruples would be pointless.
The welfare state shows us this corollary in action. The more the state guarantees them, the less they have to secure, and the weaker their warnings to wayward friends and family become. Food stamps enervate the poor in the same way as actual hunger; public housing, as homelessness; socialized medicine, as chronic disease. Even public education, I regret to say, seems to infect the working class with the same indifference as actual illiteracy.
Whether someone who can safely become obese because the state will pay for his diabetes ends up healthier than if he had been forced to rely on his own limited resources, I cannot say. But the vices of poverty leak between domains; those who stop saving for medical emergencies are now less able to save for an education, for example, or to start a small business.
These naughty vices also leak between members of working-class families and communities. After all, prudence is not a purely selfish virtue, just as life is not a purely personal journey. Risk-takers think only of themselves, but then immediately ask for help when they suffer the consequences. (Think of a young slut’s pregnancy, which is liable to pull not only her but her entire family down into poverty.) Whether the community bails out the scoundrel or shuns him, its ability to function as a community has been compromised.
So the expansion of the social safety net immediately swallows up some part of the working class whole; the intention was to save them from some of the material discomforts of poverty, but the structural effect is to relegate them to the bottom rank of society (because their structural incentives and their behavior are now those of the poor, who have nothing more to lose). But even more insidious is the way the welfare state’s fangs sink into one part of a person’s life, or into one section of a community. Then, the vices it breeds make it harder for these workers and their communities to provide for themselves. As soon as the stewards of the welfare state notice this hardship, they take it as justification for a further expansion of the welfare state. The struggling community is swallowed up by the expansion, new ones are mangled, and the rot spreads.
I will conclude by mentioning two points about how this moral decay interacts with economic and cultural trends, as I did in the last section.
- The operation of the social safety net can be described as an attempt to bring the poor into closer contact with the working class. For every deprivation of poverty, the social safety net aims to bring the poor up to the level of the working class. (Instead of the poor attending no schools or disastrous schools, they will attend the same schools as the working class, and so on.) How middle-class values are supposed to be taught to working-class children when they are brought up side by side with poor families who perfectly mirror the prestigious vices of the rich and seem to suffer no consequences as a result, I do not know.
- The nineteenth century saw painful economic crashes, but the workers always bounced back after a temporary period of unemployment and hunger. Industrial geography has become more precarious in the last fifty years. After one bad local crash, lingering stagnation sets in, and worsens by the year. — This era of stagnation could have a purely economic (or even purely statistical) explanation. It could also be explained by the welfare state directly (e.g., if businesses which fail due to the burden of the welfare state are re-opened in a different region). — But possibly these crashes hurl working-class communities down into the waiting maw of the social safety net. The net “catches them”, yes, and then chews them up; and when it spits them out again, their working-class values are disappearing and their social networks are traumatized. If this makes it difficult for the local economy to take advantage of the boom, the stagnation lingers, and the welfare state continues to gnaw on the community.