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During the Twitter wars around the Democratic primary, a number of people felt comfortable being openly contemptful of the poor. This is not unusual, but the nature of Sanders movement, and its supposedly “progressive” opposition, meant that usually implicit liberal contempt for the poor became apparent. For example, one Twitter user, who I will not name, argued that Sanders supporters are just envious of their more successful peers who hold higher-paying and more prestigious jobs because they worked harder. Another mocked those begging for insulin to live.
Implicit here is that economic success=desert. If you openly took similar attitudes in relation to race, gender or sexuality on Twitter one would be verbally shivved, especially if you claimed to be progressive while doing it. Imagine if someone calling themselves leftwing wrote: “Warren supporters are women who are simply envious of the more successful male sex who work harder than women and thus have higher income and more prestige”. Such a sentiment would be regarded as outrageous and rightly so.
I think we need to demand that prejudice down class and related socioeconomic lines be treated with no less contempt than any other form of prejudice. This means, among other things, rejecting the idea that people get the economic position they “deserve” as a form of prejudice.
This demand is powerful because it is both reasonable and radical.
It is reasonable because we all know that differences in economic position are caused by numerous factors separate from hard work. These include family wealth, race, gender, disability status and sheer chance. Work ethic might help you if the other factors line up, but some very hard-working people have nothing. Even if hard work was always rewarded (and it isn’t!), is hard work the only form of desert? What about other virtues, arguably more important like kindness? To think what people get what they deserve is both cruel and foolish.
It is radical because once you accept that income is disconnected from desert you’ve rejected the moral logic of capitalism. Many liberals claim to reject class prejudice as an evil, but if they really did that, and thought through the implications, they wouldn’t be liberals anymore.
This dual character- reasonable premises rooted in contentions liberals accept, radical conclusions reaching far beyond liberalism, means that the demand is not just a step towards justice- it is a powerful weapon against liberalism. It is a demand that cannot be granted within the logic of liberalism but cannot be denied either. All this is a fundamental contradiction inherent in any ideology which claims to be fair, unprejudiced and capitalist at once.
On paper, none of this should be especially necessary to say, yet in practice, very little effort is expended in left-of-centre politics on hostility to the poor. Cruel and demeaning language directed against the poor is extremely common in this world, yet it is hard to even remember people criticising it. Hillbilly Elegy is probably one of the grossest examples of this- a book that was lauded as groundbreaking for actually talking about poor people, but basically concludes they’re responsible for their own fate.
So there is orders of magnitude less discussion around verbal anti-poor hostility than verbal racism, sexism, queerphobia or ableism. There are I think three main reasons for this.
The first is that, as discussed above, cruelty and contempt towards the poor is inherent in capitalism, the dominant ideology of our age. People who claim to be against prejudice, but also to support capitalism avoid thinking about the contradiction to avoid cognitive dissonance.
The second is that while most (but not all) people have a relatively clear idea of their racial and gender identity, exactly who belongs to the category “poor” is more fluid. Many poor people do not think of themselves as poor or, even if they do, it is not an integral part of how they conceive of themselves. In the past the identity of “working class” united proletarians- those with nothing to live on but the sale of their labour-power. Sadly the right has successfully chipped away at the working-class identity, even as the proletariat has expanded.
The third is that while there are powerful people who are not male, and powerful people who are not white, there are more or less no powerful poor people in the entire world. This is inherent to the nature of poverty. Thus the poor do not have anyone powerful to speak for them.
I am not proposing to reduce class and the capitalist structure it is a part of to verbal “microaggressions” or extend overbearing political-moral policing. One can accept that people of goodwill can make mistakes, without tolerating deliberate bile aimed against the poor that one would never accept against other groups. One can accept that the primary evil done to poor people is their material deprivation- and not any verbal quips- without excusing those verbal quips.
Both because it’s unjust, and because saying no exposes the contradiction of liberalism, zero tolerance for open classism.