Social Organization

Chapter 21: Open Classes

Charles Horton Cooley

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WITH the growth of freedom classes come to be more open, that is, more based on individual traits and less upon descent. Competition comes actively into play and more or less efficiently fulfils its function [1] of assigning to each one an appropriate place in the whole. The theory of a free order is that every one is born to serve mankind in a certain way, that he finds out through a wise system of education and experiment what that way is, and is trained to enter upon it. In following it he does the best possible both for the service of society and his own happiness. So far as classes exist they are merely groups for the furtherance of efficiency through cooperation, and their membership is determined entirely by natural fitness.

This ideal condition is never attained on a large scale. In practice the men who find work exactly suited to them and at the same time acceptable to society are at the best somewhat exceptional—though habit reconciles most of us—and classes are never wholly open or wholly devoted to the general good.

The problem of finding where men belong, of adapting personal gifts to a complex system, is indeed one of ex-

(240)-treme difficulty, and is in no way solved by facile schemes of any sort. There are, fundamentally, only two principles available to meet it, that of inheritance or caste and that of competition. While the former is a low principle, the latter is also, in many of its phases, objectionable, involving waste of energy and apt to degenerate into anarchy. There are always difficulties on either hand, and the actual organization of life is ever a compromise between the aspiration toward freedom and the convenience of status.

We may assume, then, that in contemporary life we have to do with a society in which the constitution of classes, so far as we have them, is partly determined by inheritance and partly by a more or less open competition, which is, again, more or less effective in placing men where they rightly belong.

If classes are open and men make their way from one into another, it is plain that they cannot be separate mental wholes as may be the case with castes. The general state of things becomes one of facile intercourse, and those who change class will not forget the ideas and associations of youth. Non-hereditary classes may have plenty of solidarity and class spirit—consider, for instance, the mediaeval clergy—and their activity may also be of a special and remote sort, like that of an astronomical society, but after all there will be something democratic about them; they will share the general spirit of the whole in which they are rooted. They mean only specialization in consciousness, where caste means separation.

The question whether there is or ought to be "class consciousness" in a democratic society is a matter of defi-

(241)-nitions. If we mean a division of feeling that goes deeper than the sense of national unity and separates the people into alien sections, then there is no such thing in the United States on any important scale (leaving aside the race question), and we may hope there never will be. But if we mean that along with an underlying unity of sentiment and ideals there are currents of thought and feeling somewhat distinct and often antagonistic, the answer is that class-consciousness in this sense exists and is more likely to increase than to diminish. A country of newspapers, popular education and manhood suffrage has passed the stage in which sentiments or interests can flow in separate channels; but there is nothing to prevent the people forming self-assertive groups in reference to economic and social questions, as they do in politics.

Class-consciousness along these lines will probably increase with growing interest in the underlying controversies, but I do not anticipate that this increase will prove the dreadful thing which some imagine. A "class-war" would indeed be a calamity, but why expect it? I see no reason unless it be a guilty conscience or an unbelief in moral forces. A certain sort of agitators expect and desire a violent struggle, because they see privilege defiant and violence seems to them the shortest way to get at it; and on the other hand, there are many in the enjoyment of privilege who feel in their hearts that they deserve nothing better than to have it taken away from them: but these are naive views that ignore the solidity of the present order, which ensures that any change must be gradual and make its way by reason. Orderly struggle is the time-honored method of adjusting controversies among a free people,

(242) and why should we assume that it will degenerate into anarchy and violence at just this point ? Will not feeling be rather better than worse when a vague sense of injustice has had a chance to try itself out in a definite and positive self-assertion ?

It is to be remembered, moreover, that in a society where groups interlace as much as they do with us a conflict of class interests is, in great degree, not a conflict of persons but rather one of ideas in a common social medium—since many persons belong to more than one class. Only under conditions of caste would a class war of the sort predicted by some theorists be likely to come to pass. I am not sure that it would be more fantastic to expect a literal war between Democrats and Republicans than between the parties—hardly less united by common social and economic interests—of Labor and Capital.

It seems equally mistaken to say, on the one hand, that all class-consciousness is bad, or, on the other, that we ought above all things to gird ourselves for the class-struggle. The just view apparently is that we should have in this matter, as elsewhere, difference on a basis of unity. Class loyalty in the pursuit of right ends is good; but like all such sentiments it should be subordinate to a broad justice and kindness. If there is no class-consciousness men become isolated, degraded and ineffective; if there is too much, or the wrong kind, the group becomes separate and forgets the whole. Let there be "diversities of gifts but the same spirit."

The present state of things as regards fellowship and cooperation in special groups is, on the whole, one of de-

(243)-ficiency rather than excess. The confusion or "individualism" that we see in literature, art, religion and industry means a want of the right kind of class unity and spirit There is a lack of mutual aid and support not only among hand-workers, where it is much needed, but also among scholars, artists, professional men, writers and men of affairs. The ordinary business or professional man hardly feels himself a member of any brotherhood larger than the family; with his wife and children about him he stands in the midst of a somewhat cold and jostling world, keeping his feet as best he can and seeking a mechanical security in bank-account and life insurance—being less fortunate in this regard, perhaps, than the trades-unionist, who has been forced by necessity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his fellows and give and take sacrifice for the common good. And much the same is true of scholars and artists: they are likely not to draw close enough together to keep one another warm and foster the class ideals which lead the individual on to a particular kind of efficiency: there is a lack of those snug nests of special tradition and association in which more settled civilizations are rich.

Organization, of certain kinds, is no doubt more extensive and elaborate than ever before, and organization, it may be said, involves the interdependence, the unity, of parts. But will this be a conscious and moral unity? In a high kind of organization it will; but rapid growth may give us a system that is mechanical rather than, in the higher sense, social. When organization quickly extends there is a tendency to lower its type, as a rubber, band becomes thinner the more you stretch it; the rela-

(244)-tions grow less human, and so may degrade instead of elevating the individual's relation to his whole. In a measure this has taken place in our life. The vast structure of industry and commerce remains for the most part, unhumanized, and whether it proves a real good or not depends upon our success or failure in making it vital, conscious, moral. There is union on a low plane and isolation on a higher. The progress of communication has supplied the mechanical basis for a spiritual organization far beyond anything in the past; but this remains unachieved. On the whole, in the words of Miss Jane Addams, with whom this is a cherished idea, " The situational demands the consciousness of participation and well-being which comes to the individual when he is able to see himself 'in connection and cooperation with the whole'; it needs the solace of collective art inherent in collective labor." [2]

It is indeed probable that the growth of class fellowship will help to foster that spirit of art in work which we so notably lack, and the repose and content which this brings. There is truth in the view that a confused and standardless competition destroys art, which requires not only a group ideal but a certain deliberation, a chance to brood over things and work perfection into them. When the workman is more sure of his position, when he feels his fellows at his shoulder and knows that the quality of his work will be appreciated, he will have more courage and patience to be an artist. We all draw our impulse toward perfection I ot from vulgar opinion or from our pay, but from the approval of fellow craftsmen. The truth, little

(245) seen in our day, is that all work should be done in the spirit of art, and that no society is humanly organized in which this is not chiefly the case.

It is also true that closer fellowship— dominated by good ideals -- should bring the sympathetic and moral motives to diligence and efficiency into more general action, and relegate the 'work or starve' motive more to the background. Some of us love our work and are eager to do it well; others have to be driven. Is this because the former are naturally a superior sort of people, because the work itself is essentially more inviting, or because the social conditions are such that sympathy and fellowship are more enlisted with it? Allowing something for the first two, I suspect the third is the principal reason. What work is there that would not be pleasant in moderate quantities, in good fellowship, and in the feeling of service? No great proportion, I imagine, of our task. Washing dishes is not thought desirable, and yet men do it joyfully when they go camping together.

Class organization is not, as some people assert, necessarily hostile to freedom. All organization is, properly, a means through which freedom is sought. As conditions change, men are compelled to find new forms of union through which to express themselves, and the rise of industrial classes is of this nature.

In fact, the question of freedom, as applied to class conditions, has two somewhat distinct aspects. These are:

1. Freedom to rise from one class into another, freedom of individual opportunity, or carriere ouverte aux talents This is chiefly for the man of exceptional capacity and am-

(246)-bition. It is important, but not more so than the other, namely:

2. Freedom of classes, or, what is the same thing, of those individuals who have not the wish or power to depart from the sphere of life in which circumstance placed them. It means justice, opportunity, humane living, for the less privileged groups as groups; not opportunity to get out of them but to be something in them; a chance for the teamster to have comfort, culture and good surroundings for himself and his family without ceasing to be a teamster.

The first of these has been much better understood in America than the second. That it is wrong to keep a man down who might rise is quite familiar, but that those who cannot rise, or do not care to, have also just claims is almost a novel idea, though they are evidently that majority for whom our institutions are supposed to exist. Owing to a too exclusive preoccupation with ideals of enterprise and ambition, a certain neglect, and even reproach, have rested upon those who do quietly the plain work of life.

Ours, if you think of it, is rather too much success on the tontine plan, where one puts all he has into a pool in the hope of being one of a few survivors to get what the rest lose; it would be better to take to heart that idea of Emerson's that each may succeed in his own way, without putting others down. It is a great thing that every American boy may aspire to be president of the United States, or of the Standard Oil Company, but it is equally important that he should have a chance for full and wholesome life in the more probable condition of clerk or mill hand. While we must admire the heroes of Samuel Smiles,

(247) we may remember that they do and should constitute only a small minority of the human race.

And the main guaranty for freedom of this latter sort is some kind of class organization which shall resist the encroachment and neglect of which the weaker parties in society are in constant danger. Those who have wealth, position knowledge, leisure, may perhaps dispense with formal organization (though in fact it is those who are strong already who most readily extend their strength in this way), but the multitudes who have nothing but their human nature to go upon must evidently stand together or go to the wall.


  1. I make frequent use of this word to mean an activity which furthers some general interest of the social group. It differs from "purpose" in not necessarily implying intention.
  2. Democracy and Social Ethics, 219.

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