Social Organization

Chapter 24: The Ascendancy of a Capitalist Class -- (continued)

Charles Horton Cooley

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IN any society where there is some freedom of opportunity ambitious young men are an element of extreme importance. Their numbers are formidable and their intelligence and aggressiveness much more so: in short, they want an opening and are bound to get it.

As the members of this class are mainly impecunious, it might be supposed that they would be a notable offset to the power of wealth; and in a sense they are. It is their interest to keep open the opportunity to rise, and they are accordingly inimical to caste and everything which tends toward it. But it by no means follows that they are opposed to the ascendancy of an upper class based on wealth and position. This becomes evident when one remembers that their aim is not to raise the lower class, but to get out of it. The rising young man does not identify himself with the lowly stratum of society in which he is born, but, dissatisfied with his antecedents, he strikes out for wealth, power or fame. In doing so he fixes his eyes on those who have these things, and from whose example

(274) he may learn how to gain them; thus tending to accept the ideals and standards of the actual upper class. He gives a great deal of attention to the points of view of A, a railroad president, B, a senator, and even of C, head of a labor organization, but to a mere farmer or laborer, whose hand is on no levers, he is indifferent.

The students of our universities are subject to a conflict between the healthy idealism of youth, which prevails with the more generous, and the influences just indicated, which become stronger as education draws closer to practical affairs. On the whole, possessed of one great privilege and eager to gain others, they are not so close in spirit to the unprivileged classes as might be imagined.

Thus the force of ambitious youth goes largely to support the ascendancy of the money-getting class; directly, in that it accepts the ideals of this class and looks forward to sharing its power; indirectly, in that it is withdrawn from the resources of the humbler class. How long will the rising lawyer retain his college enthusiasm for social reform if the powers that be welcome him and pay him salaries ?

We have then the fact, rather paradoxical at first sight, that the dominant class in a competitive society, although unstable as to its individual membership, may well be more secure as a whole than the corresponding class under any other system—precisely because it continually draws into itself most of the natural ability from the other classes. Throughout English history, we are told, the salvation of the aristocracy has been its comparative open ness, the fact that ability could percolate into it, instead

(275) of rising up behind it like water behind a dam, as was the case in pre-revolutionary France. And the same principle is working even more effectually in our own economic order. A great weakness of the trades-union movement, as of all attempts at self-assertion on the part of the less privileged classes, is that it is constantly losing able leaders. As soon as a man shows that marked capacity which would fit him to do something for his fellows, it is ten to one that he accepts a remunerative position, and so passes into the upper class. It is increasingly the practice —perhaps in some degree the deliberate policy—of organized wealth to win over in this way the more promising leaders from the side of labor; and this is one respect in which a greater class-consciousness and loyalty on the part of the latter would add to its strength.

Thus it is possible to have freedom to rise and yet have at the same time a miserable and perhaps degraded lower class—degraded because the social system is administered with little regard to its just needs. This is more the case with our own industrial system, and with modern society in general, than our self-satisfaction commonly perceives. Our one-sided ideal of freedom, excellent so far as it goes, has somewhat blinded us to the encroachments of slavery on an unguarded flank. I mean such things as bad housing, insecurity, excessive and deadening work, child labor and the lack of any education suited to the industrial masses—the last likely to be remedied now that it is seen to threaten industrial prosperity.

It is hard to say how much of the timidity noticeable in the discussion of questions of this sort by the comfortable

(276) classes is due to a vague dread of anarchy and spoliation by an organized and self-conscious lower class; but prob ably a good deal. If power, under democracy, goes with numbers, and the many are poor, it would seem at first glance that they would despoil the few.

To conservative thinkers a hundred, or even fifty, years ago this seemed almost an axiom, but a less superficial philosophy has combined with experience to show that anarchy, in Mr. Bryce's words, " is of all dangers or bugbears the one which the modern world has least cause to fear."[1]

The most apparent reason for this is the one already discussed, namely, that power does not go with mere numbers, under a democracy more than under any other form of government; a democratic aristocracy, that is, one whose members maintain their position in an open struggle, being without doubt the strongest that can exist. We shall never have a revolution until we have caste; which, as I have tried to show, is but a remote possibility. And as an ally of established power we have to reckon with the inertia of social structure, something so massive and profound that the loudest agitation is no more than a breeze ruffling the surface of deep waters. Dominated by the habits which it has generated, we all of us, even the agitators, uphold the existing order without knowing it. There may, of course, be sudden changes due to the fall of what has long been rotten, but I see little cause to suppose that the timbers of our system are in this condition: they are rough and unlovely, but far from weak.

Another conservative condition is that economic solid-

(277)-arity which makes the welfare of all classes hang together, so that any general disturbance causes suffering to all, and more to the weak than to the strong. A sudden change' however reasonable its direction, must in this way discredit its authors and bring about reaction. Thee hand-working classes may get much less of the economic product than they ought to; but they are not so badly off that they cannot be worse, and, unless they lose their heads, will always unite with other classes to preserve that state of order which is the guaranty of what they have. Anarchy would benefit no one, unless criminals, and anything resembling a general strike I take to be a childish expedient not likely to be countenanced by the more sober and hardheaded leaders of the labor movement. All solid betterment of the workers must be based on and get its nourishment from the existing system of production, which must only gradually be changed, however defective it may be. The success of strikes, and of all similar tactics, depends, in the nature of things, on their being partial, and drawing support from the undisturbed remainder of the process. It is the same principle of mingling stability with improvement which governs progress everywhere.

And, finally, effective organization on the part of the less privileged classes goes along with intelligence, with training in orderly methods of self-assertion, and with education in the necessity of patience and compromise. The more real power they get, the more conservatively, as a rule, they use it. Where free speech exists there will always be a noisy party advocating precipitate change (and a timid party who are afraid of them), but the more the

(278) people are trained in real democracy the less will be the influence of this element.

Whatever divisions there may be in our society, it is quite enough an organic whole to unite in casting out tendencies that are clearly anarchic. And it is also evident that such tendencies are to be looked for at least as much among the rich as among the poor. If we have at one extreme anarchists who would like to despoil other people, we have, at the other, monopolists and financiers who actually do so.

It is a common opinion that the sway of riches over the human mind is greater in our time than previously, and greater in America than elsewhere. How far is this really the case ?

To understand this matter we must not forget that the ardor of the chase—as in a fox hunt—may have little to do with the value of the quarry. The former, certainly, was never so great in the pursuit of wealth as here and now; chiefly because the commercial trend of the times, due to a variety of causes, supplies unequalled opportunities and incitements to engage in the money-game. In this, therefore, the competitive zeal of an energetic people finds its main expression. But to say that wealth stands for more in the inner thought of men, that to have or not to have it makes a greater intrinsic difference, is another and a questionable proposition, which I am inclined to think opposite to the truth. Such spiritual value as personal wealth has comes from its power over the means of spiritual development. It is, therefore, diminished by everything which tends to make those means common

(279) property: and the new order has this tendency. When money was the only way to education, to choice of occupation, to books, leisure and variety of intercourse, it was essential to the intellectual life; there was no belonging to the cultured class without it. But with free schools and libraries, the diffusion of magazines and newspapers, cheap travel, less stupefying labor and shorter hours, culture opportunity is more and more extended, and the best goods of life are opened, if not to all, yet to an ever-growing proportion. Men of the humblest occupations can and do become gentlemen and scholars. Indeed, people are coming more and more to think that exclusive advantages are uncongenial to real culture, since the deepest insight into humanity can belong only to those who share and reflect upon the common life.

The effect is that wealth is shorn of much of that prestige of knowledge, breeding and opportunity which always meant more than its material power. The intellectual and spiritual centre of gravity, like the political, sinks clown into the masses of the people. Though our rich are rich beyond the dreams of avarice, they mean less to the inner life of the time, exercise less spiritual authority, perhaps, than the corresponding class in any older society. They are the objects of popular curiosity, resentment, admiration or envy, rather than the moral deference given to a real aristocracy. They are not taken too seriously. Indeed, there could be no better proof that the rich are no overwhelming power with us than the amount of good-natured ridicule expended upon them. Were they really a dominant order, the ridicule, if ventured at all, would not be good-natured. Their ascendancy is great

(280) when compared with a theory of equality—and in this sense the remarks in the last chapter should be understood —but small compared with that of the ruling classes of the Old World.

Over a class of frenzied gold-seekers, rich or poor, chiefly in the towns, the money-idea is no doubt ascendant; but if you approach the ordinary farmer, mechanic or sober tradesman you are likely to find that he sets no high rate on wealth beyond what is necessary for the frugal support of a family, and that he neither admires nor envies the rich, but looks at the millionaire and thinks: "After all, it isn't life. What does he get out of it more than the rest of us?" The typical American is an idealist, and the people he looks up to are those who stand in some way for the ideal life—or whom he supposes to do so—most commonly statesmen, but often writers, scientists or teachers. Education and culture, as Mr. Bryce and others have noticed, is cherished by plain people all over the land, often to a degree that puts to shame its professed representatives.

We find, then, that agitators who strive to incite the people against the rich encounter with disgust an idealism which refuses to believe that their advantages are extravagantly great; and one of the main grievances of such men is what they look upon as the folly or lack of spirit of the poor in this regard.

Never before, probably, was there so large a class of people who, having riches, feel that they are a doubtful blessing, especially in relation to the nurture of children. Many a successful man is at his wits' end to give his children those advantages of enforced industry, frugality and self-con-

(281)-trol which he himself enjoyed. One of the richest men Of the day holds that accumulations are generally bad for the children, as well as for society, and favors almost unlimited graduated taxation of inheritances.[2] According to the philosophy which he supports by practice as well as theory, the man who finds himself rich is to live modestly and use his surplus as a trust fund for the benefit of the public.

What would a man wish for his own son, if he could choose ? First, no doubt, some high and engrossing purpose, which should fill his life with the sense of worthy striving and aspiration. After this he would wish for health, friends, peace of mind, the enjoyment of books, a happy family life and material comfort. But the last, beyond that degree which even unskilled labor should bring, he would regard as of secondary importance. Not a straitened house and table but a straitened soul is the real evil, and the two are more separable now than formerly. The more a real democracy prevails, the less is the spiritual ascendancy of riches.

There is, for instance, no such settled and institutional deference to wealth in the United States as there seems to be in England; the reason being, in part, that where there are inherited classes there are also class standards of living, costly in the upper class, to which those who would live in good company are under pressure to conform. In England there is actually a ruling order, however ill defined, which is generally looked up to and membership in which is apparently the ambition of a large majority

(282) of all aspiring men who do not belong to it by birth. Its habits and standards are such that only the comparatively rich can be at home in it. There is nothing corresponding to this with us. We have richer men and the pursuit of riches is an even livelier game, but there is no such ascendency in wealth, no such feeling that one must be rich to be respectable. With us, if people have money they enjoy it; if not, they manage with what they have, neither regarding themselves nor regarded by others as essentially inferior.

It is also a general feeling here that wealth should not be a controlling factor in marriage, and it is not common for American parents to object seriously to a proposed son-in-law (much less a daughter-in-law) on the mere ground of lack of means, apart from his capacity to earn a living. The matter-of-fact mercenariness in this regard which, as we are led to believe by the novelists, prevails in the upper circles of England, is as yet somewhat shocking to the American mind.

Hereditary titles, sometimes imagined to be a counterpoise to the ascendancy of wealth, are really, in our time at least, a support and sanction to it, giving it an official standing and permanence it cannot have in democracy. We understand that in England wealth—with tact, patience and maybe political services—will procure a title, which, unlike anything one can get for money in America, is indestructible by vice and folly, and can be used over and over to buy wealth in marriage. " Nothing works better in America than the promptness with which the degenerate scions of honored parents drop out of sight." [3] Rank is not an offset but a reward and bribe to

(283) wealth; perhaps the only merit that can be claimed for it in this connection being that the desire and deference for it imposes a certain discipline on the arrogance of newly acquired riches.

The English idea that those in high offices should have a magnificent style of living, "becoming to their station," is also one that goes with caste feeling. It makes it hardly decent for the poor to hold such offices, and is almost absent here, where, if riches are important to political success, the condition is one of which the people do not approve and would gladly dispense with.

I doubt whether the whole conception which imputes merit to wealth and seeks at least the appearance of the latter in modes of dress, attendance and the like, is not stronger everywhere in Europe than in the United States.


  1. The American Commonwealth, Chapter 94.
  2. Andrew Carnegie.
  3. T. W. Higginson, Book and Heart, 145.

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