Social Organization

Chapter 27: Hostile Feeling between Classes

Charles Horton Cooley

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CLASS animosity by no means increases in proportion to the separation of classes. On the contrary, where there is a definite and recognized class system which no one thinks of breaking down, a main cause of arrogance and jealousy is absent. Every one takes his position for granted and is not concerned to assert or improve it. In Spain, it is said, "you may give the inch to any peasant; he is sure to be a gentleman, and he never thinks of taking the elf." So in an English tale, written about 1875, I find the following: "The peasantry and little people in country places like to feel the gentry far above them. They do not care to be caught up into the empyrean of an equal humanity, but enjoy the poetry of their self-abasement in the belief that their superiors are indeed their betters." So at the South there was a kind of fellowship between the races under slavery which present conditions make more difficult. A settled inequality is the next best thing, for intercourse, to equality.

But where the ideal of equality has entered, even slight differences may be resented, and class feeling is most bitter, probably, where this ideal is strong but has no regu-

(302)-lar and hopeful methods of asserting itself. In that case aspiration turns sour and generates hateful passions. Caste countries are safe from this by lacking the ideal of equality, democracies by partly realizing it. But in Germany, for instance, where there is a fierce democratic propaganda on the one hand, and a stone wall of military and aristocratic institutions on the other, one may feel a class bitterness that we hardly know in America. And in England also, at the present time, when classes are still recognized but very ill-defined, there seems to be much of an uneasy preoccupation about rank, and of the elbowing, snubbing and suspicion that go with it. People appear to be more concerned with trying to get into a set above them, or repressing others who are pushing up from below, than with us. In America social position exists, but, having no such definite symbols as in England, is for the most part too intangible to give rise to snobbery, which is based on titles and other externalities which men may covet or gloat over in a way hardly possible when the line is merely one of opinion, congeniality and character.

Th feeling between classes will pot be very bitter so long as the ideal of service is present in all and mutually recognized. And it is the tendency of the democratic spirit—very imperfectly worked out as yet—to raise this ideal above all others and make it a common standard of conduct. Thus Montesquieu, describing an ideal democracy, says that ambition is limited " to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens. They cannot all render her equal services, but they all ought to serve her

(303) with equal alacrity." He thinks also that the love of frugality, by which he means compunction in material self-indulgence, "limits the desire of having to the study of procuring necessities to our family and superfluities to our country."[1] If it were indeed so ill our own world, there would be no danger of a class conflict.

Possibly all states of opinion by which any service is despised are survivals from a caste society, and reminiscent of the domination of one order over another—just as slavery has left a feeling in the South that hand labor is degrading. So soon as all kinds of workers share freely in the social and political order, all work must be respected. The social prestige of idleness, of "conspicuous leisure," that still exists in the Old World, is evidently a survival of this sort, and it can hardly happen in the democratic future that "people will let their nails grow that all may see they do not work." "I do not call one greater and one smaller," says Whitman, "that which fills its period and place is equal to any."[2] I think, however, that there will always be especial esteem for some sorts of achievement, but the grounds for this will, more and more, be distinction in the common service.

The excessive prestige of wealth, along with much of the ill feeling which it involves, is also, in my opinion, rather a legacy from caste society than a trait congenial to democracy. I have tried to show that the ascendancy of riches is really greater in the older and less democratic societies; and it survives in democracy as much as it

(304) does partly because of the tradition that associates wealth with an upper caste, and partly because other ideals are as yet crude and unorganized. A real democracy of sentiment and action, a renewed Christianity and a renewed art might make life beautiful and hopeful for those who have little money without diminishing the wholesome operation of the desire for gain. At present the common man is impoverished not merely by an absolute want of money but by a current way of thinking which makes pecuniary success the standard of merit, and so makes him feel that failure to get money is failure of life. As we no longer feel much admiration for mere physical prowess, apart from the use that is made of it, so it seems natural that the same should come true of mere pecuniary strength. The mind of a child, or of any naive person, bases consideration chiefly on function, on what a man can do in the common life, and it is in the line of democratic development that we should return toward this simple and human view.

It is in accord with this movement that children of all classes are more and more taught the use of tools, cooking and other primary arts of life. This not only makes for economy and independence, but educates the " instinct of workmanship," leading us to feel an interest in all good work and a respect for those who do it.

The main need of men is life, self-expression, not luxury, and if self-expression can be made general material inequalities alone will excite but little resentment.

As to the use of wealth we may expect a growing sense of social responsibility, of which there are already cheerful

(305) indications. Since it is no longer respectable to be idle, why may we not hope that it will presently cease to be respectable to indulge one's lower self in other ways—in pecuniary greed, in luxurious eating, in display, rich clothes and other costly and exclusive pleasures ?

We must not, however, be so optimistic as to overlook the ease with which narrow or selfish interests may form special groups of their own, encouraging one another in greed or luxury to the neglect of the common life. Such associations cannot altogether shut out general sentiment, but they can and do so far deaden its influence that the more hardened or frivolous are practically unconscious of it. While there are some cheerful givers on a large scale among us, and many on a small one, I am not sure that there was ever, on the whole, a commercial society that contributed a smaller part of its gains to general causes. We have done much in this way; but then we are enormously rich; and the most that has been done has been by taxation, which falls most heavily upon small property-owners. The more communal use of wealth is rather a matter of general probability, and of faith in democratic l sentiment, than of demonstrable fact.

Much might be said of the various ways in which more community sentiment might be shown and class resentment alleviated. In the matter of dress, for example; shall one express his community consciousness in it or his class consciousness, assuming that each is natural and creditable? It would seem that when he goes abroad among men the good democrat should prefer to appear a plain citizen, with nothing about him to interrupt intercourse with any class. And in fact, it is a wholesome

(306) feature of American life, in notable contrast with, say, Germany, that high as well as low are averse to wearing military or other distinctive costume in public—except at times of festival or display, when class consciousness is in special function. We feel that if a man wants to distinguish himself in general intercourse he should do so in courtesy or wisdom, not in medals or clothes.

And why should not the same principle, of deference to the community in non-essentials, apply to one's house and to one's way of living in general? If he has anything worthy to express in these things, let him express it, but not pride or luxury.

Let us not, however, formulize upon the question what one may rightly spend money for, or imagine that formulism is practicable. The principle that wealth is a trust held for the general good is not to be disputed; but latitude must be left to individual conceptions of what the general good is. These are matters not for formulas or sumptuary laws, but for conscience. To set up any other standard would be to suppress individuality and do more harm than good.

Some of us would be glad to see almost any amount of wealth spent upon beautiful architecture, though we might prefer that the buildings be devoted to some public use. Let us have beauty, even luxury, but let it be public and communicable. It certainly seems at first sight that vast expenditure upon private yachts, private cars, costly balls, display of jewelry, sumptuous eating and the like, indicates a low state of culture; but perhaps this is a mistake; no doubt there is some beneficence in these things not generally understood.


We do not want uniformity in earning and spending, more than elsewhere, only unity of spirit. Some writers praise the emulation that is determined to have as fine things as others have, but while this has its uses it is a social impulse of no high kind and keeps the mass of men feeling poor and inferior. Our dignity and happiness would profit more if each of us were to work out life in a way of his own without invidious comparisons. We shall never be content except as we develop and enjoy our individuality and are willing to forego what does not belong to it. I know that I was not born to get or to use riches, but I am willing to believe that others are.

An essential condition of better feeling in the inevitable struggles of life is that there should be just and accepted "rules of the game" to give moral unity to the whole Much must be suffered, but men will suffer without bitter ness if they believe that they do so under just and necessary principles.

A solid foundation has been laid for this, in free countries, by the establishment of institutions under which all class conflicts are referred, in the last resort, to human nature itself. Through free speech a general will may be organized on any matter urgent enough to attract general attention, and through democratic government this may be tested, recorded and carried out. Thus is provided a tribunal free from class bias before which controversies may be tried and settled in an orderly manner.

It would be hard to exaggerate the importance to social peace of this recognition of the ultimate authority of public opinion, acting slowly but surely through constitutional

(308) methods. It means a moral whole which prescribes rules, directs sane agitation into healthy and moderate channels, and takes away all rational ground for violence or revolution If men, for instance, believe that a particular kind of socialistic state is the cure for the evils of society, let them speak, print and form their party. Perhaps they are right; at least, they get much wholesome self-expression and a kind of happiness out of their aspiration and labors. And if they are partly wrong, yet they may both learn and impart much to the general advantage.

But we have made only a beginning in this. Our ethics is only a vague outline, not a matured system, and in the details of social contact—as between employer and workman, rich and poor, Negro and white, and so on—there is such a lack of accepted standards that men have little to go by but their crude impulses. All this must be worked out, in as much patience and good will as possible, before we can expect to have peace.

Where there is no very radical conflict of essential principles, ill feeling may commonly be alleviated by face-to-face discussion, since the more we come to understand one another the more we get below superficial unlikeness and find essential community. Between fairly reasonable and honest men it is always wholesome to "have it out," and many careful studies of labor troubles agree regarding the large part played by misunderstandings and suspicion that have no cause except lack of opportunity for explanation. "The rioting would not have taken place," says a student of certain mining disorders, "had not the ignorance and suspicion of the Hungarians been supplemented by the

(309) ignorance and suspicion of the employers; and the perseverance of this mutual attitude may yet create another riot."[3] There is a strong temptation for those in authority, especially if they are overworked or conscious of being a little weak or unready in conference, to fence themselves in with formality and the type-written letter. But a man of real fitness in any administrative capacity must have a stomach for open and face-to-face dealing with men.

And a democratic system sooner or later brings to pass face-to-face discussion of all vital questions, because the people will be satisfied with no other. An appearance of shirking it will arouse even more distrust and hostility than the open avowal of selfish motives; and accordingly it is more and more the practice of aggressive interests to seek to justify themselves by at least the appearance of frank appeal to popular judgment.


  1. The Spirit of Laws, book v, chap. 3.
  2. Leaves of Grass, 71.
  3. Spahr, America's Working People, 128.

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