Intergenerational shifts in the perception of social status

Social status in tribal society

In early human societies, the wisest and the strongest of the tribe collaborated to rule the tribe. While the wise provided guidance and the strongest provided protection, the rest of the tribe felt safe to spent their long days working in the fields or building useful tools to help their fellow tribesman.

In the beginning, this was perceived as just by all. Everyone agreed that the wisest were best fit to provide guidance. Few (if any) disagreed agreed that the strongest were best fit to provide protection. Few disagreed that greater responsibility should come with greater social status. It made sense to most back then and it would probably still make sense to most today.

As wisdom and strength are often inherited both through genetics and through parental culture, children typically inherited the social status and political influence of their parents as well. As choice of profession was rather limited and skills were mostly learnt at home, occupation was also inherited through parental lineage. As such, tribal societies typically evolved into a caste system with three castes: priests, warriors and everyone else, with both priests and warriors holding a higher social status than others.

An illustration of a Siberian Shaman, produced by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen in the late 17th century. Shamans (aka medicine men) are a name given to members of a priest caste in animistic religions, which appear to be the oldest kind of human religion.

The rise of the middle classes

As societies become more advanced, the caste system is often extended by a fourth “middle class” or “bourgeois” caste of traders, bankers and bureaucrats and the remaining “lower class” is commonly split up in “skilled laborers” and “unskilled laborers”. Other splits or mergers did occur on a per culture basis, depending on whatever cultural conditions affect the evolution of each distinct caste.

The Hindu caste system, recognizes two upper castes, one middle caste, one lower caste and an addictional group of pariahs that fall outside the caste system.

In Medieval Europe, priests and warrior castes merged, establishing a single Aristocratic ruling class, largely due to inability of priests to legally procreate with the imposition of clerical celibacy. Meanwhile, a merchant class was gradually developing and increasing their social status, gradually obtaining previously unknown social privileges from the ruling Aristocracy.

During the Renaissance, innovations in finance along with the rise of multi-national corporations allowed members of the merchant caste to eventually become as wealthy or even wealthier than members of the Aristocracy. As I explained in detail in The decline of Western Civilisation, this caste grew in both influence and affluence until they managed to effectively destroy what was remained of the feudal system that kept the Aristocraticy in power by the end of the 18th century by instigating two major revolutions: the American revolution and the French revolution.

The century of extreme exploitation

While social mobility was very limited and rarely transcended whatever caste / class one was born in, the Aristocracy traditionally felt socially engaged to protect the poor and to maintain reasonable living standards. While living standards between the richest and poorest were often quite quite significant, for many centuries this was not considered as injust by most because the affluence of the upper castes was considered a fair pay-off for the responsibility they held.

As political power was no longer restricted to Aristocrats and — unlike in a feudal system — money replaced land ownership as a source of power, the “Bourgeois” elites had unprecedented means of expanding their power and were not bound to the social responsibilities of the Aristocracy in previous times. Greed became the dominant force in Western economy, driving profit as the sole economic goal and therewith marking the birth of modern capitalism.

Throughout the Western world, industrial activity reached scales never seen before. Entire continents were even colonised by just the British and French empires, which were both completely under control of a single banking dynasty (see The decline of Western Civilisation). There were no limits to the scale of industries, nor to the scale of exploitation accompanied with it.

Breaker boys often worked 14–16 hours per day in the coal mines. This photo was taken by Lewis W. Hine taken in Pittston, Pennsylvania (1911)

With no social responsibilities held towards manual laborers, they were exploited in unprecedented ways both locally and in the colonies. Meanwhile, new elites developed a strange consumption behavior conspicuous consulption, that was first described by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 classic sociological work The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study in the Evolution of Institutions(1899).

Conspicuous consumption

Consumption of luxury goods creates envy, which — any generation of “noveaux riches” tends to seek in abundance as it were those they envied in youth that they once looked up to. As such, they seek the envy of their former peers as a symbol of their status, rather than any kind of social responsibility or other kinds of merit.

The greater the difference between the poverty of their youth and the wealth of their adult life, the more people tend to spend exorbitant sums on overpriced luxurious items with the sole purpose of stirring the envy of their former peers. Today, this behavior is found in its most extreme forms among rappers, sport stars and Middle-Eastern oil tycoons.

This shiny gold-vinyl Ferrari 458 Spider is turning heads in London and is worth £200,000. It belongs to kickboxing world champion Riyadh Al-Azzawi, who wants it to “match the colour of his medal collection”.

The backlash of extreme wealth

In time, the extreme exploitation of the 19th century lead to revolts everywhere. As the poor were few up with their lives of bare subsistence, the political situation in both Europe and the colonies became no longer manageable. As such, corporations have since started to make a a science out of finding the perfect balance between keeping wages as low as possible while getting as much profit as possible out of workers.

Meanwhile, later generation of elites typically lack the envy based on consumption behavior that their father and/or mother grew up with and instead experiences the nagging envy of others. Making them even more envious by spending even more will only make them look like jerks in the eyes of the less fortunate and as “uncivilised” in the eyes of “old money” elites… hence failing to achieve the desired effect of creating an impression of high status among previous or current peers.

Besides the failure of envy as a status symbol that’s usually understood after a generation of decadence and abundance, the necessity to appease the masses is much better understood by the money elites than it was in the 19th century. As such, especially second and later generations of “nouveaux riches” typically avoid decadent displays of wealth. While they still want to flaunt their status, but do it in ways that are more subtle or less public; and therefore more effective. Donating sums to any organization is a strategy commonly employed by the rich to dominate that organisation and therefore effectively increase their socio-political power, along with their social status. And as such, which organisations one donates to and how much one donated to these organizations became a status symbol, along with which organisations one is a member of.

The less malicious such donations tend to be, the better the individual is perceived by the general public and therefore the higher their perception tends to be among the general public. Among the wealthiest of the wealthy, an emerging trend of publicly donating increasingly large sums to charity developed, which is currently stimulated by billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

The Giving Pledge is a campaign to encourage the wealthiest people in the world to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to “philanthropic causes”. The campaign specifically focuses on billionaires and was made public in 2010 by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Compassionate Capitalism

What works for the social status of an individual celebrity also works for the social status of a company. As such, this same strategy has been picked up by companies as well to improve their social status among the general public. The term “Compassionate Capitalism” is currently used for companies that invest a part of their income in charity or use similar means to improve their status among the general public.

Make no mistake, though: what appears as empathy is really just selfishness or narcism in disguise. It is merely the appeasement of an easily swayed and gullible public that is sought and earned by a fake image of empathy. We live in a sick, corrupt economic system, and “Compassionate Capitalism” isn’t going to make it any better. If anything, it will only make things worse by hiding the psychopaths that are bleeding the rest of us dry better, or even making the greatest monsters among us look like saints.