Rather like the armed forces, we are a society obsessed with rank. We constantly compare ourselves to others. In the late 1920s George Orwell was living on the streets of Paris and London and observed: “The mass of the rich and the poor are differentiated by their incomes and nothing else and the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit”. So we are not essentially different from one another, but that new suit makes a world of difference.

Social differentiation works at every level. We are not just divided into classes, which still has some relevance today, there are different shades of differentiation everywhere. Orwell found numerous different tiers of destitution among the poorest members of society in both Paris and London. Perhaps most groups have a pecking order, and people look for someone who is lower down in order to boost their confidence and to make them feel as though they fit in and have found their place in life. All around us status signals are constantly emitted, some blatant, some less so. It is wearing and destructive and contributes to a number of society’s ills. Among many groups comparison results in a regular desire to consume. People dread failure and long for social success and the approval of others. They desire to make more and more money and increase their consumption. This fuels and entrenches capitalism, as of course wealth buys power, and this reinforces the class system. The voices of dissenters such as Henry David Thoreau are rarely heeded: “Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed,” asked Thoreau, “and in such desperate enterprises?” 

Our backgrounds make a world of difference. Some boast of their parents’ professions, their schooling, the ranking of their university and whatever employment they have chosen. They have a sense of entitlement, see their privileged status as all important and spend their lives trying to maintain or improve it, seeking to increase their power and income.

Sometimes we shun those we see as failures. There is a perpetual quest to be among the ‘in crowd’, to feel we have made it in some sort of way. Often people pride themselves in having a substantial income, a certain address, successful children, clothes with fashionable labels, expensive cars, holidays in desirable parts of the world. Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman considers the American obsession with success. Towards the end of his life, Miller said: “People who succeed are loved because they exude some magical formula for fending off destruction, fending off death. It’s the most brutal way of looking at life that one can imagine, because it discards anyone who does not measure up.”

Comparisons start at an early age. Is this learned behaviour or a fundamental characteristic of human beings? Children compare presents, clothes, homes, pets. They start to look with envy at the things that other children have. It is all reinforced at school; for many children school life begins in the UK when they are only four years old. All sorts of tests and differentials are applied from early on; little ones are divided into groups according to their reading and maths ability. The groups may be associated with different colours or animals in a failed attempt to disguise the fact that there is a top group and a bottom group. Those who are not in the top group experience the cruel blow of failure. And as for parties – who has and who hasn’t been invited?  Social rejection is very cruel. 

I think the left too needs to be wary. In certain groups people feel obliged to play down their social standing and education in order to fit in because they feel they compare unfavourably to those who have genuine ‘working class’ credentials. Sir Keir Starmer never ceases to bring up his toolmaker father but he went on to benefit from a private school’s charity which paid for his sixth form education at a fee-paying Surrey grammar school. He then studied at Oxford. Last year his estimated wealth was £7.7 million, but, as long as his father was a toolmaker, he’s in with a chance, or so he mistakenly thinks. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has repeatedly told us that his father was a bus driver, and certainly his working-class credentials are more authentic than Starmer‘s. Does he need to keep telling us though? How far back can you go in your family in order to be accepted? Is a grandparent who was a skilled worker an acceptable badge of honour?

Why should it matter so much? Some people pretend they are someone they are not. They either claim to have a more privileged background than they have or a less privileged background. They may hide the fact that they came from a poor background where it was hard to make ends meet and life was a struggle or regard this as something to be proud of. Some people alter their accents to fit in. The accident of birth means that we could have been born anywhere in the world in any circumstances. We need to accept people for their values and beliefs, their desire to make the world a better place and to contribute something to society while they are here, instead of judging people so readily. And whether someone is a millionaire or a dishwasher it must surely be the decisions they make in their lives that matter? We need a society which is cooperative rather than competitive, not just one where there appears to be political equality, but where there is a far greater degree of economic equality. Otherwise it is meaningless. For me the people who matter most are those who wholeheartedly reject capitalism and are prepared to fight for a fairer society for everyone, regardless of where they came from.


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