Friday, June 30, 2017

The Rules of the Social Class Con Game

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Roi Et Rajabhat University Graduate School

First, the simple, and consequently inadequate, provocative idea: Social class is a con game being run on us.

We have confidence in our beliefs about income, occupation, and prestige, and our beliefs make social class real for us.  We have social systems that reinforce this confidence. We blame others for this con, for creating social class inequities:  Advertisers, marketers, the media, educators, politicians, consumerists, men, women, corporations, white people, bad people.  We disparage negative social class attitudes as classism. 

Other people create this problem, not me.  Social class is not my fault.  "In every game and con there is always an opponent, and there is always a victim.  The trick is to know when you're the later, so you can become the former."  "The more control the victim thinks he or she has, the less control he or she actually has." (Guy Richie, spoken by Jake Green in the movie Revolver).

Most of us see social class as real and external.  Social class has a set of rules.  People in the higher social classes are seen as somehow better than people in the lower social classes. Secretly we believe people in other social classes are somehow not better.

Keeping up, being competitive, getting ahead, winning prizes, winning recognition, these are the markers for winning the game, for being social class successful.

Second, the not so simple complexity that adds more adequacy to this idea of a con game. Social class is a co-constructed idea in which we all participate differently.

Who is behind this confidence game? Who is to  blame for this inequality, for this hierarchy of prestige? I am and you are.

Complexity world views note that many systems are self constructed - this social class conspiracy is created and maintained by Just Grew - this conspiracy, this con just grew as people took advantage of our desires to manage our place in the hierarchy of prestige.
  • Educational institutions suggest that education is the key to moving up in social class.
  • Alcohol companies suggest that their brand of flavored ethanol is the key.  
  • Fashion companies suggest that their fashion brand is key.  
  • Car companies suggest that their car brand is key.
  • Travel companies suggest that a trip is the key.  
  • Coffee houses suggest that their brand is the key. 
Consumption can manage with other people think about you, your status in the co-created hierarchy of social class, at least according to coffee houses, travel, car, fashion, and alcohol companies, and educational institutions.  Magically this new degree, alcohol, fashion, car, travel experience, and coffee will change what others think about you and consequently what you think about your self.  Buy something and feel better about your self.  (And yes, I realized that I just suggested that retail therapy is a bad thing.) Getting people consumed with their own consumption is a rule of the con.

The social class con game is so effective that most people aren't aware that they are in the middle of  a game.   "The bigger the trick and the older the trick, the easier it is to pull, because they think it cant be that old, they think it can't be that big for so many people to have fallen for it"  (Revolver) .  To point out that social class is a con game is an act of civil disobedience, an act of cultural truth that is not welcomed. 

Who wants to know that their branded purse is unworthy.  "Eventually when the opponent is challenged or questioned, it means the victim's investment and thus his intelligence is questioned, no one can accept that. Not even themselves" (Revolver).  Who wants to admit that they have helped co-dreate an unjust system? See also Carl Rogers Proposition 16 - "Any experience which is inconsistent with the organization of the structure of the self may be perceived as a threat, and the more of these perceptions there are, the more rigidly the self structure is organized to maintain itself."  Who wants to realize that their expensive designer purse is just another bag.

It is easy to ego-invest in objects.  Advertisers make sure that you know their brand reflects the real you.  I call bullshit. The difference between most branded products is minimal.  "But I like my new Dell/Asus/Sony/HP."  One of William Gibson's characters, Cayce in Pattern Recognition, has a deep negative psychological reaction to branding - imagine for a moment what that life would be like.  Imagine how out of step she would be in the social class con game.

Game theory applies to "intelligent rational decision makers" and this is most definitely not the case with social class.

People play games differently; people play the social class con game differently.  Take a board game, any board game, and look at the rules.  When we all play by the rules the game goes smoothly.  When we look more complexly then we see that the rules are not so clear.  Monopoly(r),  that beloved board game makes a great example.  1) My grandmother-in-law would play monopoly and buy anything she landed on.  She grew up with no property in the real world and the opportunity to buy property was a treat.  2) Playing Monopoly with a 10 year old Romanian first time player during the Communist era was interesting - he went around the board and got his money for passing Go.  The idea of buying property as a money making scam never occurred to him, for his first game.  He played the game based on his world view developed in a Communist nation.  He got beaten early, learned his lesson, and changed his strategy.

Social class is a co-constructed con game.  Can you stop playing?

Social class is a social construction based on what we each believe about prestige. There is no organized cabal running this con, there is only us participating in it, making money from it, and agreeing that this is all OK.  The social class con game is so effective that most people are conned into helping enforce rules that are not to their advantage.

tl;dr There is no reality behind the idea of social class.  Social class is a con game.

Special thanks to those who created the messages in the movie Revolver.