THE SOAPBOX: Class Status Versus Values

by Margaret Blanchard

My experiences with consciousness-raising during the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements left me longing for deep sharing around issues of class (economic status).  The Unitarian Church’s recent workshop provided a valuable beginning for such a process.  After guided assessment of familial circumstances and individual achievements, and sharing stories with both mixed and comparable groups, we discovered where we sat in the pyramidal hierarchy of the American class system (all of us above the basement of slavery, with its minus zero value for the enslaved).

I was not surprised to find myself in the middle class, based on familial and personal education and income, adjusted down for gender.  But this revealed less about my roots or beliefs than I’d hoped for.  Fortunately, UCM’s Rev. Joan Javier-Duval met that further need by following class discussions with reflections on values.  From the values perspective, those in the basement of the class system have shown amazing endurance and vision while initiating movements of liberation for many of us.

My Irish immigrant great-grandfather was so proud of his ability to provide an education for all his five children, “even the girls.”  Education was a value rooted more in British oppression of Irish hedgerow schools and Gaelic language than in potential higher wages garnered by college degrees.  The fact that subsequent generations of my family have been in public service has more to do with values than with finances, although none of us, even some who took vows of poverty, scoffed at security.  My parents, coming of age during the depression, were very frugal, and proud of it, but making gobs of money was never a goal they served. (And while they tolerated other family members’ more materialistic aspirations, they didn’t admire that trait in them.)

Upon reflection, it seems any classification of values is almost the reverse of class hierarchy.  At the bottom of my version of the class system are Dependents, anybody who cannot support self or others financially.  This includes children, elders, the disabled, the unfortunate.  Yet within a values system elders hold the experience and potential wisdom of the past, while children are the promise of our future.  The disabled are often courageous examples of resilience and fortitude, and the unfortunate, like canaries in the coal mine, signal where our support systems are faulty, and need to be fixed for all our sakes, because if our ship goes down, we’ll all be in it.

The next rung up on the class ladder includes the Caretakers, people who either are not paid for their labor or paid a pittance:  often mothers, grandmothers, childcare workers, healthcare workers, farm workers, cooks, waiters, cleaners, garbage collectors, nurses, or teachers, whose work is either a labor of love or a struggle for survival, rather than a bid for economic superiority.  Add the many volunteers who give time and talents to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, welcome refugees, and comfort the afflicted. The value of this kind work is in caring for others, often heroically.  Without these caretakers we, collectively, would not survive.

Next are Skilled Workers upon whose talents and dedication the basic foundations of our lives depend: carpenters, farmers, weavers, electricians, seamstresses, plumbers, mechanics, custodians, secretaries, realtors, service workers, bank tellers, weather forecasters, innkeepers, or mentors.  Food, clothing, and shelter—our basic needs—are provided, protected, preserved by these specialists, along with the caretakers, while our emotional/spiritual needs are met by counselors and through the “creative economy” provided by artists, writers, musicians, actors, and filmmakers, a value not compensated, for most creatives, by financial rewards.

Status among these skilled workers, although often tied to raises, is based more on “stages of growth,” as explored through developmental psychology, than on profit-making.  While increases in salary, along with promotions, higher ranks and advanced degrees are more than welcome, our deeper sense of accomplishment is rooted more in personal development, skill-building, deeper learning, earned authority, and increased ability to guide others.

Up next are Public Servants, who serve whole communities, national, state, or local in scope:  postal workers, city, state and national government workers, military, clergy, police, medical experts, therapists, engineers, educators, legal experts, community organizers, small business owners, local legislators, journalists.  Yes, they often have earned higher degrees and securer salaries, so are privileged in those ways, but their values are less about profiting than about service to others.  That makes a big difference for us all.

Toward the top of the pyramid is the Political or Ruling class, who make decisions about laws and policies affecting the whole body politic: elected congress people, judges, owners of corporations, bank executives, university presidents, media moguls.  These people control the laws, practices, agreements and promises for our whole system, whether legal, legislative, financial, educational or cultural.  In terms of values, for the sake of those whose lives they shape, these positions require the deepest integrity and compassion, the highest intelligence, the strictest codes of conduct.  Yet these are the people who seem most seduced by greed, arrogance, egoism, entitlement, status, power, and financial or sexual exploitation of the vulnerable.  They are primarily male and white, yet, among white men as a whole, a minority.

At the top of our capitalist hierarchy are the very wealthy, the less than one percent.  Fewer than one percent of this one percent, I’m guessing, are generous enough with their fortunes to, in Christian terms, pass through the “eye of the needle” in order to get into heaven.  The rest seem to be habitually oblivious to the sufferings of the less privileged, blissfully incapable of empathy or compassion, much less sharing of their prosperity.  (Which makes the generous one percent of the one percent, who are rarely anonymous, shine all the more.)

When it comes to values, no religion in the world I know of celebrates wealth as a path to spiritual growth, much less toward enlightenment.  All the spiritual guides I’ve admired (including my own parents and grandparents), from the prophets to Rumi, Krishna to Jesus, Lao Tzu to Ganesh, Quan Yin to Buddha, Tara to Mary, St. Francis to the Dali Lama, I can’t think of a single person who believed the road to light is paved with gold. As contemporary guides toward a shared values system (rather than classification) I recommend Sweet Honey in the-Rock’s songs “Greed,” “Battered Earth,” and “Redemption Song.”

Under the sunlight of values, our class pyramid begins to drip into the shape of a sphere, widening in the middle where there is more exchange, barter, and gifting, and collapsing at the extremities of top and bottom.  We Americans have prided ourselves on how our democratic values should allow every person a place, a voice, a vote, some ability to shape and energize our shared body politic.  From this more rounded, global perspective, we can see how each of us needs a place to root so we can grow up without having to look down on others—like flowers, plants, trees, with fruits and seeds for a future which could benefit all.

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