Politicians have been telling us for years that we are living in, or heading towards, a classless society. Fat chance.

We are in a capitalist society, and I don’t think you can have capitalism without a layered society where some people have, and some people have not. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any society that doesn’t have class, or that doesn’t categorise its people in some equivalent way. Feudal systems, slavery systems, caste systems, class systems.

Ultimately, whichever way you look at it, people are going to fall into groups. Those groups are going to be made up of people who think they have something in common – often, such things as what they do for a living and what kind of things they can afford to have and do. Their children will grow up and be educated together, acquiring networks and values and attitudes from the group in which they were born. Moreover, parents will use whatever assets they have as a member of that group to give their children opportunities, many of those opportunities being the kind of opportunities that arise within the group. So the groups are going to cohere, to some extent, over generations. It’s hard to imagine it any other way.

There are various things about this which are troubling. Working class people are more likely to have manual jobs which place them in physical danger. They are more likely to have insecure employment, or no employment at all; and more likely to have difficulty accessing good quality education, healthcare or even just basic nutrition. They will probably die younger. And so on. And, since their children are more likley to remain working class than to move into the middle class, their children will often be condemned to the same reduced life chances, merely by an accident of birth. A parental lottery.

Well this post isn’t supposed to be “Against the class system” – but “Against classism”. Classism, the oppression or denigration of another person because of the social class to which that person belongs, is surely not inevitable even if a class system seems unavoidable.

But.

I was lucky in the parental lottery: born more-or-less middle class (to first-generation parents, and we were relatively cash-poor for much of my childhood) and, more importantly, educated well enough to stay middle class, and to reap all the privilege this entails. It’s one hell of a big pile of privilege that I got. It’s easy to forget that. It’s very easy to think that my good fortune in some way makes me better than those who are in a different situation. Lucky for me, I have a number of valuable friends and contacts in other social classes – both “above” and “below” (unpleasant words, those) my own – to remind me otherwise. I am just luckier, that’s all.

However, I don’t want to blog about individual classism today, rather I wanted to talk a little about what I will call institutional classism (if nobody else has coined this term before, they jolly well should have), i.e. the kind that is inherent in institutions regardless of the conscious beliefs and attitudes of the people who set them up or keep them going.

The institution I have in mind is inheritance.

Parents pass down their property to chidren, and wealth is accumulated and enjoyed over generations. With wealth, comes access to good education and healthcare, with wealth comes power, with wealth comes opportunity. And the children who inherit such wealth and pass it on – what exactly have they done to deserve it? They won the parental lottery, that’s all – at the expense of other children, brought up in poverty and ignorance, with disease, exploitation and discrimination to look forward to.

If my parents manage to spend every last penny before they die, I shall be well pleased. Partly this is because that will mean that they’ve lived long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labour – yes, they’ve been lucky, but they’ve also worked hard for what they have. The other reason is that I just don’t want to benefit from an inheritance. I’ve got enough privilege just being born in this family – it surely isn’t fair that this should be reinforced by inheritance?

But if they don’t, and if there is something left to me, am I going to give it to the orphanage? I doubt it. If I can be egalitarian in the abstract, I don’t know if I can in the concrete for, even ignoring my own advantage, I feel already a sense that I “should” build something up to pass on to my own children. I like the idea that Baby M will not have to struggle to pay the mortgage, the way I do. I kid myself that therefore she will have greater freedom to choose work for herself that fits her ideals, as I have not done.

Sorry, kids, it looks like I’ll be giving it to Baby M.

Which only goes to show how pernicious this inheritance mindset is. It reinforces class immobility by making the privileged yet more so. And yet we privileged, even those of us who are aware of the inequities it creates, are still so wedded to the ideal of passing something on to our children that we cannot quite imagine giving it up. Instead, we keep it going, calling it parental love and thereby making it an imperative.

What hope, then, of a classless society in the making? What hope, indeed. I think it’s going to take a revolution.

[Blogging here with Villa Villekula]

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