Elite privilege isn’t a product of wealth Class shame is woven into the fabric of society

Almost a year ago, in July 2023, Rishi Sunak’s government named and shamed Britain’s most unruly towns. The media, unsurprisingly, lapped it up: places subjected to higher levels of social disadvantage were described as “bad towns” filled with “streets of shame”. All who lived there were tainted.

We rarely think about what it means to assign towns or neighbourhoods to the bottom of our moral geography; but those who live in them often feel ashamed, not because they have committed any wrong but because they know they are seen as lesser beings. They report feeling small and powerless, with their behaviour “painfully scrutinised and negatively evaluated”. Sadness, depression and a sense of isolation can often follow. The effect on the self can be devastating.

Curiously, this kind of humiliation becomes possible only when a society has, in its ideology, transcended ideas of natural difference, and convinced its citizens that they are due equal rights and dignity. For instance, when women and non-white people demanded equal rights and dignity, they rightly began to push back against the everyday slights and humiliations visited on them by dominant groups, who found shaming people on the basis of their gender or race increasingly frowned upon.

In the great era of post-war social democracy, something similar began to happen in the case of social class. In the most wince-inducing scene of The Remains of the Day, set in the Thirties, the butler — Stevens, whose life goal is to serve his master with complete devotion and professionalism — is humiliated by the patrician friend of Lord Darlington who wants to demonstrate the lower class’s ignorance of global affairs and therefore the error of permitting them to have a vote. Yet, despite our own embarrassment and rising sense of outrage, the butler, played in the film by Anthony Hopkins, did not seem to feel the humiliation — because he accepted implicitly that he was of a lower social order and should not be expected to know these things.

Social shaming is by no means confined to the lower orders, whom today we refer to with terms such as disadvantaged communities and the precariat. In fact, shaming is a general phenomenon of stratified society, although its effect is much more apparent in some.

A survey of Australians we commissioned for our new book, The Privileged Few, found that half of young adults admit to having felt ashamed about where they grew up, the school they attended, or their parents’ employment. Shame is a strong emotion to admit too, even in an anonymised survey. We found that parents in households with children are much more likely to admit to feelings of shame than those in households without children, perhaps because adolescents feel shame more intensely than adults and memories of emotional wounds fade as one grows older. In our follow-up focus groups, some made poignant comments about how, as children, they thought they were normal until someone denigrated their suburb or their school or even their father’s low-status job.

The side effect of this shaming is worryingly that people lower down the hierarchy say they conceal where they live or where they went to school, either by lying or becoming evasive when asked. One of our informants spoke of how “people would cringe when I mentioned the… suburb I came from, so sometimes I’d pick another suburb, so they don’t cringe”. Another said that when he mentioned his state school to a partner at the accounting firm where he works, “he visibly recoiled… He looked at me differently.”

In 2012, Owen Jones published Chavs, a powerful polemic against the demonisation of the working class, or at least the element of it characterised by the media and some politicians as “feckless, criminalised and ignorant”. But the extremes of condescension, scorn and even disgust directed at “chavs” should be understood within a broader distribution of “microaggressions” up and down the social scale and manifesting in feelings of embarrassment, humiliation, resentment, guilt, envy, arrogance and contempt. Unlike debates over the microaggressions of race and gender that have dominated the public domain in recent years, the microaggressions of class are often ignored. Yet they seethe beneath the surface, erupting at times when the privileges enjoyed by elites become too brazen, too egregious — justas they did during the pandemic.

As the Covid virus spread in the early months of 2020, and London began to shut down, wealthy families fled the city for their sanctuaries in the country. Others took to their yachts or flew to Caribbean islands. Estate agents fielded inquiries from the super-rich for “mansions with bunkers”. Newspaper stories reporting the flight of the rich attracted a torrent of bitter and cynical comments from the public.

We argue in our book that relations among those up and down the social scale are fraught with emotional effort and inner turmoil. Informants for our study (in “egalitarian” Australia) admitted that they pay more attention and respect to people they believe are wealthy or influential. Some look up to them even though they don’t want to and it goes against the grain of their moral code. One conceded that if someone pointed out a billionaire at a party then “I think you may afford them a bit more respect”. These comments were made bashfully, as if looking up to the rich and powerful went against some inner principle or entailed a small sacrifice of dignity.

At the other end of the spectrum, some from a higher position in the hierarchy may want to be respectful and congenial in their relations with those below, but risk being seen as condescending, disrespectful or unduly familiar. While one spoke of levelling-up by changing the way she speaks and carries herself in the presence of a higher status person, another, who had attended an elite school, commented that the adjustment can work the other way so that “you might come down a notch or two”. But he has also discovered that the gulf between the elites and the rest sometimes takes the form of disdain from below: “You get on really well with somebody and then they ask you that dreaded question ‘Where do you live? What school do you go to?’ And the instant you say it, their face drops.”

We are not suggesting an equivalence between disdain from above and disdain from below. The face drop does not have the social power of the cringe. As Kathryn Abrams observed, “a war of disgusts is one that those less socially privileged are unlikely to win”.

These injuries of social class are often felt most painfully in the schoolyard, among children yet to learn the rules of social inhibition or, indeed, respect for difference. In schools, interactions among students and between students and teachers are beset by the everyday slights and humiliations associated with social and economic difference. Yet the language of class, once a powerful tool serving the interests of equality and dignity, has fallen out of fashion. The words to parry the microaggressions of class are absent.

If you speak to 11-year-olds, they can call out sexism and racism, even ageism, but when it comes to discrimination or vilification on the basis of class or social status they are dumbstruck. Those students who intend to remain in the state system after primary school are often shamed by those whose parents are sending them to elite private schools. Public schools are “shit”, said one. How does an 11-year-old respond? With an explanation of the social benefits of the public education system? Or with an epithet such as “snob”, which has little rhetorical power in the neoliberal area of “choice” and getting ahead by whatever means possible. The absence of a language of class politics — as opposed to a vibrant language of gender and racial politics — means that shaming on the basis of social status or the school one goes to is taken in as personal wound rather than as an expression of social division.

Students at elite private schools in Britain as elsewhere are taught to assume the superiority of their position. As one graduate observed: “I joined Westminster School [in London] for sixth form. On my first day we were given a talk by the headmaster, who told us: “You are the crème de la crème of this country. Sitting around you are future leaders. Don’t you forget it.”

These schools aim to imbue the offspring of the elite with certain higher moral and spiritual qualities, a process known as consecration, sanctifying these students as beyond the ordinary and moulding them into objects of power and influence; in short, elite. They are taught the dispositions of ease, confidence and entitlement appropriate to a world of privilege.

The uncomfortable conclusion we draw is that elite privilege is best viewed as a set of everyday practices that sorts and reproduces social strata. Studying the alchemy of how privilege is done, whereby elites seek and are granted exclusive benefits, suggests that the privileges bestowed on elites are not a by-product of wealth but an organising principle used to enforce social difference. In the end, it is our collective compliance that makes elite privilege so deeply entrenched and “natural”, even though it is responsible for so many harms: economic harms, civic harms, and psychic harms, not least the everyday system of shaming and humiliation that is characteristic of a society of privilege.

Still, it’s a dangerous game for the elites because shaming can congeal into resentment, a political anger that can break through in unpredictable ways. A political class that not only lacks an understanding of the problems of class demonisation but actively seeks to participate in it is doomed to face the reckoning of a vengeful electorate.

Published in UnHerd, 13 June 2024

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© 2023 Copyright Clive Hamilton