To understand privilege, we need to go all the way back to ancient history to what is often arrogantly called “Western Civilization.” More often than not, “Western Civilization” is primarily the history of Europe and its colonies. “Eastern Civilization,” on the other hand, isn’t defined by a specific people or type of people. It is defined as essentially anything that is not European nor Europe’s particular colonies (in schools in the U.S.A. we attempt to separate ourselves out from being a “European colony” but…as adults we should face facts…our founding WAS as sets of a number of different European countries’ colonies.
OK, so back to what has been considered the history of “Western Civilization.” This “starts” with the Roman and Greek cultures, because our European ancestors glorified those cultures over any other culture that was alive, thriving and more technologically advanced. In fact, the Assyrian Empire, the Egyptian Empire (being ruled from Nubia at the time — yes, Nubia…the same country that our people of color refer to), Ancient China and Ancient India were ALL quite active and each had more advanced technology than what the Greeks had. One of the reasons Europe glorified the Greeks is simply the person of Alexander the Great. His tactics are still studied in many “Western civilizations.” The claim is that India and China made no impact on European culture, therefore they were just never “important enough.”
So, why am I going back this far? Because our “Western civilization’s” basic class system comes directly from Rome and Greece. In both cultures, the highest class — known as aristoi — were those who owned the most wealth and property (just like today). The next class, known as the periokoi, still owned property, but their power was limited because for the most part, they were rural — despite whether or not they were more wealthy than the city-dwelling aristoi. Then, of course, we have the business class. These were not just merchants, not just wealthy, but were limited in their power because the aristoi made it difficult for anyone other than an aristoi or periokoi to own land — the main necessary requirement to be either an aristoi or periokoi.
The remainder of the population were either laborers, slaves or foreigners. Like today, ancient Greece and Rome had very poor opinions about foreigners. They were often required to register themselves with the government and pretty much give the government most if not all of their income. Laborers, unlike our blue collar workers today, were more like serfs of the feudal period than free men. Sadly, our modern aristoi and periokoi seem to STILL want anyone who is not a “professional” (i.e. intelligensia; white collar workers) to be a serf, or worse, a drudge.
Is any of this beginning to sound familiar, people?
In the post-Rome, Christian medieval world, it was no different whether you are speaking of feudalism in the Dark Ages or the so-called more “enlightened” Renaissance. You still had the Estates, they just changed slightly. The divisions became: the clergy (which included the “professional” class, because only the clergy or the nobility could afford education); the nobility; and everyone else. The business class and the laborers were forced together.
The problem is, just as in the ancient past, those incentives to try to raise yourself “above your class” were never more than pipe dreams. In fact, the English have a few phrases about it, such as “above your station” and “being no better than they ought to be” (while often used to describe a woman of loose morals, it actually is another way of saying that one should be happy “in one’s place” and not ascribe to be more than that “place” or station in life).
Instead of focusing on the fact that those “above their station” were what was actually keeping the business class and the poor from having better lives (not “lottery-winning” type lives, but lives above bare subsistence), most of Europe did exactly the opposite. The middle class, who wanted so badly to be aristocrats, took the “rules of civilized society” and turned them into what is almost a religion of its own.
The poor, then, are only useful if they “know their place,” and are only worthy of help if they show themselves to be “the worthy poor.”
The “worthy poor” is a myth we still somehow believe in today. It’s at the base of every single attempt to “fix” the welfare system. Drug tests, finding ways to penalize promiscuity, refusing basic health care because “they don’t deserve it,” these are all just retreads of the same myth of the “worthy poor.”
The problem is, as the “upper class” and the “professional class” become more isolated from the rest of us, that middle class is finally in the exact same boat as the poor have been for millenia.
the history of the destruction of the middle class the history of class in the founding of the U.S.A. in the next post.