September 27, 1996


Manual labor, industry, whatever has to do directly with the everyday work of getting a livelihood is the exclusive occupation of the inferior classes. This inferior class includes slaves and other dependents, and ordinarily also women.

Thorstein Veblen,1899

To most people in the world, class distinctions are set in concrete. A person born into a farming family knows from infancy that he is destined to be a farmer. Someone born into a royal family, knows that he is a member of the nobility and that what he does in life is circumscribed by a rigid code that defines what someone of noble birth can and can't do. This principle extends to all occupations and is a major determinant of everyone's activities through life. While some people do change from one class to another, it is usually because it is forced upon them by circumstance.

A very young child cannot conceive of the fact that his mommy and daddy were, at one time, children themselves. Eventually he becomes aware of the evolution of a human being; that he is conceived, born, grows, gets old and dies -as did his parents and ancestors.

My realization that class distinctions and codes of conduct have evolved, and were not always what they are, is a consequence of reading Thorstein Veblen's book The Theory of the Leisure Class. A further implication of the application of the idea of the evolution of social classes, is the realization that classes can change, that they do change, and that change is inevitable. Furthermore, it is possible to move from one class to another, even though it is difficult and not very common.

The British monarchy evolved from a warrior king who could best any of his fellow men in hand-to-hand combat, to an absolute monarch who had the power of life and death over his subjects, to what it is today. Today's royal family is a show business family. They have lots of money, no real power, and their job -like the job of any Hollywood star- is looking good in public. They are essentially museum pieces. In the future, they may be little more than wax figures.

When people came to America, they brought with them their class, occupation and customs. The English farmer became a farmer in America. Since he could take as much land as he wanted, he eventually became a wealthy farmer and, in his own community, the lord of the manor; complete with either slaves or servants and hired hands. He moved from the laboring class to what Veblen called the leisure class. He no longer had to work. He was now a member of the closest thing to royalty that the New World had to offer.In fact, not only did he not have to work, but custom forbade his lifting a finger in anything resembling work.

A colonel, major and captain were sitting in the officer's club and discussing how much of sex was work and how much was pleasure. The colonel thought that it was 75% work and 25% pleasure; the major thought that it was 50:50; while the captain thought that it was 25% work and 75% pleasure. They decided to get the enlisted man's point of view, so the asked the waiter, who was a private, what he thought. He said "I know that it is 100% pleasure." "What makes you think so," asked the major. The soldier replied that "If there was any work attached to it, you'd have me doing it for you."

Some people adapt very well to class change, while others never do. The new-rich man is still a working man at heart, but his children are born to the purple and do all of the things that rich kids do: drink to excess, get as much sex as they can, dress to fit their station, and confine their physical activities to anything that doesn't resemble work.

Some day a sociologist will make a study of working class kids who have become sports stars. What does becoming an instant multi-millionaire do to a kid who grew up not having a pot to piss in? A similar study of lottery winners is also in order. And what happens to their kids? The TV series The Beverly Hillbillies dealt with that very situation. The conclusions were obvious after a few episodes, so there was little point in watching it from then on.

There have been many attempts at abolishing class distinctions: communist revolutions, Huey Long's "every man a king" slogan, and other democratic-utopian movements including Christianity. It didn't take long for every single one of them to develop its own class structure, complete with a king (or pope), a royal class, courtiers, a servant class, and, of course a working class -after all, someone has to do the work that is forbidden, by custom, to the upper classes. Could you imagine the Queen of England, or The President of the United States, cleaning a toilet?

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