Social Inequality in a Nutshell

I have a younger relative who lives with schizophrenia (unfortunately not the first or only case in the family). If he doesn’t take heavy medications he can hear voices, hallucinate and easily get overwhelmed. His medica­tion makes him tired and leaves him with a short attention span, so it’s difficult for him to work within an ad­va­nced economy. Living in a welfare state, he gets all he needs in terms of food, shelter, medical attention; even a little money to go to punk con­certs twice a year and have a few beers now and then. Yet his life can only be described as a very diff­icult one. His main problem? Loneliness.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the second post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.

Besides his closest family, he doesn’t have any friends, let alone roman­tic partners. This isn’t because he’s not a nice person. He is quite friendly and rather intelli­gent, has some style going on, a somewhat rugged guy with tattoos who sometimes draws female atten­tion. He lives on consider­ably more resour­ces and money than most people during their stud­ent years, but he lacks something else: to be considered as a social equal and to be recognized as a friend.

By the look of it, this shouldn’t be very difficult to fix. Can’t he join a club and make some friends there? Can’t he go on online dating and find a partner? But no, he cannot. All of his old friends have subtly abandoned him. They sometimes say they will call or come visit when in town, but when push comes to shove, they never do. It’s just him, and his dog—every day, each day of the year, for years on end. And sometimes dinner at his mother’s house, but she won’t be there forever. Loneliness.

If this doesn’t qualify as a severe form of inequality, I don’t know what would. If this guy goes to the local pub and musters the courage to sit down with a party of strangers, he will very soon be asked “what he does”. And if he doesn’t want to spend his evening with odd evading answers or unsust­ainable lies, he will need to say he doesn’t have a job. The next question that presents itself is “why”. And that’s even more difficult to answer: “I have schizophrenia”. But that’s not the end of it. If it comes out, or is in­tu­ited, that this is a lonely man with no friends, he will evoke no interest or sympathy in his interlocutors. They will physically turn their backs on him—literally speaking—and find reasons to end the conversa­tion shortly. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

And this isn’t about money. If he had the same apartment, the same fin­ancial means, even being unemployed—but had lots of friends, con­tacts, fun stories about what he has going on and interesting things to say, then he would be welcomed. His illness has put him in a position where he has low social capital. From this position he has no references to make in any new social situation he finds himself; and in this manner, his social poverty reproduces itself and isolates him from his fellow human beings.

This is of course only one example of a wider and deeper phen­omenon of social inequality. Social capital comes in many com­plex forms: number of friends, in turn how well connected and popular these friends are, the depth and stability of those friendships, personal charm, good family rela­tions, professional contacts, socio-economic status, being “cool”, enjoying the trust and admiration of people, having sexual appeal, being respect­ed for one’s achievements, having many good stories to tell, being able to make fun and interesting events happen, and so forth.

Social capital of this kind can describe both a person and a society. A person who has higher social capital is one who always gets invited, who is welcome, for who doors are always open, and who can count on the supp­ort of others. A society with higher social capital can boast greater inter­­personal trust, higher levels of solidarity and greater propensity to help stra­ngers, trust in institutions and lower corruption, greater voter turn­out, more cooperation and lesser destructive competition—and gen­erally fe­wer people who are lonely and left to fend for themselves.

Social inequality exists not only in the human world, but can readily be observed in the animal kingdom. Different primates organize in groups where social status varies according to their species and environments, some animals being more egalitarian than others. In humans, if economic inequality doesn’t show up to significant degrees in small tribes of a 150 people, social inequality certainly does. And it is, of course, very painful for the deprived.

In larger human societies, social inequality can have very numerous and more com­plex causes. It interacts, unsurprisingly, with economic in­equality. If you have more contacts who trust, respect or even admire you, it becomes much easier to earn money as well. And if you earn money, it becomes eas­ier to be an interesting friend, romantic partner and so forth. But bey­ond economics, social inequality also follows the larger dominator hier­archies and stratifications of society, such as ethnicity, race, gender, sexu­ality, class, soc­ial stigma (like disabilities) and what the sociologist Bourdieu fam­ously called hab­itus, i.e. how you subtly express your stand­ing in soci­ety through gest­ures, taste, lang­uage use and so forth. It’s just easier to be a cool white male New Yorker in flashy clothes than to be a black disabled wo­man in a small town wearing Walmart clothes.

So this is what social inequality looks like; here’s a “sociogram” of 63 Chinese children in a class of 6th graders. They can nominate other kids as friends (arrow).[i]

All kids nominate at least two friends, but not all kids are nominated. Far from all children who are nominated by someone nominate them back. As you can see, there is a clear pecking order where some kids are at the center and even enjoy the prestige of being friends with the popular ones, while others are sidelined all but completely. They are also at the longest distance from the most popular ones.

Such spontaneous processes self-organize automatically throughout soc­­iety based on the ongoing interactions of people. And then they cryst­alize and reinforce themselves: The people at the center of the social clust­ers have innumerable advantages over those at the peripheries. What a cruel world!

It is insufficient to focus only on econ­omic in­equality when said pro­cesses of social stratification remain present. Social inequality is just as cyn­ical and harmful—and visce­rally felt—as its eco­nomic counterpart. It is not difficult to see, moreover, that social in­equal­ities also can have far-reach­ing econ­omic consequences.

In modern societies, such social inequality comes in two related but dist­inct flavors: the socio-economic status dominant in adult life, and the micro-social status or “coolness” or “popularity” dominant in adol­es­cent life and youth culture. The first is of course tied to such things as prof­ess­ional status, success and achievement, while the second is tied to per­sonal expression, taste, fashion and lifestyle, and it remains an im­por­tant factor for social and mating success throughout one’s lifespan.

With­in the creative class­es and other “culturally refined” segments of society, cool­ness in terms of aesthetics, education and taste are closely tied to economic success. In postindustrial societies, “cool­ness” tends to be­come yet more pronounced—where hipsters, hackers and hipp­ies often awake bitter resentment in the rest of the population with their flagrant di­splays of “refined” expressions of art, lifestyle, conversa­tion topics and fashion.

The long-term egalitarian goal must be, of course, to make such things as fashion and taste matter less for people’s social recognition and dignity. So we are not only looking to remedy the “hidden injuries of class” (as the sociologist Richard Sennett famously termed it), but also “to end the reign of cool”.

Social inequality harms people. When more pronounced, we can ex­pect a number of distortions of the games of everyday life. People are like­ly to become tenser and less relaxed, more scheming and strategic in their friend­ship forma­tions, less likely to challenge norms and habits, more soc­ially com­petitive, more prone to slander and mock one another, and more prone to take anti-social measures to check or reverse the social pres­tige of rivals. People will judge the ideas and opinions of one another less by merit and more by status, and there is less of a stable foundation for democratic ideals and solidarity in general. How afraid are we not of losing our social ties, or to be scorned and looked down upon? When it comes to social status, people are suckers—and for good reason, too.

Social inequality is, of course, yet more difficult to address than econo­mic inequality. After all, money and material resources can be trans­ferred from one person to another, but friendships, trust, respect and inclusion cannot; they are not “given”, but only elicited through different behaviors and inter­actions.

However, as strange as it initially may appear, we can often do more about social inequality than about its economic counterpart, and such mea­s­ures can often combat inequality more profoundly and effectively. We can­not chan­ge the logic of the global economic order overnight, but we can cert­ainly shape and design organizations and institutions that gen­er­ate a higher likelihood for social equality. In schools, we can have medi­tation training (which eli­cits more pro-social behaviors on a day-to-day basis), colla­bor­ative lear­ning games in which all kids get to contribute to the greater whole, carefully designed (and non-sexual) massage sessions where kids touch one another in a friendly manner across the hierarchies, play­grounds designed for inclusive games, training in social and emoti­onal intelligence, extended sexual education, and so forth.

In society at large, we can apply vaguer and corresponding measures, not least creating a layer of social support (by trained professionals) for the truly exclu­ded ones, who can then be coached to greater social com­petence and be encour­aged in their attempts. The sexual games can chan­ge if the aver­age person is more soc­ially and emotionally func­tional—and of course, norms can evolve to­wards less materialistic values, and unnece­s­sary tab­oos and stigma can be breached so that people are generally more acc­ept­ing of differences. For instance, in a more postmaterialist culture, being “unem­ployed” can be less of a big deal as people can be offered a wider range of oppor­tunities to create positive social identities beyond their employment stat­us and pro­fession—identities that reach deeper into the personal, civic, spiritual and aesthetic realms, echoing the words of the Young Marx:

“Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimu­lating and encouraging effect on other people.”[ii]

Even if the Young Marx writes with the “humanist”[iii] perspective of his time, and even if it smacks of romantic game denial, his vision is certainly a compelling one. Can we create a society in which people’s exchanges are free from irrational and distorting hierar­chies such as different levels of wealth?

Within affluent welfare societies like Sweden, the struggle for material equality is often really the struggle for social equality in disguise. In such societies, it is not that people are actually starving, but rather that lacking economic wealth can negati­vely affect their sta­tus and hinder their inclu­sion into social events. You even hear nurses, school teachers and police officers say: “It’s not that I really need that much money. I just want my paycheck to properly validate my work and effort.”

In such societies, it may well be time to more directly address the more complex, touchy—and embarrassing—issue of social inequality. This is not only a question of extending a vague “inclusion” of minorities and misfits, but also, and primarily, an issue of changing the games thr­ough which everyday life plays out. An important part of this is to help people become more socially competent and empowered.

Going back to my young relative with schizophrenia, he doesn’t need to be included because people feel sorry for him—he needs skills, resour­ces and occa­sions to be genuinely valuable to others so that they will be happy and proud to call him a friend or a lover. This, in turn, would save society a lot in terms of his worsening medical condition and by letting him be of service to others.

To conclude, here’s an example of how a scale of people’s social capital might look like: The richer you are, the more you can “afford” to act out­side of norms, comfort zones and so forth. How many bridges can you afford to burn?

  1. You can burn 90+ percent of your bridges without significant loss of subjective wellbeing, after recovering from the loss (famous people: even complete stran­g­ers will find you valuable and want to keep you alive and well).
  2. You can burn more than half your bridges without significant loss of subjective wellbeing.
  3. You can lose any one major field (professional, group of friends) of your life but still thrive.
  4. You can lose any one major bridge within any one major field but still thrive.
  5. You can lose any one major bridge but still manage at a lower level of subjective wellbeing.
  6. You cannot afford to lose any major bridge without a dramatic drop in wellbeing and the risk of crisis/depression increases.
  7. You have very few real bridges and must constantly worry about keeping them.
  8. You have very few bridges and feel a pressing fear of losing them very often (“social precariat”).
  9. You lack major bridges and live in crisis (“social precariat nightmare”).
  10. You lack bridges and support structure to handle crisis (pariah, everyone shuns you, and even social workers privately look down upon you while helping).

Each stage represents a quantitative difference that causes a qualita­tive shift. That’s how capital and inequality work. You get more of som­ething, and once you have a certain amount, the whole game shifts and your outlook on life changes. Just shifting one or two steps on this scale puts you on a whole other map, in a differ­ent world.[iv]

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i]. Zhang, F. et al. 2014. Friendship quality, social preference, proximity prestige, and self-perceived social competence: Interactive influences on children’s lone­liness. Journal of School Psychology. 52(5).

[ii]. Marx, K., 1844. “The Power of Money” in Economic and Philosophical Manu­scripts.

[iii]. I’m not a fan of humanism, as discussed in the Appendix of Book One, as I view humanist ideas as unproductively anthropocentric and non-transpersonal. But of course, in the 19th century, this kind of thinking is to be expected.

[iv]. Of course, it’s a crude map with deliberately vague definitions, and depending on how we feel any given day we might interpret our situations differently along the scale. But I think it does its job: to highlight that social inequality is a scale that endows some with security and happiness and creates social insecurity and unhappiness for others.