The Betters’ Hatred Of The Worsers

Which comes first, hatred of the overclass or hatred of the underclass? For most people it is obvious that the resentment of the exploited and dispossessed for their lords and masters must be primary. On this view, when the upper crust is found hating the lower orders, this must be because it is afraid of what they might do to it. First comes accumulation and hegemony, second comes revolutionary sentiment, third come all the ideologies of social contempt in which the elite portray the common people as savage beasts, idle scroungers and so forth. Fourth comes the phenomenon whereby the victims of social power and exploitation are persuaded to hate the other victims rather than the perpetrators, like turkeys voting for Christmas – but that is another story.

There may, however be routes to this contempt other than fear. Let us imagine a society in which the common people were by some magical means caused not to notice the existence of the fat cats who were living on the sweat of their brows, or caused to no longer care. Why would the rich folks then despise and hate them? Under the first theory, there would be no reason for them to do so, since there was no danger of the lower orders rising up to cut their throats in the night.

But the rich folks have another motive, namely in order to be quite sure that they have indeed risen above their former level. They are psychologically obliged to distance themselves from the lower orders in order to feel and enjoy their new sense of upper-class identity. As we all know, the more recently someone has risen in the world, the worse they treat those below them, a difference that is with difficulty explained by fear of insurrection. It may also be that, the more the prevailing religion warns against great wealth, the more the ruling class must hate and despise its inferiors; because the sense of guilt has then to be assuaged by an emphasis on one’s own deserts and the consequent undeserving state of the others. Give a man a million euros on Monday, and by Tuesday he will have convinced himself that he has earned it; on Wednesday we will find him despising everyone who has less. This is long before anyone else notices that he has it.

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