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An Study of Class Discrimination in Society Using Various Literary Works

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The Enduring Class War in Society

A crowd of protesters marching through the streets, protesting the unfairness of society. A politician criticizing an opponent in an election for being too wealthy. A bitter employee, jealous of his boss’s wealth. What ties all of these things together? They’re all examples of the bitter and ongoing tensions between social classes in society. It’s something that society has been faced with for many decades, and the world will likely have to continue to deal with this issue for many more decades to come. Although a truly classless society is impractical and impossible to sustain, a socially divided society is just as unhealthy and unsustainable. Social divides are often thought of as insurmountable, differences that simply cannot be overcome, yet this idea neglects to notice the fact that these divides are all completely artificial and put in place by ourselves – they’re no more natural than a stone wall, yet they seem to be just as impenetrable. With effort, though, people can overcome these divides and come together – yet society still seems to be moving in the direction of divisiveness, with social and economic classes only becoming more isolated and alienated from each other, not less. Society should work towards bringing classes together, but despite its best efforts, as it stands now, conflicts and divides between socioeconomic classes will continue to exist far into the future due to the increased alienation of classes from each other, the jealous nature of humans, and the inaction of those in power.

In addition to other primary sources, the research conducted into this topic also included analysis of three books: Fight Club, by Chuck Palahniuk, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick, and The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton. All three of these books dealt with the issues of social class struggles and class warfare in some way. A large part of Fight Club, especially the ending of the novel, revolved around the characters’ involvement in an organization called Project Mayhem, which was started by Tyler Durden. The Narrator, who goes through much of the story being known only as the Narrator, first meets Tyler on a beach and then ends up moving in with him after the Narrator’s apartment is destroyed in an explosion. The two men also discover that fighting helps to relieve their troubles for a short time, so they, along with other like-minded men, form a “fight club” in the basement of a local bar. Fight Club grows in popularity and spreads across the country, making the Narrator and Tyler famous among the men who participate in it. However, as the novel progresses, it is revealed to both the Narrator and the reader that Tyler Durden is in fact the Narrator himself – an alternative personality so far distant from the Narrator’s normal self that it manifests itself in his hallucinations as a completely different person. The Narrator’s “Tyler” personality is an extreme anarchist, and he starts Project Mayhem with the intention of bringing down society and the 1%, instilling anarchy, and starting a new society in which everyone is equal and not separated by money or the lack thereof. Project Mayhem attracts a large number of followers, mostly from the working classes of society, and although it starts out with simple minor disturbances, under Tyler’s leadership, it quickly evolves into a full-blown domestic terrorist group, killing people and planting bombs in the city. The Narrator eventually feels that the group has gone too far after a close friend of his is killed in a botched plot by Project members, but the Tyler personality wins out and holds the Narrator hostage on the top of a building. The building itself is set to explode in the crowning scheme of Project Mayhem, but the Narrator attempts to kill Tyler by shooting himself in the face and committing suicide. However, he is unsuccessful, and he wakes up in a hospital ominously surrounded by Project members.

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Meanwhile, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, where a nuclear war has taken place that destroyed nearly all life on Earth and left the planet in ruins. Most of the surviving humans have moved to colonies on Mars, and they have created remarkably human-like androids that live amongst the human population on Mars, performing menial or dangerous tasks. There are still some humans who remain on Earth, however, and because of the scarcity of life on the planet, keeping an animal has become a sign of social status and a necessity for all inhabitants of the planet who want to be accepted by their neighbors. The remaining humans on Earth begin to put a large emphasis on empathy and compassion after the war, which was known as World War Terminus, and the keeping of animals also serves as a sign of empathy in this post-apocalyptic society. The scarcity of animals has also caused the cost of actual animals to skyrocket, though, so just as human-like androids were created, android replicas of animals have also been created to provide the semblance of social status at a much more affordable price. In addition, some of the humanoid androids escape to Earth, despite the fact that they are forbidden there, and the novel centers around a “bounty hunter” whose job it is to hunt down and “retire” – a euphemism for kill – any androids that are on Earth illegally. In the course of his hunt for six especially cunning escaped androids, though, the protagonist, Rick Deckard, starts to morality of his line of work and the real differences between humans and androids in the novel’s world. There are many references to class tensions throughout the book, but the main one is the divide between androids and humans. Androids are seen by humans as a lower class in the world of the book, and the humans, the upper class, constantly try to suppress and push down the androids, which are the lower classes in the book’s society.

The final book, The Outsiders, revolves around a rivalry between two Oklahoma street gangs: the Socs and the Greasers. The Greasers come from a lower class area of the city, while the Socs, short for Socials, hail from the wealthier side of town. Their rivalry, which spans throughout the entire book, is told through the eyes and experiences of Ponyboy, a young Greaser. Throughout the story, several of Ponyboy’s close friends and fellow gang members are killed as a result of the rivalry, either directly or indirectly, and Ponyboy is confronted with the reality of life and the need for family in such a dangerous and unpredictable world. By the end of the book, Ponyboy rediscovers the value of his family and friends and learns to move on from the deaths of his friends. The rivalry between the two gangs, while seemingly straightforward and simple on the surface, actually represents the rivalry between the respective social classes that each gang represents that goes on each and every day in today’s society.

This rivalry, however, was much less pronounced in the past. Social and economic classes used to coexist much more peacefully with each other than they do today – both rich and poor could live together as neighbors and friends, with little to no regard for wealth or social status in these relationships and connections. The thought that the wealthy had gained their wealth unfairly never occurred to people in the past, and nobody disliked or criticized anybody else simply because that person was wealthier than him or her. Now, unfortunately, it seems as if those days are long gone. Movements such as the infamous Occupy Wall Street movement, which reached its zenith in 2011, have been springing up at an alarming rate, each protesting against what they claim to be the unfairness of society and demanding an equal share of the wealth earned by the upper class. It is becoming increasingly common to find people criticizing or attacking others simply because of their wealth, and some are now even advocating that the wealth of the upper classes be “redistributed” among the rest of society underneath them, as Richard Reeves wrote in an article for the Brookings Institution: “uncertainty about where your children might end up is a powerful political incentive to support a social safety net and redistribution.” This uncertainty, too, has its roots in the class divides that are entrenched in society. If nothing is done, the trend of increasing animosity towards the upper classes and demands for a fair share of the wealth will only continue on its current dangerous course. Society’s mindset has evidently changed greatly over the years, no doubt helped in part by the increasing economic disparity between the rich and the poor. George Packer, in the New Yorker, said it best: “People don’t want to see billionaires getting richer.” This quote reflects the increasing physical divides between economic classes, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer as time marches on. In addition, Michael Schuman wrote in Time that:

It is sadly all too easy to find statistics that show the rich are getting richer while the middle class and poor are not. A September study from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted that the median annual earnings of a full-time, male worker in the U.S. in 2011, at $48,202, were smaller than in 1973. Between 1983 and 2010, 74% of the gains in wealth in the U.S. went to the richest 5%, while the bottom 60% suffered a decline, the EPI calculated. (Schuman)

These statistics clearly show glaring problems with the current economy and economic system that must be addressed if class tensions are ever to recede. However, these problems are far from new – in fact, German philosopher Karl Marx himself, in criticizing capitalism, wrote that “’Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole’” (Schuman). These words ring especially true in today’s society, and while Marx’s views on Communism and the viability of such a classless society proved to be invalid, his criticisms of the American capitalist society do deserve a closer look. Marx made his distaste for capitalism widely known, but his views were dismissed by the rest of the world during his time because capitalism “appeared to be fulfilling its promise — to uplift everyone to new heights of wealth” (Schuman). Marx, though, was correct in his claims that capitalism would inevitably result in social and economic divides and tensions between resulting classes. While our society has not yet experienced a “dictatorship of the proletariat” (Schuman) of the sort that Marx predicted, the social tensions and “big rises in income” (Reeves) that he warned against are all too real in today’s world, and they continue to drive social classes further apart with every passing day. Society can no longer afford to ignore the lessons of the past, and Marx’s ideas, in pointing out the glaring deficiencies of the capitalist system, can help to reveal the solutions that could strengthen it and put an end to the trend of increasing divides between these classes.

No matter what is done to amend the increasing disparity between the rich and poor in society, though, there will always be people with more wealth than others, as well as people who get the short end of the stick and are relatively poor. The inevitability of the rise, from this divide, of the class tensions and divides so painfully present in society can be attributed to one fact of nature: humans, as a whole, are naturally jealous of what others have. Studies have found that jealousy is a completely natural human emotion, and records of jealousy have been found dating back to the very beginning of recorded human history. Indeed, Arnold Gesell wrote that “jealousy is so ancient that it existed before human nature itself…” (438). Jealousy is certainly not anything new, and neither is class tension. Jealousy, however, is the very root of class tension and class struggles, as people in lower classes are naturally jealous of the vast wealth and prosperity of those in society’s upper echelons. They see the palatial mansions and luxurious cars and yachts, and they feel left out of the wealth of the world. The people naturally want what the wealthy have for themselves, but they cannot have it. Thus, some resort to attempting to bring down the wealthy and strip them of their wealth to make themselves feel better about their lack of wealth, in an “If I can’t have it, neither can anyone else” sort of mentality. Fight Club’s Project Mayhem is a prime example of this. The project was made entirely up of people from the working classes of society – people who have little hope of ever acquiring the kind of wealth that they can only admire and long for from a distance, behind insurmountable walls and barriers of society. Because they couldn’t get that wealth and prosperity for themselves, they sought to strip it from those who do have it and create a new society in which they have nothing to be jealous of, since everyone will be equal. Such a society, as stated before, is unsustainable and impractical in real life, but such is the mentality of the masses of Project Mayhem and some in the real world. In addition, there are many others who simply feel that society is unfair, that the deck is stacked against them. Movements such as the Occupy Movement target this widespread mindset, as Sarah Siff wrote in Origins, the online magazine of Ohio State University: “To the millions of Americans facing unemployment, losing their homes, and racking up student loan debt, the idea of a struggling “99 percent” struck a chord.” This natural jealousy serves as a catalyst for all social and class tensions that have sprung up in human society throughout history, and it ensures that tensions between the different classes of society will never completely disappear. However, that is not to say that there is nothing that can be done to reduce these tensions as much as possible from the heights they seem to be at in today’s world, and it is important that steps are taken to achieve this.

With the increased tensions and conflicts between social classes in society, people naturally tend to look to those in power for guidance and reassurance. They assume that elected officials and politicians have answers to society’s problems, or at least reassurance, and they place their hope and faith in these people to solve these problems and improve the world for everyone in it. What the people actually find in these politicians, though, is often quite different from what they had hoped for. Far from searching for solutions to problems such as social tensions and class struggles, many politicians instead employ class warfare as a political tactic for their own personal gain, pitting people from different social and economic classes against each other for votes and increased power and influence in government and politics. While certainly not all politicians are guilty of this tactic, the vast majority of them are, and they include highly prominent people such as presidential candidates and members of the US Congress. According to Michael Kinsley:

Everyone says there’s a class war going on in the U.S. If so, it is, at least so far, a war of words. It’s also a war in which a principal tactic is to accuse the other side of fighting a class war, while denying that you’re fighting one yourself. Meanwhile, everybody claims to be on the same side: the side of the people, against the aristocratic elitist snobs. The verbal class war is like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey (or elephant, as the case may be). The goal is to pin the other side with the label of ‘elitist.’ (Kinsley)

Tactics such as this are not limited to any one side of the political spectrum of political party, or even to America. In fact, in the ongoing Australian campaigns for prime minister, class warfare is playing a major role. “After months of subliminal sneers about Malcolm Turnbull’s [the incumbent prime minister] personal wealth making it impossible for him to understand ordinary taxpayers, Labor has laid bare a campaign of class warfare in its response to the budget,” writes Dennis Shanahan in The Australian. Unfortunately for society, the classic tactic of class warfare does not seem to be on course to fade away any time soon, and as long as it presents itself in politics, the wounds and class tensions in society can never truly begin to heal.

Without a doubt, the debate on social classes and class warfare in America has been one of the bitterest and most controversial topics in recent years, with inflammatory movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement as a whole acting to stir up tensions and resentment between differing classes in society. However, it is crucial that people put aside their differences, or at least do so to a greater extent than they do now, and learn to work alongside each other for the betterment of society as a whole, as it was in past decades and centuries. Today’s society seems to have lost its way in this regard, and as the three books discussed earlier warned, class fighting can have disastrous effects and consequences if it is allowed to run rampant and unchecked for too long. It is crucial that something is changed about society so that these bitter tensions and divides can begin to heal themselves and so that the society of the future will be a better place for future generations. The problem will certainly not fix itself, and without intervention, it will only grow larger and more dangerous and inflammatory. Unless something is done in the very near future, society will stay on the treacherous course it seems to be on currently, and there is no telling what perils will lie ahead in future years. There is still hope, though, and smart and decisive actions today will certainly lead to a better future tomorrow for everyone, regardless of class or social status.

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