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Why Do We Hate the Poor? What Did Max Weber & Thorsten Veblen Think?

Dec 30, 2006
Michael Hogan

Why is society differentiated into classes? What is the underlying motivating force behind hated of the poor? How does the conditioning happen? Who does it?

In order to understand class, we must consult  the fathers of the social sciences. Max Weber was certainly an originator of Sociology and Thorsten Veblen was an American giant in the field of Economics. Both men thought a great deal about class in society.

Max Weber wrote "The Protestant Work Ethic" in the 19th century.  Among other things Weber studied a a Swiss theologian named John Calvin. It was Calvin's theory that we are all "predestined" to go to either heaven or hell. That's it and there is nothing you can do to change your predestination. As time went on, most major Protestant denominations were identified as Calvinist. Please don't think Calvinism as a cultural custom is limited to Protestants. Eight years in a thoroughly Calvinist country named Holland taught me that all religions are Calvinist. The Dutch themselves enjoyed pointing this out.

What is Calvinism as a cultural custom? What behavior does Calvinism produce? Superiority! Those who believe they are headed for heaven believe themselves to be superior to those who are headed for hell. Did you notice society being broken into classes in my last sentence? If not, you missed a the key point of this essay.

How can an observer know if a person is headed for heaven or hell? Is there some outward sign that gives us a clue as to the theological direction of our neighbors? Yes, it's called pecuniary strength. Those who have the outward appearance of pecuniary strength are seen as headed for heaven. Those dressed in rags are seen as predestined for hell. Calvinists (therefore, all of society) believe that God himself has predestined us all and God has decided how much wealth each of us has. Therefore, according to Max Weber, folks view those with pecuniary strength as being of a higher class by "virtue" of being selected by God for heaven.

So, what is the result of four centuries of Calvinism? Well, folks have an urgent need to display pecuniary strength to convince their neighbors they are of a higher class. Those with a few extra dollars in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries might put an extra layer of shellac on their front door or buy a fine horse and whip. Today, the variety of consumer products on offer makes consumption a full time occupation. How do folks get to occupy their time as consumers?

Thorsten Veblen studied that very question in his 19th century book entitled: "A Theory of the Leisure Class." Simply put in Veblen's own words, those in the leisure class enjoy "conspicuous consumption." So, there it is. Society is divided into those who have leisure and those who do not. Those with leisure time have the pecuniary strength to impress their neighbors and convince the world they are predestined for heaven. Those without leisure time are to busy working to consume in a truely heroic manner. In the end, the working poor and the highly stressed middle class are without the time and/or money to consume heroically. This amalgam of poor and middle class are thought to be predestined for hell, while the wealthy and super rich are enlightened heroes headed for heaven.

In a Calvinist world, there are two classes. Those predestined for the top shelf and those predestined for the lowest wrung.
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