What’s in a sneer? Part 1: The Wage Class

Our myth of social class in Australia is that, if class exists at all, it’s something you can move through freely. We regularly hear of the aspirationals who want to rise through the classes (never of people who drop back down). The implication is that class is something you choose, not something you’re born with. That is the myth.

In this post I want to write about class but not in the usual terms. Instead of defining class by how much you earn, I’m going to define it by how you earn. And instead of discussing the usual factors related to class, I’m going to talk about a very specific behavioural characteristic that has no necessary connection with class but which I think illuminates something important about it: the act of sneering.

Both of these distinctions are inspired by a recent blog post by John Michael Greer. Greer cites four basic ways to earn your income: wages, salaries, investments and government welfare. In this post, I’lI limit my discussions to the two of these that I have the most experience with: wages (the Wage Class) and salaries (the Salary Class).

In his post Greer also remarks about how much of what counts for political discussion in modern America is nothing more than sneering. That has certainly been true of Trump’s candidacy. The sneering and mockery on twitter and even from supposedly reputable news services has been a sight to behold. Otherwise intelligent people have gone to town with such a variety and volume of ad hominem attacks that would have had Aristotle crying into his soup. This public mockery reminded me of something similar I had heard before in the workplace and that is what got me thinking about the Wage Class and the Salary Class as they relate to sneering. I want to suggest the following distinction:-

  • When the Wage Class sneers at the Salary Class, it is almost always on economic grounds.
  • When the Salary Class sneers at the Wage Class, it is almost always on ideological grounds.

Let me give an example to demonstrate the first point. While I was at university I took some part-time labouring work in a small manufacturing company. Throughout the day, deliveries and pickups of various items would be made. Usually this was done by couriers and truck drivers but occasionally a smartly dressed type would come by to drop off or collect some smaller item and have a chat with one of our salaried people. One particular workmate of mine, let’s call him Bob, would never fail to make some kind of derogatory remark about the new arrival. One of Bob’s favourite epithets was “arse scratcher”. “Better go help this arse scratcher unload his ute” he might say.

Although Bob was more enthusiastic in his mockery than most, his remarks were in no way uncommon. Go to any factory floor around the country and you won’t have to wait long to hear something similar. The attitude of the Wage Class to the Salary Class can be summarised as “latte drinking overpaid bludgers.” The Salary Class sit around talking and drinking coffee instead of doing “real” work and they get paid more than they deserve. Contribution versus reward. This equation is a fundamental of economic justice and this is what I mean when I say that the Wage Class sneers at the Salary Class on economic grounds.

Now here’s the key point: the Wage Class are perfectly entitled to raise this issue of economic justice. There is a lot of prima facie evidence on their side.

Shuffling paperwork, sending emails and taking phone calls is quantitatively less (real) work than lifting, moving, grinding, painting, sanding, drilling or whatever tasks get done on the factory floor. This is true in the physics sense of Force being applied to Objects. Less energy is expended by an office worker than by a labourer or skilled tradesman. There is a basic, everyday sense in which office work simply requires less effort.

This point is uncontroversial. The next point is not.

In a small manufacturing company, the office work is subsidiary to the factory work.

A manufacturing business does not make its money from shuffling paperwork and sending emails. It makes its money from manufacturing stuff. That happens on the factory floor. The workers on the factory floor understand this perfectly well. They are entitled to wonder why it is that one gets “promoted” to a job which appears to generate less value for the company.

These are the issues which lie behind the sneering of the Wage Class. There are important unanswered questions of economic justice that lie right at the heart of the Wage Class/Salary Class distinction and these occur right down the factory floor.

Because these distinctions have been entrenched in society, the original issues are no longer openly discussed. It is this obfuscation which allows the system to be perpetuated. The following thought experiment should demonstrate how this happens:-

Let’s assume there are five guys working together on the factory floor in wage class jobs (I’m going to keep this example to males because I think the kind of behaviour I’m describing is more typically male and it also allows me to sidestep the messy issue of entrenched sexism).

One guy, let’s call him Tom, gets a promotion.  He’ll now move to a managerial position overseeing factory operations (eg. a foreman). He gives up his work on the tools and starts organising, reporting and otherwise supporting the others on the factory floor. What will be the response from Tom’s four workmates to his promotion? I can say with absolute certainty from my experience that Tom will be on the receiving end of some (mostly) good-natured mockery. The more office-like the new job, the more mockery he can expect. And if Tom shows up in a shirt, pants and leather shoes, he can expect a double helping. This mockery will take the form I have described above. Tom is now one of the latte drinkers and he can expect to hear about it in no uncertain terms.

How will Tom respond to their mockery? Will he defend himself? What arguments would he make in his defence?

The key point to be made is that he won’t defend himself. He’ll just take it on the chin. He might make some kind of deflecting statement such as “well, it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it” or “if you guys pick up your game you might be able to follow in my shoes one day.” But what he won’t do is tell his old workmates that they are wrong. He won’t claim that he will now be working harder and that his new job will be more important than theirs.

It is this obfuscation, this refusal to address the underlying issue that perpetuates the system. Even Tom, a guy who only recently would have joined in the mockery of the Salary Class, will not address it. Even if he wanted to defend the promotion, he probably wouldn’t know how.  He might try to quote some economic theory or other to justify it but it is highly likely that he simply couldn’t explain it if he was asked to do so.  It is because the underlying issue of economic justice is not addressed that Bob will go on referring to anybody in a suit and tie as an “arse scratcher”. It is why you can go on to pretty much any factory floor and feel a constant undercurrent of resentment. It is why the Wage Class sneers are almost always economic in nature.

As for Tom, from now on his career prospects are decided by how well he answers to his superiors in the Salary Class and not by whether his old Wage Class friends respect or support him. You can expect his relationship with them to weaken and, if he handles it clumsily, may deteriorate to outright animosity. This is something I have seen with my own eyes. Eventually, Tom may take up a firm identity as a member of the Salary Class and, according to my claim above, he will begin sneering back at the Wage Class on ideological grounds. How this journey happens is something I will address in my next post. In doing that, I hope to come back around to Greer’s point and shed a bit more light on why Donald Trump has tapped into such a rich vein of frustration among the Wage Class in America and why he consistently draws such outright mockery from the Salary Class.