Social Organization

Chapter 22: How Far Wealth is the Basis of Open Classes

Charles Horton Cooley

Table of Contents | Next | Previous


WHERE classes do not mean separate currents of thought, as in the case of caste, but are merely differentiations ill a common mental whole, there are likely to be several kinds of classes overlapping one another, so that men who fall in the same class from one point of view are separated in another. The groups are like circles which, instead of standing apart, interlace with one another so that several of them may pass through the same individual. Classes become numerous and, so to speak, impersonal; that is, each one absorbs only a part of the life of the individual and does not sufficiently dominate him to mould him to a special type. This is one of the things that distinguish our American order from that, say, of Germany, when caste is still so dominant as to carry many other differences with it and create unmistakable types of men] As a newspaper writer puts it, " The one thing we may be sure of every day is that not a man whom we shall meet in it will belong to his type. The purse-proud aristocrat turns out to be a humble-minded young fellow anxiously envious of our knowledge of golf; the comic actor in private life is dull and shy, and reddens to the tips of his

(249) ears when he speaks; the murderer taken out of the dock in a quiet hob-and-nob turns out to be a likable young chap who reminds you of your cousin Bob."

And this independence of particular classes should give one the more opportunity to achieve a truly personal individuality by combining a variety of class affiliations, each one suited to a particular phase of his character.

It is, then, easy to see why different classifiers discover different class divisions in our society, according to their points of view; namely, because there are in fact an indefinite number of possible collocations. This would not have been the case anywhere in the Middle Ages, nor is it nearly as much the case in England at the present time as in the United States.

We might, to take three of the most conspicuous lines of division, classify the people about us according to trade or profession, according to income, and according to culture. The first gives us lawyers, grocers, plumbers, bankers and the like, and also, more generally, the hand-laboring class, skilled and unskilled, the mercantile class, the professional class and the farming class. The division by income is, of course, related to this, though by no means identical. We might reckon paupers, the poor, the comfortable, the well-to-do and the rich. Culture and refinement have with us no very close or essential connection with occupation or wealth, and a classification based upon the former would show a very general rearrangement. There are many scholars and philosophers among us who like Thoreau, follow humble trades and live upon the income of day labor.


And virtue, the most important distinction of all, is independent alike of wealth, calling and culture. The real upper class, that which is doing the most for the onward movement of human life, is not to be discerned hy any visible sign. The more inward or spiritual a trait is, the less it is dependent upon what are ordinarily understood as class distinctions.

It is, however, upon the grosser and more obvious differences of wealth and rank, and not upon intellectual or moral traits, that classes, in the ordinary meaning oi the word, are based. The reasons for this are, first, that something obvious and unquestionable is requisite as a symbol and unfailing mark of class, and, second, that the tangible distinctions alone are usual matters of controversy. Culture and character have more intrinsic importance, but are too uncertain to mark a class, and even if they were stamped upon the forehead they are not matter to quarrel over like wealth or titles; since those who have them not cannot hope to get them by depriving those who have.

Income, for instance, classifies people through creating different standards of living, those who fall into the same class in this respect being likely to adopt about the same external mode of life. It usually decides whether men live in one quarter of the city or another, what sort of houses or apartments they inhabit, how they dress, whether the wife "does all her own work" or employs household help (and, if the latter, how much and of what sort), whether they keep a carriage, whether they go into the country for the summer, whether they travel abroad. whether they send their sons to college, and so on. And

(251) such likeness leads to likeness of ideas, especially in that commonplace sort of people—the most numerous of course-- who have not sufficient definiteness or energy of character to associate on any other basis. Note how difficult it is for two people, congenial in other respects, to converse freely when one has an income of $5,000, the other of $500. Few topics can be touched upon without accentuating the superficial but troublesome discrepancy. Amusements, household and the like are hardly possible; the weather may supply a remark or two, perhaps also politics, though here the economic point of view is likely to appear. Religion or philosophy, if the parties could soar so high, would be best of all. Of course, serious discussion should be all the more practicable and fruitful because of difference of viewpoint. What I mean, however, is light, offhand, sociable talk that does not stir any depths. As between their wives the situation would be harder still, and only an unusual tact and magnanimity would make it tolerable.

The result is that we ordinarily find it most comfortable to associate on a basis of income, combined with and modified by the influence of occupation, culture and special tastes. And yet to do this is perhaps a confession of failure, a confession that we do not know how to cast off the adventitious and meet as men. The most superficial differences, being the most apparent, impose themselves upon our commonly indolent and sensuous states of mind.

In proportion to their energy men will always seek power. It is, perhaps, the deepest of instincts, resting directly on the primary need for self-expression. But the kind of power sought will take many forms.


Wealth stands, in modern society, for nearly all the grosser and more tangible forms; for power over material goods, primarily, and secondarily over the more purchasable kinds of human activity -- hand labor, professional services, newspaper commendation, political assiduity and so on. The class that has it is, in all such matters, the strong class, and naturally our coarser thought C011cludes that this is the kind of power most worth consideration. In all the obvious details of life, in that seeking for petty advantages and immunities in which most of our time is passed, at the store or the railway station, we are measured by money and are apt to measure others so. The ascendancy of wealth is too natural to disappear. Children prize possessions before they can talk, and readily learn that money is possession generalized. Indeed, only the taste for finer possessions can or should drive out that for lower.

And yet all clear minds, or rather all minds in their clearer moments, may see that wealth is not the chief good that the commonplace and superficial estimate makes it. It is simply a low form of power, important in measure to the group and to the individual, but easily preoccupying the mind beyond its just claim. If society gets material prosperity too fast, its spiritual life suffers, as is somewhat the case in our day: and the individual is in peril of moral isolation and decay as soon as he seeks to get richer than his fellows.

The finest and, in the long run, the most influential minds, have for the most part not cared for riches, or not cared enough to go out of their way to seek them, preferring to live on bare necessities if they must rather than spend


their lives in an uncongenial scramble. And the distinctively spiritual leaders have always regarded them as inconsistent with their aims. "Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey! neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves." Not that Christianity is opposed to industrial prosperity— the contrary is the case—but that Christian leadership required the explicit renunciation of prosperity's besetting sin. In our day the life of Thoreau, among others, illustrates how a man may have the finer products of wealth —the culture of all times—while preferring to remain individually poor. He held that for an unmarried student, wishing first of all to preserve the independence of his mind, occasional day labor, which one can do and have done with, is the best way of getting a living. "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." " It makes but little difference whether you are committed to a farm or the county jail."[1] The thoroughgoing way in which this doctrine is developed in his Walden and other books makes them a vade mecum for the impecunious idealist.

Professor William James asserts that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which civilization suffers, paralyzing their ideal force. "Think of the strength which personal indifference to poverty would give us if we were devoted to unpopular causes. We need no longer hold our tongues or fear to vote the revolutionary or reformatory ticket. Our stocks might fall, our hopes of promotion vanish, our salaries stop, our club doors close in our faces; yet,

(254) while we lived, we would imperturbably bear witness to the spirit, and our example would help to set free our generation." [2]

If these considerations do not keep us from greed, it is because most of us have only flashes of tile higher ambition. We may believe that we could reconcile ourselves to poverty if we had to—even that it might be good for us—but we do our best to avoid it.

For the ill-paid classes, certainly, the desire for money does not mean "materialism" in any reproachful sense, but is chiefly the means by which they hope to realize, first, health and decency, and then a better chance at the higher life—books, leisure, education and refinement. They are necessarily materialized in a certain sense by the fact that their most strenuous thought must be fixed upon work and product in relation to material needs. It is in those who are already well-to-do that the preoccupation with money is most degrading—as not justified by primary wants. "Meat is sweetest when it is nearest the bone," and it is good to long and strive for money when you have an urgent human need for it; but to do this for accumulation, luxury, or a remote security is not wholesome. This cold-blooded storing up in banks and tin boxes is perilous to the soul, often becoming a kind of secret vice, a disease of narrow minds, feeble imaginations and contracted living [3]

In modern life, then, and in a country without formal privilege, the question of classes is practically one of wealth, and of occupation considered in relation to wealth;

(255) the reason being not that this distinction really dominates life, but that it is the focus of the more definite and urgent class controversies. Other aims are pursued in peace; wealth, because it is material and appropriable, involves conflict. We may then accept the economic standpoint for this purpose without at all agreeing with those who regard it as more fundamental than others. [4]


  1. Walden, 89, 91.
  2. The Varieties of Religious Experience, 368.
  3. I will not here discuss the question just how far it serves a useful purpose in the economic system.
  4. If the reader cares to know my opinion of that doctrine—sometimes called the economic interpretation of history—which teaches that economic conditions are in a peculiar sense the primary and determining factor in society, he will find it in the following passages:

    " The organic view of history [which I hold] denies that any factor or factors are more ultimate than others. Indeed it denies that the so-called factors—such as the mind, the various institutions the physical environment and so on—have any real existence apart from a total life in which all share in the same way that the members of the body share in the life of the animal organism. It looks upon mind and matter, soil, climate, flora, fauna, thought, language and institutions as aspects of a single rounded whole, one total growth. We may concentrate attention upon some one of these things, but this concentration should never go so far as to overlook the subordination of each to the whole, or to conceive one as precedent to others."

    " I cannot see that the getting of food, or whatever else the economic activities may be defined to be, is any more the logical basis of existence than the ideal activities. It is true that there could be no ideas and institutions without a food supply, but no more could we get food if we did not have ideas and institutions. All work together, and each of the principal functions is essential to every other. "

    "History is not like a tangled skein which you may straighten out by getting hold of the right end and following it with sufficient persistence. It has no straightness, no merely lineal continuity, in its nature. It is a living thing, to be known by sharing its life, very much as you know a person. In the organic world—that is to say in real life—each function is a centre from which causes radiate and to which they converge; all is alike cause and effect; there is no logical primacy, no independent variable, no place where the thread begins As in the fable of the belly and the members each is dependent upon all the others. You must see the whole or you do not truly see anything." (Publications of the American Economic Association, Third Series, vol. v, 426 #.)

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2