Matthew Arnold On Inequality

In his 1879 essay ‘Equality,’ Matthew Arnold wrote about inequality too:

What the middle class sees is that splendid piece of materialism, the aristocratic class, with a wealth and luxury utterly out of their reach, with a standard of social life and manners, the offspring of that wealth and luxury , seeming out utterly out of their reach also. And thus they are thrown back upon themselves–upon a defective type of religion, a narrow range of intellect and knowledge, a stunted sense of beauty, a low standard of manners. And the lower class see before them the aristocratic class, and its civilization, such as it is, even infinitely more of out of their reach than out of that of the middle class; while the life of the middle class, with its unlovely types of religion, thought, beauty, and manners, has naturally in general, no great attractions for them either. And so they too are thrown back upon themselves; upon their beer, their gin, and their fun. Now then, you will understand what I meant by saying that our inequality materialises our upper class, vulgarises our middle class, brutalises our lower.

And the greater the inequality the more marked is its bad action upon the middle and lower classes….

[O]ur aristocracy…is for the imagination a singularly modern and uninteresting one. Its splendor of station, its wealth, show, and luxury, is then what the other classes really admire in it; and this is not an elevating admiration. Such an admiration will never lift us out of our vulgarity and brutality, if we chance to be vulgar and brutal to start with; it will rather feed them and be fed by them….our love of inequality is really the vulgarity in us, and the brutality, admiring and worshipping the splendid materiality.

[Matthew Arnold: Selected Essays, edited with an introduction by Noel Annan, Oxford University Press, 1964]

Arnold does not speak here of rage, outward or inward directed, but he might as well have. For there is a black envy here, in his mention of an ‘admiration’ that is not ‘elevating’ but that instead ‘feeds’ and is ‘fed’ by ‘vulgarity’ and ‘brutality.’ This corrosion of sensibilities that inequality produces–all the more acute as the inequality grows more pronounced–cannot be anything but a destabilizing force, one that may not restrained too long.

In some cultures it is said staring at someone eating brings bad luck to the person eating. The watcher is urged to show some manners; the eater turns away to consume in peace. A pair of hungry eyes looking at sustenance denied them cannot but ruin the appetite of those conscious of their gaze. Matters, no doubt, are infinitely worse when the food on the plate has been stolen from those watching, when they have been forced to serve it up with their own hands.

The converse, of course, of such a superstition, is that the ostentatious consumer of food denied others reminds others of their misfortune, rubs their faces in it. He runs the risk too, of having his plate snatched out of his hands.

On Being Mistaken for a ‘Worker’

Variants of the following situation have, I think, occurred in many people’s lives here in the US. (I have been on both the giving and receiving end, so to speak.)

You walk into a store (or perhaps a restaurant), perusing its offerings. You do not find what you need; you are confused; you need assistance. You see someone standing around, unoccupied; they are not wearing a uniform or anything like that. For whatever reason, you assume this person is a store employee, and ask for direction or assistance. You are mistaken. This person is not an employee.  Matters now get interesting.

Your respondent tells you, sometimes curtly, sometimes politely, ‘I don’t work here.’ You react as if poked with a cattle iron and electric prod combined, even as your hand flies up to cover your mouth in dismay: ‘I’m sorry!’ And you rush away, mortified, determined to never commit that particular faux pas again. The person you have dared assume was a store employee might also move away quickly from the locale of his embarrassment, wondering what accursed luck had led to this confusion, wondering what they had done wrong. Did they look slovenly or unwashed? Do they look servile?

(In my description of these kinds of encounters, I do not think I have exaggerated excessively. Some twenty or so years ago, I went with a girlfriend to an Indian restaurant for dinner; she was wearing a sari. As we waited for our table, a young man walked up to my girlfriend and asked her for a table; she politely, and with a grin on her face, replied she didn’t work there. You would have thought the lad had been shot, the way he almost doubled up with pain, flushed red, apologized and quickly walked away.)

This species of especially embarrassing social encounter has led to multiple safeguards to prevent its recurrence: in more established commercial enterprises, employees wear name tags or uniforms, and conversely, their customers have learned to be more cautious, prefixing their questions with a very (very!) tentative, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’

No one it seems, likes being mistaken for a worker. And no one likes to be in the business of mistaking a non-worker for a worker. We worry that we might offend someone by mistaking them for a lowly employee of the business we are patronizing, and the targets of our putative scorn are offended that someone has dared confuse them with those who are there to serve them. The primary sin here is class confusion: our class has been mixed up with someone else’s.

We live in a society that ostensibly aspires to, and sometimes achieves in some limited domains, an egalitarianism of sorts; we supposedly ascribe ‘dignity’ to labor, to wage work; we supposedly recognize that today’s lowly are tomorrow’s esteemed. For isn’t the road to the top available to anyone and everyone? But, I think, these little run-ins show us we’ve got a long way to go till we are ready to accept being confused with a ‘worker.’