Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 22 Jan 2022, 12:05 PM


Class, sympathy & solidarity

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The conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell has promoted some sympathetic headlines. Both ABC and CBS write of her "fall from grace" and the BBC of her "downfall". All of which reflects Rachel Johnson's attitude, that "it's hard not to pity" her.

What's going on here? Townes (1)

In part, there's an echo of a sentiment we've largely lost - a tendency to sympathize with the criminal. Vast amounts of country music express this:
The Banks of the Ohio,
San Quentin,
Folsom Prison Blues or
Pancho and Lefty to name but a few. Tom Jones version of
Green Green Grass of Home, remember, was one of the best-selling hits of the 1960s.

And there's a reason for this pity. We don't become criminals merely because we are irredeemable wrong'uns: to believe that is to commit a crass form of the fundamental attribution error. Instead, incentives, weakness of will, or peer pressure are all important causes. As David Friedman wrote:

A mugger is a mugger for the same reason I am an economist-because it is the most attractive alternative available to him.

Or as Iris Dement

And I traveled to a prison; I saw my share of shattered dreams.
Were the tables slightly tilted I could be bound, they could be free.

Why not extend such thoughts to Ms Maxwell? She was born into and lived in a criminogenic environment.

But, but, but. The sympathy of headline writers is tightly circumscribed. They rarely speak of a downfall or fall from grace after working class people are convicted. Ms Johnson's pity does not extend to them, and the BBC's "due impartiality" does not apply in matters of class.

What's going on here was pointed out by Adam Smith:

We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.

This, he wrote, is because the wealth and comfort of the rich elicits not envy but sympathy:

When we consider the condition of the great, in those delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint it. it seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state...We feel, therefore, a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it. We favour all their inclinations, and forward all their wishes. What pity, we think, that anything should spoil and corrupt so agreeable a situation!... Every calamity that befals them, every injury that is done them, excites in the breast of the spectator ten times more compassion and resentment than he would have felt, had the same things happened to other men.

Reactions to the conviction of Ms Maxwell fit this pattern.

But Smith's reasoning helps explain something bigger and more powerful - of why there is more class solidarity among the rich than among the working class. We see this in several contexts. One minor but nevertheless revealing example is in the circle jerk of blue-tick columnists praising each other, as Justin Horton has documented. Another example is that right "libertarians" are relaxed about clampdowns upon migrants and protestors because these bear upon the poor and weak rather than the rich and the great.

More importantly, this helps explain the unity of the Tory party. Johnson has - at least until recently - retained support from erstwhile Thatcherites even though his "fuck business" attitude is the diametric opposite of hers. And the party has almost seamlessly shifted from a social liberalism that supported gay marriage to a confected war on wokesters.

Of course, such deference-based unity is imperfect. But it is much greater than we see on the left, where divisions are rife and where working class consciousness has never developed to the extent that early Marxists had hoped.

Those headlines about Ms Maxwell, then, are not trivial. They shed light upon one of the great strengths the ruling class has over the rest of us.

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