Class envy

Class envy is a pejorative term sometimes used to describe criticisms of the rich and powerful by the poor and less powerful. It is a politer way of saying that somebody has a 'chip on his shoulder' or is, as a consequence, 'chippy'.

Criticism of excessive wealth and the wealthy has been a staple of political discourse for generations and many believe that societal imbalances in wealth should be reduced or done away with. The use of the term "class envy" is generally intended as a rebuttal to these arguments, based on the idea that the antagonism that the poor feel towards the wealthy is based upon envy rather than feelings of repression or unfairness. Proponents of this view argue that the poorer members of society attack the rich and their privileges because they are envious of the wealth and success the upper classes enjoy.

The simplest counter-argument is that "class envy" is an ad hominem fallacy. In other words, that even assuming class envy plays a significant part in social conflict, it does not necessarily detract from the validity of the ideas put forward by those who harbor this emotion (if one is envious, that has no bearing on whether one is right or wrong).

Another counter-argument, often invoked by Marxists, is that the classes are defined by their relationship with each other, where the worker creates wealth, and the capitalist is simply a parasite who expropriates surplus value from the workers who work for him or her. According to this view, the wealthy do not rightfully deserve their wealth, so the poor are justified in feeling resentful towards them.

The political debate over wealth and its distribution or re-distribution is an emotional one, with left-wing groups denigrating the wealthy and right-wing groups accusing liberals of exploiting class envy. The term "class envy" is used by many conservative institutions such as the Wall Street Journal and the British Conservative Party. The term is not ostensibly directed at the poor themselves, but rather at groups that are viewed as trying to encourage or take advantage of class envy such as liberal media outlets or leftist political parties.

Use of the word envy in the phrase class envy instead of a word like resentment, or jealousy is what working class activists feel is pejorative about this phrase, since envy means not only resentment, but also desire to attain the advantage held by the resented party. In other words class envy means the working class group accused of class envy not only resent the ruling class, which most working class activists would concede, but that they desire to be in a ruling class over a working class. What this idea neglects is that it is possible that a worker doesn't want to get rid of his working class status within capitalism, but wants to get rid of capitalism itself as a system, just as economic systems like slavery and feudalism were removed from many countries. If all workers had an equal relationship to the means of production in this view, there would be nothing to be envious of. It is not known if any worker has actually turned down an option for class elevation, but the notion that they would persists in some, usually non-worker, circles.

Elements of "class envy" phenomena can be said to exist in many cultures - for example, the persistent Australian myth of the "dole bludger," one who avoids work and lives on the wealth of others. Another Australian example would be the "tall poppy syndrome" where a successful individual is discredited by their social group as success is believed to come from dishonesty.

Despite these possible examples of class envy it is still a term mostly used in polemical discourse. Unlike similar notions such as class consciousness there is no theoretical underpinning to the idea of class envy other than in psychology. In large part this has to do with the fact that those who advocate it also often criticize the very notion of class.

Class warfare is often presented as the end result of class envy as well as other factors which motivate the redistribution of wealth and power amongst the classes.
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