Social Class

by pixx3 min read11th Oct 201913 comments


Personal Blog

Notes from the Salon

ETA: This is a write-up of some interesting points raised at an in-person rationalist meetup on October 6th, 2019. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the topic. It is conventional for attendees to do all the suggested readings before salon starts, so some parts of the write-up might not make sense without that context.

Assigned readings: Siderea on Class, Thoughts on the "STEM" class

Economic Class vs. Social Class

Economic class and social class are not the same thing. The two are decoupled, but only partly. You can be wealthy but lower class (e.g. a skilled tradesman making 6 figures) or poor but upper class (e.g. an adjunct professor at a prestigious university). Everyone at the salon was in the same social class: the class that attends semi-ironic and entirely sober literary salons, likely G2 on Church's ladder. But there's a much broader distribution of economic classes represented in the room.

Performing upper-(middle)-classness grants you privilege. It costs some amount of money, but not as much as you would think, to perform professional-classness. The harder part by far is knowing what to buy in the first place. A clean-ish hoodie emblazoned with your university seal does the job. A blazer with a loud animal print pattern does not.

Most people want to make more money, but few people are interested in climbing the social ladder. When you find the class that you belong to and join it, you tend to go “ew” at the people in the classes below you, and “yikes”* at the people in the classes above you.

*Or the equivalent of “yikes”, if you’re in a class that doesn’t say “yikes”

Everyone is "Middle-Class"

The middle class is the only virtuous class - both "lower class" and "upper class" are insults. This results in basically everyone except billionaires and the homeless identifying as middle class. Premium mediocrity is what middle-classness could look like for millennials.

Class is a culture and a performance. For example, someone who makes six figures may choose to get their morning coffee at Tim Horton's instead of Starbucks or an indie coffee shop. They might make this decision even if they like their coffee not terrible, because it's more important to them to be seen as a salt-of-the-earth sort.

A more extreme example of this was outlined in this piece, where a Yale student who was actually broke didn't realize that all of her classmates were only pretending to be broke. In one incident, she offered to buy a classmate that she knew for 3 years a sandwich, because she thought he was actually on the verge of starving. The classmate graciously broke the act and told her that he actually has a trust fund and was just carefully cultivating a starving artist image. In another incident, her classmates shamed her for not donating to a charity, because they perceived her to be only faking her destitution like the rest of them.

Scott's cellular automata model of fashion talks about something similar, but what this piece says is that this gives the elites an unfounded confidence in knowing how poor people live, which is terrible for society.

That "STEM Class" Piece

The makeup of this Salon session was something like 60% STEM folk, 20% non-STEM folk who work or socialize with STEM folk a lot, and 20% non-STEM folk who don't interact with STEM folk on a regular basis.

The only thing that the Salon agreed on was that STEM class people pretend more than other classes that they don't care about class and just wear things they like.

Things we disagreed on included:

  • how accurate the tumblr post was about STEM folk
  • how accurate the tumblr post was about the connection between STEM and the military-officer class
  • whether any single person in the Salon has a good idea of what a representative sample of STEM folk would look like
  • how much STEM folk cared about art, politics, and sports
  • whether the r/uwaterloo subreddit is a decent representative sample of STEM folk
  • if this is the class that's responsible for the existence of the alt-right
  • whether this is a class or a subculture, could a similar tumblr post be made for "the lawyer class", etc.
  • if "STEM folk" is a real and useful category


People generally don't deliberately seek to hang out with other social classes. When it happens, it's usually as a result of another shared interest or trait. You can run into people in another social class at a con, or your sports league, or your very small local queer community. Or if you're doing a substantial amount of going on first dates with people from dating apps. It won't be the entire range of social classes, it's just a wider range than who you would hang out with by default. Talking to a person in another social class is generally more unpleasant than talking to a person in your own, but this shared trait can act like a social lubricant.

Many activist organizers come from the middle- and upper-middle classes. One common trap that they fall into is modelling working- and lower-class activists as sharing the exact same set of aversions that they do, to the upper class. In truth, working- and lower-class activists often have an aversion to middle-class norms as well -- things like tofu, women who don’t shave, and non-hierarchical meeting structures. To make meetings and spaces welcoming towards everyone, middle- and upper-middle class activists should reflect on their own cultural norms, and to what extent it is necessary to impose it on other classes.

Betsy-Leondar Wright, an activist-scholar, suggests distinguishing between essential and non-essential weirdness, where essential weirdnesses are defined as practices that can't be eliminated without doing great injustice to someone. In other words, essential weirdnesses must be kept, even if they seem offputting to some attendants, because discarding them causes greater harm. Essential weirdnesses are things like “the practice of always speaking out against racist comments” or “having your meetings be secular”.

Non-essential weirdnesses, on the other hand, should be eliminated as much as possible because pushing lifestyle choices onto disinterested working-class people is a misuse of class privilege. Because classes are hierarchical in nature, this is especially important for middle-upper class people to keep in mind. An example of non-essential weirdness is “only having vegan options for dinner”.


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You need to add timescales and expectation into your model. Neither economic nor social class is about your current wealth, salary, activities, or even peer groups. Class is about what you expect to be near-constant for your life, and what you hope for your children.

No mention of selling your labor versus owning productive capital or state-granted monopoly rights?

So this is a write-up of discussion points brought up at a meetup, it's not intended to be a comprehensive overview about every single thing about social class.

That being said, we did go into Marxist theory a little, but mostly to talk about how it's now pretty common to be wealthy without owning any productive capital, whether or not actors and athletes can be said to own any productive capital, and the new kerfuffle surrounding California's new bill to allow college athletes to earn an income.

Ah, I see the brief mention of that at the top of the post. I think reporting on discussion points at meetups is a thing I want to see more of, but am not sure whether it's something that could use some kinda of standardized metadata to make it clearer what the context is.

So this is a write-up of discussion points brought up at a meetup, it’s not intended to be a comprehensive overview about every single thing about social class.

Okay... but it still seems like a surprising omission. I'm only familiar with two concepts of class, the somewhat vacuous American one where everyone is middle class (which you seem to be criticizing) and the Marxist one.

it’s now pretty common to be wealthy without owning any productive capital

I would have thought almost all wealthy people own either stocks or real estate... what do you mean by this?

I'm curious about the information diet of the upper class. Do they have blogs or forums, or periodicals and books written for each other?

So... assuming that being in a higher class is generally better, and that the class is not strictly about money but rather about performing the right behavior... the obvious question is: How can we hack this?

Which is the class directly above mine, and what do I need to do to get there? If I meet a friendly rationalist from that class, could they actually coach me to get there? Why don't we (e.g. all people on a local meetup) move to the highest class present among us?

Looking from the opposite perspective, what guidance could I give to rationalists from classes below mine to get to my position? I have no idea, but perhaps I could start by interacting with them and pointing out things that rub me the wrong way.

It is possible that the proper class behavior requires decades of training, and cannot be acquired overnight. Still, knowing what it is, being sure about it, and having a coach, could speed up things a bit. I suppose most people have a network of contacts within their class, but this probably isn't inevitable: you don't lose social class merely by moving to another place.

Potential problem: maybe all rationalists are middle-class, because the working class is too busy working, and the upper class is too busy expanding their empires, so they usually don't go to meetups.

Maybe classes have prerequisites that cannot be faked. If I simplify it to "working class is about working hard, middle class is about having knowledge and skills, upper class is about having actual power", then people who want to move from working class to middle class need to have at least the curiosity and perseverance to learn the skills, and people who want to move from middle class to upper class need to get some actual power and the proper mindset to abuse it just the right way (without either giving it up, or making unnecessary enemies).

Also, I suppose that the people at the very top mostly know each other, simply because there is fewer of them. It is hard to pretend to be a new prince, if no one important ever heard about you or your family before. You can't just behave like a prince; you also need to be able to point to the map and show your realm.

I think Church's 3-ladder system (linked to in the original article) offers a good foundation to think about this question because Church's system has 12 classes instead of the 3-class system pixx uses.

How to go up a class depends not only on where you come from but also what you're aiming for. Getting from lower to middle class is a different process than getting from middle class to upper class. Even getting from lower middle class to upper middle class is a different process than getting from lower lower class to upper lower class.

So the first question to ask is which class are you from?

Using Church's system, I expect that most of the lesswrong readership is in G3/G2, the middle rungs of the middle class (which is well-above the median class). There are two places you can go up from here: into the top of the middle class and into the bottom of the upper class. There is a different route to each of these places. Getting to the top of the middle class is about getting famous in certain kind of way. Getting into the upper class is about amassing money and power. (Also, if you're G3 then you can aim for G2, which has a whole different set of criteria.)

There is some intersect between fame and money/power, but it's hard to optimize for both simultaneously. The fastest way to fame is to start a YouTube channel, a webcomic or some similar Internet media. The fastest way to wealth and power for lesswrong readers is probably to start a tech startup. There's plenty of tutorials and other instructional material for how to do these things. In my experience, the limiting factor seems to be the quantity of people willing to do the legwork despite the risk of failure. Of the many people I know in G3, most of them (besides myself and my business partner) appear uninterested in taking any of these paths. Only a handful of G3s I know even aspire toward G2. This behavior mystifies me, but they seem happily comfortable.

How can we hack this?

I'm not sure as I'm not an insider on the classes I want to break into.

maybe all rationalists are middle-class

We are. Intellectualism is a middle-class trait. Therefore lesswrong is a middle-class website. Intellectualism isn't important to the elite (or to labor) the way it is to the middle class, because intellectualism doesn't advance you within the elite (or within labor).

Thanks! I agree with everything you wrote, I guess.

I don't remember the Church's system, but I guess I am in G2 or G3. I make money by working as a software developer. I am not exceptionally good. (I care about abstractions and clean code, but I am also introverted and highly neurotic; other people judge my output as "high quality, but very slow". Unfortunately, from my selfish perspective, these days quality seems to matter little, but speed is everything.) I have more money than most people around me, but if I'd lose my job, I would quickly have to find a new one, although that would be relatively easy. I have some savings, but no realistic hope at early retirement within the next decade. Currently I have little kids that take all my free time, so I have almost no social activities, and not enough space for experimenting or self-improvement.

Getting to the top of the middle class is about getting famous in certain kind of way. (...) The fastest way to fame is to start a YouTube channel, a webcomic or some similar Internet media.

When my kids grow up a bit, I will probably try this, but I think the competition is very strong. But this feels to me like the "natural" direction I would like to grow.

Getting into the upper class is about amassing money and power. (...) The fastest way to wealth and power for lesswrong readers is probably to start a tech startup. (...) the limiting factor seems to be the quantity of people willing to do the legwork despite the risk of failure.

I assume that having a safety network makes a lot of difference. I am okay with "let's try this, there is a 5% chance of big success" as long as failure simply means wasted time (which is not a complete waste anyway, because of learning and experience). I am not okay with it, if failure means losing all my savings, or threatening the everyday life of my family. I suppose these things should be done when one is still at university, while parents pay your bills, and the opportunity cost of your time is low. In other words, I don't realistically see myself here, ever. But maybe this is a failure in my thinking.

Intellectualism is a middle-class trait.

What is an upper-class trait? Dominance?


I see how much simpler it is to pass your social class to your kids, as opposed to strangers.

If I want my kids to follow my strategy... First, they need high IQ, but from the perspective of heredity this seems safe. Then they need to be introduced to thinking and technology: they can listen to parents talking about interesting topics, the parents will introduce them to similarly intellectual people, they will be taught some simple math and technology at young age (my 4-year old can already write and send an SMS to her grandma). Assuming they will enjoy using computers for things other than social networks and stupid videos, I can introduce them to programming and provide them tutoring. So they will have a clear advantage over their peers coming from a different background.

Now suppose a working-class adult guy appears at the LW meetup, and we decide to make an experiment about getting him to my position. What can be done? The IQ is probably okay (why would a low IQ person go to the rationalist meetup?). But the amount of time to master math and computer science is huge, even if I give him pointers. (To get really far, you have to start as a kid, because kids have insane amounts of time.) Now suppose the guy spends 8 hours a day at his (working-class) job, and has a family. How much time and energy can he devote to the project? If he gives it all his extra time and energy, it would take at least two or three years until he is ready to take a junior developer job. That requires a lot of faith. But this is probably still too optimistic; maybe he hates reading books (because it was never done in his family or social group), and he doesn't speak English (how many years until he can read programming tutorials?).

It would take the working-class guy at least one year (of free time, after the daily job) just to get some skills my kids will probably have at the age of 12. And of course, getting to the level of a 12-year old is not enough to give him a job, so it's still all expense and no gain.

I feel like we're in agreement too. Thanks for your comments, by the way. I find this subject very interesting and it's nice to have someone to discuss it with.

I think the problem of getting this hypothetical working class guy onto the white-collar ladder is the same reason it's hard for you (G3) to jump to the elite ladder. That is, while working full-time to support a family it's not responsible to take the huge amount of risk involved in trying to jump a ladder. While some people have what it takes to do this safely (involving personality traits, personal finances, geographic location, etc.) most do not. English alone can be a disqualifier. I had already written off anyone without fluency.

I think whether or not you have kids is more important than the safety net. If we go broke, you and I can both easily get jobs writing software for <insert company here>, but if you go broke your family suffers whereas if I go broke I've merely lost my savings and can fall back on my educational capital. (This advantage is in addition to the lack of free time you mention.)

I think that for someone in the position of supporting a family a more reasonable goal would be to climb one rung within a ladder rather than trying to jump ladders. This is what most of my friends (of all classes) seem to be doing and what you're doing as well. Of course, it's often possible to put your kids on the lower rungs of the next ladder. (This is what my blue-collar parents did for me.)

the competition [for G1] is very strong.

Yes it is, far more so than E3.

What is an upper-class trait? Dominance?

I'm not really sure as I'm not part of the upper class but those that I've met seem to suggest that intellectualism isn't it.

"Dominance" isn't exactly wrong but I feel like it misses the target a little. I suspect the difference is that the upper class values power over education. That is, to the upper class, running a company while unqualified is more respectable than being intellectually qualified to run a company but lacking the connections to do so.

And of course, getting to the level of a 12-year old is not enough to give him a job, so it's still all expense and no gain.

One interesting thing about the three ladders model is that skills acquired in one ladder are optimal for that ladder and only partially transfer to another ladder. So the skills a blue-collar worker acquires have only marginal utility for the white-collar ladder. The older you get, the more your skills become specifically effective toward the ladder(s) you've been climbing.

I also find the subject interesting, for two reasons: Epistemically, if you have any kind of political or other opinions, you should want to know how the society really works. Otherwise, maybe you are just talking crap. Maybe all political debates we see are crap, because they ignore the actual forces that shape the society. Like, you could have a seemingly smart proposal, but anyone with first-hand knowledge of elite would just laugh and could tell you some obvious (for him) reason why the plan is doomed to fail. Talking about society and politics without understanding how the upper class functions, is just talking nonsense.

(In the opposite direction, this epistemic blindness is acknowledged by phrases like "check your privilege". Like, you should realize that your proposals based on your middle-class experience may be completely unrealistic for lower-class people. What is missing, though, is the equivalent acknowledgment in the upward direction -- "check your servitude"? "check your sheepishness"? -- which would express how your middle-class experience makes you blind about the actual powers that rule the society. But this is not a surprise, because power is often connected with information asymmetry: the strong are allowed to keep their secrets from the weak, and to pry into the privacy of the weak; not the other way round.)

Instrumentally, upgrading your class seems like a powerful intervention, so it is really surprising when someone allegedly trying to "optimize their life" is selectively ignorant about this. Moving to a higher class would probably have more impact that all meditation and modafinil combined. Seems like we have a powerful taboo here. Probably because we would have to start by admitting that despite all stories about how the rationalists will rule the world, we are actually weak and ignorant. A person high enough on the elite ladder could probably eradicate the entire rationalist movement by mere phone call, if we'd ever become inconvenient in any significant way.

Of course, it's often possible to put your kids on the lower rungs of the next ladder.

Yeah, if you can put your children into proper schools, where they learn the skills of the next ladder, they will have enough time to learn what is needed, and they will start their adult life with the right contacts.

Of course, even this requires some knowledge of the next ladder. You need to distinguish the right school from a scam that targets people like you, extracts your money, and provides nothing in return. If you can compare the schools and choose the best one among the affordable ones, even better. (Assuming you succeed to put your kids on the next ladder, it is better to put them somewhat higher rather than at the very bottom.) You probably still need to avoid teaching your kids inappropriate skills and attitudes in your free time. (Otherwise they may become low-status at the school, and either drop out, or complete the school but revert to your class afterwards.)

For example, a working-class parent that wants to up-class their child should also encourage that child to read a lot (something better than newspapers and horoscopes), have some intellectual hobbies, protect their boundaries, be competitive, etc. Plus some cultural things, such as telling them that religion matters less, but political correctness matters more.

to the upper class, running a company while unqualified is more respectable than being intellectually qualified to run a company but lacking the connections to do so.

I'd say that even inheriting the company from your parents is more respectable, because it still shows you have power and connections. You just can't ruin the company too quickly (because then you would have no power again).

Here is what I infer from my limited experience with the upper class:

The only important skills are the ability to get power, make allies, make deals, defend your power, and leverage your power to gain more power. You spend the rest of your days by conspicuous consumption.

Showing any other skill is actually a bad signal, because it paints you as belonging to the middle-class. (Why else would you develop the skill, unless you'd suspect that one day you might actually need it?) When the upper class talks about being involved in technology, art, or sport, it means owning companies, owning galleries, and owning educational institutions. (Now idea how this actually feels from inside: does owning a gallery really feel as contributing to art somehow; or is it just a fungible money-generating source?)

This is probably how people recognize their class: If you mention being good at actually doing something, you have already exposed yourself as middle-class. From now on you will be treated as a potential servant, not as a peer. The only deals you will get offered will be "so how about you do this thing for me, and I will be your boss and own the outcome?" (You are supposed to be honored by receiving such an opportunity. Also, no one gives a fuck about the actual quality of your product; the important thing is whether it can be used to generate money, otherwise everything is fungible. That is, you can't really improve your negotiating position by actually being great at what you do.)

The deals among the upper class are usually related to using -- and abusing -- one person's power to help the other get what they want, with a favor of similar kind owned in return. ("My nephew happened to drive a car drunk, and he killed some unimportant plebs. Such a nuisance. Could you please tell your guys in the police department to 'lose' the evidence?" "Sure, no problem; that's what friends are for. Don't worry about it anymore." Ten minutes of small talk, either about how plebs suck or about conspicuous consumption. Then, the other guy: "By the way, my friend has a son; he just finished university, a really smart guy. By chance, wouldn't there be a free management position in one of your tech companies, so he could get some skills?" "Yeah, of course, just send his CV to my secretary and tell her this is the boy you sent; I am sure we can find him a suitable position." Note that there was no exchange of money, and no written record. Things will simply happen as needed.)

So one problem of entering the upper class is: how could you repay the favors? If you can't, you can't be part of the inner circle. Another question is who (among those already in the inner circle) will vouch for you? You need to be known as a guy who follows the deals, and doesn't snitch. (But this is a chicken-or-egg situation: if no one makes deals with you, how will you develop the reputation of a guy who follows the deals?) A possible strategy is to use the usual ways to get into a position where you can give favors, start making small deals, and gradually expand. (Probably an important rule is to always ask in return small favors, not money. Remember, working for money makes you a middle-class chump. It won't make you perceived as a partner, but rather as something that can be bought, cheaply.)

Here I assume that many deals between the upper-class are at least in the gray zone, if not outright illegal. I suppose that one can usually abstain from the illegal stuff one does not have stomach for. But it is important to never rock the boat. (It is okay to decline an invitation from Epstein. It is not okay to talk to the police about Epstein.) You want to be perceived as a potential partner by other upper-class people; you don't needlessly make powerful enemies. Even politicians from the opposing parties are probably good friends when no one is watching, and most likely feel closer to each other than any of them to their average voter.

In the middle class, you can act as an individual. (As a software developer, when I get a job in a new company, I come alone. My individual skills are evaluated.) In the upper class, you are usually a part of some hierarchical system; that's where you derive most of your power from. When people deal with you, they know who your powerful friends are. You are part of a "clan", because clans are more powerful than individual people. So a strategy to join the upper class would involve joining a lower rung of some existing hierarchy. You probably just start making repeated deals, and suddenly find yourself in a structure you probably wasn't even aware of before. (You gradually meet the friends and the bosses of the people you were making deals with.)

...but of course these are just my best guesses; I would love to get clarification from someone who actually is there.

Instrumentally, upgrading your class seems like a powerful intervention, so it is really surprising when someone allegedly trying to "optimize their life" is selectively ignorant about this. Moving to a higher class would probably have more impact that all meditation and modafinil combined.

I think it depends on what exactly you're optimizing your life for. Generally, being surrounded by people who are not in your class is very unpleasant, so you find the class that you belong to and settle in there.

Isusr mentioned previously, for example, that intellectualism is a middle class trait. Moving upwards into a class that doesn't value intellectualism would make my life significantly worse. Instead, I strive for status within my class and have no intention of surpassing it.

Thank you especially for the link to Church's ladders. I've never seen that before. It was helpful and interesting.