Hierarchies of need, hierarchies of social class

Lambert Strether wrote a good post for Naked Capitalism the other day relating psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchies of need with the U.S. hierarchy of class.

Maslow thought that human beings not only have the same basic needs, but the same priorities.  The basic human need is food, shelter and the other means of survival.  Once you have that, you want security.  Once you have security, you want family, friendship and love.  After you have these, you then are free to seek achievement, creativity, self-expression and so on.

Strether pointed out the rough correlation between Maslow’s hierarchy and the U.S. hierarchy of social class, and argued that this affects U.S. politics.   It certain affects the internal politics of the Democratic Party.

Very crudely, Americans are divided into a bottom 90 percent who are struggling to meet their  survival needs, and a 10 percent whose survival needs are met and can afford to try to gratify  higher-level needs.

Fulfillment of higher-level needs does not threaten the interests of the 1 percent or 0.1 percent who control the wealth of this country.  It is the survival needs of the potentially populist 90 percent that threatens them, because they can’t be met without a redistribution of economic and political power.

Lambert Strether relates identity politics to the higher-level needs of the professional class, but I don’t think that is quite right.   It is rather that racism and sexism are matters of survival on the lower levels of American society and matters of emotional distress and career advancement on the upper levels.

It is one thing to fear being killed by police because of your race or having to take a job in which you are sexually harassed in order to pay the rent.  It is another to be offended by racial stereotypes in the movies or stymied in your career because of a glass ceiling.

Not that stereotypes or glass ceilings are okay!  It is just that they aren’t matters of survival.

Another way of thinking about identity politics and populist politics is suggested by Walter Benn Michaels, author of The Trouble With Diversity.  He makes a distinction between discrimination and exploitation.   Discrimination is oppression of a minority by a majority.  Exploitation is oppression of the majority by an elite.

Michaels pointed out that the U.S. has made great progress in the past 20 or so years in reducing discrimination, while meanwhile economic exploitation has grown worse and the concentration of economic and political power has grown greater.

The big mistake is to think you can achieve a just society by fighting discrimination and ignoring exploitation—or vice versa.

Again, I’m making sweeping generalizations to which there are many exceptions, but I think these generalizations are basically true.


Class and Beyond: Case-Deaton’s “Deaths of Despair,” Embodiment and Neoliberal Epidemics by Lambert Strether for naked capitalism.

Walter Benn Michaels on how liberals still love diversity and ignore inequality, an interview for the Chicago Reader.  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist).

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3 Responses to “Hierarchies of need, hierarchies of social class”

  1. Edward Says:

    I think this is a variation of Marx’s idea of “class interest”.


  2. williambearcat Says:

    You almost always cause me to think differently about all sorts of subjects. I like the definitional differences of discrimination and exploitation.


  3. Dan Says:

    Thank-you, this is a very insightful perspectives especially in light of the current era of patriotism vs nationalism we are seeing being played out across the world.
    I would further add that social-class stratification, how ever you choose to define it, is definitely used to exploit people and results in discrimination which is perpetuated by the bourgeoisie, as the upper-classes have no need to engage in such underhand oppression it is built into the system.


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