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Making Sense of Class

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I’ve been thinking a lot about class.

‘Class’ is a way to categorize people in a society. Ironically, the idea of class itself isn’t really well-categorized. Classes are amorphous; they can be working, ruling, blue-collar, white-collar, aristocratic, peasant, social, upper, economic, and so on.

A system of ordering a society in which people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status.

Wiki definition of class

It almost goes without saying that classes are reductive. People shouldn’t be reduced to their class any more than they should be reduced to their race. But our brains like the concept of ‘class’ because categorizing helps us understand the world.

Artists in particular seem to like it. It feels likes everything I’ve consumed recently has thematically explored class, and it’s helped inform my own thoughts on how class should be defined and understood.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina (1878)

Most people read Anna Karenina as a book about family. This is true, and backed up by its iconic opening line:

“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

But it is also a story about class. Tolstoy tells this through its two parallel plots: Anna’s embattled love story and Konstantin Levin’s search for self-reconciliation.


In Anna’s world, there is only one class: Russian high society. The world outside of it exists to Anna and her circle the same way NPCs exist in video games. They refer to their peers simply as ‘society‘, implying that anyone else is not part of society, and so effectively doesn’t exist.

Anna’s story is a tragedy: married to a bureaucrat she didn’t choose, she leaves him for the charming Count Vronsky. Since their love is extramarital, she is shunned by her very-Catholic peers. She is forced to spend her days in exile at her summer home, with virtually none of her friends willing to see her.

Since Anna can’t live in society, she spirals toward destruction and ultimately suicide. Russia’s classes are so separate, so striated, that the thought of existing outside of society never crossed her mind. To her, it would be the same as not existing at all, the fate she ultimately chose.

Anna’s concept of upper-class society has such distance from “regular” Russians because it is based on old-world ideas of nobility. Members may hold jobs, but they must be purely ceremonial, never involving actual work. They must be able to move easily between Russian, English, and French, as the characters often do. And if they do anything perceived as un-Christian, they will be excommunicated.

To Anna, class in Russia is a trait, not a state, and it would never cross anyone’s mind to consider how they might change classes, other than to fall out of society and perish.


Levin is also a member of society, but his relationship to it is different.

Whereas Anna lives in Moscow, Levin lives on a large country estate. He owns the estate’s vast farmlands by inheritance and lives comfortably off of the backs of his hired farmhands. However, unlike Anna, who would never need to interact with Russia’s “peasant” class, Levin speaks and works alongside them every day. Although he pays them a peasant wage and is often frustrated by them, he also dines with them, tries to learn from their working habits and religion, and even experiments with farmer co-op models to share profits with them. These ventures into the peasant class’ world largely fail for Levin, but he’s painted as better off for engaging with them.

Tolstoy contrasts Levin’s capitalistic-but-genuine relationship to the peasant class with his peers’ completely detached, patronizing one. When stately Levin’s brother, Koznyshov, visits, Tolstoy’s passage could easily pass as a dig at today’s so-called liberal elite. It’s worth repeating in full:

Koznyshov’s attitude to “the people” also rather irritated Levin. Koznyshov said that he knew and was fond of “the people” and used often to talk with the peasants, something he knew how to do well, naturally and without affectation, and from every such talk he deduced facts favourable to the peasants as proof of how well he knew them.

Levin disliked such an attitude to “the people”. For Levin, the people were the main partner in his – and their – common work and, despite all his respect for the peasants and deep affectation for them (which, as he used to say himself, he had probably imbibed with his peasant wet nurse’s milk), as a partner with them in the common task he was sometimes full of admiration for their strength, meekness and sense of fairness but very often, whenever that common task required other qualities, exasperated by them for their thoughtlessness, slowliness, drunkenness and lying.

If he were asked whether he liked “the people”, Levin would certainly not know what to reply. He liked and disliked “the people” just as he did all mankind. Being a naturally kind person he liked people, and therefore “the people”, more than he disliked them. But he could not like or dislike “the people” as if it was a thing apart, not only because he lived with “the people”, not because all his interests were bound up with “the people”, but because he considered himself one of “the people”, did not perceive any qualifies or defects which distinguished himself from “the people” and could not differentiate between himself and “the people”.

[…] With Koznyshov it was the other way around. Just as he liked and praised country life as distinct from the life he did not like, so he liked “the people” as distinct from the category of individuals that he did not like and thought of “the people” as something distinct from men in general. In his methodical brain, the life of “the people” had assumed clear and definite forms, deduced partly from folk life but mainly from contrasting comparisons. He never changed his opinion about “the people” or his sympathetic attitude to it.

Like Anna, Levin considers class to be an unchangeable trait, not a state. But unlike Anna, who views that trait as a definitive part of one’s character, Levin sees it as an economic classification only, and one that belies greater wisdom. He resents those who apply class more prescriptively to people’s social circumstance.

Overall, Tolstoy paints a picture of a society unnecessarily divided by a rigid class system. Anna refuses to cross classes and pays the ultimate price. Levin seeks kinship with them, and finds peace by the book’s final passage:

“My life now, the whole of my life, irrespective of anything that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has an indubitable meaning of goodness with which it is in my power to invest in it.”

White Tiger

White Tiger (2021)

Whereas Anna Karenina tried to paint a full picture of Russia’s class system, Netflix’s recent release White Tiger focused more acutely on India’s lower class.

One reviewer called it a “brutal corrective to Slumdog Millionaire” for its cynical approach to India’s social hierarchy. In my own consumption, it was also a corrective for the striated perspective that Anna Karenina offered about class.

Slumdog Millionaire viewed class similarly to Anna Karenina: there is a rich class, and a poor class, and they typically don’t interact. Slumdog was a lighthearted journey of one poor boy who became rich, but it’s telling that it took something as otherworldly as winning a game show to cross the class chasm.

White Tiger tells a darker story about the relationship between classes. In its telling, the poor and rich classes interact constantly, and the poor are so heavily oppressed and manipulated by the rich that they’re conditioned to servitude.

In Anna Karenina, the classes are two roads that never meet. In White Tiger, there’s only one road; the rich drove it first and left spike strips behind. They drive this home with their motif of the rooster coop:

White Tiger screenplay excerpt

India’s classes have their roots in the hereditary caste system. But according to the protagonist Balram, castes don’t matter like they used to. What matters is one’s ability to take advantage of others instead of getting taken advantage of.

White Tiger screenplay excerpt

There is, however, an optimistic upshot to White Tiger‘s narrative. The very idea that the upper class needs to push down the lower class implies class mobility – if it weren’t for all the turgid machinations from above and thoughtless compliance from below, the lower class would rise up from poverty and release their shackles of servitude to the upper class. This is why the rooster coop motif is so tragic – they don’t.

Balram’s story is the thrill-ride of one Indian who does break through. By the end of the movie, he runs a wildly successful driver-for-hire company.

To get do it, he needs to be ruthless, cunning, and savvy. But he ultimately does get there and he brings his friends and family along with him.

No wonder this is the Indian story that Netflix picked up to westernize – it’s an utterly capitalistic take on class structure. To White Tiger, your class defines your social standing and economic position, but a talented enough person can rise above it.

Bobos in Paradise

Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper class and How They Got There (2001)

Whereas White Tiger focuses on the lower class and their struggles to break free, Bobos in Paradise focuses on the upper class’ struggles for self-reconciliation (similar to Levin).

Reading the book 20 years after it was published, I was struck by how well Brooks’ critique of the upper class stood the test of time. Brooks’ “comic sociology” walks us through a half-decade of American classism to define the present day.

Before the 1960s, upper-class America was dominated by WASPs. Although the WASPs had some noble qualities, such as a keen sense of religious, patriotic, and familial duty, they were ultimately exclusionary. To be upper-class meant to be from the right family, go to the right (literal) old boy’s club, have the right skin colour, be the right gender. Brooks uses the New York Time’s weddings pages to paint the picture of what society paid attention to in the 1950s:

As you read through the weddings page of that time, sentences jump out to you that wold never be found on today’s weddings page: “She is descended from Richard Warren, who came to Brookhaven in 1664. Her husband, a descendant of Dr. Benjamin Treadwell, who settled in Old Westbury in 1767, is an alumnus of Gunnery School and a senior at Colgate University”.
Even the captions would be unthinkable today: “Mrs. Peter J. Belton, who was Nancy Stevens.” (The Times would only use that past tense caption today for people who have had sex change operations.)

In the 1960s, a variety of forces lead to the opening of post-secondary schools to women and non-white people. As a larger population got access to education, they used their intellectual capital to reject the cultural norms that the WASPs established:

At its core the cultural radicalism of the sixties was a challenge to conventional notions of success. It was not only a political effort to dislodge the establishment from the seats of power. It was a cultural effort by the rising members of the priveleged classes to destroy whatever prestige still attached to the WASP lifestyle and the WASP moral code, and to replace the old order with a new social code that would celebrate spiritual and intellectual ideals.

[…] The educated baby boomers of the 1960s wanted to take the things that the Protestant elite regarded as high status and make them low status.

This was the Bohemian legacy of the 1960s: a primacy on education, free thought, self-expression, and a rejection of income as status.

In the 1960s and 70s, it seemed like this movement would grow the divergence between education and wealth. The educated class had no social interest or economic opportunity to become rich, and the rich didn’t feel the need for highbrow education. However, in the 1980s the “information age” began and college graduates saw outsized opportunities to make substantial wealth.

In 1980 … college graduates earned roughly 35 percent more than high school graduates. But by the mid-1990s, college graduates were earning 70 percent more than high school graduates, an those with graduate degrees were earning 90 percent more. The wage value of a college degree had doubled in 15 years.

[…] Many of the members of the educated elite didn’t go out hungry for money. But money found them.

This lead to the re-introduction of Bourgeoisie tastes into the American educated upper class:

When they were poor students, money was solid. […] They could sort of feel how much money they had, the way you can feel a pile of change in your pocket.

But as they became more affluent, money turned into liquid. It flows into the bank account in a prodigious stream. And it flows outward just as quickly.

This unification of Bohemian social ideals with Bourgeoisie income levels lead to what I believe still makes up much of the present-day upper class: the Bobos.

This “unification” is an inherent contradiction. Bobos are constantly wrestling with it:

One is struck by how much of their time is spent earnestly wrestling with the conflict between their reality and their ideals. They grapple with the trade-offs between equality and privilege (“I believe in public school, but the private school just seems better for my kids!”), between convenience and social responsibility (“These disposable diapers are an incredible waste of resources, but they are so easy”), between rebellion and convention (“I know I did plenty of drugs in high school, but I tell my kids to “Just Say No”).

But the biggest tension, to put it in the grandest terms, is between worldly success and inner virtue. How do you move ahead in life without letting ambition wither your soul? […] How do you live at the top of society without becoming an insufferable snob?

Brook’s book is filled with hilarious examples of Bobo contradictions (“It’s decadent to spend $10,000 on an outdoor jacuzzi, but if you’re not spending twice that on an oversized slate shower stall, it’s a sign you probably haven’t learned to appreciate the simple rhythms in life”). I’ll pull just one more here, since I think it stands up particularly well with today’s tech-revved upper class:

The Reconcilers
These educated elites don’t despair in the face of such challenges. They are the Résumé Gods. They’re the ones who aced their SATs and succeeded in giving up Merlot during pregnancy. […] When faced with a tension between competiting values, they do what any smart priveleged person bursting with cultural capital would do. They find a way to have both.

[…] The grand achievement of the educated elites in the 1990s was to create a way of living that lets you be an affluent success and at the same time a free-spirit rebel. Founding design firms, they find a way to be an artist and still qualify for stock options. Building gourmet companies like Ben & Jerrys, they’ve found a way to be dippy hippies and multinational corporate fat cats. […] Turning university towns like Princeton and Palo Alto into entrepreneurial centers, they have reconciled the highbrow with the high tax bracket. Dressing like Bill Gates in worn chinos on his way to a stockholder’s meeting, they’ve reconciled undergradudate fashion with upper-crust occupations.

Marx told us that classes inevitably conflict, but sometimes they just blur.

Brooks’ overarching message is to point out the different elements that comprise what we call ‘class’: economic status, occupation, interests, peer group. Normally, those elements are rigid and related. But they don’t have to be, and America’s new upper class has created a transformation in class values that is both admirable and absurd.

Unifying Ideas of Class

I’ve had a few takeaways from reflecting on these stories of class.

The first is that class mobility is incredibly important for a healthy society. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary take, but it’s worth mentioning. Anna (and her society) couldn’t fathom downward mobility and she died for it. Balram moved into the upper class, but it shouldn’t have taken the pathology that it did to sift through the oppression. The Bobos moved into the upper class, and though they are at times absurd, they’re ultimately a more caring, inclusive upper class than their old WASP predecessors.

The second is that class mobility is destructive. That’s not necessarily bad, but it is true. Anna Karenina‘s idle discussion of peasant relations is written in the shadow of the coming Russian Revolution. The Russian aristocracy wasn’t willing to change even a tiny bit, and that lead to a much more dramatic class deconstruction. The modern Indian upper class of White Tiger leaned on old caste conventions for compliance, and when people like Balram grew in influence, they exposed their fraudulence but also co-opted it. The Bobos wiped away everything toxic about WASP elitism, but they also wiped away their sense of unity around a greater purpose, leaving a generation more lost than ever.

The last is that like most taxonomies, class is better understood through its subdivisions. To discuss an “upper class” or “lower class” (or “the people”) is essentially nonsense. But by discussing class in terms of education (“the Résumé Gods”), consumption (“Big Bellies”), or social standing (society), we can learn a lot about how people perceive themselves and others.

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