By: Grace Hillery
Art by: Sophie Williams
Sitting in the Philadelphia airport at 4 am, surrounded by people that had been strangers just a couple days earlier, fragmented pieces of my world view began to slip together. High off sleep deprivation, slipping in and out of phases of euphoric spells of intense laughter, we dissected the role of class within our lives, our education, and our roles within the broader climate justice movement that had brought us together.
We were on our way back from the Sunrise Movement’s national leadership convention when our flight was grounded in Philadelphia. A collection of seven organizers brought together by the same movement, we were all from different places, had different backgrounds, and had different experiences that radicalized us. It was in the delirium that followed two all-nighters in the span of four days that I was finally able to comprehend the way capital hurts those with class privilege, not just the working class.
It was through understanding the lack of community wealth breeds that I was able to start to realize the dehumanizing effect of capital. I heard stories of upper-middle-class people, people who had dedicated their time and energy to the movement, but who often felt out of place by the status their class privilege gave them. They were unable to identify with those possessing obscene amounts of wealth, trust-fund children who’ve never worked a day in their lives and who live in a reality completely oblivious to the struggles of the working class, yet at the same time, they often felt out of place and unable to connect with the shared struggle and solidarity of their working-class peers. Through this realization, I have grown to notice and appreciate the solidarity I have with working-class people in ways I was previously blind to.
Although race, gender, sexuality, and physical ability all play significant roles in how we interact with the world, these identities are all shaped by and built upon a foundation of class. It is through the lens of class that I view the world, how I interact with it, and how I approach activism. This lens however, often turns the world black and white, where everything is a war on the working class, and as such as I fight the daily battle of class struggle I lose my ability to empathize with those with class privilege. This lens, if unchecked, clouds my vision and prevents me from visualizing the ways wealth hurts not only those who don’t have it, but those who do.
The American dream, of a happily married couple with 2.5 children who own their own home complete with a white picket fence is a relic of the past. A past where unions were still alive and well and single-income households could exist comfortably. A romanized version of the past that was once made possible in the United States through the exploitation and colonialism of marginalized communities. As such, the nuclear family is no longer accessible to the working class. Instead, working-class people have to rely on support systems beyond their nuclear family. Since any fragments of social safety nets are eroding away under the capitalist framework of our economy, we are forced to build support systems ourselves. We are forced to depend on each other to survive, and in doing so our relationships and communities are built on a foundation of compassion, empathy, and solidarity.
Several studies have documented the heightened sense of community created by class solidarity. One such study, published by the University of Pittsburgh in 2012, documented how those with the lowest income demonstrated the highest levels of care for their communities. In part, the observed heightened sense of community care could be attributed to a lack of mobility accessible to low-income people. Without the financial means to move elsewhere, low-income people are forced to build the communities they want to live in, unlike their wealthier counterparts who are able to move to places deemed more desirable.
Working-class communities are built on foundations of compassion and mutualism, but the values that tie our community together are present in the individual relationships we develop with one another. Studies have shown a clear negative correlation between possessing capital and being in tune with the emotions of others. A series of studies conducted by psychologists at Berkley found low-income people are more aware of the emotions of others and experienced higher rates of compassion compared to their wealthier counterparts. Even when other factors, including race, gender, and religious affiliation were controlled for, these conclusions remained true. Further studies observed that low-income people experienced heart rate deceleration significantly more often when interacting with others, which indicates a heightened engagement with one’s social environment on a physiological level. Essentially, this means that low-income people have been found to pay better attention to the emotions of others around them compared to wealthier individuals. Additional studies conducted at Berkley found that wealthier people were less likely to pay attention to those they were interacting with, further supporting previous findings that showed low-income people experience a heightened sense of emotional engagement with their surroundings. Ultimately, these findings indicate that working-class people objectively have a greater understanding and connection to their communities relative to those with class privilege.
Dartmouth and other elite institutions serve as an extreme example of how capital influences the foundation communities are built upon and by extension affects the development of relationships between individuals. Dartmouth at times can feel like high school, relationships often feel superficial and social climbing is rampant. Although this is often attributed to the culture created by Greek life, I would argue that class plays a part in this. At Dartmouth only 31% of students come from the bottom 80%, and only 2.6% of students come from the bottom 20%. Out of all Ivy League institutions, Dartmouth has the highest representation of students who belong to the top 1%. To put this in perspective, full tuition is guaranteed for students from families who make below $125,000 and students whose families make $200,000 dollars still qualify for aid. Despite people with class privilege still qualifying for financial assistance, only 47% percent of students receive aid. When more than one in five students come from the top one percent, it is inevitable that the foundations of Dartmouth’s culture are built on class privilege. Beyond Dartmouth as an institution just being built on a foundation of class privilege, the legacy of elite universities is one that maintains systems of class division and inequality by funneling those with class privilege into positions of power. The overrepresentation of those with class privilege within the Ivy League leads to an eroded sense of community. What fragments of community we cling to are rooted in tradition rather than genuine connection and solidarity.
As I dissect the way capitalism hurts those with wealth, I must acknowledge that it is not my job as a working-class person to rescue those with class privilege from the harm they are causing themselves by upholding the violence and oppression inherent to capitalism, I have enough jobs already. I also do not intend to minimize the harm capitalism causes working-class people. The struggle to find genuine community experienced by those with class privilege is nothing in comparison to the struggle working-class people experience as we struggle to afford the basic necessities we need to survive. Nonetheless, the psychological burden of capitalism still has a negative psychological impact on the capitalist class, even if they are shielded from the most brutal wounds inflicted by capitalism.
The criminalization of poverty places even freedom behind a paywall. Under capitalism, every one of our basic needs is accessible only if you possess capital. If you are unable to pay, you are left to fend for yourself. Everything within our society, housing, food, healthcare, education, is accessible only to those with enough capital. As a disabled person, even my ability to breathe freely has a price tag. As someone who has experienced food and housing insecurity, I have learned to push my body and mind to their limits. Capitalism strips those without sufficient capital of our humanity, it tells us we are undeserving of even our most basic needs, and blames us when we are unable to succeed within a system that is designed to oppress us. We, as working people, are the backbone of this country, of this economy, of this world. In return for our labor we are shamed, exploited, and left to die. Even death has a price tag. A price tag that often amounts to hundreds or even thousands of dollars those who care about us are burdened with. We are forced to develop community, as it is the only thing needed for human survival that isn’t locked behind a paywall. The dehumanization of the working class is embedded in every facet of capitalism, and as working people we must unite and burn capitalism to the fucking ground.
The bonds formed as a survival mechanism within working-class communities run in stark contrast to the emphasis of individualism inherent to capitalism. Therefore, we need a cultural and economic revolution to occur simultaneously as we work to undermine capitalist interests. Those with capital are taught to prioritize their own individual interests rather than those of their community. Those without capital are told to prioritize their own individual needs if they ever hope to escape from the constant struggle of working yourself to the bone just to pay the bills. Due to this culture of individualism, relationships built upon a foundation of wealth are often superficial and lack the sense of solidarity that makes the bonds developed by low-income people so strong. Piff, a physiologist from Berkley, speculated that the individualistic nature of those with wealth and their apparent absence of compassion could be attributed to the increased sense of freedom and independence created by financial safety that comes with excess wealth. Essentially, since wealthy people don’t have to depend on their communities, they are less likely to care about the feelings of those around them. Wealthy people may feel as though they are independent, but if they didn’t have workers to provide for their every need their lives would fall apart. Their sense of independence is built on their blindness to the labor and class struggle carried out by the workers who cater to their every need.
Compassion is a radical act under capitalism. To view your interests as inherently tied to those of the collective, to view yourself as a part of a larger community rather than an individual causes a radical shift in the way you perceive the world. Under a capitalist system, we are brainwashed to believe that to be human is to be inherently selfish. We are taught greed is natural. But humans are an extremely social species: without our social relationships and our ability to build community we wouldn’t have developed to our current state. We wouldn’t survive. Selfishness and greed aren’t inherently human, they are traits we are taught to adopt to survive under a capitalist system that can only flourish if we continue to view each other as competition rather than a collective. Under a system that forces competition rather than collaboration, playing into our most negative attributes: greed, selfishness, indifference, ruthlessness, aggression, are all traits that better position one to achieve what our society views as success. To succeed within capitalism, you must conform and work within its rules, and in doing so you must give up aspects of your humanity in the process.
As you read this, even if you have no interest in dedicating your time and energy to the working-class movement, consider the role class plays within your life. Why do we view those with more capital as being more successful? Why do we place billionaires and those with obscene amounts of wealth on a pedestal? Why does our society view the ultra-wealthy as mythic figures whose accumulation of capital must be a reflection of their intelligence and superiority? As working-class people, we all need to make enough money to cover our basic needs, and we all deserve to live a life free from the constant stress of struggling over how to pay our next paycheck, but this doesn’t mean we should seek to become members of the ruling class and glorify our oppressors in the process. There is a difference between seeking financial stability and pursuing a coveted position as a member of the ruling class. This might be a phenomenon overrepresented in elite private institutions, especially Dartmouth where nearly a quarter of students are economics majors and even more “liberal” departments are filled with students looking forward to a lucrative career in consulting. We need to redefine the definition of success through a community lens and cut its ties with capital, as it stands now, our capital-focused perception of success dehumanizes both those who achieve it and those who don’t.
 Ronald O. Pitner et al., “Which Factor Has More Impact? An Examination of the Effects of Income Level, Perceived Neighborhood Disorder, and Crime on Community Care and Vigilance among Low-Income African American Residents,” Race and Social Problems 5, no. 1 (December 2012): 57–64, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12552-012-9085-3, 10.1007/s12552-012-9085-3.
 Jennifer E. Stellar et al., “Class and Compassion: Socioeconomic Factors Predict Responses to Suffering,” Emotion 12, no. 3 (June 2012): 449–459, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22148992/, 10.1037/a0026508.
 Jennifer E. Stellar et al., “Class and Compassion: Socioeconomic Factors Predict Responses to Suffering.”
 “Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at Dartmouth,” New York Times, 2023, www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/dartmouth-college.
 “How Aid Works,” Dartmouth Admissions, February 2, 2018, admissions.dartmouth.edu/afford/how-aid-works#:~:text=Families%20with%20Total%20Income%20above%20%24125%2C000&text=Student%20loans%20are%20not%20included,available%20to%20use%20if%20needed.
 “Financial Aid,” Dartmouth.edu, 2023, www.dartmouth.edu/oir/data-reporting/factbook/financialaid.html.
 “Economic Diversity and Student Outcomes at Dartmouth.”
 Paul K. Piff et al., “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 11 (February 2012): 4086–4091, www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1118373109.