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By all measures we live in an era defined by profound inequality. Most recently, while millions of Americans lost their jobs and became poorer during the pandemic, U.S. billionaires became $1.8 trillion richer. Rachel Sherman, Professor of Sociology at The New School, has long been interested in how the wealthy make sense of these disparities. In her book Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (Princeton University Press, 2017) she found that affluent New Yorkers legitimated their privilege by invoking discourses of hard work, reasonable consumption, “giving back,” and generally not acting (or feeling) “entitled.” Her current research focuses on wealthy people who are instead actively challenging their privilege and working to dismantle the very systems that enable their social and economic advantages. In a paper recently published in Sociologica, Professor Sherman draws on interviews she conducted with 90 “class traitors” (as some of her respondents call themselves), ranging in age from 19 to 81. Mostly white, and primarily, though not exclusively, inheritors of wealth, they pursue the redistribution of money and power in a range of ways. Through organizations such as Resource Generation (which brings together wealthy people ages 18–35) and Patriotic Millionaires, they advocate for higher taxes, move significant portions of their resources to grassroots organizing and investment, and challenge narratives of meritocracy as well as the cultural taboo of not talking publicly about money. These redistributive actions clash against the “common sense” idea that accumulation is the basis for good personhood.
Guillermina Altomonte [GA]: How did you come to study these “class traitors?”
Rachel Sherman [RS]: I come from a mixed class family, so I had personal familiarity with some of these progressive wealthy people already. And then I came across some of these organizations, particularly Resource Generation, through the research for Uneasy Street. And I thought that was an interesting case because it was so counterintuitive to have wealthy people questioning the system through which they have been accumulating wealth, especially since I had just written a whole book about people who were pretty deeply invested in legitimating their own wealth, even though they had relatively liberal politics.
GA: Right, a lot of the people you interviewed in your previous book had a fairly deep awareness of their privilege. What distinguishes them from the people you’re studying now?
RS: I think one difference is, even the progressive people in Uneasy Street who would be like, “Yes, I totally recognize that I’m privileged” and understand they have more than other people—even those people typically drew on these kinds of good person narratives. On the one hand, they know that they’re privileged and they’re often uncomfortable with that. But they’re still—unthinkingly, for the most part—reaching for rhetorics of hard work and reasonable consumption, not being ostentatious, raising good children, being nice people—you know, the whole thing about not being entitled. Organizations [in this new research] challenge the idea that if you work, you deserve a lot. And if you’re modest and nice about your money and you’re not rude to the waiter and so on, that everything is fine. [These organizations] are explicitly calling out those kinds of rhetorics.
But then there’s another question: What does it take to be a class traitor? There’s a wide range of what people can do to be included in this field, in the way I conceptualize it. One approach is to say, “Well, I have ten million dollars, but I don’t think anybody should have a hundred million dollars, and therefore I’m going to advocate for people to be taxed at levels higher than ten million.” And then there’s people who are like, “I want to give away every last penny that I’ve inherited from my family.” There’s a huge range. That gets to what you were asking, about the difference from the people that I interviewed for Uneasy Street: what do you have to actually do to be a class traitor? Are you allowed to just say, “Oh, I’m rich and I feel bad about it”? No. I am trying to look at people who are speaking more openly and more critically, or being public about being wealthy people, as well as people who are doing counterintuitive things with significant amounts of money. One of those things is giving a lot of money to social justice philanthropy, which tends to be more grassroots-oriented, as well as social justice or alternative investing that is really taking money out of public equities and bond markets and putting it into solidarity economies—investing at much lower returns, not caring about accumulation. And in philanthropy, these people are giving away way bigger proportions of their money than typically they would do or be counseled to do.
GA: What does redistribution mean for these people?
RS: There are two different ways of thinking about it. The more conventional one is that the state needs more money. When I presented on this work in an academic setting a couple of years ago, all the other academics were like, “Well, obviously everybody just needs to pay higher taxes.” This idea is that the state is the redistributor—the democratic state is the instantiation of the collective. The other way is more grassroots: local support for local solidarity economies and movements. Lots of people I’ve talked to believe that both of those things are worth pursuing. It’s just that some people are a little bit more involved in supporting movements, and some people are more in a policy place, but those are the two main routes.
GA: Can you say more about the other piece of what makes these people interesting for you—their speaking more openly and more critically about being wealthy?
RS: Talking about money is relatively taboo in the U.S. in general, and among rich people especially. Many people that I interviewed for Uneasy Street never talked about it with anybody, certainly not outside their families. Talking about money, like saying “I’m rich,” or “Here’s how much my salary is,” is for the most part not done. In addition to that, a lot of progressive wealthy people who are involved in social movement spaces are particularly invested in hiding their wealthy identity, because it’s not cool to be rich and have lefty politics. So there is a process that some call “coming out” about money (although it’s controversial now to use that kind of language, because it implies an analogy to LGBTQ+ people that may not be appropriate). This means being more public about it—both recognizing openly that they have it and actually having conversations with other people in their lives about it. And beginning to talk about it as a way of organizing other people, typically in their families. We know that there are lots of young inheritors who never talked about money growing up—both because of the general taboo and because their parents are trying to cultivate this “good personhood” that they imagine can be ruined by knowing details about money. For them to turn to their parents, typically their fathers, and say, “I want to understand how much money there is,” can be very transgressive. I think that silence and these cultural norms about money normalize that amount of inequality that we have. It is a radical act just to identify your own class position and talk about the fact that there is inequality and that you, a rich person, benefit from that.
Another important reason people don’t want to talk about money is that recognizing that you have money can make you feel like a bad person. The analogy to whiteness, I think, is apt: white people often reject structural racism or white supremacy as a social phenomenon, because it makes them feel like, “oh, but then I did something wrong. And therefore I’m guilty of something.” And I think that another counterintuitive but really important thing that is happening in both antiracist and “class traitor” progressive spaces is explicitly challenging that and saying that just because you benefit from an unfair system does not make you a bad person. It’s okay to say “I come from a wealthy family” or “I have access to this money.” The important thing is figuring out what you’re going to do about it.
GA: You just mentioned how transgressive it is to talk openly about money in families and the backlash some people get. What other obstacles and affective challenges do these practices bring up for your respondents?
RS: There are a number of different obstacles. One is the taken-for-grantedness of accumulation as the way to think about money. And it’s not just like a rich people thing, but a more general idea, that accumulating money is good. It sort of goes back to the Protestant ethic: the good people are the people who have worked hard and the sign of having worked hard is having money. There’s a whole moral piece of it. It’s a measure of success, especially for men, but for everybody, too. For example, the job of financial advisers is to help their clients accumulate money. When their clients come and say, “I would like to accumulate less money,” they don’t know what to do. It also means they will get paid less, and it’s just completely against their own understanding of themselves as successful people and of their work as being beneficial.
In terms of the familial stuff, talking to your family about money in a way that’s like “we don’t deserve this money” often goes really against the parents or anyone who’s accumulated it. So the parents feel judged when the kid says, “I don’t want this money.” The parent is like, “I’ve been trying to accumulate this money because I thought that was a good thing to do and a good way to be a man and a good way to be a father or a mother or a parent, like you want to protect your kid against the vicissitudes of life and you want them to feel secure. And now you’re telling me I’m a bad person for having done that?” Which is not usually what the adult child is saying. But I think it challenges the self-conception of the parents.
GA: So if these people are actively challenging these ties between wealth and hard work and worth, where do they locate their sense of worth?
RS: Part of what people have to do is overcome their negative feelings about having money in order to occupy this kind of new identity as a progressive wealthy person. Those two things are not an identity option in the world. It’s like, you’re progressive so of course you’re not wealthy, or you’re wealthy so of course you’re not progressive. They’re trying to bring those two things together. The way they create worth is precisely by taking redistributive action. If you are benefiting from a system that is unfair and unjust, you’re not a bad person because you benefit from that system, but you have a moral responsibility to work against that system and to work against it is what makes you a good person.
There’s an interesting tension about paid work because I think most people in Resource Generation, and older people too, think that paid work is good for your individual sense of self and that people who are wealthy enough to not have to work often feel really terrible about themselves. And so there’s a kind of advocacy for working, but at the same time we also have this critique of racial capitalism and the conditions under which workers work. So to what extent are you legitimating that by advocating for redistribution? I think working still does offer a sense of moral gratification or sense of moral worth, but in this kind of more critical frame.
GA: You identify these different paths to making change in the world. Do your interviewees name this change in a way that’s more recognizable? Does the word socialism ever come up?
RS: I would say that some of the older people would want more of a welfare state capitalism. They feel like we’re so far away from a state that takes care of anybody that just achieving that would be huge. Among the mostly younger, but not only younger, more radical people, there’s definitely less of a specific answer to that question. They’ll say, “I want to live in a world where everybody has what they need to thrive”—meaning housing, education, meaningful work, relationships, community. But there’s no prescriptive thing about that. Partly because it’s really hard to envision that, like what would that really be? That is where the state vision and the grassroots vision come into conflict. Because when you have to imagine how that society works, it’s a much more utopian question and, for that reason, less specific in how you get there or how it’s organized politically.
GA: I guess there’s a generational story here as well, right? To what extent do you think this overlaps with youth?
RS: Yes, there is a youth story here. The younger people in Resource Generation are way more likely to say, “I’m going to give away every last penny.” Most of them don’t do that, but they are more likely to consider it seriously and take actions that older people would find unacceptably risky. They also tend to believe in the more radical kinds of social change that start with local grassroots, not by going through the state. I think a lot of people in their twenties don’t have any memory of any kind of redistributive state in the U.S. And they’re earlier in their lives, so they have less thinking about security than you have when you’re older. But I think that this is spreading to older people too. I just interviewed a couple who are around 60 and have wealth over $50 million and are going to redistribute all of it during their lifetime. They’re leaving a very minimal portion to their children, and they’ve created a fund through which the money will be dispersed, not by them, but by people of color. So they’re giving away the decision-making power too—which is a huge piece of this work, and something else you don’t see in liberal philanthropy. I think that this is going to start happening more, especially because people now have such massive fortunes. Nobody needs fifty million or a hundred million dollars. There’s no defense of it on the basis of having a need. As liberal, progressive people become more aware of some of the practices of white supremacy, and alternative philanthropy becomes a bit more disseminated, I think that you’re going to start seeing more people doing stuff like this.
Guillermina Altomonte is a sociologist and a Postdoctoral Fellow at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service.
Rachel Sherman (she/her) is Professor and Chair of Sociology at the New School. She conducts research and teaches in the areas of social inequalities, labor, culture, social movements, and qualitative methods. She is especially interested in cultural legitimations of, and challenges to, class inequality. She is the author of Class Acts: Service and Inequality in Luxury Hotels (California, 2007) and Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence (Princeton, 2017). Her current book in progress, funded by an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, is titled Class Traitors, and focuses on wealthy progressives trying to change the systems that benefit them economically.