One of the most oppressive aspects of many economic systems has been the manipulation of masses to sympathize with ruling elites. This essay explores the curious social phenomenon in which those who objectively are the least needy often receive the most attention.
In the 1952 classic The old man and the Sea, the author Hemmingway portrays a protagonist that tumbles from one life threatening experience at sea to the other. Interestingly, the fictional character drew strength from now and then reminding himself that his suffering is nothing compared to some injury that his favorite baseball player DiMaggio once had. Jumping to the present, in 2023 many became temporarily aware of the mechanism of ‘upward sympathy’ when another vehicle got lost at sea. During the early summer, media attention zoomed in on a small group of ultra-wealthy adventures who got lost in a submarine near the titanic. While enormous resources were poured into the ultimately unsuccessful rescue, a significant part of the audience would remark on the cynical quantity of coverage this received while elsewhere migrants were also dying by the hundreds at sea.
In this essay I will explore the phenomena of upwards sympathy, and in particular how we are tricked to care about the problems of rich people as if they were our own. I will first introduce the topic in more detail, before reflecting on why this might happen and what consequences it could have for society. The one exception to my argument will be situations in which rich and/or famous people thankfully draw our attention to problems that actually are or could be our problems, such as Hollywood actors protesting against artificial intelligence destroying their jobs.
We must consider the phenomenon of upward sympathy for the rich as one side of a coin, the other being a widespread disdain for the poor. In this essay I will focus on the former side, leaving the other broader topic for another time – after all, the poor also routinely lose the bid for sympathy to animals and sometimes even robots.
People have an interesting capacity to connect to the drama of privileged groups. Maybe the best example of this is the worldwide fandom for the British Royal house. Coming from a kingdom myself, I always found it strange that so many people are emotionally connected to royals that are not theirs. Yet an impressive amount of my Mexican students still have strong opinions on the details of ‘Lady Di’s death, and millions of people apparently sympathize enough with Harry’s ‘struggle’ of only being a prince to have bought his book.
But why? One reason why we pay attention to elites in the first place is out of aspiration and ambition. I have written before about the sanctification of the ultra-wealthy, which is part of the neoliberal agenda to cement capitalists as not just the economic and political, but also social and cultural leaders of society. Deep down, we are interested in their lives because we want to be like them. While I have no fantasies of being a princess, even old Leftist like myself would not mind having a bit more money. This leads to people trying to find the secrets in the biographies of the privileged and lucky (spoiler: it is being privileged and lucky). This identification also makes us take over their perspective, as in the anecdote that a friend once told me about his CEO demanding the staff to read a biography of Elon Musk to be motivated. For a minority of young spiritual people this sympathy is even imperative, as they fear collecting ‘bad karma’ or ‘negative energy’ if they would not sympathize with the successful, which would hinder their own ambition.
Besides aspiration, humans also possess a capacity to find some surplus enjoyment in the life and activities of others, as is evident from reality TV or the porn industry as a whole. Or to paraphrase the ever hungry Sancho Panza in Don Quixote: I like the rich, they always have enough to eat.
A more materialistic reason is that elites directly and indirectly control the media, and thus have more resources to steer attention towards their grievances. Media coverage in general tends to pay more attention to wealthier groups and countries, and wealthy individuals have various online platforms (or even whole applications) of their own. It is rare to see inhabitants of marginalized neighborhoods holding a press conference about their broken roads, but citizens will quickly learn what their local capitalist leaders think of policy changes. While media scholars might be able to tell if this is connected, it is a fact that many media (soaps, movies, reality TV, etc.) productions focus on high or upper-middle class individuals and families. This initial advantage further accumulates, as the exposure of for example singers or royalty generates narratives and further popular interest. This in turn generates further commercial interest in narrating the ‘struggles’ of Kanye West with this or that clothing company or minority.
All of this matters, because it creates what the late anthropologist David Graeber called ‘lopsided structures of imagination’, which means that we far better understand the life of the powerful than they understand ours. Just like woman typically know and think more about men than the other way around, workers know more about their superiors and citizens more about their governors, with the latter often being painfully ignorant of the life of common people. This matters, since it is easier to exploit, stigmatize or forget faceless groups than it is to vilify those we understand. We have to add the former effect to the dangerous subconscious tendency to conflate good (and bad) characteristics, where the good and the beautiful and the just are all the same. If somebody is so important or wealthy, they must have done something right, whether it is being a great person or having gods favor – or ‘positive energy’ as the kids call it these days.
If we look further at the real world consequences of the phenomenon, the tendency of certain common people to defend the interests of elites stands out. The poor catching argumentative or real bullets for the rich is a constant in history, also in the internet age. This is for example visible in debates on taxation, where people will defend tax cuts for the rich either out of sympathy or out of aspiration – after all, things must be easy for us once we defy the impossible odds of becoming rich. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels already remarked in 1848 that many people defend the right to private property, despite that ninety percent of society didn’t have and never would have any meaningful property. Today those material conditions have improved in some parts of the world, but aspirational ideology has only enlarged the tragedy in class consciousness: people perceive themselves as not-rich-yet rather than middle or working class.
A further (perhaps sought) consequence of our focus on the worries of the rich is that we tend to forget or twist our own problems. This is for example visible in the struggle of feminism, where issues like the ‘glass ceiling’ (the low level of participation of woman in elite functions) garner a lot of attention, despite being irrelevant to the lives of the vast majority of working woman. Issues that would materially strongly impact woman such as pensions are often ignored in the media in favor of ‘be the CEO that your parents want to you marry’ messaging.
Aspirational sympathy also makes us ignore our present conditions in favor of our desired ones. This is for example visible in the acceptance of overwork in the light of the prospect of unlikely social mobility, which in societies like Mexico or South-Korea became increasingly normalized despite being detrimental to family life. The shadow side of a visible love for the rich can become an invisible hate of the self.
In general, ‘upward sympathy’ stops sociopolitical change, as is visible in the survival of for example European monarchies on sympathy alone. The manipulation of sympathy is one of the counter-revolutionary forces of our times, both mentally conditioning people to not resist and decreasing horizontal solidarity amongst the oppressed.
Given this is an old problem that is only enlarged by modern technology, the solution is not evident. One historical counter to the sanctification of elites has been satire, a cultural genre which is luckily still in good health. I believe that people are deep down aware of the issues discussed in this essay, as they are more a matter of manipulation that a genuine love for elites. Let us at least not make them our only heroes.
Decreasing or at least becoming more aware of this ‘upward sympathy’ is also one part of the puzzle to improve the conditions of those on the downside of society. I have pleaded in various writings for paying the historical debt many societies have towards the poor, and as a sociologist I am obsessed with understanding the social and cultural conditions for generating such sympathy. Yet working in a deeply classist society, I want to close this essay with a more humble proposal: to decouple the struggle of the middle class from aspiration. We overemphasize social mobility (being like the rich) as an unrealistic solution to the very real problems that working and middle class people experience. We must first establish that it is ‘ok’ to be (lower)middle class in itself, before we can take many of their problems (housing or work-family balance for example) serious. Similarly, working class households deserve solutions such as salary increases or social security coverage as working class households, not only after reaching social mobility.