In 2011, higher-ups at the pharmaceutical distribution giant AmerisourceBergen amused themselves by circulating an email poking fun at some of their customers. It adapted the Beverly Hillbillies theme song to the intensifying opioid crisis, with new lyrics imagining “Jed, a poor mountaineer” who “barely kept his habit fed” driving a crew of Appalachian “Pillbillies” across state lines to stock up on “Hillbilly Heroin” at unscrupulous pain clinics.
In AmerisourceBergen’s corporate offices, working-class drug consumption habits weren’t merely a source of entertainment but a matter of professional interest. The company is one of the nation’s top distributors of drugs like OxyContin, and it’s alleged, in multiple state lawsuits, to have worked directly with pill mills — what the parody lyrics called “cash ‘n carry” clinics — to increase opioid sales. Executives and team leaders also referred to “hillbillies” and “pillbillies” in ordinary business-related correspondence.
These emails, presented at trial in opioid-ravaged West Virginia earlier this year, earned the company bad press in the Washington Post and other mainstream outlets. Social media onlookers condemned the corporate culture at AmerisourceBergen as distasteful, ugly, classist.
“Classism” isn’t exactly a household term, but it has its partisans. It describes an array of social practices linked to offensive attitudes that are, as the AmerisourceBergen episode illustrates, real and common. Anyone who’s been privy to the casual conversations of the rich knows how pervasive class prejudice is, and everyone else can easily imagine it. That makes “classism” a tempting addition to our rhetorical arsenal.
But the word also has disadvantages, chief among them an emphasis on insult over injury. At best, it functions as a convenient shorthand for social oppression. At worst, though, “classism” mystifies the nature of capitalist domination and elicits solutions that clean up economic elites’ image without interrupting the process of exploitation that gives them power.
Talk of classism is primarily initiated by conscientious liberals who are repulsed by epithets like “pillbillies” and earnestly want all forms of bigotry and negative stereotyping to end. Their natural inclination is to add “working-class” to the list of identities that should be respected and celebrated.
But class is not primarily an identity. While capitalist society does boast distinct class cultures, they rest on a material foundation, not an ideological one. All pride, shame, and disrespect aside, the fact is that a small minority owns nearly all of society’s productive assets. This situation produces a highly unequal relationship between that minority and everyone else who has to sell their labor to capitalists — always for less than it’s worth, the difference being kept as profit — in order to survive.
On top of this direct exploitation, many capitalists line their coffers by preying on workers, taking advantage of the externalities created by the foundational dynamic. They include corporate landlords, health insurance providers, and pharmaceutical distributors like AmerisourceBergen that intentionally place products in regions already distressed by outsourcing and austerity, where the working class is especially susceptible to drug abuse.
Class attitudes arise from the exploitation at the heart of capitalism and the material inequalities it perpetuates, not the other way around. For various political and psychological reasons, the wealthy minority seeks both private affirmation and public justification for its domination of the working-class majority, which gives rise to all kinds of nauseating ideas about its inherent superiority. But these are just rationalizations — class domination is happening under capitalism regardless of people’s impressions of one another.
Theoretically, we could make all outward expressions of class prejudice taboo, but many wealthy people would probably still harbor private biases that justify their advantages. Even if we could somehow instill in the hearts and minds of all elites a genuine respect for everyone else, such superior values can never be realized as long as private ownership continues to serve as the basis of our economy.
Imagine that AmerisourceBergen executives learned to keep a lid on their bigoted opinions. Now imagine, more fancifully, that the company was able to actually root out deep-seated class bias through educational seminars and hiring initiatives focused on recruiting people from working-class backgrounds. (Indeed, some firms in the rapidly growing cottage industry of corporate diversity include trainings on class prejudice in their programming.)
If the corporate culture were thus transformed but the business model remained the same, there would be fewer crass emails, but outcomes for executives and consumers would not meaningfully change. That’s because AmerisourceBergen doesn’t exist to realize its executives’ cultural values. Like all corporations, it exists to generate profit. Its activities throughout the opioid crisis don’t derive from executives’ desire to hurt and humiliate people of a lower social rank, but from the company’s rigid mandate to produce maximum value for a long list of shareholders including BlackRock, Vanguard, and JPMorgan Chase.
Respect is always desirable, but it’s a far more modest goal than equality. We shouldn’t limit our ambitions to better decorum in the face of class difference. Instead, we must understand class as a form of difference that should not, and need not, exist at all.