Criticism of excessive wealth and the wealthy has been a staple of political discourse for generations and many believe that societal imbalances in wealth should be reduced or done away with. A common rebuttal to these arguments is that the antagonism that the poor feel towards the wealthy is not based upon any repression or unfairness, but rather upon envy. This argument states that the poorer members of society attack the rich and their privileges because they are envious of the wealth and success the upper classes enjoy. Thus the final culmination of this argument is that the criticisms of class imbalances are based upon nothing more than envy and they should not be credited by any clear thinking individual.
This debate over wealth is often a political one with left wing groups denigrating the wealthy and right wing groups accusing them of class envy. The term class envy is used by many conservative institutions such as the Wall Street Journal and the British Tory Party. The term is not generally directed at the poor themselves, but rather at groups that are viewed as trying to encourage or take advantage of class envy such as liberal media outlets or leftist political parties.
Use of the word envy in the phrase class envy instead of a word like resentment, or jealousy is what working class activists feel is pejorative about this phrase, since envy means not only resentment, but also desire to attain the advantage held by the resented party. In other words class envy means the working class group accused of class envy not only resent the ruling class, which most working class activists would concede, but that they desire to be in a ruling class over a working class. What this idea neglects is that it is possible that a worker doesn't want to get rid of his working class status within capitalism, but wants to get rid of capitalism itself as a system, just as economic systems like slavery and feudalism were gotten rid of. If all workers had an equal relationship to the means of production in this view, there would be nothing to be envious of.
Elements of the phenomena exist in many cultures - for example, the persistent Australian myth of the "dole bludger," one who avoids work and lives on the wealth of others. Another Australian example would be the "tall poppy syndrome" where any successful individual is destroyed by their social group as success is believed to come from dishonesty. There is also much evidence of shadenfreude, delight in the suffering of others, when the others are wealthy and successful. A recent example of this is the delight taken by many in the legal troubles of Martha Stewart.
Despite these real examples of class envy it is still a term strictly used in polemical discourse, not in academic or analytical works. Unlike similar notions such as class consciousness there is no theoretical underpinning ot the idea of class envy. In large part this has to do with the fact that those who advocate it also criticize the very notion of class.
The term class warfare is often used in a similar manner by similar groups to class envy, but it is even more dramatic.