Monday, 3 October 2011

Is It Time To Revive The Concept Of Class?

Working in London I come into contact with a far wider range of people than was the case when in an office in a medium-size town in southern England.  There are many more opportunities, especially on public transport, for eavesdropping.  One thing that has become very apparent to me returning to London properly (i.e. being here on a sustained basis rather than for one-off visits) for the first time in over a decade is just how many universities there are.  The number of actual institutions may not be much higher than it was in the late 1990s but certainly the number of students is, and, whilst staff:student ratios may have altered, the number of lecturers and administrators must be higher.  Consequently, travelling between home and work or going out for an evening you stand a good chance of having students and even academics around you.  A lot seem to head to central London, I guess they have evening seminars, lectures, meetings and things.  As readers know, having attended university in a very different time for education and the UK as a whole, I am interested to see what is happening to them these days.  Is eavesdropping an invasion of privacy?  Some people talk so loud it would be difficult not to hear what they are saying and academics seem to get into lively debates wherever they might end up.  I suppose I should be grateful that that remains true, not least as an antidote to the 'I don't want to hear that', silo approach in which everyone seals themselves off from each other, from life itself with their ipods.

Anyway, this posting is less about the potential for interaction in academic discussion on public transport and more a debate sparked by some of this eavesdropping as well as talking with acquaintances of my own.  It seems the concept of social class is so out of fashion that anyone who writes an academic article featuring the term is very likely to have it rejected.  The term 'culture' is acceptable apparently, though I guess something like 'working class culture' would not be.  I suppose we should not be surprised.  Margaret Thatcher claimed she was 'working class' because she worked 'jolly hard' (there is interesting analysis online about how much of a Victorian she was in attitude, maybe this is what distinguishes her brand of societal destruction from that of Cameron).  She further denied that there was such a thing as society, saying there were just individuals and families.  John Major trumpeted that the UK had developed the 'classless society', though that seemed to be on the basis that under his administration middle class people started having their houses repossessed like poorer people once had.  John Prescott as deputy prime minister in 1997 claimed 'we are all middle class now', though I think that was more a comment on the styling of the Blairite New Labour than on society.  Parallel to these political developments, it is clear that universities threw out class along with the the leather patched jackets and the 'History Man' beards.  Yet, they cannot really turn their backs on it entirely as there is still the OFFA - Office of Fair Access, which seeks to have those from 'under-represented' sectors of society gain equal access to higher education; part of the deal over the increased fees is tied to supposedly widening this access.

I think a lot of the problem stems from the fact that people think Karl Marx invented class.  Consequently with Thatcher, Major, Blair and their adherents keen to make Socialism, which in some elements is based on Marxism (though it surprises some people to find there are other things like mutualism and even Christian viewpoints in the mix), a thing of the past, felt that they had to purge the UK of the very concept of class.  This shows a lack of historical knowledge or more likely a deliberate misinterpretation of it.  The Greek cities had citizens and some had helots.  The Roman Empire had slaves, freedmen (and -women) and citizens.  Even among the citizens you had to have a certain wealth to be able to be appointed to particular political office.  India had its caste system, China had a very hierarchical structure from the emperor down, (though there were some opportunitie for meritocratic progression), and until the destruction of the Shogunate in the mid-19th century Japanese society rigidly enforced class immobility which interestingly, from a Western perspective set peasants above merchants who languished just above the 'untouchables' despite them being wealthier than the average member of the samurai class.  Medieval society was clearly full of class divisions like the serf, the cottar, the yeoman, the knight, the nobleman and so on.  In addition, many of these society had parallel classes, for example, the structure of the church from the Pope all the way down to a lay brother.

The 19th century portrayals of society as a vast pyramid with each in his or her 'station' probably crystalised the perception of class that we have still lingering in many of our minds despite the efforts of politicians over the past 30 years.  In addition, the social upheaval, especially rural-urban migration and the success of factory owners in raising themselves into the higher levels of society previously held exclusively by large landowners.  In the context of burgeoning capitalism, its exploitation of workers through longer hours, low pay and unhealthy conditions, combined with an apparent new fluidity of people rising and falling through the social classes, ideas around working class, middle class, etc. came common political currency.  Of course, it was never as simple as that.  Even Marx spoke of the lumpen proletariat of unskilled workers as opposed to the proletarian aristocracy of the skilled workforce.  In the UK for over a hundred years there have been numerous sub-strata within classes, the unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled working class; the lower, middle and upper middle class, with the really only the latter being the bourgeoisie of property owners in the way that Marx had seen the middle class.  Whilst of little interest to the mass of the population, the British upper class also sub-divided itself on many different bases, into 'old' and 'new' money, connections to particular schools and regiments, location in the country and proximity to titled nobility and the royal family.

The concept of class was hardened in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century on the basis of class-based parties.  Left-wing parties had opinions ranging from outright violent revolution to bring about change across to gradual modification of the capitalist system rather than its abolition on the lines Marx and his adherents proposed (or in fact, felt was inevitable no matter what people or parties did).  This meant that politics shifted from two parties of similar social backgrounds arguing over economic policy such as free trade vs. protectionism to the dominance of a party seen as upper class - the Conservatives and one seen as working class - Labour.  It panned out similarly in much of democratic Europe, though typically with a wider spread of parties falling under these two designations.  In Canada and the USA, however, the model has remained very much like that of Victorian Britain with Liberals and Conservatives; Democrats and Republicans with even working class parties let alone revolutionary ones making minimal impact politically.  Thus, it can be argued, as many British counter-factual commentators were doing in the 2000s that even in Britain there was no inevitability about class-based politics.

Does this suggest that it is only really an accident of history combined with alarm at a political philosophy which could have easily faded into obscurity along with so many others (One Nation Toryism, Whiggism, Social Darwinism, Guild Socialism, Syndicalism, anyone?) that meant that the concept of class continued to persist in Britain as long as it did?  I guess that, in fact, the opponents of class-based politics actually sustained the view of Britain as a class-based society through their rhetoric.  The Conservative Party are the main culprits in their insistence about moving away from class-based politics, partly because they always knew that workers would outnumber their natural base of support.  In many ways they need not have been as fearful as they were.  For 64 years of the 20th century the country had a Conservative government or a coalition led by the Conservatives and even the New Labour government of the last years of the century owed much more to Conservative values than it did to anything the Labour Party had stood for since its creation.  In addition, the Conservatives have always attracted strong support from the so-called 'working class Tory' voter, someone who labours but supports their views on control of society balanced against reduction of regulation; the role of the police/justice system, military and the monarchy; the culture of British society and Britain's standing in the world, even though at times to others these can seem damaging to the interests of those in such a position in the economy and society.

Whilst on one side the political rhetoric has perhaps sustained conceptions of class, on the other shifts in the economy, society and culture may have reduced the acutality of distinct social class.  When the language was developed there was a lot of commonality between millions of people.  Manufacturing had replaced agriculture as the key economic activity in the UK and, as a result, the experience for the bulk of the population: living in houses surrounded by people who did very similar types of work to themselves, fitting with a common daily, weekly, annual pattern, wearing basically the same clothes and eating much the same food, formed a basis.  Of course, the British like to emphasise their differences and group themselves in tribes.  Distinction between people from different regions and ethnicities, distinction between skill levels and gender were all used to show shades of difference between people at a time when, in fact, the life path for the bulk of them was very similar.  The similarities can be grouped into what can be termed the class culture.  In many ways it was little different for those in the various ranks of the middle class, where the only distinctions really came down to whether you worked in a protected profession or not.  Of course, that economic pattern has gone and so have the similarities that permitted useful grouping of people in certain categories.  Particularly notable is 1974 when service-sector jobs exceeded those of manufacturing jobs for the first time and those who once had operated heavy industrial machinery began the progress to being call centre staff.  Yes, they wear a suit to work, but the control of their working lives and the 'minding' aspect of their work is no different; purely a cosmetic change, trumpeted by too many as representing a shift to a classless society.

Culture is an important element in defining class in Britain, often far more than income.  Skilled working class people would often exceed the income of lower and middle-middle class people and yet because of their dress, language and pastimes would never be seen to be on the same level.  With the erosion of real salaries for over four decades now (except among the top 10% earners) and insecurity of employment and property ownership even for those in what were once secure professions, culture is often all that remains for someone to use to distinguish themselves from someone they feel remains 'beneath' them.  Interestingly, I feel that consequently we have moved a little in the direction of E.P. Thompson's view of class.  This is summed up, if I remember rightly in 'The Making of the English Working Class' (1963).  Now, despite Thompson being an avowed Marxist, he eschewed Marx's view of class as this almost rigid, society-spanning structure, I think, in part due to his aversion to Stalinism.  Thompson's view of class that it is almost in constant fluidity, shifting almost moment to moment as we define ourselves in relation to the others we interact with.  Thus, it is a perception that we generate of ourselves and our family in relation to the perceptions we hold of others.  This is different from people having a kind of label as being working class based on what work they do.

Thompson's perspective seems to fit well in modern Britain in which the nature of work has changed so much and has become fragmented.  The commonalities have disappeared, hence the great importance in so many jobs on the title of the job and who can be described as an 'operative', an 'assistant', an 'officer', a 'team leader', a 'manager', 'middle management', an 'executive', 'senior management' and so on.  After all, if I can be a senior manager in a company of five people but am probably earning less and have to use fewer skills and have less reponsibility or control than a team leader in a mult-national.  We generally have no idea what other people earn, and anyway, with the vast difference in pay rates, house prices, loans you can get, debts we have to pay back, income is no indication actually of the level or standing of the job you do. 

As a consequence, we fall back on the cosmetic, the 'cultural' aspects and categorise people by the size of their house; but also the clothes they wear; how they have their hair done or what make-up they wear; what television programmes they watch, if they even still watch television; whether they go to the theatre or a gallery; what food they eat, what they call their children and what clubs the children are members of, which schools they go to; where they go on holiday (not simply due to the cost but the perceived 'quality' of the location, it may be more expensive to fly to Florida than stay in a house in the Dordogne region, but the latter has a far higher class cachet).  When driving there is a constant judgement of 'class' by the type and age of the car driven and on this basis much driving behaviour in the UK is based, notably which cars you flash to have them move over on the motorway; which you feel you can intimidate into letting you into the flow of traffic even when you have no right of way.  Class is alive and well in the UK but it is no longer really an economic category, it is more a cultural category which has its roots in how much money you have but beyond that, what things you choose to buy to manifest your wealth and their own perceived 'value'.

Value is certainly itself up for contest.  There was always pride in working class culture, but there is now a more active assertion that a certain brash culture is somehow better or at least more correct.  I think Britain is unique in seeming to value in popular culture an approach that is not based on acquiring education.  The often vocal assertion that the 'school of hard knocks/university of life' is better than attending a real university is very common.  The disparaging of geeks, boffins and nerds is prevalent; people are ridiculed too often for their learning in a way they would not be even in the USA.  The privileged actually are now promoting this attitude as they feel that universities have been filled by too many of people who, in their view, are not the 'right kind' and that this has reached a level at which it is impacting on those who 'should' be at university.  Yet, no-one has managed to make alternatives, despite the periodic statements that vocational courses are as valid, gain any value.  This is because status in UK business still derives not from your skills or aptitudes but from your background and family.  Those with power rarely have technical or strictly vocational skills, they generally have skills about simply asserting authority or bullying, such as sales.  Those with technical skills are rarely a full time part of the body which runs a company, they are simply called in to answer specific questions and then dismissed.  Consequently, from the highest mult-national in the UK down to the man who runs a carpet-cleaning company, the view that education is of no benefit rules supreme and the emphasis on simply asserting yourself, generally through being loud and aggressive is raised even higher in its place.

So, when I say that the concept of class should be revived am I simply saying that we should detail categories based on what people possess and make it clearer that you can move from C1 to B if you buy a 4x4?  Of course, that is not what I am saying.  Instead, I think class should return in a great measure to what it was once about: opportunity.  Opportunity comes from where you stand at the present and then what restrictions prevent you from moving from that position to something 'better' whether you personally define that in terms of what you can learn or do or simply what you can own.  The most privileged have ample opportunities, they can go wherever they want, they can do what they want, they can pick out their lives very easily.  The least privileged have no opportunities, they have minimal choice over where they live, where they can go and what jobs are open to them.  When living in Poplar and Mile End I was struck by how few people living there strayed outside a 3 Km radius of their house, about the same radius that a medieval serf would have had as their horizons.  Occasionally they would go to the mill or into the woods; occasionally my neighbours in the East End would go down to the slightly larger supermarket or to the park, but generally this was all within walking or short bus ride of their house.

Opportunity does often stem from wealth, but there is not always a direct correlation.  Rich celebrities often find this when they try to get into or get their children into a specific school or club.  This comes back to the use of the cosmetic to separate us from others and to know who are the 'right' kind of people.  From the other side simply being offered a place at university even with all the bursaries, does not mean a young person or even a mature person will be able to take it up, because of the lack of opportunities that they have in terms of living expenses, the extras needed for study, factors like care for their parents or children.  Let alone cultural aspects put up in their way because of how they dress or speak or even their attitude to the world.  The lines are hardening as all the fuss about people having to have unpaid internships first to get an unpaid job.  For every breach of the barriers put up to personal progress by the less privileged, the privileged, especially in the current climate, set up new ones. To complain about the way of the world and demand opportunities was once seen as radical and expected of students; these days it is seen as rude and ungrateful, thus, undeserving.  These days you have to do a lot of forelock tugging even if given an opportunity, so suppressing the range of attitudes and cultures that are deemed 'acceptable' in our society.

Social class has always cut across gender and ethnicity.  This is why David Starkey is simply not just bigoted, but entirely wrong in his assessment of the recent rioting.  What we saw was unrest from a class of people who have had the last fragments of opportunity snatched from them by government policies added to which are many people from what may still be called the 'middle class' seeing such restrictions increasingly imposed on them after over a decade of them and their parents feeling that the UK was being engineered to best benefit them.  The coalition government, headed by those clearly from the upper class, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg are closing the door even on people who would naturally be Conservative supporters but are on a social par with Margaret Thatcher, let alone John Major.  As Marx warned, the greatest danger to stability comes not from those at the bottom of the capitalist system, but from those feeling that changing circumstance are thrusting them down into that pool.  In addition, when so much of our status in UK society is simply defined by the model of television or mobile phone we own is it of any surprise that people go and loot these things?  The riots were a protest about closing off opportunity in so many ways whether ending the EMA or simply saying to people that they will never have even the chance to afford the consumer goods our emphasise so much.  This is why Cameron has so strongly emphasised the 'criminality' to detract from the actual political motivations, even if these are distorted by the consumerist viewpoint on life that has been so imbued into our society.

To address the tensions in Britain on the basis of the old economic perceptions of class would fail.  As it is, despite his rhetoric, Cameron has no desire to 'fix broken Britain' he simply wants to secure the position of the elite and ensure that the little ethnic shop they buy their spices from is not boarded up.  Class needs to be defined by what it really was a century or so ago, about opportunity.  This means that we move away from the superficially divisive aspects like whether we watch 'The X Factor' or the Danish version of 'The Killing', there is no need for cultural uniformity in the way George Orwell might have demanded.  We need to get back down to the perception of people on the basis of whether in this capitalist society they have any chance of altering their situation or whether to a greater or lesser degree they will die pretty much the way they were when they became an adult and when their parents became an adult and so on.  This means that even in families you will find different classes.  As I went to university in the 1980s, I have been in a higher opportunity class than the 9-year old who lives in my house who, it appears will have no chance at getting a degree even if we superficially live in a 'middle class' house.  I had the opportunity to travel abroad with my family, he never does this.  I had the opportunity to go on school trips and join any club I wanted.  Now, for this he is worse off than me, but far better off than many of his contemporaries; both of us are worse off than my parents.  Of course, opportunity does not mean the same as receiving.  Both my parents could have gone to university, my brother too, but for various reasons none decided.  In addition, my parents retired with a much higher opportunity standing than when they became adults, the difference between the 1950s and the 1990s; if they had been twenty years younger that progression would have been reversed, i.e. from the 1970s to the 2010s.

The goal of governments should be, if they truly believe in equality and justice, to pursue policies that enable people to progress from say opportunity category 40 to opportunity category 30 or 25 or 20, in the course of their life.  This forms a useful basis on which to judge people's progress broadly.  Of course, individuals will pick something different to what they are offered.  However, if we can see that a child born in opportunity category 40 is now only likely to make it to 38 whereas two years ago he had a shot at 32, then we know something is wrong.  When we know that people who are in opportunity category 40, 50, 60 see only a chance now to end up in category 75, 80 or 90+ (I define someone as 99 who is living on the streets), as is happening Cameron's 'hammered Britain', then we should have no surprise if we witness rioting and looting, perhaps to raise them a couple of points, but mainly to rail against the realisation that in the 40-60 years of their lives ahead of them, it is never going to get any better than this and most likely, far worse.

In the myth of Pandora's Box it is said that when she released all the evils from the box, Pandora closed it to keep 'Hope' trapped inside.  It might seem odd that hope was stored among all the evils.  This is because the popular renditions of the story have made an error, in the original it is 'Foreboding' that she traps.  Foreboding is an evil, because with it you feel that there is absolutely no point in continuing if everything will just end up badly.  Now, throught their policies especially towards young people, the coalition government has unleashed the evil of foreboding, by making it so explicitly clear that for millions of us only circumstances worse than what we are experiencing now lie ahead of us.  It is an evil to snuff out any prospect of improvement and as a consequence it has received a virulent reaction as seen in the rioting.

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