Neil Davenport, 2 December 2010
David Cameron today, like previous Conservative Party leader John Major, argues that the UK has become a ‘classless society’. But asking whether we live in a classless society means raising the more fundamental question of what we mean by social class in the first place. Is social class based on lifestyle, identity, occupation or a combination of all three? And why is it considered important, if it is at all, in 2010?
It can be argued that social class, defined objectively, refers to a person’s economic position relative to the way society is organised. This means social class is reproduced spontaneously through the production process. So objectively speaking, the division between the owners and non-owners of the production process still exists today. It’s a readily identifiable hierarchy in British society. Indeed, from this definition in isolation, some conclude the growth in the amount of those in work globally shows the working class are more dominant than ever before.
But if social class is merely an occupation-based category, this doesn’t explain why, for the best part of 150 years, social class was a major source of controversy and tension in British society - and elsewhere. First of all, the spontaneous character of class taken in economic terms suggests an individual’s class position is not necessarily permanent. Class divisions can be abolished by abolishing the distinction between the owners and non-owners of the production process. This is why the old phrase ‘class conscious’ was so loaded with radical change. It indicated somebody of the non-owner class was acutely aware society wasn’t organised in their economic interests – and wanted to do something about that.
In the past, those who did benefit from the way society is organised were acutely aware that, for them, the class structure had to be maintained at all costs. This was often what was referred to as ‘class society’. In this sense, the term was used as a political justification for class divisions. The legitimisation of social inequalities it implied was the prism through which society was presented. Of course, the contestation of that claim from the working classes was always a source of tension and conflict throughout society.
In terms of economic distinctions, then, social classes still very much exist. And it can be argued that the level of upward mobility is lower today than it was 50 years ago. Indeed, children of middle class parents now find their sons and daughters are in a far worse economic position than they themselves were 20 years ago. The late historian Tony Judt in his book Post-War pointed out the British working classes are amongst the most exploited and poorly paid workers in Europe. Far from a general levelling out of prosperity and wealth, economic distinctions definitely do exist.
As a result, one criticism levelled at the Lib-Con coalition is it represents a return to entrenched class privilege, where Eton and Oxford graduates run society once more. On a superficial level, there is a whiff of ‘posh people should be charge’ about Cameron, Clegg and London mayor Boris Johnson. But to criticise these individuals for their social backgrounds, as the Labour Party did a few years back, reflects a crass understanding of what it means to challenge the class system. Attacking class society was once based on the premise of offering an alternative to the way society is organised. This alternative served as a means of abolishing class altogether. In fact, the over-identification with a working class identity, without such broader politics, is an entirely negative thing.
Working class identity was once bound up with an outlook fairly different from other class interests. In Britain, however, the independence of this working class outlook was actually quite limited. This was more so especially after World War II, when the left encouraged the working class to join in with the elite’s celebration of defeating Nazi Germany. Even so, a residual ‘us and them’ attitude prevailed regarding workplace matters during the period of ‘postwar consensus’. Though this attitude rarely developed enough to seriously challenge the existing order, it was a constant source of anxiety for the ruling elites. In fact, the whole of politics and society became organised around containing working class demands on society. Key to this was undermining ideas of working class independence, as exemplified by the Conservative Party’s promotion of ‘One Nation’ ‘classless’ Britain.
As the party that reflected the interests of the British ruling elite, the Conservative Party had an acute appreciation of ideology, more so than the left. It understood the need to present its sectional interests as the ‘common sense’ voice of everyone. During particularly intense periods of industrial unrest, such as in the 1970s and 1980s, overt racial hostility to ethnic minorities and the promotion of family values were used to weaken working class independence and solidarity. It’s no coincidence that the end of class hostilities in the early nineties meant official racism and women’s inequality could finally be shelved.
From this definition, then, identifying yourself as ‘working class’ was much more than a matter of occupational or objective factors alone. It was also based on a subjective identification with attempting to change society for your own sectional interests. However, an important consequence of this change was the potential for broader human emancipation, where the limitations of the market might be replaced by a more rational way of organising society. Thus, the notion of being ‘working class’ had a strong degree of radicalism attached to it.
It was precisely this connotation that meant the more conservative sections of society shied away from openly identifying themselves as working class. Indeed, the Conservative Party was often quite successful in making individuals conform to its notion of ‘respectability’. Sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s found that measuring social stratification patterns was difficult because some working class people would claim membership of the middle classes.
For some on the left, this was a betrayal of class solidarity. In truth, it revealed the limited appeal of workplace politics, and showed how working people were keen on self-improvement. Recognition of the narrow horizons of working-class life, and the desire for a better material and cultural existence, showed there was still an audience for the politics of change. Today, when even middle-class individuals appear to reject affluence and the benefits of education, calls for social transformation have come to be rejected, too.
And this is a key point about today: there is no contestation of the way society is organised. Consequently, there’s no entrenched defence of the class system either. Instead, Cameron and other Conservatives go out of their way to prove they’re just like everybody else. Cameron’s favourite song is apparently The Jam’s class war song ‘Eton Rifles’, an ironic point not lost on the song’s author, Paul Weller. Elsewhere, sections of Britain’s ruling elite have gone so far to prove that they’re not an elite that they’re happy to offload authority and decision making to external governing bodies. If the working classes don’t act as an aggressive competing class for social power, the old ruling class don’t act like a ruling body in any meaningful way either.
The systematic defeat of oppositional class politics also robbed the ruling class of their cohesion and purpose in society. The end of left-right sectional politics had the character of a tug of war. The effect of one side collapsing is that the other side collapses too. Consequently, today’s ruling elites are more likely to outsource their authority and decision making to judges, the European Union, quangos and the market, rather than shape society in their own narrow interests. When it comes to making even the most basic decisions, their outlook is less one of ruling the world and more of ‘stop the world, we want to get off’.
In place of a traditional struggle for power between the two major classes, today the petty, narrow-minded, fearful prejudices of the liberal middle classes dominate all aspects of political culture. Any discussion about class becomes related to the middle class and the dominance of their prejudices - on healthy eating, racial etiquette, the environment and so on. The middle classes occupy a peculiar position in society. Essentially, they do not have the true social power of the upper and capitalist classes, nor do they have the potential for collective power that the working classes possessed. Instead, their petty displays of etiquette and moral worthiness are deployed to mark themselves out from hoi polloi.
The middle classes’ social position has often meant they’re politically unstable and inconsistent, too. Whilst many middle class professionals are ‘concerned’ about ‘the poor’ and how capitalism is a bit ‘unfair’, they also have some material stake in the existing order. This means although they might support welfare reforms for the masses, they’re generally hostile to the working classes becoming too politically powerful in case this undermines their own position and status. That’s why the liberal middle classes can currently afford to posture against ‘global capitalism’ and strike radical poses – it has no consequences to their own position in society. It’s worth remembering that in the 1980s, the Guardian couldn’t even bring itself to support the Labour Party – it advised its readers to vote for the Social Democrats and later the Liberal Democrats. It was only by the 1992 election, when the old ideological divisions were all but over, that it could stomach giving support to a nominally workers’ party.
Today, free from such external class pressures, the middle classes (and increasingly the upper echelons) don’t feel compelled to act as leaders to preserve the existing order. That’s why so much of contemporary middle-class ‘radicalism’ – from the ‘deep greens’ to lazy not-in-my-name critics of Tony Blair – has such an annoyingly slippery character. Ideas, and bad ideas at that, can be floated with scant regard to accountability.
So, it’s clear we don’t live in a classless society. It’s better to say we live in a class stasis society, where the two main social classes economically exist but have essentially vacated the arena of contesting for political power. Instead, the impact of class in society is experienced on an individual level – and usually from the ‘squeezed out’ middle classes. The two major classes have been redefined as conveyors of unsavoury and irresponsible behaviour, whether the binge-drinking aggressive proles or City bankers and wide boys making rash financial speculations. Far from chav bashing being the only show of class hatred in town, the middle classes equally have it in for the ‘posh class’ and their ‘irresponsible’ decisions and consumption habits.
This is why Cameron and Co. have been criticised: they’re not members of the ‘ethically sound’ middle classes whose behaviour doesn’t impact on society in a self-interested way. Today, class is still a source of tension. But this is only in terms of the middle class criticising what they see the as the irresponsible self-interest of other classes. Historically, the self-interested behaviour that characterised politics took the form of either defending or wanting to destroy class society.
Today, self-interest is understood solely in terms of actively damaging the individual. As such, the terrain of ‘class politics’ has shifted. It now consists of managing the apparently ‘irresponsible’ behaviour of both the working and upper classes. This is a result, not so much of a class society or a classless society, but the dead hand of a class stasis society. Devoid of class interests in any meaningful way, class is perceived as an entirely negative influence on individual well-being.
Neil Davenport, writer; head of sociology, JFS Sixth Form Centre.
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