Class and material reality

[This is the first of three posts on the Great British Class Survey. To access the others, go to the introduction here.]

The question of class is bound up with the security of one’s position in society. If you earn a good wage and can afford to buy your own home, so that you are not at risk of being chucked out onto the street by a landlord who wants to lift the rent to a level above that you can afford, you are more secure than someone who can only afford to rent. And if you can afford two houses, three foreign holidays a year, and have plentiful savings, you are of course even more secure. There’s a continuum from relatively low to relatively high, though those in direst need and those with the most exceptional wealth lie beyond that continuum and are essentially connected to it or to each other only in the forms of torturer or torture victim. It doesn’t make you any more able to feed or clothe yourself if you can happily read Latin, and it doesn’t make you any more a kid from the ghetto if you listen to hip hop in your own private wing of Castle Howard. Money, its rate of generation, and its expression in the form of assets, is the crucial factor in determining one’s status in society. Of course if you’re rich and you have the same interests as an even richer and more powerful person, you might be able to wangle a bit more riches for yourself with their help; but aristocrats aren’t going to become buddies with the poor of the estates just because they both like reading The Master and Margarita. (But of course, neither are aristocrats going to become friendly with lottery winners whose interests and opinions are otherwise remote from their own.) The three ‘capitals’ interact in complex ways, and in essence there is a lot of sense in attempting to unravel things in the way that Savage et al. have done, but I think we should be clear about the picture of society this research reflects (though it does not, I suggest, generate it on its own).

We are blithely assured, in the journal article summarizing the research, that the working class ‘now only comprise 14 per cent of the population, and are relatively old, with an average age of 65. To this extent, the traditional working class is fading from contemporary importance, and clearly is less prominent than the established middle class’ (27). The implication is that once those stragglers from history have died, there will be no more working class. So we should just sit and wait and we will be in Shangri-La. It seems that modern capitalism has lifted millions out of their traditional working-class situation and blessed the general population with a variety of middle-class identities.

This ‘fading from contemporary importance’ of the working class is, however, brought about only by simple assertion and re-definition. Underlying the subdivision of society into seven new classes is an unstated commitment to a belief in the benefits of contemporary capitalism, which have diminished the working class. (This is made possible only by the study’s refusal to focus on structures of exploitation, which I shall return to shortly.) This focus leads to an insistence that society is largely made up of different forms of middle-class experience: established middle class, technical middle class, and so on. These new classes are more or less arbitrarily defined in terms derived from Pierre Bourdieu’s focus on social, cultural, and economic capital.[1] So, it is not at all clear that the people or their experience have changed. Only their label has changed. Or, more precisely: certain aspects of character, which depend on circular reasoning about the ‘status’ of social and cultural forms, are taken to be more significantly determinative of lived experience in Britain than the economic factors which influence material existence, the reality of being alive and struggling to remain so in comfort, good health, and security.

The political implications of this kind of thinking are obvious and terrible. The view it supports is that ours is a majority middle-class country, with an elite that is so small that we needn’t worry about trying to tame it and a poor that is reassuringly shrinking (or being incarcerated when welfare dependency brings out the nascent evil in them, if the Daily Mail is to be believed – which of course it isn’t). Martin Kettle notes in today’s Guardian that our three political parties – traditionally representing the upper, middle, and lower classes – now only represent a minority of the population, which he takes to explain their problematic relation to society. I think that he’s right about the problem with our politics but entirely wrong about the details. The old classes only represent a minority on this tendentiously defined model; they remain as heuristically powerful as ever in explaining the class structure of Britain. What is more striking is the fact that all three parties, which espouse functionally identical positions on economics, social issues, law and order, education, health care, the military, etc., are reflected by this research. The research does not, as Kettle supposes, demonstrate that our politics is out of step with our world. On the contrary, the closeness of fit between the assumptions underlying our politics and research like this demonstrate the incredible ideological efficiency of postmodern capitalism, which so distorts our politics and economics that we worry about catering for tiny differences in the comfortable middle classes at the expense of addressing the structural exploitation by the elite of the middle and in particular the lower classes.

[Next: Exploitation in contemporary society]


  1. Incidentally, I think the only reason people give Bourdieu the attention they do is that his theories are simple, and therefore easy to grasp and use, and also French, so they lend the scholarship a certain style. Beyond that he is a deeply dubious figure.  ↩
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