There’s a report that’s seen a lot of coverage in the British media that tries to outline a “new model” of social class in the UK. It’s very interesting to read and provides some useful facts and analysis.
At the same time it’s got massive problems that make its conclusions border on raving nonsense.
It identifies seven classes in society, ranging from the “elite” to the “precariat”. This is based on economic capital, but also cultural and social capital. These last two are foggy and uncertain concepts but still worthy of studying. Basically they mean, respectively, how much “high culture” does the person enjoy and how many rich friends do they have.
As a consequence, a person with an OK amount of money but who doesn’t have much cultural or social capital gets put in a separate class. Sure, it’s significant how many rich friends you have, though this is likely to be a reflection of your own wealth ninety-nine times out of a hundred; is it significant what type of culture people have access to and enjoy, significant enough that you have to make up a whole class?
How the classes relate to one another and through their interactions make up the society we live in; I’d have thought that was a really important matter, but the survey isn’t really interested in it.
The survey poses itself as against a “traditional” view of classes. Now I hold to what they might call a traditional view, that there’s a working class (a class that gives labour for wages), a capitalist class (a class that gives wages for labour) and intermediate layers of professionals, small businesspeople, etc. Imagine if the breakdown was as follows:
Capitalist class – 6%
Working class – 63%
Intermediate layers – 31%
As it happens, these figures are not from my imagination, they’re from the Great British Class Survey. Only that survey imposes artificial divisions. It pretends there are seven classes, rather than essentially two:
Elite – 6%
Established Middle Class – 25%
Technical Middle Class – 6%
New affluent workers – 15%
Traditional working class – 14%
Emergent service workers – 19%
Precariat – 15%
So the biggest group are the Established Middle Class! The report says that the “Traditional working class” is over-represented in old industrial areas and “traditional working-class occupations” are over-represented in it.
“It is for these reasons that we might see this class as a residue of earlier historical periods, and embodying characteristics of the “traditional working class”. We might see it as a “throwback” to an earlier phase in Britain’s social history, as part of an earlier generational formation.”
We’ll come back to that.
But why are four categories of workers divided into separate classes? The only significant difference between “traditional working class” and “emergent service workers” that the survey notes is that “traditional working class” people seem to have “reasonable house price” while “emergent service workers” earn about £8,000 more per year. “New affluent workers”, meanwhile, earn only about £7,000 more than “Emergent service workers.” The “Precariat”, meanwhile, have very low income as well as cultural and social capital.
Do these differences signify separate classes? Do these layers have distinctly separate interests? Do they have clearly differentiated roles in society?
No, of course not.
If you chop the working class into four and stick the words “emergent” and “new” onto two of the categories, is that enough to convince me that there are seven classes?
No, of course not.
The working class makes up the majority in society, in Britain around 63%. Some are poorer than others and some know a bit more about opera. But we haven’t entered a classless world just because they’ve closed the pits and the mills.
What is the Working Class?
The authors of this report seem to think that Working Class is a historical stereotype, a vague memory, a ghost haunting the present rather than a living social force.
I was once handing out leaflets on a street when a man stopped to challenge me on the use of the word “working class” in the leaflet. He was only interested in needling me, the way some people are, so the discussion wasn’t fruitful. However from that conversation and many other sources I’ve built up some of the general ideas that people seem to associate with the phrase “working class”:
Living in a city, working in a factory (or sometimes a mine), the working-class person wears overalls and a flat cap and is probably racist. Another variety of working-class person is one who lives in a council housing estate and is unemployed, improvident, substance-abusing and sexually irresponsible.
These are historically-originated and politically-loaded stereotypes, the latter enjoying little existence outside the Daily Mail. They are not scientific designations of class.
Society under capitalism is fundamentally divided in two. On the one hand a small class controls credit and most of the wealth in society, and its members invest that wealth as they please. This is the capitalist class. On the other hand the majority use their physical abilities to create the goods and provide the services to keep society running. Each individual in this class must find a capitalist to hire them, or they will not have access to wealth.
This is the key distinction in capitalist society. Not how many rich friends you have or whether you can play the piano. The question is: do you work or do you own? Which side of the equation “labour + capital = product or service” are you on?
There are nuances of course. What about farmers? What about students? What about small businesses? What about academics? These are subordinate questions.
To state that society is divided into labour and capital is not to paint the final portrait of capitalism; it is to draw the first faint lines on the canvas which will be entirely invisible when the painting is completed, but which determine the position of every major feature of the picture. All minor details are dependent on, necessary adjuncts to, or irrelevant deviations from it.
Logically, the position that there are no classes anymore, or just shades of middle class, is nonsense. How could Capitalism function without a working majority to create the products and provide the services?
How could it work with a majority that was idle, or who were significant property owners? Academics, administrators, salespeople etc all play an important role. But how could a society function that was made up entirely or mostly of people working these kinds of jobs? What would they have to administer, and what would they eat, and what would they wear? How would they get to work and who would have built their houses? Where would their energy supplies come from?
Such a society could not exist.
How then can you possibly say that there is no working class, or only a very small, dwindling one that belongs to another age?
The confusion arises to a large extent because of the international, globalised nature of capitalism today. The workers who make most of my consumer goods live thousands of miles away. Their factories collapse and burn and I hear about them on the news, and that and the t-shirt touching my skin are the only individual connection we have.
Those who say that Ireland (or indeed Britain) has no working class are forgetting not only that without workers, no society can function. They’re forgetting that the Bangladeshi, Chinese and Saudi working classes (and those of many other countries) play a very serious role in the Irish economy.
The scarcity of the stereotype of the industrial worker in many advanced capitalist countries is not therefore a sign that “we are all middle class now”.
We have reached a level of technological sophistication in which a complex machine is assembled in several different places; we have reached a level of organisational sophistication and market lunacy in which products are flown all over the world chasing the cheapest labour and the most profitable consumers; we have reached a level of financial sophistication (and again, lunacy) in which unviable capitalist economies can be propped up for years by a gambling capitalist class.
But we have not reached a stage in history where consumer goods and machinery fall from the sky. We have not moved beyond class or towards “A New Model of Social Class”. To slice up the working class into four separate classes is nonsense.