Both sides of the political spectrum have in recent years tried to bury the issue of class. John Major stated that ‘Britain is now a classless society’ during his reign as Prime Minister and more recently John Prescott has said that ‘we are all middle class now’. The arguments over the presence of class and its apparent demise have been fiercely debated by academics. In this essay I intend to examine the history and concept of class and evaluate the presence of class in modern society. The concept of class rose to prominence in the work of eighteenth century academic work.
Social contact theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau arrived at the first understandings of inequality. Prior to this social stratification was largely seen as natural, this thinking had started with Aristotle and his idea that ‘by nature’ men were born free or into slavery. Inequality as a natural given had continued in the feudal system of Western Europe and was also prominent in the Hindu caste system. The French Revolution and the industrialisation of Europe was the turning point when it came to thinking about social position and class.
The concentration of manufacturing industry and the more transparent structure of the relations of production made the distinction between the classes more obvious. Before examining whether Britain is a class society it is important to examine the concept of class. In any discussion of class it is still the work of Marx that is most prominent, Marx’s famous declaration that ‘the history of all hitherto society is the history of class struggles’ still informs much discussion. Marx saw class as a reflection of the access that people had to the means of production of what was produced.
He described the landless labourers that were created as a consequence of industrialisation as the proletariat and those that owned the means of production the bourgeois. It was Marx’s belief that the conflict between the bourgeois and the proletariat would lead to a political revolution. Where class was once a term used uncontroversially by economists and social commentators Marx elevated it to a key concept of revolutionary politics. This view of a society polarised between the ‘two extremes of plebs and patricians’ is the first of the models of our understanding of class that David Cannadine outlines in ‘Class in Britain’.
What Cannadine argues is not that there is any one truth about class, but that the British move between three concepts as circumstances and political moods change and have done so throughout the last 300 years . The second concept is the idea of class as a hierarchy of status and rank. Thirdly, there is the idea of broad estates linked to economic and power functions: an elite, a professional managerial class, a mass of wage-earners and an underclass of underemployed and unemployed. These three different definitions of class highlight a substantial difficulty within the debate over class.
There is no universally accepted definition, and a fair degree of ambiguity exists in peoples minds. The perceptions of class also shift according to the political climate and the method of enquiry. In 1988 Gordon Marshall concluded that ‘the ‘”class consciousness” of most people is characterised by its complexity, ambivalence and occasional contradictions. It does not reflect a rigorously consistent interpretation of the world’. Some writers have gone as far as to recommend that the word ‘class’ be jettisoned simply on these grounds, as a multitude of meanings makes it useless for detached analysis.
However class analysis still continues despite much disagreement over the methods and terminology used. The collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe has rendered the work of Marx intellectually problematic and unsustainable amongst many academics. David Cannadine has stated that this collapse in Marxist thinking has led to the abandonment of class as a subject. Capitalism is now thought of as the only economic system that is viable and an important defence of the free-market has been the myth and rhetoric of classlessness. America is often used as an example of a classless society.
Britain has never achieved a revolutionary assault on the traditional notions of hierarchy , and is unique in that we have experienced an industrial revolution but retained a monarchical constitution. It is this reason that commentators use to explain Britain’s particular relationship with class. The concept of a classless society existing in a capitalist country is impossible as true inequality is an ideal, and by the very nature of natural selection there are always to be winners and losers, and inequality is inextricably linked to human nature.
If class is basically a hierarchy of inequalities this makes classlessness impossible. It is for this reason that I will outline the arguments not for classlessness or class but the state of class now, whether it is dying or strengthening. The argument for the death of class centres around the presumption that class has changed . This means that we must recast the traditional thinking about stratification from Marx and Weber. Class is dying as a concept and an analytical tool because it implies that people can be differentiated into distinct layers or classes.
In ‘Are Social Classes Dying? ‘ Clark and Lypet argue that many theorists have fundamentally altered the concept of class towards that they term the ‘fragmentation of stratification’. One of the main sources of empirical evidence for arguments concerning the declining significance of class in late twentieth century industrial societies has been the changes in the structure of work as employment, as well as the kinds of persons engaged in it.
Britain, America and other parts of Western Europe have now for a long time witnessed the decline of manufacturing industries and primary sector employment. The reasons for this decline are highly complex, although major contributing factors have been technological innovation and shifts in the global division of labour. The collapse of heavy industry in the west and the rise of industry in the east followed on from the 1970’s oil crises to plunge the Western world into recession, thereby stimulating a massive economic restructuring of society.
As the economy picked up once again, employment was created in the service sectors of the economy, in the tertiary and quaternary sectors, resulting in a dramatic decline in the numbers of what had long been considered to be traditional ‘working class’, and replacement by the white collar workers of the ‘middle classes. The National Readership Survey of February 2001 showed that more than half the population – 50. 6 per cent – now fit the traditional middle-class classifications of A, B and C1 (those who work in professional, managerial and other white-collar jobs) for the first time in British history.
The proportion working in manual jobs, what we used to call working-class, had fallen from 75 per cent a century ago, via 36 per cent in 1987, to 12 per cent today. Two years ago the Government’s Office for National Statistics divided us into eight broad socio-economic spheres, all but the top and bottom of which were labeled middle- class. If as John Prescott will have us believe we ‘are all middle class’ class is certainly dying. Whilst the change in occupation and work place relations have weakened the concept of social stratification, changes outside the workplace also have.
If proletarians are visibly distinct in dress, food and lifestyle, they are more likely to think of themselves, and act as a distinct class. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century this was often the case, as novels and sociologists report (Lee, Turner 1996:43) This has changed recently and there has been a distinct decrease in the clearly visible and unambiguous marks of inferior status that sustain a system of social deference. An example of this is the increasing middle class following of football which has enjoyed a traditional working class following.
The existence of an underclass is perhaps the most prominent argument against the death of class. There are 200 000 people homeless in Britain and a quarter of children have no parent and are therefore benefit dependant. The wage gap between the richest and poorest is the greatest since the industrial revolution. The sociologist John Goldthorpe has measured the mobility of working class children between 1958 and 1970, and found that the mobility actually decreased. It is in my opinion therefore that the concept of class is still valid, and that it is still present in British society.
However class is a clouded concept with tremendous difficulties of definition. To answer the question accurately require a revaluation of the concept, resulting in a universal definition. It is undeniable that the concept of class is radically different today than it was at the turn of the century, and it is therefore futile to evaluate an outdated concept with empirical evidence of today. Class must be redefined as a modern analytical tool and work within that framework.