Wednesday, August 06, 2008

heretical musings on the British class system

Ever since I have come to the UK I have been intrigued by the British class obsession. It is hard not to be: class is the defining fissure running through British society, the primary category of identification, usually coming before region, religion, or ethnic origins. But I always felt that the class discourse is somewhat fake; or rather, that class had become an "ethnic community", defining origins rather than a socio-economic category referring to one's wealth, income, and occupation. "Class" is not really about class, it's about family roots, cultural attachment, accent, a sense of identity and history. These things often relate to economic realities, in the same way that in other places, ethnic identity can determine one's socio-economic status - but not necessarily. The most tasteless example of the weakening correlation between British “class” and socio-economics is a research from last year, which found half a million Britons who defined themselves as "working class" while earning above £100,000 a year; three out of ten bank managers saw themselves as working class.

This is not to say that Britain has become a classless society. If anything it is the opposite. Income inequality is the highest in
Western Europe. Almost three decades of "free market" rampage have resulted in greater wealth, but also in bigger gaps between regions and income groups. In relative income terms, the rich are getting richer, while the poor and the middle income groups lose out. The wholesale annihilation of the manufacturing industries contributed to the development of an urban underclass whose chances of long-term employment are meagre (the non-working working class). Immigrant workers seldom fit into the stereotypical class system, but they are often the ones taking the lowest-paying jobs and working in the worst conditions. On illegal or semi-legal workers one hears only when they die in dozens in criminal accidents (the invisible working class).

Ultimately, the British class obsession serves the interests of the richest, as it obscures economic changes with a nostalgic attachment to long-gone realities. Look at the numbers and you will see: middle-income households are being squeezed; poor families face real hardship as food and fuel prices skyrocket; and the richest are constantly improving their position. Britain has become more affluent in the last thirty years, and even the poorest are in some ways better off. But this has come at the price of accumulating a mountain of household debt in mortgages and credit cards that paid for New Labour cornucopia; at the same time, the realities of income have shifted in favour of the richest 30%, who now control about 60% of income. Framing this story through the sentimental clich├ęs of upper, middle, and working class does not help to understand it.

1 comment:

RUINIST said...

It's interesting to read your thoughts as speaking as an English person - yes, it's true, I perceive someone's class immediately on meeting them and I am usually correct. Not only that I base my approach to that person on this snap assessment. 90% of the time I'm happy with this English intuitive sense and what follows from that.

I now prefer to think of things as a simple case of the rich and the poor. In this way, things are much more obvious. A politics based on recognising poverty is almost heretical in the UK right now. Harriet Harman recently defended the New Labour bullshit on meritocracy and social mobility (despite all it's obvious failure to provide resources for the poor) and she was accused of bring the 'class war' back into politics