Social Class in the 21st Century

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Some books are wrong, but in interesting ways. This is such a work.

Mike Savage and a team of colleagues were the authors of the Great British Class Survey, which they claim as the biggest ever survey of class in Britain with over 161,000 respondents. This book draws on the survey together with a series of revealing interviews about how people perceive and experience class in modern Britain.

Savage’s main claim is that class remains central to Britain today but that classes are being “fundamentally remade”. He argues that the old demarcation lines that once separated the working class from the middle class have blurred while simultaneously a super-rich elite has pulled ever further away from the rest of us.

Savage suggests that there are two clearly delineated classes in society — the rich elite at the top made up of around 6 percent of the population, and a precariat, suffering low pay and insecurity at the bottom and making up about 15 percent of people. In between he identifies another five broad classes within society (established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional workers and emerging service workers).

Savage and his co-thinkers are very influenced by the work of the late radical French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who identified three types of capital which can accumulate over time to reproduce class privilege. These are economic capital (income, wealth, savings, etc), social capital (our social networks) and cultural capital (especially where this helps legitimise a sense of entitlement). This leads Savage to be critical of what he sees as an older tendency to equate classes with “groupings of occupations”.

Marxists however have never sought to reduce class to a static set of occupations. Rather class is rooted in the way the production of wealth is organised through exploitation. Savage dismisses the whole notion of exploitation with an unsatisfactory wave of the hand as “moralistic”. But this means that while the authors focus on how the elite reproduce and legitimise themselves they never ask how they gain their wealth in the first place. The emphasis is on class reproduction not class formation.

A second consequence of abandoning any notion of exploitation is the tendency to see the class structure as overly fragmented. So while on the surface a teacher can appear to have little in common with an office cleaner, what binds them together as part of the same class with the same interests is the reality of shared exploitation. In fact the working class has always been internally differentiated but collectively exploited. And much of the claim that the old boundaries between the working class and middle class have dissolved is rather superficial. The old distinction between workers paid a weekly wage and middle class “staff” with a monthly salary have gone, it’s true. But this reflects the way a swathe of once relatively privileged white collar office jobs have been proletarianised, with pay and conditions little different from manual workers.

With these important qualifications, there is much of interest in this book — especially about the structure of the elite and how class privilege is sustained and legitimised. Savage argues that the elite is no longer rooted in a closed, aristocratic, landed “Establishment” but neither is it composed of the self-made rich who loom large in contemporary culture. Savage’s focus is wider than just the top 1 percent but what he calls the “ordinary rich”.

This elite, with an average household income of £89,000 and average savings of £142,000, Savage describes as “a wealthy class…which basks in the sun, with very high levels of affluence”. At its core lies a corporate elite of senior managers, ie the core of the capitalist class, even though Savage prefers the looser and weaker term “elite”. Savage also points to the way this class is increasingly focused on London. He argues that the weight of regional elites outside of London has declined since the mid-20th century with the capital now acting as the “single incubator for the elite”.

The authors offer much thought provoking material on how the tensions between a formal claim that society is meritocratic and the reality of continuing class privilege play out in society. So, for example, they note that the older hierarchy between a prized “highbrow” culture (opera, theatre, the visual arts) and popular culture promoted on mass media has, especially among younger affluent generations, broken down. But it has been replaced by what they call the “new snobbery” based on a claimed exercise of a sophisticated judgement based on individual informed choice in contrast to the mass of people (ie the majority of the working class) who supposedly lack such discernment and are perceived as simply being unthinking and externally influenced by others or the media. This is held up as affirmation of the individual superiority of the affluent.

This is a book which is weak on the origins and underlying nature of class but perceptive about its outward manifestations and forms of ideological legitimation.