Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Top, Middle and Bottom (2016)

Book Review from the February 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

'Social Class in the 21st Century', by Mike Savage et al. Penguin £8.99

This book is based on the findings of the Great British Class Survey (see www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973), previously discussed in the Socialist Standard in May 2013. This was launched on the BBC website in 2011, and the analysis here derives from an impressive first round of 161,000 responses, supplemented by further face-to-face interviews, as those who took part in the online survey were disproportionately higher up in the social scale and living in England.

The authors distinguish three kinds of capital (this term is not used in the Marxist sense of means of production used to employ wage labour for the sake of profit). Economic capital is a person’s income and wealth (savings and the value of their home). Cultural capital, a concept taken from the work of Pierre Bourdieu, is a matter of a person’s tastes and interests, and is divided into two kinds: highbrow (going to art galleries, eating in French restaurants, liking jazz, etc) or emerging (using the internet, going to the gym, spending time with friends and so on). Social capital relates to your social networks, the kinds of people you know and how well you know them (knowing ‘the right people’ may help you get a job with a law firm but won’t help with a job in IT).

Based on these criteria, no fewer than seven social classes are identified: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emerging service workers and precariat. A person’s place in this is determined by their income and savings, their ‘score’ for the range of people in different occupations they know (boosted by knowing those in higher status jobs), and their cultural capital. For instance, new affluent workers will have on average household income of £29,000 and little in savings (so ‘affluent’ is something of a misnomer), and be roughly in the middle in terms of the value of their house. But they score quite highly for their range of social contacts and they have rather more emerging than highbrow cultural capital. Though social class in the way used here is not directly linked to occupation, the authors have stated elsewhere that members of this class might well work as electricians, postal workers and catering assistants, among others.

The classes falling between the elite and the precariat do not form a simple hierarchy, but are clearly distinguished from those at the top and bottom. The precariat, forming about 15% of the population, have an average household income of just £8,000 and very little in savings, and get low scores for cultural and social capital. They are often stigmatised, and women in this class were well aware that they were at the bottom of the heap, while men were ‘more resistant’ to consideration of class.

In contrast, the elite had average household income of £89,000, with sizeable savings and valuable houses; they had extensive social contacts and scored particularly highly for highbrow cultural capital. They form about 6 percent of the population, so they are far more than just the top 1 percent (compare Thomas Piketty’s discussion of the ‘9 percent’, those in the top 10 percent but not in the top 1 percent, who they are clearly distinguished from). This income (which is for the household and so may include more than one wage) is well above the average but of course is very small when compared to the really top incomes, of millions a year, for those who may have billions in wealth and several large mansions. And assets accumulated from the past (whether savings or houses) are far more important than current income. There is relatively little mobility into this elite, and also little down from it. As the richest get even richer and pull away from the rest of the population, so those lower down have much farther to go to get to the top (a larger hill to climb, in the metaphor used here).

The volume contains a lot of other interesting points, some related to changes in society. Highbrow cultural capital is increasingly confined to an older age group, and there are links between class and age: new affluent workers and emerging service workers are much younger on average than those in the traditional working class. Attending a prestigious university such as Oxford, Cambridge or the LSE is still a real help in joining the elite and so amassing large savings. Most people have more wide-ranging social ties than fifty years ago. Less than a third of respondents thought of themselves as belonging to a social class, though when pressed 62 percent ‘gave themselves some kind of working class identity’.

But the classes identified here do not have shared interests as against the rest: nobody is ever going to say ‘New affluent workers of the world, unite!’, nor will they ever form a class for itself (Marx’s term for a class conscious of its status and interests, mentioned in the Introduction). And, when all is said and done, an approach which puts dentists in the elite alongside multi-millionaires is missing quite a lot. 
Paul Bennett

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