Book Review from the July 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard
Cédric Hugrée, Etienne Penissat and Alexis Spire: Social Class in Europe: New Inequalities in the Old World. Verso £16.99.
Written by three French sociologists, this volume is based on studies carried out under the aegis of the European Union Statistical Office and makes use of the standardised European Socio-economic Groups classification of employment. This leads to the distinguishing of three classes: working class (including unskilled manual workers, nursing assistants and farmers); middle class (office workers, police officers, IT technicians, teachers, etc); and dominant class (doctors, senior managers, lawyers, journalists, CEOs, and so on). Probably the most surprising aspect of this is the identification of a dominant class, and it is claimed that the one percent, the super-elite, ‘need allies to ensure that their orders at work will be transmitted and fulfilled, and ultimately to secure their hegemonic position in society’ and that the dominant class ‘encompasses all workers who have the power to impose rules in professional, social and even political life’ (so it seems they are workers too).
It is true that many people in this ‘dominant class’ are in charge of managing and supervising others (as are some of the ‘middle class’), but this is hardly enough to make doctors and engineers ‘dominant’ in any sense. And when it is stated that CEOs on average have less disposable household income than teachers and nurses, it does raise questions as to how reliable the classifications are. The dominant class includes entrepreneurs, but since this label applies to street hawkers as well as factory owners, its usefulness appears limited.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of interesting information here (in this paragraph we use the book’s terminology, without implying that we agree with it). In Central and Eastern parts of the EU, the dominant class is much smaller than in the North and West, on account of the control of the economy there by some Western firms. Industrial production has a greater share of the economy in the East and Centre and in the Baltic countries. The ageing of the population in the North and West, plus the greater number of women at work, has led to increased demand for childcare, care of the elderly and so on. Over one-fifth of the working class live below the poverty line (earning less than 60 percent of the median wage in the country concerned). Members of the dominant class are far more likely than others to attend a live performance such as a play, and to speak an international language such as English or Spanish. Trade unions find it harder to operate and negotiate at an international level, partly because of language difficulties.
The conclusion states that ‘experience of hardship and suffering at work is the common ground between members of the working and middle classes’, and argues for transforming work to make it less hierarchical and pay more attention to health and the environment. But it will take more than this to do away with the inequality and poverty that are described, if not convincingly analysed, here.