Changing Contours of Class

For some time now, and despite widening inequalities across Western democracies, the relevance of the concept of class for social and political analysis has been questioned. This has been for various reasons. One is a justifiable belief that mainstream sociology was, at least up to the 1980s, premised on an exclusive focus on class which underplayed other axes of exploitation and inequality (gender, ethnicity and religion). Several sociologists hold the view that a complex fragmentation of classes has made the class concept itself theoretically and empirically problematic (Beck 2007). The heavy industries on which class consciousness was built have declined in the West as a result of outsourcing and the shift of manufacturing to developing countries. There is undoubtedly also a popular perception that class is not as important as it once was, whether in politics or society at large. In addition, we can witness the retreat from class in UK political debates, a recoil most evident in New Labour’s attempts to discard their ‘old’ Labour image. For a Labour Party not wishing to alienate its potential middle England vote, class in the twenty-first century became something of a ‘risky concept’ for politicians (Sayer 2005: 12).

We cannot attempt a full critical review of sociological debates over class here, but the following issues appear most at stake: First, there is an argument for a more complex view of class which can account for the role of cultural and social capital, namely consumption patterns and social networks, in the formation of classes (Savage et al. 2013). Second, are the changes in the qualitative and quantitative significance of some classes, or fractions within classes, as a result of recent and current dynamics of global capital accumulation driven by a ‘financialisation’ model (Van der Zwan 2014). Such changes would include the rise of a super-rich global elite, as well as a growing ‘precarious’ class of the insecure and temporary (under)employed, which renders the idea of a clear ‘dividing line’ between working class and middle class increasingly problematic.

Our own approach is to take both class relations and class experience seriously and to understand that it is still in relation to the economy that contemporary class structures are reproduced. We conceptualise classes as people sharing a position in the labour market with regard to opportunities for income, wealth and indeed for consumption and social participation. This has the virtue of accommodating both advantaged and disadvantaged fractions within broader classes and including people who have both ‘won’ and ‘lost’ as a consequence of neoliberal globalisation. Putting this into practice, we may follow the schema offered by Bradley (2014: 433), which emphasises broad class groupings—the elite, middle class, working class and precariat—which may be subdivided into a number of class fractions. Each class may contain members who perceive themselves as either gaining or losing out.

First, as Sayer (2013) comments, one of the biggest changes to the class structure in recent decades is the growth of a super-rich global elite. Although statistically very small, they are crucially important as the ‘movers and shakers of global neoliberal capitalism’ (Bradley 2014: 434). Elsewhere Savage and Williams (2008: 10) have commented on the rise of financial elites since the 1980s to challenge the previous dominance of managerial elites. Flemmen’s (2012) analysis of the economic upper class in Norway identifies how the longstanding distinction between the owners of large businesses and ‘employed’ executives and managers persists under financialisation.

Second, by far the largest and most diverse are the middle classes, who range from high-wage earners who are employees in large companies and traditional professionals (doctors, solicitors, accountants, engineers) through to low-status, predominantly female, white-collar workers (nurses, council workers, administrators). In between are the petty bourgeoisie (shopkeepers, small business owners) and a set of professionals, well paid but increasingly insecure, who fit the recent notion of a ‘squeezed middle’ (teachers, lecturers, social workers, IT specialists)

(Parker 2013). Many of the material pressures generated by the financial- isation of capital, heightened after the 2007 financial crisis, have a bearing on members of the middle class as well as the working class. Some within this middle class group will have also suffered material loss in the form of economic opportunities, diminished social status and declining housing market opportunities.

Third is the working class. The losses experienced by the working class from the process of deindustrialisation are well documented (Strangleman and Rhodes 2014). In contrast, yet still within the broader working class, is a relatively affluent and aspiring upper-working-class fraction consisting of skilled manual workers, tradespeople and redundant factory and manufacturing workers now self-employed. But others within the service sector are threatened by advances in communication technology which enables the outsourcing of work to new countries. Many within the ‘working class’ today are service workers rather than factory workers. This latter grouping of service workers form a new ‘precariat’ class which, while resonating with previous notions (underclass, lumpen proletariat), has grown in significance such as to be considered distinct from the working class. This class includes people on temporary, part-time and inferior contracts and working as temps, cleaners, educational assistants, call-centre workers, fruit pickers and bar and restaurant staff. The pre- cariat may also be distinguished from the working class as it includes some skilled and highly educated workers, such as students and graduates without employment (Bradley 2014: 434).

Conceptualisations of class are also mediated by the (declining) role of the state. To put it crudely, in Britain, the period between 1920 and 1980 witnessed an increasing role for the state in reducing inequalities and improving the material conditions of working-class people. After 1945 this period saw the creation of the welfare state, as well as the growth of public-sector employment for both middle- and working-class people. Since 1980, however, the undoing of welfare provision and legislation favouring the deregulation of capital have led to increasing inequality and material losses for working people. The development of the neoliberal global economy arguably has weakened the ties between states and citizens and, as a result, between citizens and nations. As Bauman (2004) has argued, nations are carried by states. As global economic and cultural movements undermine the autonomy of states, so the power of the state to bind its citizens is gravely weakened. Moreover, in a global economy, states have much less to ‘offer’ their citizens. Amidst the complexities of globalisation and technological change, national governments appear increasingly unable to deliver (Stoker 2006). Thus the demands of both US and UK governments concerning tax evasion by large multinationals (Apple in the USA, Amazon and Google in the UK) are met with defiance. Whereas working people in many capitalist democracies have won concessions from the state to provide varying degrees of social security and welfare, capitalist globalisation means that the hard-won welfare can ‘go into reverse’. As the very idea of a welfare democracy loses its grip, welfare itself comes to be viewed, both by political elites and some sections of the population, as unfair (Hoggett et al. 2013). By contrast, some classes within capitalist democracies participate more readily in the benefits of globalisation and are less affected by the weakening of welfare or, indeed, are themselves ‘global actors’—in their employment, mode of travel and networks and outlook.

Thus the changes to contemporary class structures described here do not afford a simple classification of classes, let alone a binary division between working and middle classes. This said, existing classification schemas like the NS-Sec1 and NRS Social Grade[1] [2] do remain useful to the extent that they enable distinctions both between and within broad social classes. Thus, with regard to the NS-Sec classification, socio-economic groups 1.1 and 4—the so-called employer classes—share a similar rela?tion to capital but in a way that is distinct from socio-economic groups 1.2, 2 and 3, which may contain a greater proportion of so-called cultural and public-sector workers. Alongside these, socio-economic groups 6 and 7 are where we would find most of today’s low-paid workers. Socioeconomic group 5 is the traditional location for skilled manual workers. But skilled tradespeople are increasingly self-employed and may have more in common with socio-economic group 4 (the traditional location for the petty bourgeoisie) than they do with the classes below them. This way of understanding class in light of contemporary change presents a challenge for some of the ways in which the salience of class for political behaviour and identity (voting, party identification) has been questioned, even dismissed.

  • [1] The NS-Sec (National Statistics Socio-economic classification) is widely used within official statistics and surveys. It derives from the sociological classification known as the Goldthorpe schema.The version of the classification used in most analyses, including the UK census, has eight classes:1.1: Large employers and higher managerial and administrative occupations; 1.2: Higher professional occupations; 2: Lower managerial, professional and administrative occupations; 3:Intermediate occupations; 4: Small employers and own account workers; 5: Lower supervisory andtechnical occupations; 6: Semi-routine occupations; 7: Routine occupations; 8: Never worked andlong-term unemployed.
  • [2] The NRS (National Readership Survey) Social Grade is more commonly known by its groups A,B, C1, C2, D and E. It is widely used in market research and commercial polling organisations,notably Ipsos Mori and YouGov. The six social classes are as follows: A: Higher managerial, administrative and professional; B: Intermediate managerial, administrative and professional; C1:Supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative and professional; C2: Skilled manualworkers; D: Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers; and E: State pensioners, casual or lowest-grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only.
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