A “working class” label is not enough to improve people’s lives

Cath Elliott wrote an article in yesterday’s (29 June 2010) Guardian expressing why she is proud to be working class and why “middle class” is an insult she is happy to use — this even though she is aware that she and her partner have “been able to afford to take our children abroad for holidays, and in the grand scheme of things, we’re doing all right.”  But, material possessions don’t define class if you’re “a bit of a Marxist”, rather it’s power and ownership of “means of production” (whatever those are now) that matters.

I think social class is important.  From one perspective, there is a matrix of class locations related to what sort of skills you need to do your job, how many people you supervise, and whether you own or rent the place where you live (see, e.g., Wright, 1997). This does matter, in terms for instance of what kinds of people tend to talk to each other and (I imagine this is not too controversial) what groups are seen as “scum”.  And politicians are affected too: Bigotgate is an unfortunate example.

Although social class matters, I believe it would be more helpful to isolate the meaningful bits of the concept “working class” and focus on those instead of hurling general and vague abuse at the non-working-class, whoever they are.

I’d rather I was never exploited by rude, authoritarian, belittling bosses — I expect others do too.  It’s right for people to band together to protect themselves from abuses by people in power.  This can be done on many levels, from simply refusing to use automated checkouts at supermarkets and instead talking to people and keeping them in a job, to joining a union and going on strike when the need arises.

The effects of unearned privilege annoy people, rightly, and I think we should continue to fight to ensure that some people aren’t forced into the gutter while others get $$$ in the millions for doing very little.  Here I’m not sure how to proceed, but I’m pretty sure insulting the “middle classes” isn’t enough. Maybe everything should be made a little bit more “middle” in a way.

I also think it’s madness to try to remove all variation. Some people are better with their hands than others; some with technological skills like software development; some are better managers. The values of society need to change to allow and reward these different kinds of contribution so it’s not only those wearing suit and tie, spending the day in meetings and signing documents, who are seen as important in society.


Wright, E. O. (1997). Class counts: student edition. Cambridge University Press.



  1. Carl

    Interesting post, Andy. I agree with all of it, actually. And it’s one of my favourite topics, as it covers so many areas.

    Class does matter, and the way such things as accent and clothing is interpreted provides a pretty quick cross-reference guide to many of the assumptions of British society – more especially England itself.

    Even in countries without the same regional diversity of accent and behaviour, social class asserts itself, perhaps most strongly where occupational social mobility is less apparent.

    Without wishing to sound bitter or hard-done-by, the class structure tends to disregard such measures as comprehensive education, either diverting the wealthy children to private schools, or effectively segmenting the comprehensive schools into streams which correspond closely to parental background.

    I get asked by friends why I am so fixated by the class system. After all, am certainly not from a disadvantaged background myself, yet neither was I packed off to a boarding school from the age of 5.

    To my mind the class system results in losers on both sides. For sure, the upper classes and middle classes have more money, but can only exist in ways that may deprive them of their own happiness, and for fellowship they can really only look to other privileged individuals.

    The chances, therefore, of an Etonian becoming a great sheet metal worker or furniture maker- though this may be the work which would they would most enjoy – are therefore limited. The chances of a daughter of unemployed parents in Middlesbrough becoming a top lawyer are similarly reduced – as are the chances of her maintaining good health, steady income and decent housing.

    In a rigid class system, we are all, to a greater or lesser degree, deprived of our liberty. I like the fact you relate this to personal, everyday life – for it is also how we treat others which determines the strength of what Blake called our ‘mind-forg’d manacles’. I guess this places me on the hippy, neo-marxist side of Labour, if such a current exists…

  2. Andy

    I asked John Raven to comment on this post. Here follows his response, in the context of email exchanges we have had. (I added comments in square brackets.)

    “Quick comment: Socio-Economic Status has pervasive implications and multiple components just like g [the general factor in intelligence; see https://figuraleffect.wordpress.com/2007/05/18/how-to-get-someones-g/ ].

    “On the whole, it does little good to try to separate them out.

    “There are some striking findings that one has to live with.

    “The extent of social mobility in our society is enormous. I don’t have the figures to hand, but they are something like 8% of SES 1 have come all the way from 8.

    “Two thirds of that mobility is predictable from 11 year olds’ IQ scores.

    “This is not a surrogate for education.

    “I gave up the Marxist class struggle bit 55 years ago when I saw what was going on at LSE where discussions were permeated by simplistic interpretations … exactly parallel to g.

    “BUT I later learned from Robert E Lane and a couple of others whose names I have forgotten to treat it with rather more respect.

    “The worst bastards in managerial positions are those who have risen as a result of their preoccupation with advancement.

    “As you know, Hogan has shown that 50% of American managers drive their organisations into the ground for personal gain.

    “Mixing up Soviet Capitalism with Communism is a common disaster area.

    “The recent “Spirit Level” book … showing the pervasive effects of inequality … is interesting and has caught public imagination.

    “As you know, Bookchin’s Ecology of Freedom … dealing with the rise and rise of hierarchy and its persistent dissolution of organic organisation has devastated my life. (See paper in my eyeonsociety website [http://www.eyeonsociety.co.uk/ ]).

    “In short, “social class” is no more easily to be brushed aside than g. Indeed, the very existence of g may be manufactured to support hierarchy. It may be part of the same thing. And not just in the factorial [i.e., related to statistical correlations] sense.”

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