Saturday 28 January 2012
The concept I have struggled most in my academic life is class. Not that I have felt I should join demonstrators on the streets tomorrow. Rather, I have never quite understood the concept itself. Definitions are plenty if you only look for them. Marx himself had a complex notion of class, extending the concept beyond income and societal positions to his idea of group consciousness. Given this diversity of approaches, class may not be a suitable topic for a blog but since it has reared its (ugly) head again in recent debates on equality I might just give it a try.
Let us start with the most common definition of class: a social division determined by income or resources. There can be no doubt that class in this sense is still very much with us. Equality of opportunity was supposed to reduce class divisions, and some progress has undoubtedly been made in this respect. Young people growing up today can become doctors or university professors with salaries in the top 5% income group. In other words, there is no professional area that is categorically barred to anyone because of ethic origin, religious affiliation or anything else that used to hold people back in life.
This does not mean however that all is well. Equality of opportunity itself is still limited in the sense that if you go to a school with poor teaching and few resources you have to work much harder than somebody attending a school which has the best teachers in the land. The principle itself, however, that people have to make their own way in the world must be the correct one. This idea of course should also apply to those who are born into rich and resourceful families. This is the flipside of equality of opportunity which often receives less attention. In essence it may justify higher inheritance tax than we currently have; something that is fiercely resisted by all who ever built up a little something to pass it on to their children.
So does this mean that class divisions will always be with us? I grew up in a society where some signs of class, such as ostentatious riches, were not on display. That did not mean however that classes did not exist. On the contrary, access to education, careers and opportunities were severely restricted to those ‘worthy’ in a socialist society. So, the mechanisms that created class divisions were out of your hands, and in the control of a small political elite. Far from making everybody equal, it achieved a breathtaking degree of inequality and injustice. So much for Marx’s notion of overcoming class divisions in the brave new world of socialism.
Yet, although socialism failed to eliminate class divisions, liberal societies do not much better on this. Social mobility, the extent to which people born into lower income groups of society can rise in the ranks, is in decline across the Western World. Moreover, it is far from clear what the best vehicle for social mobility is. Some commentators favour selective education, others talk about more general access to social, political and economic resources.
I guess there is no simple answer since success in life is an individual project; in which some will fail, others will succeed. And I doubt that we can eradicate all inequalities that we encounter in our quest for a more just society. At the end of the day, all we can do is to support each other to provide a more level playing field. That may not be enough for all, but perhaps it works for an ever increasing number of people to achieve their dreams. This way, class may still be with us, but become more a reminder of our aspirations rather than a barrier to our dreams.