Thoughts on the Politics of Class

By | December 7, 2017

Earlier this year I read Evans and Tilley’s The New Politics of Class: the Political Exclusion of the British Working Class (Oxford University Press, 2017). I enjoyed it, with qualifications. I have recently chanced upon an edited version of a Mike Savage commentary on it and thought I might stick my oar in. In general terms I welcome his initiatives at the LSE to further research the assets and activities of what he refers to as the ‘wealth elite’ (I have after all been arguing for 20+ years that to properly explain health inequalities it is the strategic behaviour of the rich and powerful that we need to focus on). The reservations regarding his work that I carry into this blog, however, are twofold: first, I regret and regard as a mistake the switch from class to elite theory and analysis; and second, I profoundly disagree with the conflation of class and culture epitomized for example in the Great British Class Survey (rightly condemned in my view as ‘poor sociology’ by Goldthorpe, Mills and others). So I take these judgements to the starting gate.

Evans and Tilley’s study is impressive in the Nuffield tradition, which is to say that it is quantitatively-oriented and therefore dependent on accessing social processes and institutions via their reduction to ‘chunks’ or variables en route to multivariate analysis. This is not to say that it is not thoughtful (see Goldthorpe’s Sociology as a Population Science): the authors are not afraid to make cautious theoretical calls. Use is routinely made of the usual proxies for ‘real’ class relations, although other relevant research in mined whenever possible; it is a rich, sustained empirical study. What, in essence, do they argue? Class is far from dead is the principal conclusion. Emphasis is laid on the continuity of class divisions since WW2, most notably in terms of economic inequality and political attitiudes. There have however been telling ‘political changes’: party politics, political rhetoric and the social composition of political elites have all altered. As Conservative and (New) Labour policies converged and became middle class in the 1990s, class differences in party political preferences all but disappeared. This is not to say, Evans and Tilley insist, that class politics no longer exists. ‘Minor parties’, UKIP in particular, emerged to seduce disillusioned working-class voters away from the major parties. More importantly, they contend, the middle-class consensus obtaining across the two major parties meant that fewer working-class individuals turned out to vote. As in the USA, Britain has witnessed a significant ‘political exclusion’ of the working class. This threatens representative democracy. These trends came to a head in the Brexit conclusion to the EU referendum.

What is the essence of Savage’s appraisal? He welcomes Evans and Tilley’s affirmation of the continuing salience of class, and he is appreciative of another of their general themes, namely, that it makes explanatory sense to forego references to left versus right and focus instead on those who are engaged and those who are excluded (not least in terms of shifts in voting turnout). Around a half of workers with a low level of education did not vote in 2015, compared with one in five well-educated professionals. The popularity of Corbyn’s 2017 ‘left wing manifesto’ owed more, Savage rightly notes, to the young and to ethnic minority support than to a recovery of its ‘traditional’ working-class base. What he goes on to emphasize is Evans and Tillay’s neglect of how class itself is being ‘remade’ and its intersectionalities with race, gender and age.

I am sympathetic with Savage’s points, but would frame them differently. I would summarize my points of qualification as follows:

  • I agree that class in post-1970s financial capitalism is being ‘remade’ in the sense that class relations have taken new forms;
  • I think class relations have more explanatory power in financial capitalism than they did in post-WW2 welfare state capitalism;
  • however, the input of class relations into identity-formation has reduced in financial capitalism, rendering class consciousness more latent than manifest;
  • too many sociologists – and most conspicuously those with an interest in identity politics – have wrongly inferred that class relations have lost their general explanatory punch from their diminished salience for identity-formation;
  • I agree that ethnic, gender and age relations have too often been neglected, but, like Sayer and others, I do not regard them as primary relations for capitalism, whilst class relations are;
  • I am less drawn to explicitly intersectionalist approaches than I am to the critical realist notion that (beneath-the-surface) relations of class, gender, ethnicity and age are: (a) simultaneously active, (b) vary in explanatory power by phenomenon and context, and (c) can only be retroductively (via quantitative research) or abductively (via ethnographic or qualitative research) inferred from (on-the-surface) events in an ineluctably open society;
  • I suggest that Evans and Tilley, whose contribution I respect, are hoist by their own – and Goldthorpe’s – petard, in the sense that: (a) the positivistic premisses they are bound by so constrain their research that they (b) end up calling on a dodgy range of ‘optimal’ proxy measures in an attempt to (c) provide more-or-less definitive answers to complex interrogations of phenomena in an open society as if it were possible to secure experimental-like closures;
  • Savage is more open to pluralistic, suck-it-and-see methodologies appropriate a credible sociology.

I have in other blogs outlined my own neo-Marxist perspective on class relations and will not spell it out again here. Suffice to say that I hold that in financial capitalism the hard core of the capitalist executive (a fraction of the 1% if you will) have capital enough to buy sufficient power from the power elite at the apex of the apparatus of the state to secure policies conducive to further capital accumulation. The hard core of the capitalist executive and the power elite together constitute what I call the governing oligarchy (Sayer’s alternative, the plutocracy, also works). I refer to financial capitalism’s revised class/command dynamic. My greedy bastards hypothesis (or GBH) contends that the strategic or instrumental behaviour of this ‘hard core’ of the capitalist executive is the ‘fundamental cause’ of widening health inequalities in the UK. The individuals involved are eminently replaceable; it is the structures or relations (primarily of class) that they surf that have explanatory purchase for sociologists. I oppose the conflation of class qua relation and class culture in proxy measures of the former because that is to forego the opportunity of understanding and explaining the dialectic between them. I certainly accept, however, that cultural problematics have come during financial capitalism to ‘cloud’ class alignment and voting patterns.

In what circumstances does my hard core of the capitalist executive trump Savage’s wealth elite? Elite theory has its place: it addresses issues like who rises to the top in a range of fields, and how and who is recruited. What is involved in my case for a class-driven governance that produces, reproduces and – in the ongoing trajectory of financial capitalism – deepens material and social inequalities? The capitalist executive comprises: (a) capital monopolists, (b) capital auxiliaries, and (c) capital ‘sleepers’. The capital monopolists are, in my terminology, ‘players’, heavily globalized (post-national or ‘nomadic’, in Bauman’s terms), a cabal of heavy-hitters who possess sufficent capital to press home and secure their self-interested, capital-accumulating agendas. The capital auxiliaries are a softer core of non-players whose capital ownership is such that their default option is passive accumulation. The capital ‘sleepers’ are those in higher management who are capital-lite but who actively support players. The capital executive, epitomized by the monopolists, purchase ‘co-optees’ throughout the new and old middles classes and, to a lesser degree, the working classes.

Really existing class relations, in my view, are the prepotent structural driver of the social in this latest (Streek – possible terminal) phase of financial capitalism. To retreat from this is in my view to cede ground unneccesarily to the ideology (i.e. false and self-serving narrative of) the governing oligarchy. Why does the May regime and (capital monopolist) ‘Brexit project’ not afford instant confirmation?

Class relations are decisive even as class consciousness is dormant. Sociologists must resist the premature abandonment of ‘really existing’ class relations. If we don’t, we run the risk of what I’ve termed ‘collaborationist sociology’.

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