Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
The lifestyle supplement of the Observer may seem an unpromising place to look for a vigorous class analysis of society in the 1990s. But a recent issue, 'Class of 93', exposed the 'humbuggery of all the recent talk about a new classless Britain', with a summary of recent research by sociology professors John Goldthorpe and Gordon Marshall.
This was surprising in a number of ways. Sociology became so unfashionable in 1980s Britain that journalists rarely mentioned the subject, let alone quoted from it approvingly. The only sociology that did find favour was with formerly left wing journalists waving goodbye to Marxism who were, in effect, shadowing Thatcherism. Magazines like the New Statesman and especially the misnamed Marxism Today promoted the work of sociologists like Stuart Hall who were busily stressing 'individual identity', supposedly the key concept replacing 'class' as the means to make sense of the new postmodern, postindustrial society.
Now 'class' is back and it is back with a vengeance, making a mockery not only of the 'classless' society but of 'equality of opportunity'.
What is so surprising is how 'hard' are the research conclusions of Goldthorpe and Marshall. They are not Marxists, but followers of the German sociologist Max Weber. Weber made 'class' acceptable to academia by robbing the idea of its dynamism, inventing lots of new 'classes' and denying the inevitability of the struggle between the working class and the ruling class.
Their most striking conclusion is the failure of 'equality of opportunity' or 'social mobility'--to use the jargon--throughout the 20th century. It's no easier for a working class boy or girl to 'make it to the top' than it was 100 years ago.
During the period of full employment and relative 'affluence' these facts were concealed by an illusory improvement fuelled by the changing nature of technology. The number of manual working class jobs contracted while the number of non-manual jobs increased. But access to routine white collar work is hardly the achievement of a lifetime.
The low status professional jobs like teaching or nursing increasingly have the feel of 'factory work' with rotten pay, immense stress on the job and a new breed of petty bullying Thatcherite managers. No wonder Goldthorpe and Marshall conclude:
'What is revealed is the remarkable persistence of class-based inequalities and of class-differentiated patterns of social action, even within periods of rapid change.'
At a recent sociology conference Marshall described some research findings from an unpublished international survey which compares social mobility in six Western and six Eastern European countries. It shows strikingly similar patterns for all countries: a 'rigid' class structure everywhere, to use Marshall's words, with the same lack of social mobility.
Gordon Marshall, a solid middle-of-the road academic, spoke at the conference with a distinct aggressiveness in his manner and an open contempt for all things Thatcherite.In the 1960s the debate about 'equality of opportunity' was between liberal sociologists who claimed it existed and Marxists who said it did not. Marshall gives us an insight into the almost sinister debate of the 1990s. No one is denying the validity of the findings, he told his audience, but there are some who say that the reason for the lack of social mobility is the refusal of the working class to make the effort.
In other words, the working class is too stupid to take the opportunities which allegedly do exist.
Despite the Tories' best efforts sociology has remained a very popular subject. The number of sociology students actually grew quite fast throughout the 1980s, despite, or perhaps because of, the Tories driving the subject off the National Curriculum. In further education colleges, where student numbers are expanding phenomenally, it is frequently one of the most popular subjects. One London college management is seriously suggesting Saturday working offering sociology to schoolkids who are no longer allowed to learn it at school!
However, a word of warning about the radical potential of sociology: undoubtedly, it's a useful subject which helps us all to think critically about the world (which is why the Tories hate it so much). But its limitations are clear even from Marshall's excellent research. His team conducted an additional survey of contemporary international working class attitudes. It concluded that there was not much support for equality.
Marshall didn't say it, but the implications are deeply pessimistic, even reactionary: that the working class is a passive victim of circumstance, simply absorbing and reflecting the harsh realities of life. Missing is any idea of how working class men and women change their attitudes in the process of confronting the harsh realities.