Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

The Shifting Politics of Inequality and the Class Ceiling

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

The Shifting Politics of Inequality and the Class Ceiling

Article excerpt

Inequality is nothing new. But the contemporary dynamics of inequality are taking increasingly severe turns that demand urgent and sustained critical thinking and intervention. Along with numerous colleagues in the UK and internationally, we have charted the twists that different forms of inequality have taken in recent decades. Here we offer our thoughts on the contemporary relationship between inequality and social class, and how the centre-left can mobilise around these issues.

The old politics of class

We should recall how things were in 1945. A major and sustained international recession had left Britain, along with other industrial nations, ravaged by mass unemployment and poverty. The effects of war had also wrought horrific social devastation. The response was encapsulated in the heroic words of the Beveridge Report which laid the foundations for the welfare state and its concern to slay the five 'giant evils' of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Looking back, the post-war decades appear as remarkable periods of progress, with sustained efforts by government to support vulnerable populations through state welfare, and a progressive taxation policy ensuring that the costs of this fell proportionately on those best placed to afford it. A dynamic and expanding economy also ushered in strong rates of economic growth and high (absolute) social mobility, which brought steady improvements in the living standards of many.

These years are a long way past now, however, and this is the hard reality we need to confront. The finance-led and service-based economy championed by Thatcher's Conservative government in the 1980s, allied to the globalisation of trade, produced what now appears as highly volatile economic growth. Much of the apparent success was premised on the one-off rewards made possible by deregulation and the selling of public assets rather than through sustained productivity growth which secured the longer-term gains of the post-war decades. The benefits of this growth were seized disproportionately by those able to take advantage of the opportunities of deregulation - bankers, consultants, and experts of all kinds. Meanwhile, those at the bottom end of the social hierarchy were most likely to be at the sharp end of cuts in public spending. And, since 2008, even this unstable and precarious growth has had the carpet pulled from under it following the economic meltdown which affected many parts of the world. Nearly 10 years later, recovery is both very partial, and also unstable.

This story is well known but needs to be repeated since our repertoires for thinking about inequality, and how to address it, remain locked in the infrastructure put in place during the post-war decades. The political left has not caught up with the urgency of the current situation and the need for new thinking. A crucial example is our understanding of social class, which, certainly in Britain, has been a key idea underpinning progressive and egalitarian political agendas. Of fundamental importance to the labour movement's thinking over the course of the twentieth century was that the working class had historically been excluded from the full fruits of citizenship and prosper- ity, and needed to be more effectively included in the social contract. The fundamental cultural - as well as economic - division between middle and working class was thereby etched into the social landscape. The political infrastructure, especially that mobilised by trade unions and the Labour Party, drew powerfully on the imagery evoked by this distinction.

Social Class in the twenty-first century

The most powerful lesson learned from the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), on which we both worked, is that this kind of class thinking no longer gives us meaningful purchase on contemporary affairs. The GBCS ran in conjunction with the BBC with a view to mapping the class system in a new way - not just using conventional measures of occupation but using an approach inspired by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that classified people according to their levels of three capitals - economic, cultural, and social. …

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