Is your class simply a question of your wealth? Is it, alternatively, more to do with your social background, or your education, or your lifestyle? Is it a question of what kind of job you do, and, if so, is that because of the income you earn from doing it, or the status that it enjoys? Is social class an objective or a subjective matter—are you a member of a class irrespective of what you think, or by virtue of the class in which you believe yourself to be? And, however defined, are members of subordinate classes properly to be treated as victims, and discriminated against in favour of the interests of equality? Alternatively, perhaps the question itself is misconceived. Is the question of class a dead letter at the end of the twentieth century, irrelevant for both politics and social analysis?
Postmodernism adopts an affirmative answer to the last of these questions. Postmodernist theories erupted into disputes within the social sciences in the 1980s to challenge the ‘discourse’ of class analysis, and the ‘terrorizing totalizations’ of grand theory in general, and Marxism in particular. Historical explanations that sought patterns, uniformities and ultimate causes, or social theories which grounded themselves on definitive characterizations of epochs and the mechanisms of epochal change, were abandoned. Expressive of their moment, and of the disillusionment of their authors in the feasibility of any alternative to the existing social order, these postmodernisms survive now after their moment has passed.
Class politics is ended, the postmodernist declares, and people no longer think about society in class terms. In a ‘postmodern world’, sub-units of populations are only distinguished, we are urged to believe, on the basis of the unstable characteristics of ‘lifestyle choices’. 1 No longer are social groups locked into segmented labour markets by their social backgrounds so as to constitute economic classes. The development of the capitalist market economy, it is argued, has finally suppressed the vestiges of traditional discriminations so that now there is open and unfettered competition between individuals in an undifferentiated labour market. Failure and success are no longer the consequences of social structures and social processes; they are the fruits of individual effort and ability, and are even experienced as such in a privatized and individualized world where group