Them & Us?

By Maitland, Sara | Commonweal, May 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Them & Us?


Maitland, Sara, Commonweal


The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain David Cannadine Columbia University Press, $29.95, 274 pp

It is terribly difficult to explain to Americans the problem (I do think it is a problem) of class in Britain. British social reality is actually different. We still have hereditary political power and social prestige. Present plans to abolish the voting privileges of the hereditary peers do not propose abolishing titles, which will remain influential (charities and businesses still seek out titled individuals to confer prestige upon their enterprises). Paradoxically, at the same time the discourses of socialism have never had the sinister applications that they have acquired in the United States. A language of "class" persists within the political process. Moreover, class as a question of style, of representation, and language, at every level, has been annexed to, and reinforces, the social reality.

David Cannadine quotes Lord Beaverbrook saying that in America "the only difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich have more money." This is not true in Britain. There is a whole language and social structure that separates wealth from class, and creates a set of complex nuances around social status. And, because of the legacy of the empire, even race does not entirely escape these distinctions-Indian aristocrats educated at Eton are more Etonian than Indian, for instance.

Although it is common to describe Britain as class "obsessed," I don't think it is helpful. If obsession suggests a continuous anxiety and engagement with a subject, it is no more true to say the British are class obsessed than it is to say we are "breathing obsessed." We all breathe and we all, in language and in actions, address class on a daily basis-from what plants we choose to grow in our gardens to how we think politically.

Cannadine's admirably well-written account of the development of the language of class over the last three centuries should therefore prove extremely useful in the United States. He sees class as a rhetorical device reflecting not a simple social reality, but a set of perceptions about how society is constituted. These perceptions are available for manipulation and social construction, and have been so used for the last three centuries. For example, there was not any measurable "middle-class triumph" in the mid-nineteenth century, there was merely a new perception that power should lie with the bourgeoisie. These sets of perceptions have proved enduring and effective precisely because they are vague and inaccurate.

Cannadine argues-and I am convinced he's right-that British life has three particular understandings of class. First, there is a hierarchical continuum, based on every individual having a place slightly above or slightly below her neighbor; a ladder with a rung for everyone from monarch to beggar. This understanding of class as a classification implies that there are no true points of disjuncture or division. …

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