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Class essentialism January 17, 2014

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class, Culture, Economy.
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Here’s an interesting piece on Slate that deals with perceptions of class essentialism, i.e. beliefs that genetic and or other factors determine class position. It’s unsurprising to discover that those who perceive themselves to be in “higher” class positions hold to this view more than those who perceive themselves to be in “lower” class positions. Discussing how Boris Johnson suggested that inequality can be linked to some degree to IQ when he said “I am afraid that [the] violent economic centrifuge [of competition] is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability,”, Matthew Hutson – who wrote the piece – notes that:

That’s a satisfying worldview for someone who is successful and considers himself unusually bright.

As Hutson also notes, though, those in the top percentage of household earnings are unlikely to be ‘200 times as smart as the rest of the field… or have the capacity to work 200 times more hours in the week’ and therefore other factors including luck enter the picture.

Hutson continues:

But say you’re in that top 0.01 percent—or even the top 50 percent. Would you want to admit happenstance as a benefactor? Wouldn’t you rather believe that you earned your wealth, that you truly deserve it? Wouldn’t you like to think that any resources you inherited are rightfully yours, as the descendant of fundamentally exceptional people? Of course you would. New research indicates that in order to justify your lifestyle, you might even adjust your ideas about the power of genes. The lower classes are not merely unfortunate, according to the upper classes; they are genetically inferior.

Now, I’ve noted previously how this line of thinking is coming into vogue. Only recently Prospect had a most confused article on same where a sort of class essentialism was reflected in a belief that class structures and social mobility, or lack of same, reflected some sort of intrinsic intellectual, educational and work/career aptitude – an attitude that was obviously in error one would think but one which wasn’t for the most part picked up on the Prospect website by those commenting on it, or in letters subsequently. And worse again this was part of a broader ‘discussion’ which Hutson notes:

A top adviser to the U.K.’s education secretary just produced a report arguing that “discussions on issues such as social mobility entirely ignore genetics.” He claimed that school performance is as much as 70 percent genetic and criticized England’s Sure Start program as a waste of money. (As Scott Barry Kaufman, an intelligence researcher at NYU and the author of Ungifted, points out, “Since genes are always interacting with environmental triggers, there is simply no way to parse how much of an individual child’s performance is due to nature or nurture.”)

Hutson suggests that:

There is a grain of truth to social class essentialism; the few studies on the subject estimate that income, educational attainment, and occupational status are perhaps at least 10 percent genetic (and maybe much more). It makes sense that talent and drive, some portion of which are related to genetic variation, contribute to success.

But as he concludes:

… that’s a far cry from saying “It is possible to determine one’s social class by examining his or her genes.” Such a statement ignores the role of wealth inheritance, the social connections one shares with one’s parents, or the educational opportunities family money can buy—not to mention strokes of good or bad luck (that are not tied to karma).

One can quibble slightly about the use of the term ‘social’ as if this is divorced from economic, though as can be seen he’s not ignoring economic factors.

And there are other issues too. There’s been such a massive social and societal churn in the last few centuries that concepts of genetic inheritance determining class position are deeply unlikely, frankly the changing nature of societies has been too great to allow of that. Take this state as an example where the self-perceived uppermost layer in class terms was effectively sidelined in the independence struggle. Hard to argue any sort of class essentialism in regard to their right of inheritance or intrinsic excellence.

Hutson, unhappily, notes that:

Social class essentialism is basically inciting social Darwinism. This distortion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in one interpretation, is the belief that only the fit survive and thrive—and, further, that this process should be accepted or even accelerated by public policy. It’s an example of the logical fallacy known as the “appeal to nature”—what is natural is good. (If that were true, technology and medicine would be moral abominations.) Social class essentialism entails belief in economic survival of the fittest as a fact. It might also entail belief in survival of the fittest as a desired end, given the results linking it to reduced support for restorative interventions. It’s one thing to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s not waste our time.” It’s another to say, “Those people can’t change, so let’s lock them away.” Or eradicate them: Only four years ago, then-Lt. Gov. of South Carolina Andre Bauer told a town hall meeting that poor people, like “stray animals,” should not be fed, “because they breed.”

This too is part of what we have to contend with.

On a tangent that links back into this, consider how even quite recently our societies had a certain orientation, for example the idea that all workers should work. That’s not a uniquely left wing position but it is one that has a currency on the left and can be regarded as being a part of social democrat and other left thinking. Now that approach has been diluted, note how in the current crisis unemployment is no longer regarded as the paramount issue as the market itself, in various forms – but most immediately its financial aspect, is reified as the central issue where all else is secondary. And those who are involved in the market are then reified as well and so on and so forth…

Of course one must be cautious about in part psychological analyses, but given the force of those behind attempting to shift discussion and policy on this area onto new and further rightward ground it appears to have some substance. Hutson, to judge from his piece, isn’t really attacking class structures in the way that many of us might wish, let alone aspiring to replace them, but any discussion of class – even, or particularly, in this area, begins to point out the contradictions and negatives aspects in relation to current structures. That’s no bad thing.

The strange naivety of some in the middle-class in relation to work… July 11, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Class, Culture, Economy, The Left, Uncategorized.
5 comments

…there’s a piece in the current issue of Prospect magazine that will infuriate many. Under the heading ‘Middle-class survivalism’ it argues that since ‘we’ are ‘the prime target for politicians struggling to restore the public finances…is there any escape?’

The author is a former financial writer:

Looking back, I can put my finger on the time when clutch of appealing illusion I had carried unquestioningly with me throughout my adult life began to fall away. It was 2009, just two years into the financial and economic debacle that still surrounds us, but long before I or most other people finally realised that what we thought was just another temporary downturn – albeit a bad one – was in fact something totally different. it was game over. An old way of thinking and doing things was finished.

What was the cause of this damascene conversion? Well his wife was pregnant with their first child, there were issues with his extended family and…

…a happy and supportive relationship with my employer which had lasted almost 15 years, suddenly became the exact opposite. By the following sprint I had an infant son, a disorientated mother living among strangers behind locked doors and a cheque instead of a career.

Now, he appears a little trusting. For example, who could disagree with the following:

Life is a lot easier and less stressful if you like your job and the company you work for.

But I often wonder how much that would be true of many many working lives?

That said there’s a lot of truth in what he then says:

The money turns up every month and the seasons roll around. Colleagues can become good friends over the years and the social life of the office is something you miss when it’s gone.

And that is true, and inevitable, at least in many workplaces, because this is a primary focus of life in this period if one is working. The office, factory, whatever the space one is positioned in is where so much of living takes place. It may not take up all the conscious part of the day but it is easily the most prolonged period in a day in a single place – at least for most working.

And having been made redundant myself I know all too well, and this I’ve mentioned already recently, about how friendships, networks, contacts are broken, often for good. All pattern is taken from the day to be replaced if there is no work with… nothing much.

Still, again the thought strikes that he was particularly naive…

The first big illusion I left behind that spring was that any company would ever really care for me, as opposed to the role I was being paid to carry out.

Perpetuating this comforting illusion is a key function of middle management and stupidly I allowed almost 15 years of positive experience to lull me into believing it. That turned out to be a profound mistake and one I won’t make again.

It reminds me of a former boss, an MD of multiple companies. On occasion his thing was to drag his sales and management teams from the various companies into what were optimistically called a ‘sales meetings’ where in some magical ‘synergistic’ fashion great things would be plotted and achieved.

Unfortunately due to the nature of my work I was forced to lurk at these in the corner and saw that the drab reality was that he would proceed to talk for hours about what should be done with little or no purchase on what was actually feasible. Eventually, I realised, as many had before, that these served as a sort of therapy. His catharsis and us paid for the privilege. Fair enough, and there were sandwiches at lunch, so few complaints. As the years progressed these became more and more absurd and that was essentially the spirit in which people engaged with them.

But on one occasion a new recruit, a senior manger in a company appearing for the first time made the rookie error of addressing the MD by his first name. None of us passed comment, but I heard back from the individual – let’s call him ‘Bob’ – involved that he had been taken aside directly afterwards by the MD and informed… ‘Bob, I’m your boss, not your buddy’.

This wasn’t news to me, given my political orientation, but a useful object lesson in terms of the real power relationships at work, nonetheless.

That someone, the author of the Prospect piece, could be a financial writer and not understand these from the get go is a disturbing testament to how orthodoxies actually function (indeed here from a few years back is another angle on this).

Sure, he says:

Being a financial writer, I’ve naturally come across other, more impersonal ways to view the true balance of power that exists between companies and the people that work for them.

But one has the sense that that penny never quite dropped. And note not a mention of unions or workers organising to ensure their rights or extend them further.

Anyhow he continues, being concerned with the anguish of the middle-classes in the newish dispensation. Though, I guess in fairness, it is worth considering how the precariousness of working life that has characterised lower paid work is now reaching well into the self-ascribed middle classes.

And also in fairness he makes an interesting point discussing his mother’s situation. He talks about the general sense of unease in the middle class, amongst the ‘well-paid’ and so on in the current situation. And he suggests that ‘having gone through the process of unravelling my mother’s finances after she went into the care home, I can see good reasons why they should be [uneasy]’.

I grew up thinking my parents were comfortably off and once we tracked downy he paperwork this belief turned out to be broadly true. As part of the wartime generation, she had worked hard, saved and owned property through its long bull market with the result that, at 85, she had a teacher’s pension, property she owned outright and a decent sum in personal investments. What she didn’t have was enough income to meet her monthly bills.

He asks…

How could this be? She had apparently done everything right but was till well short of being able to pay her way in the world.

And here it gets very interesting indeed.

The reasons will, I suspect, be depressingly familiar to many others who have been through the same process with their parents. From what I could discern, my mother must have had a financial advisor at some point – at least this was the most obvious explanation why her money had been spread across a roll-call of the UK’s leading fund management groups (all the big names got their share), and why all of its as invested in equity funds that held shares in the same narrow list of large companies. The other things these funds had in com,mon was that none paid out any regular income to her and they all charges at least 1.5 per cent a year in management feeds, around a third of which would be handed to the advisor who had channelled her money into these funds and then departed the scene.

But why is this a surprise? To be a capitalist requires capital, serious capital. Handing over the facade of capitalist endeavour, attempting to understand let alone play markets, requires much much greater resources than his mother could bring to bear. Add in the noxious intersection of deep self-interest that serves to pass for much of the financial industry and the capacity for personal losses are enormous. And that’s before we get to the marketisation of social services which really only the state has the heft, or the willingness (and even that increasingly partial in the current context), to provide.

He argues that it was an ‘accident of bad timing that meant we had to overhaul our mother’s financial arrangements to try to secure her a low-risk income form her investments at about the worst moment in living memory to attempt such a manoeuvre’.

Well, yes and no. These are cycles, subject to the market. Markets boom, markets bust. And they’re entirely indifferent to such matters as the welfare of his, or anyone’s mother or father.

What lessons does he take away from this? Tellingly he blames ‘the people we elected, trusted and paid to manage this country’s financial affairs knew what they were doing. They clearly didn’t.’

That’s okay as far as it goes, but it goes nowhere near far enough. It wasn’t just politicians, it wasn’t just supposed regulators, it wasn’t just the private sector, it was an ideology where the needs of the latter were serviced by the former and largely ignored by the regulators. Where political policy was dictated by laissez-faire approaches. Where markets became ever more central to socio-political activity with little or no questioning as to whether they were, or ever could be, fit for purpose.

And his solution is no solution at all. He writes that ‘I’d far rather rely on myself and my family than on any of the institutions I used to believe would ‘be there for me’ when I needed them’.

So he now works for himself, a nice place to be – well bar the enormous and very real pressures – but one that is beyond the scope of most working. He has decided to ‘make my own mistakes in deciding how to manage our money than pay for the privilege of having someone else to blame when things go wrong’. He’s gone off the ‘pensions system’ – though he doesn’t call it by its correct name, the ‘private pensions system’. And one presumes that he feels his mothers pension, which presumably was state, did such a bad job.

Still he also makes another interesting point.

…the other goal of this exercise [he’s put money into a small pension for his children] is to find more ways to pass on wealth from one generation to the next – not just by bequeathing what we have left when we die (inheritance tax permitting) but also by doing some of the hard work of saving for their old age well in advance, so that when they reach adulthood they will have greater scope to spend or save the fruits of their own labour, rather than racing against the clock to amass a pension fund from scratch.

To which the obvious response is that this generational socialism in one family is all very well (though one does have to wonder where individual effort and endeavour fits in), but it does absolutely nothing to address the wider system problems addressing millions both in the UK and further afield who are in a similar or worse situation, trapped in employments where they are, let’s not put too fine a point on this, exploited in a multitude of ways from low wages, poor working conditions and so on, where they have little or nothing to look forward to at the end of their working lives, where they are increasingly pushed whatever their circumstances towards the market. Even after the events that he describes which we have all lived through.

Why he can’t see that community/society/social systems are the way to go escapes me where instead of the risk being borne by the individual, which is what it has been and effectively what he seeks to perpetuate, albeit in a lower key way, it would be borne by all. His is an analysis trapped within the constraints of his own class horizon.

And in all honesty, his middle-class survivalism (sic) doesn’t strike me as that great to begin with. Yet more grabbing the crumbs and trying to make do. And what that means for his offspring…

Garret Keizer on Privacy and Class. September 14, 2012

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Class, Economy, The Left.
30 comments

I’m never entirely surprised by the rage that enters into discussions of public versus private sectors, particularly from those in the latter. Having worked in that area for a large portion of my own working life the lack of autonomy in many jobs is something that – again having direct experience of same – is enraging. That that energy – understandable as it is – tends to be channelled towards attempting to pull others down (as exemplified by a comment the day before yesterday) rather that pushing everyone’s situation upwards is a depressing indictment of how orhodoxies aren’t simply economic but are broader and more constraining…

And in a context where the vehicles for shifting employments from one situation to another – the unions, are both enfeebled (or non existent) in the private sector, or can appear unconcerned with the situation of private sector workers, and add to that a suspicion of unions and the means for positive change are limited. Worse again one could argue that the best opportunity that unions had to ameliorate this in the private sector, the period of social partnership was simply blown by them. And of course it’s not just the workplace because this goes far beyond that.

Which brings me to an interesting podcast from Slate with an interview by the excellent (and Scottish) June Thomas with Garret Keizer who was discussing the issue of privacy in reference to his book on the same topic. What was telling was how explicitly Kezier positioned this in the context of class.

I just made a short check list of a whole bunch of things that people of certain classes can afford and people of other classes can’t. Not only does one’s privacy depend in some ways on ones class but one’s enjoyment of the private life that privacy protects can also depend on class. So you can talk about having the right to privacy that is protected by the Fourth Amendment that guarantees some protection against warrantless searches of your house but what if you don’t have a house, what if you’re sleeping under a bridge or what if you do have a house but you have to work three jobs just to pay for the mortgage. So you have an abstract theoretical right to privacy but your actual experience of the things that cause us to regard privacy as a value is extremely limited.

Again I think it is possible (and necessary) to draw that much wider and to reconfigure privacy as part of that broader area of autonomy’. Simply put in our societies privacy and autonomy are curtailed by economic position.

If one sees this starkly in the workplace in terms of power dynamics, it is also evident in every part of life, from the domestic space – where one lives, the nature of the accommodation (even to the issue of how much space there is from the neighbours or can one hear them through the walls>), interactions in the public sphere – and in particular with ‘services’, both public and private and so on and so forth.

The President used the ‘s’ word February 23, 2012

Posted by Tomboktu in Capitalism, Class, Community, Culture, Economy, Ethics, European Politics, Inequality, Ireland, Neo-conservatives, Political Philosophy, Social History, Society.
15 comments

The archived speeches on the site of the President, http://www.president.ie go back only as far as 1997 (Mary McAleese’s inauguration speech), and even in a group that consists of nine members, a sample of two is not a good representation. That said, it is worth noting that this week, President Higgins caused the words socialism and socialist to appear on that site for the first time, by using them in a speech yesterday on Tuesday in London.

When the L.S.E. was founded in 1895 by the four leading Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas, its founders were convinced of the power of education in not only lifting their fellow citizens out of poverty but also of such citizens understanding, participating, and in time, offering an alternative form of society, one that would be egalitarian, democratic, tolerant, one which would extend and deepen democracy in every aspect of life. Such an achievement would also constitute, they felt, the establishment of socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

He also said

the great founding texts of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Croce and others

and, quoting Frederick Powell,

“Privatisation is the road back to autocracy, in which a hollowed-out state is bereft of anything meaningful to attract the support of the citizen – especially the marginalised, excluded from the mainstream of society.”

and

Standing in support of unregulated markets, of unaccountable capital flows, of virtual financial products, are scholars who frequently claim the legitimation provided by a university. The university is at times put under pressure to demonstrate its utility as the seat of the single hegemonic model of society and economy that prevails.

I believe universities are challenged now not only to recover the moral purpose of original thought, emancipatory scholarship,

and

Weber, of course, could not have envisaged the consequences of the journey intellectual thought would make from reason to rationality, but then on to calculable rationality, and finally, in our own time, to the speculative gambling that is at the heart of so much global misery with its view of those humans who share our fragile planet, not as citizens, but as rational choice maximizing consumers.

We are in such a winter as Weber foretold. For example, we have arrived at quite widespread acceptance by policy makers of a proposition rejected by the majority of serious economic historians, that markets are rational. This, on occasion, leads, in the extreme, to the suggestion, absurd and all as it may sound, that it is people who are irrational, the markets rational

and

The mid-twentieth century constituted an atmosphere where social capital emerged and social democracy mediated conflict. The twentieth century saw too a public debate about the role of the State, the rights of the individual and social policy, of the balance between these areas.

In succeeding decades political philosophy and social theory gave way to issues of administration analysis of the role of the State faded and gave way to applied studies, in an administrative sense, of the State’s actions.

A discourse based on solidarity interdependency, shared vulnerability, community, gave way to a discourse on lifestyle and individual consumption. A society of citizens gave way to a disaggregated mass of individual consumers.

and

There is not, for example, any better future for economics as a subject and discipline than as political economy within a system of culture.

Wow. That won’t go down well on Merrion Street.

See the video here: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=1362

DCTU – MARCH AGAINST AUSTERITY – 26th November November 26, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class, Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
24 comments

Leaflet can be downloaded DCTU Pre Budget Demonstration 26 Nov 2011 Leaflet 3

Colleges and third level and school league tables… November 22, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Capitalism, Class, Culture, Economy.
10 comments

It’s fascinating some of the assumptions that underpin the 2011 Irish Times School League Tables published this week in the Irish Times. Not so much the following, though it seems to indicate that talk of access remains fairly rhetorical given the structural aspects of the system:

WHILE VIRTUALLY every student in middle-class areas proceeds to college, the progression rate is less than 40 per cent across huge swathes of working-class areas in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. The two-tier nature of Irish education is highlighted in the “2011 Irish Times School League Tables” published this morning.

But more so this:

Overall, this year’s list shows fee-paying schools and Gaelscoileanna tightening their grip on the top positions in the league tables. State schools within the “free’’ education scheme perform well in the overall top 50 list, which tracks progression to all third-level colleges.

And this:

But they perform less well on tables which track progression to high-points courses in the seven universities, the teacher training colleges and the College of Surgeons.

Note the distinction between ‘all third level colleges’ and ‘high-points courses in the seven universities’. I find it curious that these are the metrics used. What particular virtue do those courses, or indeed the seven universities, bring that ‘all third-level colleges’ don’t. In a way it reminds me of a piece in the Sunday Business Post some time back by Adrian Weckler which I took some exception to but which had a grain of truth to it where he noted the aversion by some of the middle classes to tech. My problem at the time was, as I noted… ‘He’s definitely correct in that we need to have the best and the brightest engage with science and technology. But… Weckler’s argument seems rooted firstly in misconceptions as to what represents the best and the brightest and secondly how that should be achieved.’ But I think we see some of that aversion in operation here in a back-handed sort of a way.

There’s a clear over emphasis in parts of the society as regards some types of education as against others and this list is evidence of same.

What does it tell us really? Nothing we don’t know already. That certain schools, and certain social groups, focus upon narrow outcomes. I tend to think that that’s a bad thing both societally, and perhaps individually. I suspect little or nothing will be done to alleviate this. In a period where economic intervention is seen as beyond the capacity of the state why should social interventions have any greater strength.

There are other issues as well. I wonder what it is like to be in a school where every single one of ones peers is going to third level and few if any are going to make any other choices as regards their life. Hard to think that that is the sort of pluralistic environment that opens minds in ways other than the academic. Or even that.

Willie O’Dea is OK (on the video) December 17, 2010

Posted by Tomboktu in Art, Class, Music, Reaction, Society.
10 comments

I don’t listen to Joe Duffy, but Panti blogged about yesterday’s programme where the Rubberbandits’ Christmas video was the topic of discussion. Interesting to hear Willie O’Dea making sense and one of the indignant caller having their lack of understanding of art exposed, and by somebody with a broad working class Limerick accent to boot.

A tape of the show is here.

24 minutes into this Joe Duffy show, some of the up-on-their-high-horse set get ripped apart by somebody with a broad Limerick accent.

Rubberbandit: “Somebody needs to give that man a dictionary and he needs to look up the word ‘irony'”

and later …

Indignant caller: “I don’t watch MTV like Martin Scorcese”.

Rubberbandit: “Then, man, you’ve no business looking at art […] We don’t create music for people like you who are going to interpret something literally. […] It’s about metaphor, it’s about art, it’s about different viewpoints creating the meaning. Do you know what I mean?”

Indignant caller: “Absolutely not. Why would I as an individual who would watch that video once and listen to that track once come away with all that? That’s rubbish. […] What’s coming out of that video is the usage and promotion of drugs. It’s a joke.”

Rubberbandit: “It is a joke, yeah. You’re hitting the nail on the head there, kid.”

And the offending video:

Elsewhere today March 17, 2010

Posted by Tomboktu in Capitalism, Class, Economics, Housing, Human Rights, Ireland, Justice, Political Philosophy.
5 comments

HumanRightsInIreland, a blog run by Irish academic lawyers, has a series of posts today on the theme (to my ear, hi falutin) of ‘Human Rights Lexicon’. However, don’t let that put you off. I recommend the post by Illan Rua Wall on the right to housing in a post-crash Ireland. It gives some thoughts that are new to me on how we might approach economic injustices through the legal concept of human rights. (Whether it will ever get legs is another story.)

To begin the task of shifting the neo-liberal imagination, I suggest the crime of squatting (for it is a criminal offence in Ireland). Squatting is to take direct action, not against this or that policy of the government, but against trite neo-liberal abstraction and injustice. By placing people, real lived experience, in these ‘toxic’ assets, the reality of the situation is manifested in a material sense. Ireland is increasingly a country which is divided between the rich within their neat comfortable zones, and the poor who are increasingly subjects of toil, insult, degradation and burden. It is not alone in this, but that is not the issue. What if the 43,000 families currently waiting for social housing, broke into the empty houses and apartments all over the country, now in state (or at least NAMA) ownership? I suggest this would at once be an a-legal vindication of their economic rights, but it would also present an attempt to rupture the neo-liberal ideological hold on the country.

Identity Politics Good. Class Politics Better. August 23, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in British Politics, Class.
43 comments

Interesting article from the current London Review of Books by Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of literature at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The article touches on some of the themes raised in this recent piece I wrote on the necessity for the left to concentrate on economic issues, specifically the failure of identity politics to address the fundamental importance in society of economic relations. The flavour of it may be guessed by the fact that Michaels has written a book entitled The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (which I am planning to order for myself in the near future).

Michaels starts by talking about how over the last forty years sexism, racism, and homophobia have declined in America, and obviously acknowledges this as a good thing. And then there is the ‘But’. And it is a big ‘But’.

But it would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home. In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4.

He goes on to make another important point:

More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

Michaels believes that the increasing intolerance for racism, sexism and homophobia is in accordance with the key ideas of neo-liberalism – to put it crudely, when Regan and co and later Bush and his cohorts argued for spreading democracy it wasn’t entirely a front for economic imperatives, but a genuine part of their world view, wherein legal equality and a heavily skewered version of meritocracy were key components of their ideal socieities. But, Michaels points out, just as it is intolerant of discrimination on grounds of gender, race or sexuality, so neoliberalism increases the tolerance of economic inequality.

Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics.

Couldn’t (and didn’t) put it any better myself. Michaels swiftly outdoes himself though.

But a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics.

Exactly. Hence the facility with which so many seeming radicals obsessed with identity have shifted quickly into the realms of vacuous New Labour politics, if not further to the right.

Michaels singles out the US universities as an example of the inadequacies of identity politics, whereby the race for diversity covers up the failure to address economic inequality. In the UK, the same function is performed by Oxbridge admitting state school pupils whose social and economic background is by and large the same as those of their public school cohorts. In Harvard, which I think takes 40% legacy students (other colleges take more and won’t even reveal the figures), 9% of students are black – but only 7% are poor. Michaels uses the outrage over the recent arrest of Professor Gates in Harvard as indicative of the fact that anti-racism and anti-discrimination enables the elite to feel better about the possession of its wealth – if discrimination against peple is removed, then their wealth is because of their talent, not structural inequality. And the poor deserve to be poor.

in a society like Britain, whose GINI coefficient – the standard measure of income inequality – is the highest in the EU, the ambition to eliminate racial disparities rather than income inequality itself functions as a form of legitimation rather than as a critique.

I’d say that in Britain gender and sexuality would be more important than class, but the point holds.

Michaels’ article is itself a review of a report from January 2009 from the Runnymeade Trust, Who Cares about the White Working Class? The introduction by the report’s editor begins with the subtitle ‘Class Re-emerges in Political Discourse’. Reintroduced, apparently, by Harriet Harman of all people, in a speech to the TUC conference in September 2008. The report points out that when it has suited them, politicians and pressmen who object to the use of class as a political term when it smacks of increasing equality have expressed a great desire to ensure that the white working class is not left behind when they might support the causes of the xenophobic right. The introduction ends with the hope that it will

initiate a dialogue to ensure that a re-emergence of class onto the political agenda will not feed divisions, but promote equality for all.

And here we need to return to Michaels, to see how in the absence of clear class politics, the language of class can obfuscate rather than elucidate the challenges for the left.

In the event, however, what Who Cares about the White Working Class? actually provides is less an alternative to neoliberal multiculturalism than an extension and ingenious refinement of it. Those writing in this collection understand the ‘re-emergence of class’ not as a function of the increasing injustice of class (when Thatcher took office, the GINI score was 0.25; now it’s 0.36, the highest the UK has ever recorded) but as a function of the increasing injustice of ‘classism’. What outrages them, in other words, is not the fact of class difference but the ‘scorn’ and ‘contempt’ with which the lower class is treated.

Michaels highlights a dangerous tendency in what he calls ‘left neoliberalism’, whereby being working class is like being a member of an ethnic group, and that all that is needed is to treat them with respect rather than addressing the injustice that workers suffer.

The great virtue of this debate is that on both sides inequality gets turned into a stigma. That is, once you start redefining the problem of class difference as the problem of class prejudice – once you complete the transformation of race, gender and class into racism, sexism and classism – you no longer have to worry about the redistribution of wealth. You can just fight over whether poor people should be treated with contempt or respect. And while, in human terms, respect seems the right way to go, politically it’s just as empty as contempt.

Michaels points out how race in the US has functioned similarly to sectarian identity in Ireland. Poor whites have been encouraged to identity with the white elite, while poor racial minorities have been encouraged to identify with rich people of similar colour, and see their wealth as somehow reflecting well on them. Anyone familiar with Daniel O’Connell’s selling out of the forty-shilling freeholders, never mind the history of Northern Ireland, will recognise this pattern. At the same time, anti-discrimination in Michaels’ argument seeks to form a sense of solidarity between the liberal white academic and the African-American woman who cleans his office for a tenth of his salary. She is supposed to recognise that he values her as a person, and her culture as equal. And thus forget about the income disparity. Michaels doubts that she does, and he may well be right. But the problem for the left is that far too many people do buy into the myths of an unequal society. Again, Northern Ireland gives the perfect example.

So how can we apply Michaels’ argument to our own situation? Ireland is a changing society, with growing diversity in colour and culture among its inhabitants. That brings challenges, which are often met by placing people into pre-determined boxes, especially in NI, where we remain Protestant Atheists and Catholic Atheists in the census. And we must meet those challenges. And sections of the broad left are doing so. One of the issues on which trade unions have been active in the north of late is in reaching out to immigrant communities, and there is a burgeoning NGO sector (some of it state-funded) dealing with these communities. Several recent Workers’ Party Ard Fheiseanna have been addressed by representatives from immigrant communities too. But whereas The Workers’ Party maintains its focus very clearly on class, the same cannot be said for everybody. While Ireland changes and throws up new situations, the Left must place class at the centre of all it does, including issues surrounding immigrant communities and racism. We cannot allow ourselves to be sucked into the vacuous equality-speak of what Michaels terms the left neo-liberals. A case in point would be the complete mess that has been made of the NI Human Rights Bill by the Human Rights Commission, where at times it seems every interest group has been included to the detriment of the overall goal of providing a strong, simple, and clear Bill of Rights. As the diversity of Irish society grows, we must avoid the temptation to fall into the identity politics trap, as has happened so many before. Class is the fundamental division of society. We know that. We must remember it. And we must communicate that message at all opportunities.

Meditations on class… sort of. The Irish Times asks ‘what life will be like in 2050 for a middle-class Irish family’? August 7, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Class, Media and Journalism, Social Policy, Society.
33 comments

I hadn’t really intended to reference an article last week in the Irish Times. Written by Angela Long (a journalist and “media consultant”) it starts innocuously enough by arguing that: “being forced to cut back on spending is no bad thing” and that ‘Consumerism has become a cult of things people don’t need – to an absurd degree’. I think it’s fair to say many of us would agree.

Yet it somehow manages to turn a not entirely unreasonable point into something approaching an offensive one

I can’t agree more with the proposition at the end of the following paragraph:

Dundrum Town Centre is a wonderful place, a mecca for millions. Fifty million, at the latest count. And no doubt it boasts a community theatre, cinemas, adult education centre, restaurants, public square, offices and apartments, among other features. It also has about 14 places to buy accessories, 20 to buy shoes, and more than 30 for ladies’ fashions, with just a few less for the increasingly looks-conscious Irish male.

But if you want basic stuff – widgets, grommets, doorknobs – you can forget it.

And she continues in a similar vein. And yet as she does so something slightly different creeps in.

Quoting one “storage expert”, it noted that nobody designing bedroom storage a decade ago realised that people would own 30 white shirts and 30 pairs of black trousers. And that’s on top of their dozen grey trousers, six red shirts, and shoe collections to rival Filipina fetishist Imelda Marcos.

Shopping addiction has become an everyday feature rather than a problem. Surveys in countries like ours show shopping is the number-one leisure activity for droves of people. Go into store, look at things, hand over money for things, walk out with bags. Some leisure activity. But it’s all in pursuit of happiness, that sense of completeness that flashes by when the latest bags are handed over.

Who, precisely, is it that has 30 white shirts and 30 pairs of trousers? Or shoe ‘collections’? Or rather, who is this article directed at? And what of her parting words

Take comfort: that hair shirt might itch, but it will be easier to store than 25 silk ones you didn’t need.

I don’t have 25 silk shirts. Actually I have no silk shirts. I don’t have that many shirts full stop. And those I have are a bit utilitarian in terms of colour. Which makes her words irrelevant to me. But clearly there is an audience she feels it necessary to address, one which has dissipated its rapidly accrued wealth in frivolous purchases.

Now, to a certain extent, who cares? If she feels it necessary to berate people about such things well and good. But, it is the implicit assumption that every boat has risen in this tide which is so irritating. Which isn’t to say that crass expenditure hasn’t been seen across all social groups, and in various different forms, but that it’s not quite as simple as she makes out in her faux-puritan call for ‘hair’ shirts. For example, consumption isn’t merely a factor of pull – from the consumer. As a ‘media consultant’ she might – you think – be aware of the ‘push’ from industries eager to sell product. And industries that tend in many sectors to be near-indifferent to the ability of those who they project their wares to to pay. So we see orgies of consumerism at Christmas, fuelled largely by said media and industries. Most reprehensible are those who sell toys, but they’re not alone.

And thinking about puritanism, faux or otherwise, I can’t help feeling a little irked by the further assumption that our ‘toys’ should be taken away from us now. That in some sense we’ve had all we deserve. Plenty haven’t had anywhere near that, and have seen the boom fade as fast as it arrived while barely touching them.

Anyhow, despite all this, I wasn’t going to mention it until reading yesterday’s Irish Times I came across a piece in the opinion section by Dr Stephen Kinsella of the department of economics in the Kemmy business school, University of Limerick. Entitled What life will be like in 2050 for a middle-class Irish family it seems to dovetail neatly with the above.

It starts, after noting his own circumstances ‘I have a middle class job and a middle class lifestyle’ (although curiously the aspects which position this within this putative ‘middle class lifestyle’ are not precisely spelt out – and by the by, most academics who I know while very much regarding themselves as middle class are in reality stuck within contractual situations not much dissimilar to a less exalted social hinterland), by asking:

…what will life be like for an educated, middle-class family in the mid-21st century in Ireland? What trends can be reasonably relied upon to hold their magnitudes and directions this far forward into the future?

It’s the assumptions which underpin this question which are both fascinating and revealing. Note the term ‘educated’. But then the analysis swerves away into generalisations which are far from class-specific.

For example…

…they won’t have an oil problem the way we have one. By 2040, there is general agreement we won’t have enough oil to power the world’s needs. Something else will have taken its place, most likely a combination of nuclear power and cleaner, greener energy sources.

In fact, I would place a bet that the world economy will still be largely in a transition from oil-dependent energy generation technologies by the time of my first grandchild’s birth.

Nothing terribly startling there… or indeed here:

My grandchildren will have access to more information than all previous generations of mankind combined. In previous generations, mere volume of information was a strong predictor of success in warfare, industry or any other sphere of life. Now the quantity of information will not be a problem.

Or the following.

Irish society will, I suspect, be largely the same as our generation: the traditions and customs which matter will persevere. I am writing about just two generations forward, remember. What is certain is that my grandchildren will not be as influenced by religious culture as I was through my childhood, as the influence of the Catholic Church wanes further.

Note though how suddenly the middle classes have been replaced by ‘Irish society’.

Concomitant with this secular trend, the rise of a more isolated, fractured society will result in more failed marriages and divorce, and less formal living arrangements for the raising of children.

So, really an extension of the present and its trends into the future. It’s sort of like the predictions Wired magazine serve up, but without the glossy accompanying images.

The manufacturing sector will see a sharp decline over the next 20 years, as more and more basic assembly-type jobs succumb to the forces of globalisation and move to lower-waged countries. Wealth generation therefore, year to year, must come from services.

He does acknowledge that…

This is a very hard area in which to predict growth or decay. There is very little good data on service level productivity in Ireland, so we’re not quite sure how good we are relative to our neighbours and competitors internationally.

Or perhaps we don’t have a bogs notion as to what specifics might influence the overall picture… I’m far from confident that we are in a position to make any hard and fast assumptions about the 2050s, because looking back 40 odd years to the 1960s it is easy to see how much has changed since then. Indeed I’m reminded of Andre Gorz’s “Farewell to the Working Class” written in the late 1970s/early 1980s which had a brief concluding chapter on what a ‘socialist’ society might look forward to. I recall being mighty impressed when I read it way back when by the idea of bus and cycle lanes. Small, surely, but indicative of how societies leap-frog forward in unexpected ways. And talking of change let’s not ignore the remarkable social changes that have affected classes in that time period. So if anything these stabs at divining the future seem somewhat conservative.

Still, it’s not all about the middle class or Irish ‘society”. No indeed, it’s a bit more personal than that:

What policies can the Government enact to make sure the economic possibilities my grandchildren face are as favourable as possible?

No mention here about a broader social or societal solidarity. The only class linkage is explicit, if infuriatingly ill-defined. And it is taken as read that this is – per se – a ‘good’ thing.

Well, first, they need to help me save. The more the middle class saves, long term, the more their children and their children’s children will benefit. Second, they need to make sure my children survive, by providing a health service which will make the chances of this more likely. Third, the Government must ensure the natural environment my grandchildren inhabit is as conducive to their happiness as possible, while allowing service sectoral growth and general economic development to maximise the economic possibilities for my grandchildren.

Note the way in which the state is called upon to buttress the middle class, through a ‘health service’ that will ‘make sure his children survive’. But health outcomes are explicitly rooted in class, and generally speaking the middle classes see usually positive outcomes whereas the working class (and again I’m using these terms broadly myself and for a more precise read of how I regard these terms I’d direct you to Conor’s thoughts in this piece (and preceding ones) at Dublin Opinion.) see much less positive outcomes. Something that isn’t addressed at all in the piece.

And this is a bloodless vision, for example, how precisely is government to ‘allow’ service sectoral growth and general economic development to ‘maximise’ economic possibilities? I can think of a few answers, but I wonder if he’s thinking of the same ones?

Now, one might wonder what Jim Kemmy, were he alive today (incidentally a man whose views on the North I might not share, but clearly a socialist of some substance) might make of such writings.

Perhaps he might suggest that this is the conceptual eschaton (or words to that effect 😉 ) of a politics entirely divorced from class, despite its seeming linkage to a class. What does the writer mean when he uses the term ‘middle-class’? What definition does he use, and how does he see that carrying over into lifestyle? He provides no answers to those questions. I note that much appears predicated on consumption rather than production – so in a sense we see a connection to the article referenced at the top of this post. There is no effort to describe what pressures may exist within a potentially resource starved society with sharp disparities of wealth and influence. Health is mentioned in passing, but nothing about education that other great pillar of privilege or opportunity. Nor are broader social support structures addressed. There is nothing at all to contextualise this in international terms. What we are left with instead are, frankly rather optimistic, generalities which will apply to all within the society in varying measures – although those measures and their variability are crucial to what life will be like to Irish people born on this island (and note no reference to this being an island with all that that implies either).

But with no sense of what class means today it is near impossible to project what class will mean in four decades or so. I think – from my careful and forensic reading of the IT on a regular basis(!) – that I know what he means when he uses the term, but whether it is even appropriate in this context is a central point (incidentally, this isn’t meant from a class warrior point of view – one of the great mistakes of the left has been to ignore the congruence of interests across classes, and one of the other great mistakes has been to attempt to use that congruence in the way Blair et al did in the UK). Education, or the reification of education, is not the preserve of the self-appointed ‘middle class’. Health isn’t just their concern alone. The broader state of the economy concerns almost all.

So let’s start again. “What life is like for middle class and working class Irish families in 2008” might well be a good base. And then we can – maybe – make some small assessment as to the future.

Some weeks ago these posts I write were critiqued, with some validity I have to add, as regards attacking the absurdities of the “liberal” stance of the Irish Times (or words to that effect). But, really. It’s moving into something that whatever way one cuts it seems to have a near-hermetically sealed worldview not merely ignorant of but actually indifferent to the broader society within which it sits.

I guess it’s a niche.


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