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March 31, 2008

On the Lower Class: Lincoln Allison explores the gulf between the Working Class and the Lower Class

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Edward Banfield and his thirty-eight year old book about the American urban poor The Unheavenly City is the best guide to class in Britain today. Lincoln Allison explains why.

When people start talking about social class, whether it's on the television or in the pub, I try to walk away. It is partly because the concept, like "race" and "nation", exercises people's sense of identity and therefore their emotions. But even apart from the emotion the incoherence and conceptual confusion - sheer bollocks in ordinary parlance - always seems to overwhelm any attempt to say the reasonable and important things that need saying about the subject.

For example, in England somebody will always announce that social class is a specifically English problem. From which you have to infer that they haven't been anywhere else or haven't noticed anything if they have.

In our household we are fond of the saying, "There's no snob like a(n) X snob" where experience suggests that "Irish", "American" or "French" fits the X a good deal better than "English" does because the English are far too conscious of social class to be truly snobbish. Or they will announce that the key to understanding class is some distinction that actually only applies to people in North London. Or they will start talking about the "middle class".

When I was involved in local politics and planning in the town I live in there were at least three distinct groups labelled as "middle class": the publicly employed Guardian readers, the global-managerial types (whom you only met at weekends) and the local small businessmen who ran the town. They were different from each other in every imaginable way - culturally, politically and in terms of their financial interests. Talking about the "middle class" made about as much sense as talking about "Asians".

I remember an argument back in the sixth form when it was probably me who was talking the bollocks. My opponent announced that if you walked down into the town (Lancaster) you could tell anybody's social class at fifty paces. I resisted this idea indignantly saying that it might have been true at one time but that it no longer made any sense about young people. We were the post-war generation, after all, united across the old class boundaries by our jeans and mini-skirts, our love of football and "pop" music and our roughly equal incomes.

If there was any merit to my case then there certainly wouldn't be now, at least in respect of the lower class who can be distinguished at a glance, even ignoring their clothes: weight problems, body markings and piercings, hair cuts, skin texture and so on mark them out as a separate breed.

These are the superficial symptoms of a society which, despite six decades of social engineering (and sixteen in some ways) is more divided by class than ever. Life expectancy in middle class Glasgow is twice what it is in Easterhouse. Death used to be more egalitarian. The number of people who have marketable educational qualifications is ten times in several Outer London boroughs what it is in Knowsley. The proportion of children living with both their parents is four times in Surrey what it is in many urban areas.

Note that I am talking here about the lower class and that on this subject the nonsense becomes deeper, darker and more dangerous. A good deal of academic and bureaucratic discourse still confuses the lower class with the working class. In many respects this is a ridiculous confusion because the two are opposites: members of the working class don't like to be unemployed whereas members of the lower class don't like to be employed. Official figures acknowledge this because our very low unemployment figure simply excludes the lower class from consideration as they are generally unemployable, being classified as unfit for work, in training or in prison.

The distinction is as old as European society; the difference between a carpenter in present day society and a person without property or qualifications is more or less the same as that between a craftsman and a landless rural labourer in the Middle Ages. In Shakespeare we can recognise the lower class in the Roman mob or in the libellous and ahistorical portrayal of Jack Cade and his followers in Henry VI, Part 2.

But for a short time in the twentieth century the lower class all but disappeared, incorporated by war and authoritarian education and a ready market for unskilled labour into respectable society. Thus the confusion of the lower and working classes, equivalent to the belief that the "lumpenproletariat" or "undeserving poor" had disappeared forever. It began to be reinvented as Gunnar Myrdal's "underclass" (the term was coined in 1962).

There have been a minority of social scientists who have understood the real nature of class and the gulf between the working and lower classes. The greatest of these was Edward Banfield (1916-99) who published The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (about the region of Basilicata in southern Italy) in 1958 and The Unheavenly City (about the American urban poor) in 1970.

Banfield distinguished four essentially different classes in America and his model applies with only minor modifications to England. Each class is defined by its view of time: the upper class are dynastic in outlook, the middle class concerned with careers and pensions and the working class with holidays and Christmas. The lower class, by definition, are concerned only with immediate gratification. This allows for a complex interaction between "social factors" and free will. Your environment may place you in a class, but you can will yourself out of it. The degree of difficulty may vary considerably, but it is never impossible. For Banfield, as for my grandmother, your class is ultimately determined only by what is inside you, not by what is outside.

I feel this all quite personally. I am sure that Banfield had in mind the observation that a Jewish family, cast onto the American shore without power, status or money, was likely to have a better time of it than a family from other ethnic groups.

But what I have in mind is my in-laws. I married into the working class; in conventional terms they were quite well down the scale, my wife being the eldest of six children of a foreman-labourer (it says "gangerman" on our marriage certificate) with a variable income. They lived in a council house within sight of a steelworks and a chemical plant and many of the things that the middle classes take for granted were out of the question, including motor cars, holidays and restaurant meals. The furthest they ever got was a day out in Whitby, a place of which they remain inordinately fond. To make matters worse my father-in-law was killed in a road accident when five of his children were still in full time education.

All six of them are now prosperous, successful and well travelled; five of the six have degrees from good universities. They represent everything that is most admirable about post-war Britain and some government department or other should be investigating them to find out what went right. Their assets were native intelligence, self-discipline, a sense of humour and a modicum of ambition. (Only a modicum: I've known all of them since they were young and I wouldn't describe any of them as either driven or hung up about their background.). Both objectively and in their own terms they were "working class", but their practical outlook predestined them into the middle class.

To compare their success with the probabilities facing anyone in a lower class environment now is a disturbing exercise. Even if a propertyless youth on the streets of Knowsley had the native intelligence they are unlikely to possess the other assets which my in-laws had. Banfield, considering a parallel problem in relation to the US in the 1960s was mainly concerned to argue against the expensive gestures, false hopes and debilitating effects of the "poverty programme". Ignore and avoid was his practical advice on dealing with the lower class; find out where they live and don't go there.

As a social disease they are a minor ailment, not a cancer. A median estimate of the proportion of the American population who are in the lower class is 12% and I think one could take this as a very rough guide to the sort of figure which applies to the UK. Of course, it is considerably skewed in ethnic terms in the US which it isn't here.

If you are a Christian or certain kinds of fundamentalist humanitarian or egalitarian then the lower class really matter. One lost sheep is more important than ninety nine. But if you are a Utilitarian the 12% only have to be taken into consideration; the consideration does not necessarily work out well for them.

Even so, I would like to think that we could do a bit better than Banfield's ignore and avoid policy. In theory we could try to revive Victorian policies: this would involve the coercive emancipation of children from their background, military discipline with flogging, algebra and Latin which might just create free men and women instead of slaves of norm and appetite.

But we all know this isn't going to happen: as a society we are not like Victorian society. We are like some enfeebled Victorian maiden, drooping with "caring" and "compassion", but incapable of action. Or we could somehow cherry pick those with some prospect of emancipation. Or we could let them get on with it - and legalise all substances.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.


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I have to say that that you hit the nail on the head. The socialistic strings of society are more interwoven than people might think. I've encountered so many who have only neglect for the working class despite probably having their own connection in some way to those who they class as a anchor on society. I probably could be considered middle class to an extent but with family who have lived in the Nottingham council estates (originally my nan who was a devout christian) and friends who also have convoluted upbringings i fail to see any significant boundaries except for where individuals and groups directly define others in a derogatory fashion in contrast to the class they perceive themselves to be. If you would like to look into the hypocritical stance of some i suggest having a browse at Geoffrey Brookes a budding potential council member for Lincolnshire- hopefully your work might help to educate such pessimistic members of society but as Einstein said it is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom! Keep up the good work:)

Posted by: philip at February 26, 2009 06:55 PM
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