When Marx outlined his theory of ‘class’, he was using the term in an era where to ‘class’ something was completely subjective. Darwin, for example, was sailing around the globe and arbitrarily ‘classing’ different species as he saw fit, and these classifications were not separated from the viewpoint which made them; they almost certainly reflected the classifiers agenda. So how should we interpret the model which has resulted from The Great British Class Survey?
Mike Savage et al have created a new model of class based on an online survey conducted with the BBC. From 161,400 online respondents, the model outlined seven categories (the Elite; the Established Middle Class; the Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; the Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers; and the Precariat) aiming to go beyond the Nuffield Schema which has classed the population based on their occupation since the 1970s. Instead of only considering socio-economic position, this new model aimed (in the vein of Pierre Bourdieu) to take into account other characteristics, such as our cultural tastes and preferences or the depth and width of our social networks.
The model has received (unprecedented?) coverage over both mainstream and social media which has inevitably drawn alot of criticism. But while there may be methodological issues with the model – such as the labels which were used causing symbolic violence to people labelled in lower positions, or – as David Hill has pointed out – the difficulty in defining precarious labour in the current climate – what i struggle to comprehend is the purpose of the research. The new class model is based on a long line of models which have attempted to class the people thoroughly using quantitatively garnered data in order to study social mobility, but while this clearly makes the model strong as a device for describing categories, I can’t help but feel (as a Marxist) that this misses the point.
Marx’s two-class model – of the ‘owners of the means of production’ (Bourgeoisie) and ‘those who have no choice but to sell their labour’ (Proletariat) – has consistently been ridiculed by sociologists as being ‘too simplistic’. But the point of the model was not to be an accurate description of the stratification of society, the point was to create a political antagonism that would draw the line in the sand. The point was to change the world not to interpret it.
The abstract empiricism of the new class model does nothing in the current political context (where the reinstatement of antagonism is more important than ever) to challenge the status quo. Savage may argue that his “concept of class matters, because we need a way of connecting accentuating economic inequalities to social and cultural differences which permeate our society” but this is a model which is devoid of any political impetus to actually challenge those inequalities. As Ranciere points out (in criticism of Bourdieu) the problem with theorising differences in this way is that if you start out with inequality; you end up with inequality.
Even when the model (under the guise of supposed scientific value-freedom) claims to be a neutral description, it only divides the population further at a time where what we really need is new solidarities. What we need is to start from a position of equality – stretching across such boundaries – in order to conceive of a more politically charged concept of class. This was Marx’s original intention.