A couple of classy links

First of all, Burkesworks takes issue with the Prime Minister’s latest vain attempt to struggle up from the governmental deeps and break the surface of reality.

Brown has announced that the “middle classes” are to be his party’s election battleground, which seems to me to be less an act of campaigning and more an act of journalism. At least in the good old days columnists had to earn their keep by working out that a party’s proposals were targeting the middle class. Now it seems the politicians just take you straight to the interpretation and miss out the bit where they tell you what they’re actually going to do. Burkesworks’ problem is as follows:

when he says “middle-class” I’m sure he means “middle-income”, and the two are not necessarily congruent.

(Burkesworks also blames the Normans for the class divide between north and south, an intriguing suggestion that I’ve seen made elsewhere, and I’ve often wondered whether this “folk memory” of looting and destruction by the southern king is a genuine folk memory or a post-medieval resurrection to underline later, unrelated grievances.)

The odd thing is, I have a lot of sympathy for Brown’s take here, which is not something I’ll often say. “Middle class” should mean “middle income”, otherwise it is a misused turn of phrase that only gets us into trouble. We have a certain tic in this country of applying the term “middle class” to such regular everyday consumables as, erm, agas, private education and annual skiing holidays. These are things that are available to perhaps 5% or 10% of the population. Calling them “middle class” seems to fly in the face of common sense.

It also, I submit, gives the people who do have access to these things an artificial sense that they are “normal”, as opposed to “very, very wealthy to the point where any sane country would call them upper class” (so essentially I blame the Normans too). “Middle” is such a common or garden word, seducing the bearer into thinking that they cannot possibly be that unusual. The universal perception that extraordinary circumstances of personal wealth are “normal” is why David Cameron is able to suggest that raising the inheritance tax threshold will benefit “Middle” England.

It’s why glossy newspaper supplements are full of cushions costing as much as a small house, and small houses costing as much as the GDP of a developing nation, and no-one ever bats an eyelid. 90% of us or more would no sooner buy the things depicted in the glossies than we would  stir lumps of edible gold leaf into our morning cuppa, but we take it as read that it’s normal to be presented with them as choices. Someone has got to be buying them. (Actually, of course, the debt bubble is explained by the fact that a small number among that 90% lost sight of the boundaries between fantasy and reality as a result of exactly this sort of advertising).

This thoroughly artificial “middle class” benchmark has a knock-on effect as well. I once saw a blogger, a smart, impassioned, left-wing blogger, comment to the effect that his £40,000-odd salary was not that high. This is a thing that can be quite dramatically disproved by means of a pile of beans and a few facts gleaned from Wikipedia. And he knew perfectly well what the “average income” is. But his perceptions were such that £40,000 nonetheless seemed like a middling income. Well, you couldn’t afford an aga, private education and an annual skiing holiday on it, so it must be pretty ordinary!

That skewed perception of reality is only half the trouble. The other half is that when you propose, say, an alteration to the tax system which will benefit of people on “low and middle incomes” (by which you mean, up to about 25k), the responses will fall into two categories: those that paid attention to the word “incomes” and so know what kind of earners you mean, and those that only noticed the word “middle”, and think you’re in the business of giving tax breaks to aga-owners, or similar.

This fuzziness about class and how it relates to income is partly, as Burkesworks suggests when he blames the Normans, an outcome of having started out as a feudal monarchy, wherein the phrase “upper class” means something quite specific and “middle class” has to do triple duty. But it may also be because politicians just don’t discourse about class and poverty any more, and our perceptions are the rustier for it, and that leads me to this post from Chris Dillow, which I urge you to read and pin to a tree:

…how could anyone have ever thought that class wasn’t important, or that race and disadvantage were the same?

To cut a long and tragi-comic story short, I fear the answer originates in the Left’s reaction against orthodox Marxism in the 1980s. Inspired in part by Hobsbawm’s essay, the Forward March of Labour Halted?, many on the Left gave up on the idea of the working class as a revolutionary force, and looked instead to what they called “new social movements”: women, blacks and gays (yes – to many the three were somehow homogenous!) Allied to this was a growing lack of interest in economics, and a rise in interest in cultural theory.

24 Comments

  1. An annual ski-ing holiday is not that expensive. About £1000 all in, including spending money, will get you quite a good one. If you’re careful you can go for a lot less. A friend of mine (who earns more than the median income, but a fair bit less than £40k) goes on at least two and sometimes three every year.

    When you’ve got kids it’s another matter, of course, though I imagine it’s still just about doable on a fairly normal salary if ski-ing is important to you.

    None of which has anything to do with the point of your article, which I strongly agree with.

    1. I think it’s the “if it’s important” bit that matters. You could, if you wanted, scrimp and save and eat snot soup etc and and go on a skiing holiday no matter how little you earned. Might take you ten years, but you could do it. I think as with many things related to having no money, it’s not necessarily the absolute sum that’s the problem, it’s the being able to cough it up for *this* thing rather than *that* thing. You could do it, but you probably won’t.

      I’m reminded of when Jenny Willott did a “live off an old age pension” exercise for a week. The thing is (and she did get this), it’s actually quite possible to eat reasonably healthily, keep fit and read books from week to week on fuck-all money (as Asquith will probably attest) – the problem arises when your trainers fall apart, or you get a library fine (horrors!) or you want to buy someone a birthday present. Enough of those things in a year equals your skiing holiday or any other sort of holiday.

      Still, you rightly point out that all these things are relative to how many people are having to live on the salary.

      1. Yes, you really have to put a few pennies aside every week & be prepared not to go into utter flaming meltdown if you’re called upon to give up a few months’ savings for some sudden payment.

        It makes you feel as if all your work & other efforts have been pointless. But I don’t actually complain.

        You see, I think it’s my personality, & the way I cope badly under pressure & don’t cope well with stress, that makes me basically unsuitable for a managementy role. So I would rather clock on & clock off than do something that would be harmful, to me.

        If I applied for a high powered job I’d probably just be told to fuck off. But then, isn’t it the case that the vast majority of people are not actually FORWARD, THRUSTING ALPHA MALES WHO ARE IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM TRYING TO BLOT OUT THEIR CHILDHOOD MEMORIES BY OVERCOMPENSATING?

        Because if we were, this country would be a nightmare to live in, if you think about it.

        As an aside, all the people I’ve ever known to be on the dole either lived at home or got some kind of support from their parents- I was there at one stage & my parents bought me food. (They still drive me to markets now- I can’t drive & wouldn’t have a car even if I could).

        So I dread to imagine what some poor sod who never talks to his family, or an asylum seeker, lives with.

    2. If you’re young and free, you can go work a whole season as a rep – and in my experience, most of those that do would be considered working class rather than middle class.

      And being in the middle of booking one, you can get an all inclusive ski holiday for less than £500 if you book early.

      However, I think Alix rightly identifies the sort of temperament of person who feels they need an annual skiing holiday!

  2. On that Dillow post (I know I should be posting there but hey),
    “many on the Left gave up on the idea of the working class as a revolutionary force, and looked instead to what they called “new social movements”

    What about “many in the country (i.e. about 80%) decided that they did not want a revolutionary force of any kind, regardless of its supposed objects; they wanted security of property and low inflation”

    I don’t think switching between classes and minorities can explain what was going on in the electorate. It was not going to vote for Tony Benn types ever again. So I think this Leftish naval gazing is still not going to unlock why they have not been more popular.

    1. One of the commenters on that post (where I should likewise be commenting) had an alternative explanation for the drift of the working class electorate away from the left, which is probably common knowledge to you people with a grasp of twentieth-century history, but was a new & interesting one on me:

      That the left basically fenced themselves into a position where whatever Thatcher did, they opposed it, i.e. became pro-EU because she was anti, opposed council house sell-offs on principle. It wasn’t necessarily a given that the left movement should ideologically take those positions, but hatred of Thatcher rather than positive alternative reasoning made it happen. The left thus ended up opposing a lot of things that were actually quite popular with the working class, and they’re still stuck with the legacy of that today.

  3. Mark Baker, £1000 actually is expensive if you’re working-class. I hadn’t been abroad for 3 years until I was enabled to go by the fact that my mum’s mates bought a place in the Dordogne. So I was able to go there with various members of my family, at a cost to me of £300, which is a week’s wages, which I could only afford due to having savings.

    I count myself lucky to have gone anywhere- most of my mates haven’t got jobs at all.

    But, as a result of not having had an especiallu luxurious childhood, I have realised how pointless what the middle classes enjoy actually is. I do buy decent food- from farmers’ markets & so on- but I save by never wasting anything & not buying tat, so I manage. Is this not a better approach than making an ill thought out purchase of a load of ready “meals”, then throwing half of them in the bin when they go off, then whinging about having no money?

    I do notice class bias in the media. One thing that enrages me is the assuption, often stated in as many words, that rising house prices are good & falling house prices are bad. Who the fuck decided on that then? They are also, & as a northerner you will be aware of this, incorrigibly London-centric.

    It worries me, it really does, that given the sort of background I come from I could easily have fallen through the cracks. Now obviously I am intelligent & a natural reader, which many aren’t. I never became middle-class (going to university doesn’t count if you do nothing with it-FACT!) but I have overcome the limited horizons I grea up with.

    (As a child, I would often visit my grandparents, who were barely literate- so much for education having been better in the good old days- & one of the few books they had was an atlas, which I was always reading. I like to think it was an early expression of my natural curiosity, being as I never went to any of the places I dreamt of, & still haven’t been to most of them).

    Not sure why I’ve gone on so long really. Fuck the above. The only link you need is this.

    http://tinyurl.com/yc2v5bg

    Create your own: http://www.andybarefoot.com/politics/cameron.php

    Bit of a blog: http://www.amconmag.com/larison

  4. Cheers for the link, Alix.

    On a similar note, you wrote that you “once saw a blogger, a smart, impassioned, left-wing blogger, comment to the effect that his £40,000-odd salary was not that high”. Out of touch, for sure, but nowhere near as much as the Tory blogger that Tim/ruudboy flagged up this evening in his post here. She does not even have the excuse of being young and naive – that in itself is no bar to unthinking cluelessness (pace Irfan).

    1. Aha, I have come across this person before, on Twitter. Her feed screams “car crash! watch with glee!”. But she does have the young, naive excuse.

  5. If you go to any skiing resort, you’ll find an awful lot of people. Many of whom, if they are aga-owing and privately-educated, are hiding it.*

    But that’s by the by. British society is interesting in that it divides income and ‘class’ quite a lot. I would say that a university lecturer was a reasonably middle-class job, but whilst the pay is improving it takes a long time before it pulls you out of the ‘low to middle income’ bracket that you’ve set at £25k.

    On the other hand, you have tube and train drivers (is that a middle class profession? I don’t know) who have an average income of £35k and can earn up to £70k. I may have to change professions to earn that and I have to wear a pinstipe suit and everything.

    I’m not for a second debating the existence of low-earners, but there is a reason that people find it hard to distinguish between middle income and middle class.

    *usually adopting the excellent disguise of snowblades and a jester’s hat. Don’t be fooled by the hip-hopping snowboarders. They’re all going back to Radley in a week.

    1. Can I be a train driver please? I’ll even give up buying more than one kind of pasta.

      But seriously, titles are not what they were. Do we need a revised concept of upper class, that is basically about inherited wealth?

      1. I’d go further and make points about disposable income. It’s all very well being the 13th Duke of Wybourne and inheriting Wybourne House but if you have to do up the East wing so the tourists don’t stop coming and pay death duties and provide for the Dowager Duchess and unwisely had more than one child that needs educating and have obligations then you’re going to be living on one kind of pasta for a long time. Of course you could always sell up – probably at well below the market value – but people get funny about things like that.

        I’m not asking for sympathy for the poor little rich folk (I don’t have any), but there’s a difference between net worth and how much actual cash you’ve got.

  6. Part of the problem is a confusion of “middle” and “median”, perhaps.

    I think the term “middle classes” originated as an attempt to understand the uncomfortable fact that not everyone was either a landowner (U) or scum (non-U); their economic role (and therefore social position) was therefore “in the middle”, i.e. inbetween the two major classes.

    This means that traditionally middle class jobs are (and always were) in fact somewhere rather high up the income distribution – doctors, managers, and so on; but with the breakdown of the old industrial working class, and the constant assurance that we’re all middle-class now (except the chavs and the Royals, of course), we’ve become thoroughly confused about what we mean. We’ve reached a point where ‘middle class’ is defined (seemingly without irony) as a matter of ‘aspiration’ – as several of the commenters on that Chris Dillow post do – at which point we’ve really lost the plot.

  7. As a university lecturer I know I’m on well above average income, but yes it does make me feel I am almost living in poverty if I look at the glossy sections of my weekend newspapers and see there clothes and restaurants and the like advertised who charges prices several times the level of what I’d regard as a luxury purchase I’d think hard about before making.

    I agree with the suggestion that we should revive the term “upper class”. It is absurd, for example, that someone like David Cameron is often described as “upper middle class”. If he isn’t upper class, who is?


  8. But his perceptions were such that £40,000 nonetheless seemed like a middling income. Well, you couldn’t afford an aga, private education and an annual skiing holiday on it, so it must be pretty ordinary!

    The issue here, I guess, is that a person who is reasonably well off, on around £40,000, could afford one of these but not all. And would regard choosing one of them as a serious commitment requiring a great deal of thought. Whereas an upper class person would be able to have all of them and not have to think about what they cost.

    1. That’s exactly it, I think, it’s the overall (ugh) lifestyle, more than the absolute cost of any of these things (though even the absolute cost still precludes a majority, I would think).

      E.g. I daresay there are cash-strapped people in 300 year old farmhouses who would take issue with my suggestion that the Aga is a symbol of liquidity! In fact, the Aga is an interesting case, having come full circle – people who could afford to were ripping them out in the 70s and 80s, and now they’re putting them back.

      Also, and I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a whine, I found glossy newspaper supplements actively dispiriting and depressing as a teenager & student because I (quite correctly) didn’t see how it was ever going to be possible to afford all the “stuff” that I then wanted. Far, far more damaging to me at the time than the airbrushed models.

    2. the funny thing about agas is that they’re a pain in the arse. You can’t have them on for about four months of the year or you get far too hot, and you have to have an additional cooker anyway if you actually want to cook things so buying one (as opposed to the 300 year old farmhouses) really is a massive status symbol.

      But it’s a status symbol that screams of a certain type of person, who would never use the same money to buy a blacked-out range rover, or a porsche cayenne.

      I find agas a very potent class symbol; it is possible and not uncommon to go on an annual skiing holiday because you enjoy skiing. Many people privately educate their children because their local state school is failing and they want to give their children a good start in life. But agas are functionally less good than the alternative, so buying one really is a statement.

  9. What I have thought a fair few times in the past is that as well as the underclass with which we are familiar, there is an equally out of touch overclass, perhaps personified by these City banker scum who are oblivious to how it may go down badly that they treat themselves to fortunes of taxpayers’ money, but going some way beyond that.

    Apart from the obvious solution of not having bailouts, dropping this inheritance tax pledge Camoron made, etc, a possible liberal solution would be to encourage the extension of voluntary work.

    Yes, I know the word “encourage” often covers a multitude of sledgehammer authorian shite. But not necessarily. For example, jobseekers just signing on could be encouraged to volunteer & told that it wouldn’t affect their benefits- why not, given that they are unlikely to find jobs in these times & some are unlikely to find jobs at any point?

    http://stumblingandmumbling.typepad.com/stumbling_and_mumbling/2008/12/does-job-search-work.html

    (No it doesn’t- apart from to get more people on the state payroll as professional cunts who shove working-class people around).

    Now about the sons & daughters of privilige. I have heard of schemes such as that by which law students can get six months off their solicitor training contracts if they volunteer at a Citizens Advice Bureau & in general it is of practical use, a fact which should be pointed out.

    It does change minds as well- interestingly, not mine as I was already of that persuasion before I started & what I saw confirmed my views. But it will first of all knock out any Daily Mail prejudices & secondly make you less reflexively statist in your desire to “help”.

    It is not utopia but it is a bit consciousness-raising & doesn’t actually take much effort to put in place. Why the fuck not, eh?

    Though I do oppose these tit-brained suggestions to make people do “voluntary” work. They have simply failed to think through how to make people who are often ill-motivated & unqualified work, how much it will cost to employ the shovers around, whether it will be off any use to anyone. They also should not be paid, it should be something to do whilst looking for a job or as a sort of on the job training for them as want to work in the relevant professions.

    Actually, perhaps I’d better not mention my original scheme in case Brown or Camoron gets hold of what he thinks is the central idea & piles ineffective shite on it (well, ineffective for every purpose other than “creating” jobs & appeasing vindictive middle-class cunts who hate anyone on benefits).

    1. I love everything about this suggestion – including the recognition that, sadly, letting any government minister/department anywhere near it would be a total nightmare.

      1. Thanks! I did a stint volunteering at a CAB- I had my eyes open (unfortunately some of my fellow volunteers didn’t really) & learnt a fair bit.

        Mainly that all my prejudices were in fact right🙂

  10. The folk memory goes beyond the Harrying of the North, I think. There’s a sense of colonialism behind the teaching of history in the pre-Norman era, where Alfred=good king of England and Guthrum=dirty foreigner. Not entirely a fair sense, because it’s mainly because that history was written by the people who bothered to write it down (ie the Saxon xtian monks, not the pagan Danes).

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