Are issues of Social Class still relevant in modern society? Explore the issues involved, with reference to the original ideas of Karl Marx and more recent concepts such as the notions of a 'middle class' and an 'underclass'.
According to the writings of Karl Marx in the 1860s and 1870s, 'class' conflict, rooted in the economic realities of differential relations to the means of production, flowed into every aspect of social life, including work, education, politics, family and religion. Marx considered that all societies, apart from the most simple, were made up of two major social 'classes' - the bourgeoisie; being the most powerful 'class', owning the 'means of production' (land, factories
etc.) and the proletariat; the least powerful 'class', being forced to sell their labour in order to make a living. In a capitalist society, the capitalist 'class' or bourgeoisie, is the ruling 'class', owning more property and wealth, therefore enabling them to defend and retain what they hold; and the working 'class' or proletariat, which Marx considered as the subordinate 'class', exercising much less power and control in every aspect. Marx considered that each 'class' pursued their own interests, and that throughout history, the two major 'classes' would be fundamentally opposed.
'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of 'class' struggles….The modern bourgeois society, that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with 'class' antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggles in place of old ones.'
Marx and Engels, (1981)
Modern Marxists continue to define the basic 'class' divisions as that between those who own and those who do not own the means of production however, a problem has arisen in their analysis of the 'class' structure as occupations have been further developed (See appendix 1, Standard Occupational Classifications 2000). There is no longer a clear definition of what is considered a 'proletarian' occupation (manual employment), as these types of employment can range from
managerial and professional jobs to clerical or administerial occupations.
With reference to the original ideas of Marx, this essay will explore whether 'class' can still be considered as the predominant determinant of power and influence in the UK society; whether breeding and economic status do contribute to determining life opportunities. The contentious issue of an emerging 'underclass' will be investigated as will the idea of an expanding 'middle class' - largely unrecognised in Marx's' era.
Whilst there is no generally agreed definition of social 'class', most people would agree that social differentiation exists. This phenomenon is candidly acknowledged in the current UK climate, as major political parties voice a generalised commitment to individual progress, a faith in the capacity of human beings to 'improve' and a belief in the role of the state as an instrument of social reform. These thoughts tend to, in principle, echo those of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), whose central preoccupation rested on the interplay between the 'social' and the 'individual'. Alternative to the thoughts of Marx, Mill argued that 'class' was not a permanent feature of life under capitalism, but that people could be liberated from 'class' by reason, particularly if
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educated to do so. It could be argued therefore, that Mills' considered education as an essential tool in maximising individual potential.
Education, over a period of years, has been subject to a number of Acts and policies designed to provide children and young adults with the best opportunities to maximise their potential. Since the Second World War it has been recognised that, in general, middle and upper 'class' children (classification based on their fathers occupation), tend to achieve more than their working 'class' counterparts, both in terms of the length of their education and the level of qualifications
they achieve. The 1959 Crowther Report surveyed National Service recruits (all male)
and found that while nearly 75% of recruits from the middle classes attended selective (grammar) or private schools, only 18% of semi-skilled and 12% of unskilled workers' children attended selective schools. None attended private schools. The weight of Crowthers evidence and of others including Robbins in 1963, who compared individuals from different social classes with the same measured level of intelligence, led Swift (1965) to note:
"The basic facts of social class performance in school are so well known as to hardly need repeating. As all teachers know, the children who do the best work, are easiest to control and stimulate, make the best prefects, stay at school longest, take part in extra-curricula activities, finish school with the best qualifications and references and get into the best jobs, tend to come from the middle class..."
In an attempt to compensate for children thought to be at a disadvantage due to social 'class', measures were adopted by the government, to redress the imbalance of educational attainment.
Following a report by the government advisory committee in 1967 (The Plowden Committee), extra teachers and additional money for facilities and resources were ploughed into identified areas of 'need', based on statistics identifying the socio-economic status of parents. Much of
this money went to areas where the children were considered to be experiencing high levels of social deprivation, specifically in inner city areas, where the schools were run down however, a special 'urban programme' of social policies were initiated in 1968, in the way of additional funding, to alleviate some of the disadvantages experienced for pre-school children in considered 'deprived' urban areas. However, further studies revealed these initiatives did little to alleviate
their intended purpose. A further study by Halsey, Heath and Ridge in 1980, found that upper middle 'class' children in relation to working 'class' children were still:
· 4 times more likely to stay at school until 16 (the minimum leaving
· 8 times more likely to stay at school until 17
· 10 times more likely to stay at school until 18
· 11 times more likely to go to University
In relation to the middle 'class', Goldthorpe (1980) identified a number of common characteristics in the field of economic consumption, historically considered as 'typical' upper working 'class' practices, thus culminating in, what he considered, a 'class' convergence and thus a growth in middle 'class' membership. Halsey (86) observed that status distinction between the middle and working classes' has become 'less obvious' during this century and attributes these findings
primarily to increased social mobility. Halsey does not however, underestimate the extent of continuing inequality, and states that although the middle sections of society may have converged, the '… vestiges of status no longer cover the continuing huge discrepancies
of wealth and poverty at the social extremes.'
More funding has been requested for schools in 'deprived' areas, following a much publicised report by Sir Donald Acheson in 1998. The report, commissioned by Health Secretary, Frank Dobson,identified that children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not in general, achieve as
much as other children, and are more likely to suffer long bouts of unemployment or settle for badly paid jobs. In May 2000, the much publicised case of Tyneside schoolgirl Laura Spence, who was refused entrance to study medicine by Oxford University, bought to light statistics that over 85% of those who go to the 'top' British universities come from families in the top three
income groups. This suggests that socio-economic background, not potential, still plays an important part in influencing people's life chances. Although Oxford dons fiercely deny the allegations, Government ministers are currently considering 'equality themes' and are announcing various initiatives aimed at opening up the UK's top universities to students from less privileged backgrounds. The Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay, defended the governments approach to the Laura Spence affair, stating;
" …a very important peculiarity of Oxford University, and indeed Cambridge University, which is that they still only take about half of their entrants from schools which are in the state system, when as we all know over 90% of kids in this country go to state schools".
A three-year 'Aimhigher' programme is intended to provide invaluable information and practical support to young people from families with no tradition of going to university. In addition, academics have alerted the policy makers to the emergence of an information 'underclass', relating their fears to children and students who do not have access to computers (specifically the internet), at home. Teachers have admitted to often giving higher marks to pupils who use the computer for the purposes of homework. David Hill, Head teacher at Ambleside Primary School in Cumbria illustrated his concerns on the 'divide' by emphasising;
" Those who don't have the choice - who don't have computers at home -their self esteem may be knocked relative to those who do have computers at home, and that does concern me". (Hill, 1999)
In an effort to alleviate the threat of creating an 'underclass', Chancellor Gordon Brown announced plans to enable 100,000 'low income families' to rent computers for a fee of around £5.00per month. The computers are said to be available to families of the unemployed or,
who are claiming certain benefits. The notion of an 'underclass', is not a new phenomenon, although its definition and usage is controversial. Despite attempts to theorise the 'underclass' many critics argue that the concept confuses rather than clarifies an understanding of equality. Historically, Marx regarded the 'underclass' with contempt, labelling them as the 'lumpenproletariat' - a reserve army of the unemployed and of industrial labour. The criteria in contemporary Britain for being an eligible candidate for 'underclass membership' appears somewhat ambiguous. Some would argue that societal attitudes towards people of alternative 'races', people with physical and/or mental disabilities, the 'long term' unemployed and single parents, have resulted in some sectors being excluded from 'opportunities', which, in turn has led to a culture of dependency on the Welfare State. Others would blame the governments response to the steady rise of unemployment since the 1960s and associated welfare benefits, as tools which de-value work and encourage idleness. Problems associated with 'long term' unemployment and high levels of crime, identified of the 'underclass', specifically concentrated in areas of inner city social housing, have been targeted for 'regeneration' following a report formulated by the governments Social Exclusion Unit. The report identified pockets of 'intense
deprivation' where problems of unemployment and crime were 'acute' and 'tangled up' with poor health, housing and education. In response the government announced plans to improve some of the country's most deprived and crime-ridden estates, seventeen in particular, in the hope that an improvement in housing standards will help reduce social exclusion. More than £3bn under the 'New Deal for Regeneration' is hoped to bring the most run-down estates back into repair. In 1998, Prime Minister, Tony Blair announced
"Over the last two decades the gap between these 'worst estates' and the rest of the country has grown. It has left us with a situation that no civilised country should tolerate…. Besides the extra finance we need to tackle every single aspect of what goes to make up a decent quality of life…. Homes, health, crime, vandalism, employment and training opportunities, new community facilities - the whole lot has to be tackled.".
Despite increasing prosperity in the UK, statistics suggest substantial differences between the health and life expectancy of people in opposing socio-economic 'classes', specifically since the
1980s. In his report, Sir Donald Acheson identified certain groups where policies could be implemented to reduce the imbalance. The report called for an increase in welfare benefits, specifically for older people and single parents who, it is thought, do not receive adequate financial support for food and services necessary for good health. This opinion was echoed in a further report, published by the British Medical Association in June 1999,
"The infant mortality rate for the poorest families is 70% higher than for those in the highest socio-economic class, and those in the lowest class as four times more likely to die in an accident. Many serious diseases are far more common in lower socio-economic classes, including premature birth, obesity, hypertension and coronary artery disease, all of which have been blamed on poor diet". Excerpt from the British Medical Association report (1999)
As with the Acheson Report, the British Medical Association have offered suggestions to the policy makers which have both financial and practical measures. These include;
· An annual report on the health of children from the Chief Medical
· No further cuts in lone parent benefits
· Changes to tax and education to tackle 'social exclusion'.
· Action to reduce the level of teenage pregnancy and smoking in
· Antenatal testing for HIV to reduce transmission from mother to baby
In response and recognition to these report findings, the government have launched eight public health 'observatories', co-ordinated by England's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, to scrutinise the inequalities that exist within the health framework.
The 'observatories' tasks, identified by the government, include
· Monitoring health and disease trends and highlighting areas for
· Identifying gaps in health information
· Drawing together information from different sources
· Carrying out projects to highlight particular health issues
· Looking ahead to give early warning of future public health issues.
A frustrated reader may conclude that the government already have much of this information at their disposal, by way of (if nothing else), the two reports cited above. One could argue this 'observatory' initiative is nothing more than a cleverly co-ordinated 'glossing over' technique, publicly launched by the government as a 'playing for time' exercise in the absence of any genuine or pertinent plan of action to tackle and cut health inequalities. To be, (or to appear to
be) 'above board' the 'observatories' findings will be published on a dedicated website - www.pho.org.uk. Unfortunately and ironically, members of the 'underclass' to whom this information could be of great value, may not have access to this information, as the afore mentioned government initiative, aimed at providing computers to the 'less well off', has not got underway - at the time of writing.
In conclusion therefore, social 'class' does appear to remain one of the causes of social divisions in contemporary Britain. The evidence, with regard to health, housing and education, suggests that social ranking predominantly organised on the basis of breeding, wealth and ownership, can equate to vast differences in citizenship entitlements. Researchers in the field of 'social mobility' have concluded that the inequalities of opportunity have not decreased since the Second World
War however; other divisions such as gender, race and ethnicity are equally important. Policies intended to eradicate social inequalities have often fallen short of their overall objectives and worked in the interests of the 'higher classes'. As the lower 'classes' struggle to overcome barriers that deny them access to higher income opportunities, the 'qualification' levels are raised and the
opportunities are closed off. The development of effective intervention prevention strategies, to eradicate these 'differences will, undoubtedly, require innovative approaches.