Whoever we are, however old we get, we care about what people think.
Some care more than others and take pains to buy the right car, send their kids to the right school, and read the right books. Others talk about how little they care, but go to equal lengths to rebel – with tribes of libertarians, environmental campaigners, anarchists, Goths and others conforming in their non-conformity with matching uniforms, jewellery and ideas. With very few exceptions we are social beings and we want to fit in. And part of fitting in involves judging ourselves against those around us – what they have, what they wear, what they do, and what they believe in.
In Britain, America, and all over the world the desire to conform can be seen everywhere, as can the sanctions for stepping too far beyond the acceptable norms. This self-selecting class-consciousness determines where we live and what we do in much the same way that societal class labels were applied historically – determining the education and healthcare received and impacting on life expectancy. However, where class was once the defining factor in determining our political beliefs and affiliations, it increasingly comes second to aspiration.
For hundreds of years, our place in society was determined by social class and most people accepted their role – be that a statesman or a potman. Meanwhile those who chose not to conform faced censure and exclusion until, like the prodigal son of old, they returned to their rightful place and shouldered their responsibilities, whatever they might be.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, as communities across the UK moved from their agrarian roots, the historic bonds of kinship weakened. Where once families and neighbourhoods experienced the rights and wrongs of society as a community, the changed travel and working patterns made it easier for people to slip free from the family and social ties that had previously bound people to observe the accepted modes of behaviour and belief, allowing them to adopt their own world view isolated from the influence of family, church and historic communities. The marked decline of party political membership in the UK, and of voting in general, could be regarded as a symptom of this new aspirational world. No longer forced to “toe the line” and vote with the head of the household, we see new patterns emerging as the working classes vote for the party of property rather than solidarity. That is not to suggest that there are not communities which continue to be guided by spiritual and temporal leaders, but increasingly it is newer groups, entering society, for whom these ties are the strongest and most binding.
As countries industrialised and cities grew through the 19th and 20th centuries, workers gradually became aware of the economic value their labours brought and whilst they struggled to turn that knowledge into power, there was a growing sense that men and women were less willing to live their lives as their families had for generations before. From the Patriot movement in America to the Chartists in Great Britain, and the call for gender and race suffrage in both countries, it was apparent that people were more aware of shared goals and the need to organise and take collective action.
In his explicitly political book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, house painter Robert Noonan (writing as Robert Tressell, after the trestle table he relied on for his living) presented a modern day parable based on the people who surrounded him in his working life. Written in the early 1900s, and based on his own experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen – whom he was raising alone – would be consigned to the workhouse if he became ill, the novel is scathing in its portrayal of the relationship between the middle-class employers and the working class “philanthropists”, who in Noonan’s view, conspired to exploit themselves and each other through lack of collective consciousness and action. Whilst its publication marks something of a turning point in labour relations, the book also heralded the birth of the Labour Party, and a new form of politics which gave voice to the demands of an entire class of people for a better and fairer society.
When the Labour Party was created in 1900, it was a new party for a new century – formed by an unusual mix of middle class Fabians, working class trade unionists and campaigning socialists. It aimed to ameliorate or at least address some of the hardships experienced by the poorest members of society – those whose aspirations didn’t generally stretch to high office or vast wealth but to simply be released from poverty and to achieve an equity of opportunity and treatment that was, at that time, as much a civilised caste system as anything else one could imagine. Class divisions determined education, health care, nutrition, career opportunities, and many other things – including life expectancy.
It is important to recognise the amazing achievement of the hard work and dedication of those men and women who fought to deliver their vision of a society where even the poorest have access to common goods such as health and education. But when such social goods are secured – through state provision in the UK or via state, civil society and charity in the US – we see the focus shift from need to want. One might say that by ensuring that there is provision for those who truly cannot support themselves, in word if not deed, we see the achievement of the kind of safety net Friedrich Hayek espoused in The Road To Serfdom – facilitating the growth of personal success over collective.
Experienced pollster, Philip Gould – one of the authors of New Labour’s strategy – makes a similar point in his book Unfinished Revolution, published shortly after the UK General Election of 1997. He talks of “the land that Labour forgot”, presenting Britain in the 1980s as a place where people were “neither privileged nor deprived, but … struggling to get by”. During the 18 year Conservative Government spanning the 70s, 80s and 90s, we saw a marked shift from the collectivism of trade union voting and campaigning, to a growing sense of individualism, with many of those who might have traditionally been viewed as working class clearly voting counter to their historic ‘class type’, instead voting on the grounds of personal gain and to “improve their homes and their lives; to get gradually better cars, washing machines and televisions; to go on holiday in Spain rather than Bournemouth”. Because they needed to? Possibly, but probably more because these things were expected.
There are many reasons why we should care about class and in particular about the growth of the middle classes, not least because of the sheer numbers involved. In 2007 half the UK population belonged to the socioeconomic categories C1 (lower-end white-collar workers) and C2 (skilled manual workers). The top two categories, A and B, accounted for 26 per cent; the poorest two, D and E, for 24 per cent. In a matter of decades, British society has shifted from a post-war pyramid with a tiny elite at its point, a larger middle class and a vast working class, into a diamond, where the broad middle is fattest. These natural swing voters are neither rich nor poor and, faced with a choice of altruism or ego, small or big government, are not influenced by tribal or historical patterns to link them with any of the main political ideologies as writ.
These divides can be seen even more starkly in America, possibly reflecting the country’s pioneering history. In a country where to be working class is to carry the stigma of poverty, the middle class is a melting pot with very little homogeny other than common social status and shared aspiration.
Hand in hand with these decreasing bonds we have seen a change in the relationship between American voters and the historic two party political structure. For many years, US politicians fashioned themselves and their parties after British politics of the 19th century – the Whigs and Tories crudely matching the ‘haves’ of the conservative Republican party and the ‘have-nots’ of the more liberal and progressive Democrats. As standards of living rose, so the gap between the richest and poorest in society increased, leading to feelings of disenchantment and disengagement from swathes of the voting public as they saw that however high they climbed, they would – with some rare exceptions – struggle to escape the social group or class into which they had been delivered. Confronted with this disengagement and disillusionment, politicians and strategists adopted marketing techniques to ‘sell’ appealing candidates and ideas, engaging with voters on the grounds of aspiration and further lessening the power of pre-conceived or imposed family and community affiliations.
These concepts were to take centre stage in the writings of Ayn Rand, a twentieth century novelist who prompted the concept of “objectivism”. Her 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, told the story of an uncompromising young American architect and his struggle against what Rand described as “second-handers” – those who attempt to live through others, placing others above self. Throughout, the author highlights the importance of individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism. Whilst it is true that there are higher levels of formal and informal volunteering and community activity in the US than in Britain, a cynical view might be that this is actually a reflection of a cynical society, where community involvement is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Students are encouraged to improve their employment prospects by spending time helping a good cause, as opposed to participating in community activity for the end result of that activity alone. And, of course, such volunteering can take time and money in and of itself.
Where the measurement of success and achievement was once local, relative to the other inhabitants of a physical community, our modern-day connected, global community, enabled and maintained by trade, transport and media, means that the boundaries have shifted. Rather than assess success against peers with similar life experiences and opportunities, students and professionals are measured against the best and most successful in the international field – creating either inspiring or unrealistic goals, depending on your world view. And the response from political parties has been to similarly ‘up-scale’ their messaging to echo the aspirations of citizens, and attempt to meet their rising expectations.
Essentially, at the same time that society has become more protective of its poor, lessening the need for collective activism, so members of the public, all potential voters, are being steered to make decisions based less upon a desire to establish parity between groups defined by class or wealth, and more by a desire to achieve their own aspirational goals.
At the heart is the concept of ‘identity politics’ – when the driver for political engagement shifts from generic aspirations for a group or groups of people to a far narrower perspective based on the self-interest of people’s hyper-personal politics, partially shaped by aspects of their identity through race, class, religion, sexual orientation or traditional dominance, but with a clear focus on individualism and individual gain (be it material gain, status, or something else).
Forty-four years ago a cartoon ape offered bananas to a child to learn the secret of fire, and we laughed. Louis, King of the Apes, was convinced his happiness lay in being more man-like, and for over four decades his comic-tragic desire to walk and talk like a little boy has amused children around the world. In many ways, The Jungle Book is a cautionary tale – in aspiring for more we can become dissatisfied with what we already have, and how far we have already come.
Article image by Timothy Allen