In this guest post, Steven Roberts summarises his new book (co-edited with Will Atkinson and Mike Savage), ‘Class Inequality in Austerity Britain‘, and presents a vision of the political role of Sociology in the 21st century.
Not that it has gone unnoticed, but it is worth starting this blog by reminding ourselves that the coalition has moved ‘faster and further’ toward the right-wing paradise of privatisation and self-responsibilisation in a few short years than Thatcher managed in a torturous decade. The effects of this political agenda upon on contemporary Britons – on families struggling with shopping bills, on school pupils, university students, young workers, parents, excluded, teenagers and local communities – are the key concerns of our recently published edited collection ‘Class Inequality in Austerity Britain’.
Having taken a back seat in the social research agenda, our first port of call is to remind people that class research is back with a bang. It also appears to be back in political rhetoric as MPs across the political spectrum seek to expose the reality of each other’s social backgrounds in a bout of a political point scoring. A particular concern for both lay class analysts in the popular press and beyond in the professional research setting (think tanks and academia) has been the ways in which the coalition have scrapped or whittled down those existing programmes which, however meagre and superficial, were aimed at reducing economic and educational inequalities, such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance (the payment to pupils entering post-compulsory schooling as a means of lessening the demands of economic necessity) and the Future Jobs Fund (the programme of subsidised youth employment). Of note, too, have been measures aimed at raising revenue, such as increases in VAT (which is known to disproportionately hit those earning less) rather than focussing on tax on income, and the encouragement for universities to triple tuition fees and sought to ‘reform’ the welfare system by reducing payments and imposing tougher criteria for receipt.
Beyond economic differences
Beyond these more obviously fiscal issues, researching social class these days is not just about exploitation, difference and the ‘straight forward’ difference of economic inequalities – it is about cultural and symbolic domination, too. It is not just about life chances and ‘equality of opportunity’, but about self-worth, suffering and denigration as well; and it is tied not only to a politics of redistribution, as crucial as that is, but also, at the same time, a politics of recognition.
Using Pierre Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, then, we define social class not by relation to the means of production, nor by possession of particular skills and capacities in the labour market, but by the possession of all forms of economic capital (wealth and income), cultural capital (education and ‘good taste’) and social capital (contacts, networks, names, club membership, etc.) which together shape the kinds of experience it is possible to have, the kinds of goods and opportunities it is possible to attain and the kinds of people one is likely to have regular contact with, and, in turn, the expectations, values, desires, tastes and lifestyles developed in adaptation. The contributions in our book confirm that those possessing the most resources, and the most power, impose their own way of life – educational or economic accomplishment, being ‘cultivated’, responsibility and ‘manners’ and so on – as the legitimate, worthy and ultimately right way to do things, denigrating those not possessing the material conditions necessary for their achievement.
Class inequality in austerity Britain
While broad concerns with the economic and symbolic violence inflicted on and through education, family life and community in the present and recent past weave through more or less every chapter, the precise themes explored include the stratified impact of the late 2000s recession and austerity on family life and consumption, the deleterious effects of schools policy and cuts, the likely impact of the hike in higher education tuition fees given the disadvantages already suffered by working-class university students, the barriers to and denigration of working-class aspirations, the myopic construction of parenting policy, the economic and symbolic marginalisation of the most deprived sections of the working class and its role in the genesis of proscribed activity and the summer riots of 2011, and the ignorance and hypocrisy of claims that communities in the UK are ‘broken’. The penultimate chapter also offers an analysis of the rise of the new rentier class as a salutary reminder not to take our sociological gaze off those at the top in examining the suffering of those at the bottom.
Rather than being powerless to understand or effectively critique the causes and consequences of the current and seemingly unrelenting economic downturn and the pervasive political climate of austerity that has followed in the UK, we argue that sociology is a means of defence against symbolic and material domination. In targeting the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government discourse of ‘fairness’ and subsequent compulsory austerity, we also want to make clear that this economic-cum-political doctrine which promotes and facilities unfettered market forces and rapid state shrinkage, is viewed as part of on-going neoliberal agenda representing an articulation of state, economy and society which has sustained and deepened these forms of domination. It is our hope that the book offers a more thoroughgoing and comprehensive assessment and, with that, an effective critique of the bearing of current political practice on both conditions of existence and ways of seeing the world.