Wednesday, 11 March 2015


Increasingly, it seems "class" is becoming uncomfortably old-fashioned as a way of describing one's background and the workings of society, not least because politicians and others have put a lot of effort into persuading us we now live in a "classless" society.  That is to say, not classless in the sense of a society where wealth and ownership are spread evenly across the population, or where the difference between the richest and the poorest has diminished to some morally acceptable multiple, but in the sense that sufficient opportunity and means now exist for "social mobility"* to be a matter of choice, supposedly, regardless of the stratum of society into which an individual was born.  There are, it is claimed, no longer any barriers of class.  The only real barriers are attitude and aspiration. To which my considered response is:  Yeah, right.

To a limited extent, this has always been sort-of-true.  As Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall reaches its apotheosis as a BBC TV six-parter, we should remind ourselves: Thomas Cromwell is not a fictional character.  The son of a Putney blacksmith really did rise to become the most powerful man in the land.  Not many years later, and pace various anti-Stratfordian lunatics, the son of a Warwickshire glover really did become the greatest wordsmith the English language has ever known.  Although we should bear in mind that such men were never illiterate, dung-spattered ragamuffins from the hovels of the lower orders.  That our society should regard the children of influential tradesmen as coming from "humble" beginnings is revealing in itself.  For centuries, if not millennia, the actual poor -- numerous, ubiquitous, malodorous, and dangerous -- have been regarded as essentially a form of livestock.

I think what is really signified by this insistence on "classlessness" is that the privileged now once again feel sufficiently threatened by the structural "problem" of the poor that their best answer is to deny the existence of any such problem.  Anyone who points out the inbuilt unfairness and self-replicating rigidity of society must be derided as an out-of-date "class warrior" or -- in a word that tops my hate list -- merely "chippy".  A clown like Russell Brand only gets the attention he does because he is a clown.  It's tempting to say something similar about Slavoj Žižek.  I mean, how many other academic Marxists get millions of views on YouTube?

Obviously, in a world of limited opportunities, it suits the interests of those who regard an interesting, meaningful life as their exclusive birthright to control and limit access to the Good Stuff.  Nepotism, prejudice, shibboleths, patronage, connections, and inheritance; these were always the traditional methods of ensuring the Good Stuff went to the right people and, more importantly, to the children of the right people.  The striking thing is, in modern Britain, these sleights and sharp practices are being used more, not less.

You only have to look at the widespread contemporary use of unpaid "internships" as Route A to the juicier jobs in practically any employment sector that will -- eventually -- pay a proper professional salary.  These are open to "anyone", of course, provided you happen to know the right people, and can survive on no pay at all for at least a year or two.  As a way of filtering out the lower orders it couldn't be improved upon, really.  I have even read of cases where unpaid internships are offered as prizes at top fee-paying schools.  I was deeply confused the first time I was approached by a recent graduate asking to work for no pay for a year.  What?  I simply could not process the information.  She had used the word "internship", but I did not recognise its meaning at the time: it had something to do with doctors and hospitals, as far as I knew.  Did junior doctors work for nothing, then?

It is also quite shocking to observe shameless and systematic nepotism going on quite openly.  A network of famous families is threaded all through the media and the arts, for example, to a degree that suggests that we have re-invented a form of aristocracy for the 21st century.  How amazing -- in a classless meritocracy like ours, where jobs always go to the best available candidate -- that the second and, yea, even the third generations should turn out to be just as talented as the dynasty's founder!  Nepotistic?  No, genetic!

But it's not just the good jobs and the influential friends -- useful as these are -- that build a wall around our ruling elites and their lucky offspring, but something more enabling: the permission and the means to regard yourself as exempt from the common run of expectations, not least from the social gravity of failure.  It has long been a mystery to me:  where do upper-middle class children of average or below average intelligence and no particular talent end up?  Where are they educated, given most fee-paying schools have fiercely competitive entrance requirements?  Why are they never to be found stacking supermarket shelves, or emptying my bins?  Is there an offshore island somewhere, entirely populated by Justins and Sophies who cannot master the twelve times table?

When celebrating the undoubted achievements of "our" culture, we should never overlook the fundamental truth that the productivity of what we might call the Achieving Classes was bought at a high social and human price.  It depended entirely on a ready supply of domestic servants, for example, expected to work long and unsocial hours for little pay, and to remain single as a condition of employment.  It also depended on private incomes, derived from rents, grimy industries, dubious colonial enterprises, and speculation, all of which wrought misery for others before being laundered into immaculate cash in the bank.  Above all, it presumed the unquestioning commitment of the majority population to living lives of unrewarding drudgery, building and shoring up the economic base that supported the gilded pin, on the head of which "our" cultivated angels danced their elegant dance.

Many might ask:  So what has changed, exactly? I think I'd reply: Nothing much, except that, increasingly, the very wealthy and the globally well-connected like to think they don't really need the poor any more -- or, indeed, most of the rest of us -- and are losing interest in the political fantasy that they, too, have a stake in alleviating poverty by means of welfare and social mobility.  So last century!  Welcome to the New Middle Ages; just one mobile classless class, plus livestock.

* Always understood as an "upwards", never a "downwards" movement.  Eventually, I suppose, we could all be wealthy, leisured aristocrats!


David Brookes said...


I am actually the great nephew of a Putney blacksmith (my mother was brought up by her uncle after my grandparents died, so he was a surrogate grandfather to me). After service as a Farrier Sergeant in the First World War he worked as a master golf-club maker for Spaldings, then based in Putney. Alas, so far I have not managed to become the most powerful man in the land: if I were I would introduce changes of which you would approve - I heartily concur with the opinions in your piece.

David Brookes

Mike C. said...


That's a lovely comment, thanks for that! Keep working on it...


Gavin McL said...

I have yet to discover a blacksmith in the family but I have found that large parts of the family have been middle class for upwards of 200 years and in fact my generation probably marks a decline - not privately educated, I don't own several ships, a woollen mill or run a large coal mine and I'm not a member of a club in St James Square. Equally though I haven't been mentioned in Parliament for paying low wages, had to admit to beating men to their work or been admonished in the courts for the way I ran my companies. The problem that my family had was that they never quite got their knee over the ledge, they remained "in trade" and when things in the wider world changed they didn't have quite enough to keep things running. Riding the downward curve hasn't been too bad and I have inherited some very nice engraved silver fish knives

Mike C. said...


At last, a downwardly-mobile person! Congratulations!

Actually, I think that story may be more common than one might think -- even "great" families rarely seem to last more than four generations, though the fifth generation rarely become dustmen.

Hard not to be proud of an ancestor mentioned in Parliament for paying low wages, though. It's rather like being descended from a notorious pirate...


Martyn Cornell said...

From what I've been able to discover, In the 16th century the Cornewells (sic) were Cambridgeshire yeomen, ie middle class, but by the late 18th century my branch of the family had descended to agricultural labourer level (and misspelled the family name). It's taken four generations to climb back into the middle class again ...

Mike C. said...


Well, that's more like it -- 200 years from riches to rags, then a slow 4 generation climb back up... And they say social mobility is at a standstill!