Thursday, 14 November 2013

Middle-class nation state?

This afternoon I told a struggling undergrad dissertation to go an write. Just write. Anything. Write, write, write. I also explained I had the idea for this post in my head and had been desperate to write it out all day after reading this paper(£) on the train this morning. So, apologies, it's scrappy and not very hyperlinked, but I needed to get the ideas out.

For some context, you might also want to see my blogs about my middle class activism research here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

So Haugaard argues, via Marx, that the nation state subverted class interests by creating other social structures, in Foucault’s terms, the technologies of governance, schools etc. He frames this in terms of creating a habitus – a being in one’s self – that is being part of the nation state. The symbolic violence that makes this seem natural obscures the activation of power by the state. Now, we can accept this as positive power, as the enabling of good things to happen.

However, we can link this to T.H. Marshall’s concept of welfare citizenship and social rights as a development from civil and political rights. In his framing of the development of the welfare state he saw people gaining greater citizenship as the benefits of the state enabled them to participate fully. Further this developed a social contract across the nation, nation-state reciprocity. This can be seen as the positive power, as just mentioned. However, the obvious criticism is that this was a paternalist state. The growth of the welfare state led to a growth in social mobility through a growth in technical professions, as Mike Savage has argued. The UK, in particular, stopped being a gentlemanly country/state and became an increasingly technocratic one. Goldthorpe and Lockwood wanted technically competent knowledge of the affluent workers of Luton through using cutting-edge sociological methods.

So to argue that the postwar welfare state created a welfare citizenship based on social rights is already looking a bit flimsy – it created a state of the minds of the technically proficient bureaucrats who were managing it: of householders managers by the Corporation Sanitary Inspectress and latterly social workers; of suburbs and city centres of the planners’ ideal type; of hospitals which treated people with the same problems as the consultant’s or GP’s friends. The social mobility associated with these professions arguably created a new social class, particularly as identified by Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s Weberian schema that became NS-SEC.

If we turned to a Bourdieusian conception of class we can get at this a bit more and bring the debate back full circle to consider habitus and symbolic violence. I am using the shorthand here of “the middle class” to describe these professionals who were created by and created the postwar welfare state, and also those with the social capital that links to them, and similar cultural capital. As myself and Annette Hastings have argued, the middle classes, so conceived, are particularly effective at extracting gain from the welfare state, especially in terms of services that suit their needs and demands – a subtle form of Tudor-Hart’s inverse care law. We can suggest that in the period 1945-1979 the growth of the state, the high social mobility, and increasing equality led to a devaluation of economic capital in securing class positions. Instead, a large group of people gained an enhanced class position through social and cultural capital – the 11+, investment in the arts and culture (National Theatre, Arts Council etc.). They then created a middle-class state in their own image; a state where middle-class habitus, the being in one’s self, helped you get on. It helped you get into the right school; it helped you get on in that school; it helped you get the best treatment from your GP or consultant; it helped you oppose that social housing development that might detract from your neighbourhood; it enabled you to get your street swept more regularly than the inner city neighbourhoods; it meant you felt comfortable in the plate glass university you went to; increasingly now it means you have the means to shield your assets from being used to pay for your care and being able to use your personal budget to buy absolutely excellent care or get you into the best care home.

Obviously there are exceptions to this, but the evidence suggests that to suggest that we created a middle-class state in the UK is not that far-fetched an idea. This is acceptable during a period like that from 1945-1979 where we had large amounts of upward social mobility. There was lots of space, for people like my parents, to be in this middle class. But this social mobility has stalled. What is more, a lot of these people (with a household income of £60k - £100k based on two professionals working full time) are in the top quartile, decile or even percentile of the income scale yet they do not recognise this. So this group are sailing away from the rest of society who have very little chance of joining them and yet they are still creating the state in their own mould because they expect or presume everyone to be like them. Their habitus and symbolic violence makes it seem natural that, for example, you should work very hard to get your child into the best school. As a result non-middle-class parents begin to feel guilty about making a choice based on family connections, or just what school is nearest and easiest to get to.

So where does this leave us? I feel uncomfortable in our middle classes work because if you follow the logic to its conclusion you can argue that state resources should be withdrawn from the middle-classes as it just entrenches inequality and be focused solely on those poorer in society. But for me that leaves us with the problem that services for the poor are poor services. However, if we conceive of the modern welfare state as a middle class state, then what is important is to reduce inequality and make sure there is social mobility. Then we can return to Marshall’s model of social citizenship as it will be something all can benefit from. Further, to link Marshall’s point about reciprocity to the Wilkinson and Pickett Spirit Level argument, and particularly their point that is does not matter how you get your equality either by having equal incomes, or progressive taxation what matter is equality. Then what we need to ensure the welfare state does not entrench and exacerbate inequality is to produce equality so that everyone is paying in equally, or that the wealthier are paying in more but seeing the benefit to all around them.

I think.


  1. Not a middle class nation state - a middle class government. We - in theory spend £120bn on the reduction of inequality (welfare ex-pensions) - but through child benefit and other benefits, plus funding for elite arts, libraries and such, much of this attempt to alleviate relative poverty has been diverted to middle class interests and preferences. However, if you accept - as many do - the idea of "everything within the state, nothing without the sate", then there is no difference between a "middle class nation" and a "middle class government".

    The price of this is that today us middle classes have got so used to the idea of government paying that we have forgotten about the idea of personal responsibility and the concept of paying our way. Thus, as you note, rejection of selling assets to pay for care.

    Today we have the grotesque sight of middle class professional - mostly with public sector jobs - exploiting the poor so as to protect their personal, financial and social interests. And a major political party crafting its policies on education, care and welfare to satisfy those intersts as the expense of the ordinary worker that party claims to serve.

    Or maybe I misunderstood you?

  2. Your last paragraph, as a wishy-washy lefty liberal, is where I don't want the argument, or reality, to end. But I fear that in a very unequal society, with limited social mobility then that is indeed where we end up.

    I'm now too tired to get my head around the Foucauldian analysis to pick up on your government/nation point though :-(