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September 13, 2008

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Richard Gadsden

There is a conflict between the economic meanings of class. Polly is middle class - upper-middle, perhaps - but she doesn't hold any inherited title, she earns money rather than inherits it. She looks at the real upper-class - the class of both David Cameron and Paris Hilton - as a bunch of rich twits. By this definitin, Bill Gates is middle class too.

EvilEuropean

Richard is right. Because of the history of the UK class has a specfic meaning based around title and status which in turn is not directly linked to income. On maybe socaily 'working class' but economically middle class. This is why class is such a messy and divesive issue in the UK.

ad

"Martin Samuel began an article with the line “we all want what’s best for our kids.” But is it acceptable to do so? Isn’t this merely a slightly displaced form of selfishness - very slightly indeed when it’s used by aggressive careerists to excuse their naked ambition?"

Yes. But so is wanting what is best for your country, class, race, sex, or any other subgroup of humanity.

some2199

Class is never as simple as pointing to salary and reading it off a little chart. There is an objective element to class background, and salary forms part of this, but you can't ignore the subjective element - status, social standing, political connections. Polly may be richer than us, higher up on the journalistic cursus honorem, but she's still a journalist, and that puts her in roughly the same class situation as other journalists - including Guido. You might make a case that she has more elite political connections, and therefore more political power than a mere blogger, but that's different than pointing out she's loaded.

Besides, didn't someone once say something about class being determined by relation to the means of production...?

Dan | thesamovar

1.

"But is it acceptable to do so?"

'Acceptable' in what sense? Yes of course it's a form of selfishness, but then so is almost every action we take almost every day - for example our conspicuous continued failure to give away all our worldly possessions and wealth for the benefit of others. The question is not whether wanting the best for our kids is 'right' or not (what would that even mean?) at a personal level. The question is about the politics of given concrete policies. If the 'all' in "we all want what’s best for our kids" refers to really everyone, then the policies you'd implement are different to if 'all' meant people who read columnists in the Times. Since he seems to be advocating a type of education that is de facto not available to everyone, it looks like he means the latter. What he seems to be saying is that he wants a wealth based system of advantage rather than a class based one. Well, that's enough for me to know what to think of him.

2.

As others said, middle class means between working and upper class, nothing to do with how rich you are. It is true though that a disturbingly large number of middle class people fail to realise that they are rich, and do indeed think that they are in the middle. Perhaps we should follow Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel and call them the coordinator class? More suggestive and more accurate.

3.

Funnily enough, I was thinking the same thing the other day. If the entire world vanished into a black hole, presumably something that would happen almost instantaneously, it wouldn't involve any suffering or what have you, or at least not for more than a few seconds at most, so it doesn't seem so bad. Anyway, they still haven't got the accelerator up to the energies which would produce black holes yet, so there's still a chance.

4.

Well, I'm not on the statist left but presumably they would say, quite accurately, that the Labour party wasn't left wing during that time. The real question is why are Labour MPs such wimps and pushovers, and why do people still vote for them given that?

anotherplanet

Perhaps those who question your claim that all kinds of 'statist leftism' have failed (even those who wouldn't necessarily equate this with a 'road to socialism') wonder what your alternative is - other than a reversion to 'market forces' - and look for some evidence that the market would or could provide education/healthcare/social protection without the intervention of the state (which was sucked into the vacuum of underprovision). Perhaps they look to the US as an example of how not to go about such provision and look for an alternative? It would be interesting to identify what non-statist leftism would look like.

Certainly, New Labour had the chance to advance 'leftist goals' in 1997, but those who took control of the party preferred to follow a Murdoch-friendly, diluted neoliberlism. That doesn't necessarily imply that another approach couldn't have been taken. The fact that NL's electoral appeal has been in (seemingly) terminal decline since, despite the continuing absence of a credible opposition, suggests that it might have been more popular.

In any case, it seems perverse to argue simultaneously that leftist alternatives weren't tried AND that they've failed. Or, by implication, that non-statist rightism has succeeded.

You'd be on safer ground arguing that the kind of neoliberal-lite approach of the Blairite's has failed. Would a more full-blown neoliberalism succeed? What would constitute 'success'?

The Admiral

Sorry - in what way is Polly Toynbee, direct descendant of a very wealthy family, not an inheritor of wealth? Whether you measure it economically or socially, she is - in her words - a toff.

Secondly, how many more decades are we going to have to endure of Left wingers making pathetic excuses for their economic failure/ genocide/ totalitarianism (take your pick). Failure follows socialism as surely as night follows day. Instead of doing us all a favour and saying "You know what, we have tried this many times around the world now over the last century and all we do is fuck up people's lives. We're going to stop and have a rethink"; they come out with lame excuses, like in one of the comments above. "Russia never implemented REAL communism. All the gulags, the KGB, the economic failure wouldn't have happened if they had been REAL communists". Or, as we see above, the modern version. "You can't say the Left failed when they had 10 years of a thumping majority and a supine opposition, because, actually, you know they weren't actually left wing. It wouldn't have happened if they were REAL left wingers."

What a load of bollocks. Do us all a favour and recognise what the rest of us saw years and years ago; that "left wingery" makes its proclaimers feel virtuous but is rubbish when it comes to achieving anything for people and will ALWAYS slide inexorably towards authoritarianism.

Blissex

«People can earn ten times the median wage (which is £24,000 (pdf)) and yet still consider themselves “middle class” rather than upper class.»

To reinforce another comment, class can be defined in income terms, but it is really functional.

Middle class is not about median income, but about being the middle link in the hierarchy of power.

Upper class is the owners and the bosses, middle class their scribes (lawyers, doctors, professors) and trusties (supervisors, managers, senior engineers, ...); working class are those that take orders and just do what they are told. They can be well paid (oil rig workers for example), and then they are in the skilled trades or the "aristocracy" of the working class, but not middle class.

The best paid segments of the working class tend to defined as "aspirational" middle class, and tend to parrot the foibles of the real middle class, but that's a different thing.

As to income, it does usually correlate with class, but not median income->middle class, but rather:

* the upper class gets an income in the top 5%,
* the middle class in the top 5-20%,
* the rest is working class, except that the bottom 20% is the underclass (the residuum as the victorians called it).

«Why is this? Why do the rich pretend they are middle class?»

Because they know that to have a middle class lifestyle (shiny cars, spacious home with garden, nice holidays, second home, good school and university for the children, piano lessons, ... no debt except the mortgage) one needs an income very much higher (several times highers) than the middle income.

Very good article on struggling to be middle class:

http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_24/b4088081624555.htm

and please read the comments, many of which are from members of the oppressed, exploited middle class :-).

On 24,000 a year you cannot afford a middle class lifestyle and you have to worry all the time about the bills and making the end of the month.

«3. The Large Hadron Collider didn’t cause the end of the world.»

They are still about 2 months away from the first collision.

ejh

"Under what conditions could it do so?"

Under the conditions that the people in power in the Party, and indeed most of the Parliamentary Party itself, were not plainly a bunch of spivs and careerists?

The estimable Ross McKibbin writes in the LRB:

"One possible explanation is that the electorate has finally recognised how fraudulent New Labour always was. An attractive idea, but probably wrong. However fraudulent it has become, it didn't seem fraudulent at the beginning."

But it did, Professor, you know. It did if you were looking.

"Are these conditions plausible?"

Presumably yes. But presumably not again for a very long time.

kinglear

Regarding question 4, Blair in particular never had any real belief in leftist attitudes. His object was power. The real reason Brown is so excoriated now is that people have finally woken up to the fact that he and Blair never had any real principles, beyond power for power's sake. The reason Mrs.T was was succesful was that people KNEW she had principles and stuck to them, right or wrong. Arguably, she finally lost power when her principles had effectively beeen adopted by all parties, and so she no longer had a USP.

dearieme

"the failure of statist leftism": in Britain, you mean. As I've been shouting for half-a-dozen years, that twerp George W Airhead has advanced statist leftism no end in the USA.

Mark Wadsworth

What Dearieme says.

Phil

"We all want the best for ourselves" is an uncontroversial statement of fact; "we all want the best for our children" is just an extension. If the statement is actually "We all want the best for ourselves and sod everyone else", then that's selfish - but it's the second clause that does the work.

As for 4., I'm with ejh.

Joe Otten

1. Nah, wanting the best for your kids is a form of altruism. My kids are not my self, so by defintion, this is not selfishness. It happens to be a kind of altruism that contributes to evolutionary fitness, but morally speaking evolutionary fitness isn't relevant, right? (You can't go from an "is" to an "ought", remember!)

But this is OK. It is better that we, many of us, have a particular duty of care to particular children, than merely a smeared out duty to children in general. This way somebody takes responsibility, most of the time, and few children are subject to an upbringing of institutional statist crappiness.


3. Yeah, that seemed to be the message of Tom Lehrer's "We will all go together when we go".

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frAEmhqdLFs


Bob B

"If [New Labour] could not advance leftist goals satisfactorily under these conditions, under what conditions could it do so?"

One credible alternative explanation to the failings of the "Statist Left" is simply that the New Labour government was administratively incompetent and intellectually bankrupt from the start.

After all, the front line Labour ministers had no previous experience of ministerial office and from the beginning the government was more obsessed with spin and presentation than accomplishing the stated goals of New Labour - such as achieving a "fairer society".

Blair's espousal of the "Third Way" - whatever that was supposed to mean - and Brown's delusion that he had bannished boom and bust in the economy forever are fair indications of the extent of their intellectual bankruptcy.

The commitment to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, without prior sanction by the UN Security Council, after Blair's keynote speech to the Chicago economic club in April 1999 at the very least indicates a staggering capacity for muddled thinking and a willingness to trample international law:

"If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar."
http://www.number-10.gov.uk/output/Page1297.asp

After all that guff in the lead up to the 1997 landslide about greater transparency and accountability in government, we observed the persiatent bypassing of Parliament and the vast proliferation of Quangos. Between the 1997 and 2005 elections, Blair lost four million votes and half the membership of the Labour Party.

In a way, I feel some sympathy for Brown. New Labour was already on the slide when he took over.

Tom J

Bother, I'd dug up the Youtube link for the Lehrer song before scrolling down to see Joe's response. 8-(

ortega

2.

Maybe rich people are convinced, like many more of us, that there are not very much rich people around. So, when they see how many people have as much money as they have, they think: 'If we are so many, we cannot be rich. We must be middle class'. Another remain of the declining populist ideologies of the XXth century.

Dave

"What, if anything, is good about wanting the best for one’s kids? Why should I respect this desire?"

Well, you could argue that your kids constitute part of your particular job on the planet, and that if everyone looks after their own job, then the world will in total be a better place.

But if you try to argue this or any other ethical issue through from the perspective of moral realism, you'll inevitably end up in knots of contradiction.

From the perspective of moral expressivism, which is the only factually consistent account of ethics, you either do respect this desire to look after one's own kids or you don't.

Now in thinking through the consequences of this desire, you may refine your opinion of its virtue in the context of a broader sense of how it contributes to what you value. For example, you may decide that its negative impact on social justice overrides everything else.

But for many conservatives, family loyalty is valuable in and of itself:
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt08/haidt08_index.html

Bob B

I was under the impression - perhaps mistakenly - that Cameronian Conservatives are in favour of Social Justice.

If so, try Andre Sapir's paper on: Globalisation and the Reform of European Social Models (November 2005):
http://www.bruegel.org/Public/fileDownload.php?target=/Files/media/PDF/Publications/Policy%20Briefs/PB200501_SocialModels.pdf

He makes the point that there are several alternative prescriptions to the Anglo-Saxon model. The Nordic model of welfare state intervention to achieve social objectives, supported by high tax burdens, does work and does lead to relatively good economic performance.

It is a (logical) mistake to conclude that state intervention to secure social objectives doesn't work just because New Labour is dysfunctional.

dearieme

"piano lessons": ooh - the effete, decadent, bourgeois bastards.

Bob B

"The Conservatives are planning a manufacturing summit later this year, aimed at policy solutions for helping British industry."
http://conservativehome.blogs.com/torydiary/2008/09/tories-plan-sum.html

With that, it's starting to look as though an interventionist industry policy of some kind in coming back into fashion.

Curiously, while the Conservatives appear to be moving towards an activist industry policy, the Lib-Dems are promising to abolish the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and slash public spending by £20bn.

Shuggy

"Martin Samuel began an article with the line “we all want what’s best for our kids.” But is it acceptable to do so? Isn’t this merely a slightly displaced form of selfishness"

Toddypends. If parents pursue "the best" for their sproglets in a way that is indifferent to or even at the expense of the rest of society then this is what someone called "amoral familism." Take it to its logical conclusion and you're in Godfather territory. But on the other hand you have Burke's little platoons and shit like that. As far as I can see, this is the only viable model on offer - every other version sees affections, 'wanting the best for your children', as a zero-sum game that competes with one's duty to the collective. Historically, all versions of this have been completely mental.

Anyway, like a few others, I don't believe you're serious about half of these questions you ask; you're really having a pop at the sort of nightmare pushy parents who get violin lessons for their weans when they are still in the womb. The sort of uber-bourgeois assholes who write for the Times (present company excluded, it goes without saying). These are, I would agree, fairly excruciating.

Bob B

OTOH Sapir's take is that the Nordic model for the interventist state and the Anglo-Saxon model are the only sustainable options in the longer term.

What we can see very clearly now from the unfolding downstream consequences of the sub-prime mortgage debacle in America and the scale of the Enron and world.com frauds there is that the beguiling visions of the supposedly sun-lit pastures of the "free market" model are just a sick joke.

Just the other day, the FT was sounding a solemn warning about how China was applying what is called its "sovereign wealth fund" to induce the government of Costa Rica to switch its formal recognition from Taiwan to the Peoples Republic of China. We had better adapt to that insight. Btw China's sovereign wealth fund ("Safe") is a significant investor in major British companies via investments made through the London stock exchange.
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/030fc542-8063-11dd-99a9-000077b07658.html

Even if contributors here reject the notion of the interventionist state, it doesn't follow that will become the universally accepted international model - and China in due course will become the world's largest economy. I readily concede that billions of taxpayers' money in Britain have been wasted on industrial intervention for supposedly benign motives. Perhaps the appropriate conclusion is that we had better learn to play the game better.

reason

Chris,
re Point 3 - Perhaps people who have invested in raising children, don't like the thought that investment was a waste (see point 1).

ad - why restrict your "in-group" to humanity? Ultimately, I would have thought we would have at some stage reached the limits of credible reciprocity - and so a sense of community has to choose some arbitrary boundaries. We can choose however to be aware of how abitrary those boundaries are.

Alan Lewis

13 September 2008 Question 1
This is only a problem if one is sceptical of ethics at all. Taking responsibility for the intiation of of a life is a moral decision as well as a biological activity - just different levels of description. One should want the best for one's children as one is morally as well as causally responsible for their lives until they become autonomous. Even then, the genral examples you set to your offspring and others, especially during their development can have causal and moral consequences. This is the argument against being conspicuously ruthless in one's tribal self-interest. The result of such ruthlessness could be a society or sub-culture which does not allow one's offspring to survive differentially well compared to one in which self-sacrifice and altruism dominate.

Alan Lewis

13 September 2008 Question 2
There are two distinct usages of "middle class" recommending and disrecommending.
In its recommending sense "middle class" means educated, enlightened and sensible in opposition to the unelightened extremes born of underacheivement in the workers (e.g. racism)and obvious unenlightened self-interest from the aristocracy and high capitalists.

Alan Lewis

13 September 2008 Question 3
The waste involved in a large number of people's efforts and emotional investments being wasted as opposed to just one or two is not a difficult inference or advanced calculation. The lost values and views of an individual can be reconstructed or rediscovered if the supporting civilisation survives, but not if it doesn't. Is that pink glow in the East blue-shifted Hawking radiation or tomorrow's dawn?

Alan Lewis

13 September 2008 Question 4.
The sacrifice of principles involved in picking on students, immigrants, the long term sick and civil servants is a regrettable but not necessarily permanent shift. I still trust the old bastards. My worry is the young ones without a strong underlying grasp of right and wrong in terms of labour movement traditions may mistake the pragmatic for the programmatic.

jpp

2) I didn't think one ever described oneself as upper class. One might avoid actively describing oneself as middle class when one knew it wasn't true.

3)I have surprised myself with how calmly I could accept an LHC end to the world and deduce that my aversion to dying in ordinary circumstances must be because of concern for those left behind. I didn't know I was so noble (-- an interesting word with its derivation related to (2)).

1) I find the drastic change in people's left-wing views as their children approach school age(s) to be very interesting.

I would refuse to vote for a politician who sent their child to a poor local school unnecessarily for a political purpose, as they would obviously sell me down the river even faster for their own gain.

4) I agree with other commenters that you would need leaders who were following that agenda.

Hugo

Can't find the quote, but I think it was Orwell who said that the thing about class in England was that it was not a matter of money. Something like "that's why rich stockbrokers feel the need to set themselves up as a country squire/country gent".

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