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The rise of the precariat and the loss of collective sensibility

Sunday 5 May 2013

By Tristram Hunt

There is no sense of mission to this modern middle class, writes Tristram Hunt

In his 1577 Description of England the writer William Harrison distinguished “four degrees of people”. The first degree consisted of gentlemen, defined as “those whome their race or blood or at least their virtues doo make noble and knowne”. Second, came the citizens of England’s cities; then the yeomen of the countryside; and finally a category embracing day labourers, poor husbandmen and servants, people who had “neither voice nor authoritie in the common wealthe, but are to be ruled and not to rule other”.

Last week, the Great British Class Survey updated this final grouping as the “precariat” – whose members earn just £8,000 after tax and are unlikely to go on to higher education. The new classification was part of a mass study into social class, co-ordinated by the BBC and six universities, which aimed to dismantle our traditional tripartite division of working, middle and upper class. Instead, the academics have now decided on seven classes, encompassing such bands as “emergent service workers”.

Since then, the British chattering classes have been dissecting the state of British social identity and indulging our national pastime of obsessing over hierarchy, etiquette and class. But it has done so against the disturbing backdrop of the Mick Philpott arson case and a much cruder debate about whether the welfare state has turned the traditional working class into an immoral underclass. Rather than questioning the prevalence of such poverty and social breakdown, we have opted instead for another exercise in middle-class self regard.

What a contrast to 1963. This survey has arrived bang on the 50th anniversary of one of the defining texts of English social class. “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan ... from the enormous condescension of posterity,” wrote EP Thompson in his preface to The Making of the English Working Class.

What that brilliant history did was chart the development of a working-class identity out of the trauma of the Industrial Revolution, telling the story in terms of human relationships. And he was right to focus on the late 1700s as the defining epoch. That was the moment when William Harrison’s finely tuned degrees gave way to the language of “sorts” and even “classes”. In the social aftermath of urbanisation and industrialisation, there was talk of collective social groups such as “the poorer classes” or “the middling classes”.

Middle-class identity was being forged just as actively as working-class. “In it are the heads that invent, and the hands that execute ... the men in fact who think for the rest of the world, and who really do the business of the world,” as James Mill described them.

To Marx and Engels, these were the bourgeoisie. Their achievements were remarkable, but they were also destined for the grave of history being dug by the working class. There was nothing precarious about Karl Marx’s proletariat, whose purpose was to end all class division with an end-of-days revolution.

In the short term, what Marxism got so spectacularly wrong was the idea of ever-accelerating extremes between top and bottom. Instead, the 20th century was marked by the remarkable enlargement of the middle class. As John (now Lord) Prescott, former Labour party deputy prime minister once put it: “We’re all middle class now.”

This explains the level of detail the latest survey lavishes on the intimacies of the middle class – with their social capital, savings rates, and occupation all under the microscope. But there is no sense of mission to this modern middle class; none of that energy which used to surround the enlightening, civilising, faith-driven function of the British bourgeoisie. This is about Ikea and Facebook, not the anti-Corn Law League or battle for female suffrage. What the Great British Class Survey confirms is a loss of collective sensibility. For better or worse, social class as it has been known for 200 years is headed towards Marxism’s grave. We are back to the world of Harrison, with its minutely gradated chain of being. And the sense of agency and purpose which Thompson once heralded is now overshadowed by a precariat with “neither voice nor authoritie in the common wealthe”.

The writer is a historian and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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