CLASS, CULTURE AND POLITICS

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MURRAY'S 'UNDERCLASS' THESIS

  • Welfare corrupted the poorest, making them lazy and idle, offered perverse incentives and undermined public morality and decency
  • Poor people, especially those of disadvantaged ethnic minority groups, were the cause of their own problems
  • Proposed that, instead of the government 'encouraging them', they should be forced to adhere to social norms and seek work no matter how badly paid
  • Morality the problem, not income inequality or racial discrimination
  • His ideas gained support when brought to the UK in the late 80s
  • For Murray, the rise in unemployment, growing gap between top and bottom, rising income differentials etc all linked to the accelerated growth of the disorderly 'underclass'
  • Those in the underclass are poor because they belong to a cultural group which rejects/is isolated from mainstream norms and values
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WACQUANT'S 'PRECARIAT' THESIS

  • Fiercely critiqued Murray's 'underclass' thesis, instead advancing a structural rather than cultural explanation for the 'problem of the poor'
  • Rejects the label of 'underclass' instead referring to the poorest within society as the 'precariat'
  • Emphasises socio-economic position relative to others, not to cultural values
  • The underclass as a myth which "refurbishes century-old prejudices concerning the poor" (2004)
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POST-WAR CONSENSUS

  • Industrial capitalism led to social problems the market couldn't solve
  • This meant the government had to intervene in the economy to reduce the negative consequences of market competition and introduce welfare to protect those facing hardship
  • This involved taxing and regulating businesses as well as the use of Keynesian economics to maintain high levels of employment
  • Governments restricted scope for accumulation at the top through taxing and regulation whilst reducing poverty through introduction of welfare and committment to maintaining high employment rates
  • A process of social equalisation meant that there was less of a gap between those at the bottom and those at the top
  • By mid-70s the gap between rich and poor was as low as it had ever been in Europe and North America
  • Government activity altered the shape of class structures through capping social hierarchies, remodelling economic, social, political and cultural relationships on more equal lines
  • However, divisions of gender, race, sexuality etc still big problems
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DISINTEGRATION OF POST-WAR CONSENSUS

  • Mid-70s on the process goes into reverse
  • Economic crises in the form of oil shocks, recessions, growing unemployment, higher inflation rates etc
  • Social crises in the form of growing conflict over immigration, new social movements demanding equal rights regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexuality seen as a threat to 'British values'
  • Political crises in the form of the rise of the new right, the mixing of neo-liberal economics with neo-conservative social values, fuelled by resentment to heavy taxes on the rich
  • Wacquant argues that this led to three major shifts in the political dimension of class relationships ("the triple transformation of the state")
  • The amputation of its economic arm
  • The retraction of its social bosom
  • And the massive expansion of its penal fist
  • This translates as the government stepping back from their role as economic regulators and taking much harsher stances towards the poor
  • This led to what Wacquant calls 'generalised social insecurity': social exclusion, poverty etc much more prominent today
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IMPLICATIONS OF CHANGING CLASS STRUCTURE

  • Poverty, unemployment and inequality once managed by economic and welfare policy
  • However, government has pulled back and social problems are now on the rise
  • These problems are increasingly being managed through punitive measures
  • Massive increase in prison populations
  • UK has highest prison population in the EU, US in the world
  • CJS working increasingly closely with welfare institutions: 'work-fare', 'prison fare' etc
  • Pushing the poorest into either low paid insecure jobs or the CJS
  • Contradicting Murray, social problems have not grown more rapidly in countries with more equal distribution of economic resources (which, supporting Wacquant, also have lowest prison populations)
  • Suggests that how class divides are managed at political level leads to more integrated and stable societies
  • If policy encourages inequality, then even more rigid divides between rich and poor develop, creating social distance that prevents people from attempting to understand eachother
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MARXIST PERSPECTIVE

  • For conflict theorists, class relationships are antagonistic
  • They determine who does better within a society
  • Stress is on inequality and exploitation
  • Embeds class in collective struggle for control of resources between social groups with opposing interests
  • Marx- struggle for economic capital; for control of income, wealth, land, property etc
  • Weber- struggle for both social and political capital; for higher status, for more power and authority, for control of institutions etc
  • Bourdieu- struggle for cultural and symbolic capital; for goods and services that demonstrate higher social standing e.g.private education, designer goods etc
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FUNCTIONALIST PERSPECTIVE

  • For consensus theorists class relationships are functional, not antagonistic
  • Emphasise that different classes of people are needed within complex societies if they are to function properly
  • Stress the role of common interests, mutual advantage and integration in maintaining social stability
  • Embed class in a wider social division of labour in which people play equally important though different roles e.g.street cleaner and CEO of large corperation
  • However, they also emphasise that relationships can become dysfunctional and destabilising where forms of integration/social organisation begin to break down
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CLASS AND SOCIAL UNREST

  • Ponticelli and Voth (2011) highlight the connection between "austerity and anarchy"
  • "With every % of GDP in spending cuts...unrest increases"
  • Unrest pits the insecure outsiders against socially secure insiders e.g. young/old, black/white, men/women, lgbt/straight etc
  • Financial crisis and reductions in government spending linked to falls in living standards, stagnating wages, cuts to essential services like health and housing etc
  • Impact not felt evenly- young people and women particularly affected
  • 2011 riots not isolated- wave of unrest across the world since 2008
  • Why is it 'kicking off everywhere'? (Mason, 2011)
  • Participants not confined to poorest but belong to a generation of young people facing a precarious/insecure future and 'downward social mobility'
  • Not a cultural matter: sign that current structural trends in inequality are unsustainable and new political solutions are needed
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CONCLUSION

  • Culture as the key battleground in contemporary political struggle to define and respond to clas divisions and inequality
  • But class position is not only cultural but political, social and economic in character
  • Reinforces and is reinforced by other divides
  • 'Underclass' thesis neglects these dimensions and fails to contextualise contemporary problems of inequality, instead simply blaming and demonising the poor
  • Wacquant tries to develop an explanation across all dimensions, rejecting the moralistic approach and attempting to explain wider patterns of structural and historical change
  • For Wacquant, the poor are not poor because they are culturally different, instead they come to be treated as culturally different because a) the way our society is divided along class and other lines and b) the subordinate position the poor occupy within that divided society
  • Social problems not the problems of poor or rich but of societies as a whole and how they are collectively run
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