Is the UK becoming a classless society? Part 4 of 6

Part Four  Social Class, Post-Fordism, Late Modernity, Post-Modernism and British Politics 


  1. Social Class, Post-Fordism,LateModernity and Post-Modernism

Although the claims of Post-Capitalist theorists that class inequalities were narrowing considerably have been called into question by both Neo-Marxists and Neo-Weberians, some sociologists sympathetic to the concepts of Post-Fordism, Late Modernity and Post-modernism from the 1970s onwards have argued that that capitalist class structures were in fact changing in ways not predicted by earlier class theorists.

7.1 Post-Fordism and Late Modernity

 Thus, from the 1970s onwards it came to be argued that capitalism was entering a Post-Fordist phase in which production processes would increasingly be computerised, and that this would generate greater demand for so-called core workers [professional workers, technicians and skilled craft workers] who would increasingly be consulted by management and given greater opportunities to exercise their own creativity within the work environment. As a result, it was claimed, productivity would increase, and there would be less likelihood of conflict in industrial relations. It was also recognised that there would also be unskilled or semi-skilled peripheral workers who would be relatively poorly paid and might be employed on part-time and/or temporary contracts  but it was hoped that Post-Fordism would result in the relative expansion of employment for core workers.

 During the 1980s there were several studies which sought to analyse the extent to which Post-Fordism was indeed replacing Fordism, which led to disputes as to the relative growth of Core and Peripheral workers and the extent to which the Core workers were or were not becoming increasingly skilled, being consulted by management, and growing more content in their working environments.

 In his critical assessment of the UK education system, Patrick Ainley (Betraying a Generation: How Education is Failing Young People 2016) has argued that the extent of transition from Fordism to Post-Fordism has been much overstated, and that although some parts of the economy may have developed in a Post-Fordist direction, others could be described as operating under conditions of Neo-Fordism. Thus, he argues that although increasing numbers of students have graduated from university, many have failed to secure graduate-level employment because of the relatively slow growth of graduate-level jobs: they are essentially GRINGOS (graduates in non-graduate occupations). Meanwhile, the service sector of the economy has seen the growth of routine, tightly supervised, poorly paid jobs (often on zero hours contracts offering very limited job satisfaction in call centres or fast food outlets or in social care where at least the level of job satisfaction may be much higher even if working conditions are difficult). (Of course, this study was written before the onset of COVID 19, which has highlighted the difficulties faced by many social care workers.)

 Click here to download a short review of Patrick Ainley's book.

In his study Risk Society (1992), Ulrich Beck argued that capitalist societies were changing in important ways which rendered the concept of social class increasingly irrelevant as a category of social analysis.

  • Average living standards, including those of working-class people, were increasing steadily.
  • Changes in the occupational structure resulted in a relative growth of skilled employment and a relative decline of unskilled employment.
  • Changes in residence patterns meant that, increasingly, working-class and middle-class people were more likely to live side by side rather than in areas segregated by social-class membership.
  • Increased geographical and social mobility was leading to the declining influence of social-class background on attitudes and behaviour.
  • Individuals were more likely to form friendship groups based upon their personal interests rather than on their social-class membership.
  • Nevertheless, Beck certainly did recognise that capitalist societies remained economically unequal, but he believed also that they were becoming post-class capitalist societies.
  • In these circumstances, individuals’ attitudes and behaviour were less likely to be influenced by their original social-class backgrounds, and they could be expected to adapt a more self-reflexive approach to their personal situations. They would recognise that their individual prospects for economic and social progress would depend heavily on their own individual decisions, in particular on their willingness to devote more time and effort to their education and to compete in the workplace for the promotion opportunities which were available.

 In summary, processes of detraditionalisation and individualisation were reducing the influence of original social-class background on attitudes and behaviour, and capitalist societies – although they remained unequal – were evolving into post-class societies in which also differences in gender, ethnicity, age, disability and sexuality could be expected to have a greater influence than social class on individual behaviour.

 Click here for critique of the work of Ulrich Beck

 7.2. Post-modernism and class analysis

This view is to some extent similar to the views of post-modernist sociologists Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, whose book The Death of Class provoked considerable controversy. Pakulski and Waters argued that capitalist societies have undergone transition from economic class societies which existed in the C19th, to organised class societies which existed from approximately 1900 to 1975, to status conventional societies which have been developing since 1975. The changes to capitalist societies between 1900 and 1975 which were suggested by Pakulski and Walters were similar to those which had previously been suggested by post-capitalist theorists of the 1950s and 1960s. They claimed that the power of the state had increased considerably, and that the state had used these increased powers not to safeguard the interests of the dominant economic classes but to advance the interests of the working class. Thus, major industries had been nationalised; private sector firms were more closely regulated; welfare and taxation policies had been used to reduce wealth and income inequality and to increase equality of educational opportunity. Also, the managerial revolution ensured that private-sector companies would be organised to serve the interests not only of shareholders but also of workers, consumers and society as a whole. Overall, social-class inequalities had thus been reduced very significantly.

Pakulski and Waters then argued that from about 1975 onwards, a further transition to the status conventional society had occurred. Individual attitudes and behaviour were now influenced far less by social-class membership than by membership of status groups based upon gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, religious, belief, attitudes to the environment and, among the young, by attitudes to fashion and cultural style. Pakulski and Waters did agree that income and wealth inequality had actually increased in the 1990s, but they believed that these increases might well be temporary and argued that, in any case, even if capitalist societies did remain unequal, they could best be described in terms of classless inequality, given their belief in the declining salience of social class which they believed had become a "zombie sociological concept".

 Several criticisms have been made of the Pakulski and Waters study:

  • Marxist-inspired sociologists continue to argue that states in capitalist societies continue to act disproportionately in the interests of the rich.
  • The increases in economic inequality which Pakulski and Walters believed might be temporary have persisted into the present time.
  • Inequalities of educational opportunity have persisted, and educational policies have failed to reduce class inequalities in educational achievement.
  • It may be true that political class consciousness and action is currently rather muted, but individuals' social-class positions continue to undermine their life chances, as is indicated by social-class differences in educational opportunity, health and life expectancy.
  • It may be agreed that inequalities based on age, disability, ethnicity, gender and sexuality inhibit individuals’ life chances, but these inequalities might usefully be analysed in conjunction with social-class inequalities using the concept of intersectionality.

 For their critics, therefore, Pakulski and Waters' claims that class is dead are not supported by readily available empirical evidence.


  1. Social Class and  Political Developments: The New Right and New Labour

8.1. The New Right and Thatcherism

 Mrs Thatcher’s version of New Right ideology has involved a combination of elements of neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideologies which can sometimes be contradictory. These two aspects of New Right ideology can be summarised as follows:

The core elements of neo-liberalism 

  • Neo-liberals support individualism, laissez-faire and limited government intervention in economy and society. Neo-liberals believe that individuals are rational and therefore the best judges of their own best interests, and that they should be allowed the maximum possible individual freedom to determine their own behaviour, subject only to the restriction that their behaviour should not harm others.
    • They believe also that economic efficiency and rising living standards (including rising living standards for the poorest) can best be achieved in capitalist economies based upon high levels of laissez-faire, and that the economic inequalities generated in these capitalist societies are both inevitable – because they derive primarily from genetically determined differences in talents and abilities – and desirable – because they generate the financial incentives to work, save and invest, leading to faster economic growth, some of the benefits of which will "trickle down" to the poor. (Note the similarities between New Right and Functionalist attitudes to economic inequality.)
    • However, although New Right theorists are supporters of economic inequality of outcome, they nevertheless claim to support equality of opportunity or meritocracy, which is seen as necessary to promote economic efficiency and as a necessary aspect of social justice. While critics of the New Right argue that equality of opportunity is impossible in unequal societies which deny opportunities to the poorest, New Right theorists argue, conversely, that government policies designed to redistribute income to the poor actually restrict the freedoms and opportunities of those subject to high taxation, undermine economic efficiency, and restrict improvements in the living standards of the poor in the longer term.
    • Meanwhile, although governments should act to facilitate the organisation of capitalism, the maintenance of social order and effective defence against any foreign aggressors, further government intervention is potentially counterproductive because it may undermine individual freedom, stifle initiative and divert scarce resources from the dynamic private sector of the economy into the overly bureaucratic and wasteful public sector.
    • Neo-liberals believed therefore that nationalised industries should be privatised as a means of securing greater reliance on the market mechanism; rates of income taxation (especially the higher marginal rates of income tax paid by higher-income earners) should  be reduced in order to increase incentives; rates of unemployment benefit should be reduced in order to increase self-reliance and restrict the growth of the so-called welfare-dependent underclass; trade union power should be reduced; and Keynesian policies should be discarded and the goal of full employment abandoned as Mrs Thatcher concentrated on the reduction of the rate of inflation for which Keynesian policies were held partly responsible.
    • The core elements of neo-conservatism differ in several respects from those of neo-liberalism. Whereas classic liberals are all in favour of free individualistic decision-making, conservatives suggest that this kind of individualism is a recipe for near anarchy and that individual freedom, albeit limited, can best be guaranteed via respect for traditional norms, values and institutions.
    • Neo-conservatives claim that traditional institutions and patterns of social behaviour which have stood the test of time must have done so because they have been socially beneficial, which leads neo-conservatives to support the maintenance or at most only gradual change in the existing social order, implying support for traditional sources of authority, traditional patterns of social and economic inequality, traditional institutions and traditional values.
    • They are therefore supporters of strong but limited government, the Monarchy, the aristocracy and the Church, and call for a reassertion of traditional values in relation to issues surrounding the nature of the family, the output of the mass media, the education system, religion, law and order, controls over the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, defence of national sovereignty (for example in relation to the EU), the protection of the environment, and immigration controls.
    • It has been claimed that these neo-conservative views did to some extent reflect the opinions of some sections of the British electorate and that they could be used to re-establish the authority of the British State, all of which led the Marxist theorist Stuart Hall to describe these views as "authoritarian populist".
  • In seeking to combine these two aspects of New Right ideology, Mrs Thatcher and her supporters have believed that expansion of the private capitalist economy was necessary to secure economic prosperity, and that a strong state would be necessary to re-establish law and order, to maintain law and order in the face of significant industrial disputes such as the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and to increase expenditure on defence in order to counter the then perceived threat from the USSR. Consequently, Andrew Gamble has argued, very importantly, that Mrs Thatcher's beliefs may be summarised as involving a belief in "the free economy and the strong state. "John Major became leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister after defeating Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd  in a leadership election which followed the resignation of Margaret Thatcher  in 1990   In office the main  difficulties which John Major faced were associated with the initial  weakness of the UK economy, disunity in the Conservative Party over Europe, a series of scandals involving Conservative Ministers and MPs [the so-called politics of Sleaze] and the emergence of Tony Blair as a dynamic leader of the "New" Labour Party. When , after the exit of the UK from the ERM, the fortunes of the UK economy did gradually recover the reputation of the Conservative Government  for economic competence did not and this was  factor leading to the Conservatives' General Election defeat of 1997.In support of this line of argument they cite the privatisation of the railways , the abolition of wages councils  which had been designed to protect the wages of low paid workers, the abolition of the NEDC [which had been a key forum for tripartite economic decision making], the toleration of high salaries for the rich along with the continued demonisation  of the poor as welfare scroungers  and the continued acceptance of regressive patterns of taxation.  These arguments are reiterated strongly in The Major Premiership [edited by Peter Dorey 1999].
  • However in  this BBC Radio 4 Programme in which he is interviewed by  the historian Peter Hennessy John Major identifies clearly with  One Nation Conservatism in general and in particular with the views of Ian Macleod. Toward the end of the programme he states that if economic and political circumstances  had been more favourable in 1990-1997 he would have liked to have devoted more resources to the improved provision of housing, education and the NHS in which case it may have been possible to identify him more closely with One Nation Conservatism than some more critical analysts have done.  However as we shall see below high levels of poverty and income inequality continued during the Major Premiership
  • Despite Major's emollient  personality and his perhaps somewhat wistful statements that  he wished to see " a country at ease with itself" and to create " a classless society"[ by which he meant the expansion of opportunities for upward social mobility in a capitalist society which would nevertheless remain unequal rather than  the abolition of private property ownership and the demise of the Bourgeoisie as proposed by Marxists or even the radical egalitarianism proposed by democratic socialists] and his self -identification with One nation Conservatism several political analysts argued that in reality  he continued and actually extended the Thatcherite Strategy. For example in their particularly  critical assessment Mark Garnett and Ian Gilmour argued that  although One Nation Toryism  is not a "rigid creed ".....  "however One nation Toryism is envisaged or interpreted  the Conservative governments since 1979 come nowhere near it " and "Major made no significant attempt  to lead the party back  into the Conservative One Nation tradition" ands in many ways his government became even more right wing than hers [ i.e. than Margaret Thatcher's governments]. [Whatever Happened to the Tories: The  The Conservatives since 1945. Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett 1997]
  • 8.2 John Major and the Conservative Party 1990- 1997
  • The core elements of neo-conservatism

 8.3. Conservative Governments 1979-97, economic inequality and poverty

 Given the support of Mrs Thatcher's governments for the core elements of New Right ideology, it was entirely predictable that these governments would introduce a range of economic and social policies which would result in increased economic inequality and relative poverty while claiming that such policies would result in rising living standards for all, including the poorest, in the longer term. These trends established during the Premiership of Margaret Thatcher continued during the Premiership of John Major.

Notice, however, that the measures of poverty in the above diagram relate to relative poverty. There were significantly reductions in absolute poverty under Labour. Click here for information. Also click here for detailed IFS data.

 8.4. Conservative Governments 1979-1997 and social-class inequality

 New Right theorists believe that increasing economic inequality is a pre-requisite for increased economic prosperity but deny that this increased economic inequality is an indication of increased social-class inequality. This is because (similarly to functionalist sociologists) New Right theorists perceive capitalist societies not in terms of inevitable conflicting social classes but in terms of an unequal but nevertheless harmonious social order in which all citizens (rich or poor) should be seen not as members of social classes but as individuals who can contribute to the stability of society as a whole and attain gradually improving living standards. Furthermore, although New Right theorists defended increases in economic inequality as necessary to promote economic growth, they also claimed to be supporters of equality of opportunity on the grounds that meritocracy also was a prerequisite for economic efficiency.

 Where social conflicts (such as urban riots or major strikes) do arise, they must be contained via tougher approaches to law and order and more restrictive industrial relations legislation, but they are not evidence of a fundamental class conflict as suggested especially in Marxist analysis.

Despite the New Right general denial of the usefulness of class analysis, they nevertheless did emphasise that social harmony could well be threatened by the existence of a work-shy, welfare-dependent and often criminal underclass as outlined by New Right theorists such as Charles Murray, who argued also that reductions in welfare benefits were necessary to curb the growth of this dangerous class.

Other theorists disputed Murray's conclusions. Some argued that if an underclass existed, it could be explained more accurately by the effects of the inevitable structural inequalities of capitalism than by the alleged cultural inadequacies of the poor, while others claimed that since many working-class people were likely to move in an out of poverty on a temporary basis, it made no sense to claim that a distinct underclass separate from the working class actually existed. It was suggested also that the underclass concept was essentially used to demonise the poor in an attempt to justify the reductions in the social security benefits which Conservative Governments wished to introduce but which themselves had the effects of increasing the very poverty which Conservative Governments claimed that they wished to reduce. Students will obviously need to study these underclass debates in more detail, and some further information on the underclass concept will be provided on this site in the near future. Meanwhile, you can click here for some links to information on the theory of the underclass.

 Thus, despite clear evidence of increased economic inequality and poverty between 1979 and 1997, it continued to be argued by New Right theorists that this was not in itself evidence of increased social-class inequality. As we have seen, sociologists inspired by concepts of late modernity, post-Fordism and post-modernism also argued that economic inequality under capitalism was perfectly consistent with the gradual disappearance of social classes, leading to a situation of capitalist classless inequality.

How would the situation change under subsequent Labour, Coalition and Conservative Governments?

 8.5. Political Developments 1997-2018

 It had been argued in the 1950s and early 1960s that the gradual decline in the size of the manual working class combined with increased affluence and resultant changes in working-class political attitudes had contributed to the three successive defeats of the Labour Party in 1951, 1955 and 1959, and that the Labour Party would need to change its image and policies if it was to be successful in future general elections. This line of argument was to some extent undermined by the research of Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt, which indicated that in recent general elections affluent workers had remained highly likely to vote Labour, although their research did also illustrate that these voters' support for Labour was increasingly pragmatic and instrumental, and that they could in fact easily imagine themselves voting Conservative, so that there did appear to be some evidence that working-class political class-consciousness was on the decline.

 Then working-class support for the Labour Party did decline significantly in the 1980s, and this led to the conclusion that even if economic inequality had increased, working-class political class-consciousness had indeed declined. This would have some political influence on the electoral strategies of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair, who would seek to tailor Labour policies to reflect the decline and assumed changing nature of the working class and the growth of the middle class.

 Thus it was that although Tony Blair and his supporters would often claim that New Labour represented the interests of “the many not the few”, both he and subsequent labour leaders Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband would rarely mention the words "social class" or "working class". Since the same was even more likely to be true of Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders, it could be argued that from the 1990s onwards, class politics had more or less been expunged from modern political discourse, except insofar as mainly Conservatives continued to analyse poverty in terms of the existence of what they considered to be a fatalistic, work-shy welfare-dependent underclass.

 Meanwhile, when New Labour politicians addressed questions of poverty, they did so primarily in terms of "Social Exclusion", which many regarded as an ambiguous term which in some respects amounted to a progressive distancing from more neoliberal variants of the underclass theory but  in other respects harked back to them. It would nevertheless be fair to say that Labour politicians were less likely than Conservative politicians to refer to Murray-style variants of the underclass theory.

 The first diagram (See 8.2 above) illustrates that income inequality increased rapidly in the Thatcher era, after which it changed only marginally during the premiership of John Major 1 (1990-1997). Further changes were limited also under subsequent Labour, Coalition and Conservative Governments to 2018. It is, however, generally argued that although income inequality actually increased under Labour Governments 1997-2010, the increase in inequality was smaller than it would have been if Conservative policies had continued, although we have no way of knowing whether previous Conservative policies would have continued. Labour had some success in reducing relative poverty, especially between 1997/8 and 2004/5, although relatively poverty did begin to increase thereafter. Click here and then on the 2011 IFS Report if you wish to investigate Labour's record on poverty and inequality in more detail.

 Under the subsequent Coalition Government (2010-2015), the Gini Coefficient data do suggest some very slight narrowing of income inequality since 2010, and Coalition politicians were keen to emphasise this trend in order to suggest that they had in fact done more to equalise incomes than previous Labour Governments, while neglecting to mention that very little had been done to reverse the significant increases in income inequality which had occurred during the Thatcher era.

 Following the EU Referendum and the resignation of David Cameron, Theresa May became Prime Minister and suggested quite strongly that her government would introduce policies to significantly improve the prospects of those who were "just about managing", but in the event progress in this direction has remained limited. The most recent data see above (See above 8.2 Fig1.1.) on income inequality suggests that the overall trend changed little between to 2015 and 2017. Further controversy erupted in late 2018 when the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Professor Philip Alston, produced a report pointing  to extreme levels of deprivation in the UK. The Conservatives responded that official data suggested that absolute poverty levels were actually declining, while neglecting to mention that relative rates of poverty were increasing.


 Some further information on the recent report by UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty Professor Philip Alston:

 1       Official Data on Poverty are presented by the Department of Work and Pensions. Poverty is measured in absolute and relative terms before and after housing costs. [You can find here the 2018 Summary DWP publication which contains data for 2016/17.] These data indicate that absolute poverty (both before and after housing costs) has declined in recent years, and in November 2018 government spokespersons have focused on these data to argue that the recent report by UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Professor Philip Alston, is flawed.

 2       Click here and here for Channel 4 coverage and here for BBC coverage of Professor Alston's report, click here for the full report, and here for spirited discussion of the Report on The Moral Maze.

In my view, it would be fair to say that although income inequality actually increased between 1997 and 2010, Labour did have some success in reducing the growth of income inequality, and also in reducing the extent of relative poverty. Nevertheless, income inequality, wealth inequality and poverty remained substantial, as did social-class differences in educational attainment. New Labour's approach to politics may have aimed to frame discussion of economic inequalities in non-class terms, but this does not mean that actual social-class differences in income, wealth and opportunity did not remain substantial under New Labour Governments, as well as under subsequent Coalition and Conservative Governments. These data suggest that class was not and is not dead.

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