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«Uprooting Class? Culture, world-making and reform Joanna Latimer 1 and Rolland Munro 2 Abstract The paper opens up the issue of how to relate culture ...»

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Uprooting Class? Culture, world-making and reform

Joanna Latimer 1 and Rolland Munro 2


The paper opens up the issue of how to relate culture to class in the UK. First,

problematizing the conflation of class with status – inherent to stratification models

like the GBCS – we theorise culture as ‘world-making’ rather than artistic or

individual possession. Second, exploring culture in the wake of reforms aimed at local

and institutional ‘cultures’ – said to hold back economic growth – we explore power relations between class and culture. After clarifying how Weber’s analysis of stratification keeps economic relations underpinning class distinct from the cultural mores of status groups, we point to his emphasis on parties – across all modes of life – as the ‘house of power’. Contrary to his supposition of homogeneity, however, we suggest legitimation today requires contesting parties to recruit from across class and status groups. Arguing recruitment here is enhanced by a mood of endless reform – in which modernity appears bent on tearing up its own foundations – we indicate how the resulting sense of precariousness is augmented by the stratifying technologies of grading and ranking. The pertinent question is: Who benefits from endless reform?

And if the answer is no more than to recognise how benefits are skewed to an ‘elite’ working on behalf of owners of capital, then it is time to put aside stratification for an

analysis of class relations that pointedly attends to wider notions of culture by asking:

Who gets the say in world-making?

Key words: class, culture, modernity, parties, power, precariousness, reform, stratification, world-making Cardiff University School of Social Sciences University of Leicester Uprooting Class? Culture, world-making and reform Introduction In theorising the welter of contemporary reforms aimed at UK institutions as bringing about a general sense of precariousness, our aim is to explore culture as world-making (Bourdieu, 1989) and so avoid treating consumption as limited to ‘placing’ others in terms of class. Certainly any reading of each other in terms of class – pervasive as it is often imperceptible (Pascale, 2008) – is critical to an enactment of culture that grounds itself in terms of such matters as ‘who is she to me?’ But what matters to Bourdieu, as it did to Weber, is to ask who gets the say over which ‘worlds’ get created and reproduced? And who, in consequence, gets marginalised, disadvantaged and even abandoned?

In beginning with Bourdieu’s insights on world-making – rather than his notes on different forms of capital – we stress the issue is not differentials in the consumption patterns that stem from class divisions but rather the agency which structures such as class grant over what he calls ‘world-making’ (Bourdieu, 1989). This is relevant when the relations underpinning class appear up for grabs – when class-making itself is in flux. In the minutiae of battles over which is the next bridge and how best to cross it, it is not class alone that helps grant agency. What matters in the struggle for power is how parties (those factions and interest groups contesting each other across all modes of life) disseminate agency as they reorder themselves and their agendas around the issue of ‘reforming’ institutions and ‘modernising’ cultural mores.

Critically, neo-liberal inspired reforms in the UK have been reversing any virtuous flows in the circle of wealth since the 1980s. The outsourcing of production (relegating manufacturing to the global economy), the policy of importing cheap labour (holding down wage demands), changes in the law such as the Landlord’s Act of 1988 (transferring occupancy advantages from tenants to landlords), and curbing sanctions available to the Unions (outlawing for instance ‘sympathy’ strikes), have all radically altered the balance of power between capital and labour. Also significant is the huge switch in taxation policy away from ‘redistribution’ towards ‘incentives’, where the latter slants rewards to those deemed to help economic growth. Far from asymmetries in wealth being culturally unacceptable, inequalities are now maximised through a bewildering range of bonus payments, investment incentives and tax breaks – all consolidated through historically low rates of income tax for top earners.

Our concern is therefore to extend understandings of culture by taking account of these changes and so move beyond theories reliant on patterns of consumption as defining class differentials. Picking up on the turn to consumption in sociology since the 1980s, it is arguable that capitalism has been re-appropriating identity away from the mid-20th century class relations explored by Bourdieu (see also Skeggs, 2011). Similarly it is possible that what Thrift (2012) calls the ‘new industrialisation’ is re-forging belongings into a more nuanced and targeted production. Recognising that social groupings do use goods as materials to evidence identity and belonging (Douglas and Isherwood 1980), we focus more on the pressing question of what conduct and belonging gets made acceptable by the few – in their chase for power or wealth – and how is advancement mobilised and made possible for some and not for others?

In thinking through the relations between class and culture as world-making, we draw on our studies of on-going reforms of institutions within the UK over the last thirty years. As we explain, the process of a modernity bent on tearing up its roots – and so making almost everyone precarious – alters how advantage is commodified or acquired. For example, a key building-block of modernity – central to much 19th and 20th century political philosophy in the US – is not merit; assessment of which is likely skewed by educational privilege (Young, 1958). Instead, the demanding relation is ‘response-ability’ (Latimer, 1999), a readiness to answer calls by contesting parties to work on modernity’s formations, rather than simply benefit from them. Far from a free lunch, opportunities for world-making involve would-be members attaching themselves to one agenda or another whenever a call for this or that reform is issued.

Here we outline how technologies of grading and ranking help dominant parties, including all kinds of factions and interest groups, to recruit new members by first sensitising employees to success and failure and, second, by alerting them to how advancement is tied to ‘delivery’ of reform agendas. In such ways do reform and reconfiguring intensify a sense of precariousness by inciting and intensifying competitiveness over success and achievement, whereby a Premier League rating indexes anything from a footballer to a research paper. Rankings alone, of course, do not form class. Rather, class thrives on relations; and, while smart technologies work alongside audit cultures to excite competition in the quantification and ranking of self and others (Swan, 2012), it is only if people engage with forms of grading – as cultural devices to self-identify and make visible their value to others – that status indicators map into class.

Ahead of examining Savage et al’s (2013) interpretation of the BBC class survey, we discuss how key features of contemporary culture come to the fore through endless programmes of reform. After returning to how Weber (1978) distinguishes status from class, and establishes the link between parties and power, we outline how abandoning ‘benign capitalism’ makes way for a cultural dynamics in which struggles between parties centre on vested interests created by an ‘uprooting’ of modernity’s foundations. We then consider how class relations get altered and appropriated in ways that enable reform to act as a key instrument through which parties muster recruits to deliver such demands as transparency and efficiency.

Modernity has become a suitable case for treatment. Calls for reform that deliver Uprooting and modernity economic growth become strident when technological progress appears failing.

Noting how America picked off the ‘low-hanging fruit’, Nigel Thrift argues for a

new impetus to capitalism:

To escape this technological plateau, and to produce a new round of accelerated productivity and profitability born out of gains from knowledge and innovation, therefore requires a fundamental reorganization of how the world is (Thrift, 2012: 143).

This ‘fundamental reorganisation’ is no longer a case of rivers being damned up or the industrialisation of agriculture that concerned Heidegger (1993). Instead, much world-making is aimed at institutions and cultural mores, since it is people who are deemed to be holding up progress. As Arendt (1998) anticipates, it is the human condition that is to be uprooted and reformed.

This tendency towards reform and reorganisation is so prevalent as to have led Beck et al (2003) to characterise modernity as ‘reflexive’. Their diagnosis is that late modernity is directed at itself. Rather than celebrate a multiplication of boundaries (such as stretching class categories from 5 to 7), they advocate grasping the conditions in which modernity is seeking to reform its own foundations. Consider, for instance, how far enlightenment values underpinning Western ideals have been eroded. Against all men (sic) being equal, the ‘trickle down’ ideology of neo-liberalism extols how the many are beholden to the few.

Our point is that reforms aimed at bringing about new rounds of ‘accelerated productivity and profitability’ are predicated on righting reforms of the past. For example, the rationale of looking to the future (cf Giddens, 1998: 940) ends up with modernity, in the spirit of reform, turning to destroy its past. Hence instead of ‘going forward’, as one expects, much reform turns out, perversely, to be about looking backwards. For some this is to deconstruct meta-narratives (Lyotard, 1984); for others the agenda is to demystify the professions (Freidson, 1970). As frequently, however, it becomes a case of setting about to destroy the ‘culture’ of institutions across commerce, education, healthcare and government (Latimer, 2000; Munro, 1998).

Where nothing is sacred, such as earlier reforms to education and public health, it is not techno-scientific innovation driving this spate of reform. Rather devices of grading and ranking are the cri de coeur of this latest phase of modernity. As illustrated by a rise of audit (Strathern, 2000), an ever-deepening engagement with the calculative puts in place managerial technologies linked to ‘responsibilisation’ and ‘accountability’ (Munro and Mouritsen, 1996). Indeed, when reform looks beyond its ideological bent of ‘liberalising’ markets and becomes a cataclysmic mode for ‘rectifying’ prior reforms, there is an impending chaos in which private and public sector institutions find themselves constantly reconfigured on the basis that they ‘cannot stand still’.

Alongside once-vaunted corporations like Tesco proclaiming they ‘reinvent themselves’, individuals are incited to ‘unlock’ their assets and become ‘enterprising’ in the business of continuous makeovers. This is not only to note how people directly work for capital by becoming 'entrepreneurial selves’ (Sennett, 1998) or 'entre-employees', with the will to succeed colonizing every aspect of life (Bührmann, 2005). It is to note how everything – from leisure time to green belt land to genes – is up for grabs. Yet far from reform upon reform resulting in a relativism of ‘anything goes’ – a super-tolerance of lifestyle wherein oppositional class relations become inert – we think it more correct to identify a social contract in the throes of ‘everything goes’, even and especially what was once highly valued (cf. Bauman, 2005).

Reform and the BBC class survey Into this picture of endless reform, a new set of ‘classes’ was marketed by the BBC from the Great British Class Survey (GBSC) and presented as ‘adding’ two new classes to the British National Statistics Socio-Economic classification (NSSEC). This ‘survey experiment’ (Savage et al, 2013) has led to debate on the methods validity of its findings. For us, however, the GBSC is more problematic, first because of its reliance on an abbreviated version of culture and second because the GBCS prolongs the search for a modern version of class that depends on models of stratification.

Stratification models like the NS-SEC – as we discuss later – conflate class with status. This is not least because the effacement of economic struggles between workers and bourgeoisie, not to mention its elision of remnants of feudal rankings, prolongs unresolved debates about ‘conflictual’ positionings (Holmwood and Stewart, 1983; Wright, 1985). Moreover, in combining the twin dimensions of employment and wealth, the NS-SEC takes the post-war stability of social structures more or less for granted. Its socio-economic grading of people is problematic because, in combining position and possession, it incorporates presumptions of a stable and unchanging culture that puts professions at the top and unskilled labour at the bottom.

Savage et al’s (2013) main ploy is to augment models that depend on social and economic assets with Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. Here culture becomes another form of possession or resource (Savage et al, 2005). It is worth recalling however that, for Bourdieu, much of what he identified in the 1970s as cultural capital (as distinct from social and economic capital) was associated with education (see also Serres and Wagner, this volume). As far as France was concerned, the agency education gave in terms of ‘world-making’ had to be reckoned with (cf Bourdieu, 1989). While culture for Bourdieu, as an anthropologist, has a much wider range of meanings than what is learnt in schools, he took education, at the time of writing Distinction, to be one of the pillars of class. Specifically, he saw education as granting a different kind of ‘social power’ to that exercised by the rich. His appraisal of class in France is thus of two countervailing hierarchies, one built on wealth and economic power and the other pivoting on cultural influence and educational attainment.

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