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At Last I Get to Join the Class War

In its earlier manifestations I was left out of the class war. I grew up in a terrace house in a Lancashire Mill Town and before you begin imagining I’m looking for some kind of sympathy I must add that it was absolutely idyllic. The row of houses was between a field and a park and there was a wood at the end of the terrace. Beyond the park was a green infinity later classified as the “Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. I was allowed to wander completely freely. All the people in the terrace knew each other: I went to football matches with the sanitary officer and the manager of Woolworth’s, worked for the builder with the end house, babysat for a garage mechanic and took my advice on walking routes from a Communist gardener. It didn’t occur to me that there was anything odd about this mixture of “blue” and “white” collar any more than it occurred to me that there was anything odd about two ladies living together four doors up. But then, this was an odd place, Lancashire “hill country”, where more people owned their own homes than anywhere else and women traditionally had steadier jobs than men. There was no unemployment, no debt and no divorce. If we had a prejudice against an “other” it was against two forms of people who lacked our solidity. Diagonally upwards from us was the “gin and jag set” who were definitely flash and probably involved in something dodgy and diagonally below us were the feckless types who bought goods on the “never never”. Even when I went to Oxford and met the upper classes there was no sense of hostility in either direction. I sometimes scrummed down in a pack in which three of the other seven had titles, but bantering about serviettes and napkins was as far as class hostility got.

But now, in old age, things are completely different; I am seeing things in class terms and even enjoying some class hatred. It all starts with the immense pleasure the whole Brexit thing has added to my old age. For example, I was watching the coverage of an anti-Brexit demonstration on television and I saw a male teenager carrying a banner which said something like, “YOU’VE ROBBED ME OF MY FUTURE” and I thought, “God . . . yes . . . please . . . I devoutly hope so . . . you little toe-rag”. I saw him, in the counter-factual world of a successful EU, in his smart suit, in twenty years time, sipping his free white wine, celebrating the creation of yet another fatuous regulation which would generate even more corruption. And I didn’t hate him personally, but I hated his social class.

It is difficult to talk about the current ruling class logically; the exercise can be compared to constructing an indefinite number of overlapping three-dimensional Venn diagrams which then look different from different angles. Parts or aspects of them form the salariat, yuppies, technocracy, the chattering classes, metrosexuals, the everywhere people or the middle class, at least in a very specific sense of middle class which will be explored later. But historically they must be identified primarily as the managerial class and some credit must be given to James Burnham for the most famous act of identifying their growing dominance in The Managerial Revolution: what is happening in the world. (1941). I read this twice, as a sixth former and as a graduate student, and its core remains highly prescient. I would not, however, wish to give Burnham any kind of guru status: whenever he made a specific prediction of any kind it turned out to be completely wrong and he had a nasty habit of trying to side with winners whether Communist or Fascist. But even if we have to treat him as a kind of idiot-savant we must take his central insight very seriously. It starts with updating Marx and noting the “divorce between ownership and control” and moves on to “convergence theory” which implies that whatever the legal technicalities of ownership, whether you are in a capitalist or communist society – perhaps even an Islamic republic – the people running your lives will be more or less the same kind of people.

The managerial class – henceforth mangies – is substantially different from other social classes including rival and predecessor ruling classes. The aristocracy saw the meaning of life in a cluster involving land, honour and legacy. For the bourgeoisie it is enterprise, profit and philanthropy. The mangies world is bounded by qualifications, salaries, pensions and security. They are the most craven and unfree of ruling classes as well as the unhappiest because they spend their lives like hutch rabbits, obsessed with work and defining themselves by their “career” and their crawl up the hierarchy. (“Work” here is a process not a product.) A world run by mangies is typically decaying and unfree. They justify themselves using an ideology of “equality”, “progress”, “modernity” and so on, typically amalgamated into a package of “social democracy” but happily impoverish and scorn most of the population; they seem quite nice sometimes, but it’s the wrong kind of niceness. Where Burnham is wrong as a modified marxist is in the historicism of placing them as a successor to capitalism because large elements of them have been around throughout history and have found inroads into the ruling class. I mean, for example, clerical and priestly classes. English historians will see mangies as the successor to “placemen” and economic theorists will point out that “rent-seekers” and “free riders” are eternal phenomena. It is important to note that whereas aristocracies and bourgeoisies needed those below them and had to establish some kind of rapport with them, mamgies have no such need except for the aspiring or cadet mangy class which struggles along below them. Otherwise they’d prefer robots and are content to pay the lower class just enough to stop them rioting.

Of course, the classification of human beings is nothing like the relatively neat business of classifying species. Real people are only to different degrees and in some respects members of a social class and the whole business is generally much more complicated now than in previous historical periods. For a starting example how about academics? Until sixteen years ago I was one so I had a salary, have a pension and a bunch of qualifications with various degrees of meaning. For now, I’ll just say that I wouldn’t be the first person to become an enemy of my own class.

To deal with this complexity we must make two fairly simple intellectual moves – though they are usually ignored by most social scientists. The first is to acknowledge the primacy of free will in human affairs. The existence of choice is what Immanuel Kant called a synthetic a priori: we can no more ignore it than we can ignore the constraints of time and space. (Yes, causation is also an unavoidable assumption and therefore, in a sense, determinism, but this is highly abstract and, unlike choice, can be ignored.) The second stage is to acknowledge the consequences of free will for the understanding of social class. In my view the one sociologist who really mastered this philosophical truth was Edward Banfield (1916-99) who defined class membership in terms of attitude, the most important of attitudes being to time. It is oddly parallel with Jean-Paul Sartre’s insistence on the omnipresence of free choice. All this makes perfect sense to me since I married into a large economically poor family nearly all of whom moved rapidly up the social scale and achieved great things primarily by defining themselves as people with plans and aspirations. Banfield’s “middle class” are the mangies, with pensioned comfort as their time horizon. But this importantly leaves room for a distinction between “objective” and “subjective” class and the need to acknowledge that not all members of an enemy class are enemies.

Which brings us back to academia. In the first of the two Oxford colleges I attended and the university department in which I began work at the end of the sixties the assumption was that we were gentlemen (there were no ladies in either case): as an academic we had our own domains (“fields”) and ran them independently. We were assumed to be roughly equal and voted on important matters – this was true of colleges and departments. We used the word “gentleman” and its plural in every context. Over the course of my “working” life (I didn’t look on it as work) this changed inexorably into a world of highly paid academic “managers” and exploited, lowly paid, untenured wannabees. In other words there was a mangy takeover of the universities and a nice way of life was destroyed, though some reactionary and sentimental elements remained. (Not me – I got out.)

So, finally, after a lifetime as a conservative I am a revolutionary class warrior. Think Tom the Butcher – or if you don’t know that text, Pol Pot. Mangies must swing – not from lampposts because contemporary ones are unsuitable, but from bridges. The forces of “progress” and the “Enlightenment” have invariably executed lots of people when they had the chance so why shouldn’t we? But because of what I have argued about the complexities of class identity we will have to introduce a points system, as some countries have for immigration, to decide who swings. For example minus 2 for using the words “progress” or “equality” or “modernisation” without irony. Minus 5 for supporting the European Union. After all, if you suggested an “ever-closer union” between more than two dozen European countries with, let’s politely say, disparate political traditions, rational and educated people would be reaching for their copy of the extant Mental Health Act to look up the appropriate section. But to mangies it’s common sense – more and bigger salaries, bigger domains, more regulation and documentation and negotiation to be paid for. Minus three for having been to a business school ot grand école. And so on. When you get to 21 – as the likes of Emanuel Macron and Tony Blair fairly obviously would – then over the bridge you go. There would be some positive points, of course, credited for playing a part in local organisations, growing some of your own food, joining the TA and having a non-salaried family member looking after children.

You may, perhaps, be disinclined to take my new-found revolutionary fervour seriously. But what you should take seriously is what many people feel about the current ruling class which has morphed out of what was a middle class and is shaping up to be one of the worst ruling classes for some time, incapable of understanding any kind of alternative or opposition to itself, typically dismissing it as “right-wing” or “populist”. They are running a society in which freedom, happiness and social mobility are plumbing new depths. If you don’t understand the current and growing form of class hatred then you don’t understand the contemporary world.

Lincoln Allison June 2020

(A version of this article was published by The Critic in July 2020.)