Co-Written by Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms

Even since investment billionaire Warren Buffet told us, There’s class warfare, all right…but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning, we have known three things: firstly, there is a class system under capitalism; secondly, there is also class war between the two classes – the working class and capitalist class; and thirdly, Mr Buffett’s capitalist class is wining. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx followed economic determinants to analyse class. Put simply, his theoretical model is this: those who are forced to sell the only thing they have – their labour – are set against those who purchase labour – the capitalists.

Between both, Marx saw what he called the “educated” and the “middle” class consisting of intellectuals, small shopkeepers, and self-employed. The advent of modern management has not changes this paradigm. Therefore, managers are no more than the highly-paid agents of capital. This positions them in direct opposite to workers in three key areas: while workers seek high wages, capital seeks to pay as less as possible; while workers seek shorter working time, capital seek to exploit workers as long as possible; and finally, while workers demand decent working conditions, capitals refuses to pay for it.

Sociologists, however, have made up three classes – the upper, middle and lower class. Based on the recent Great British Class Survey (GBCS, 2017), sociologists have developed seven lasses: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, the new affluent workers, the traditional working class, the emergent service sector, and finally, the precariat.

Unlike Marx and the GBCS, classical sociology’s three classes of upper, middle and lower class are determined through three elements: income, education, and social status. Sociologists follow the sociological rather than the Marxist class concept. Over recent years, the ossification of class structures as well as inequality has mushroomed. Meanwhile rates of absolute upward mobility have begun to decline. In other words, once you are locked inside the middle- and working-class – that is, most of us, estimated to be 99% of the western population stay in there with next to no option of ever reaching the upper class elite.

Still, only about 10% of people from a working-class background…traverse the steepest upward mobility path – in other words, 90% (other economists say 99%) do not. The key is that class origin shapes who you are in ways that a simple change in circumstances – having more money, a university education or a better job than your parents – will not necessarily erase. This is what used to be called in politically incorrect terms: birth-right management status. Before that, it was called having blue blood or being born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

In addition, working-class people face acute barriers getting in in the first place. Top firms eliminate nearly every applicant who did not attend an elite college or university. Study after study has shown this. At times your home address alone is a barrier, at other times it is simply your name, at other times it is your degree or your ethnicity. A well-heeled white heterosexual man called Donald Trump with an MBA (dubious as this factoid may be) from one of America’s best business schools, Wharton, has a better chance than the black lesbian in a wheelchair with a business degree from Bronx Community College living in the ghetto. She will not make it, though she no longer has to clean toilets in corporate office blocks or look after other people’s bratty children. Donald Trump did, and was free to go bankrupt many times and to cheat tradesmen he hired all he wanted. Hence the state we are in. Despite this, one should not fall into the trap of the fallacy of individualized explanations. Social mobility is not about individuals but about class.

This works for the upper-, the middle- and, the lower-class. In the UK, for example, privileged origin people are about 12 times more likely to be doctors as those from working-class backgrounds. Worse, privileged-origin people without a degree are more than twice as likely to reach a top job than working-class people without a degree. It gets still worse, top jobs in the UK [are] the reserve of not just the privileged but of particular white, heterosexual, able-bodied, privileged men. Eaton and Oxford graduated Boris [or Boorish] de Pfeffel Johnson is a fine example of elite rule. No question about it: the old boys’ network ain’t dead yet!

But even for those selected few who make it into elite jobs, things hardly get better once they are in a job because those in elite occupations from working-class origins earn on average £6,400 [$8,300] less a year than their colleagues from privileged backgrounds those from upper-middle-class origins earn 16% more than those from working-class backgrounds, even in the same set of jobs. In one area of well-paying jobs –finance– it is even worse. In finance, those from privileged backgrounds earn on average a massive £17,500 [$23,000] a year more than colleagues from working-class backgrounds.

While many have been led to believe that equal opportunity and hard work will get you to the top, All this destroys these optimistic myths one after the other. When people from working-class origins have the same level of education as their advantaged colleagues, they still earn significantly less. It demonstrates that educational attainment, and even higher educational attainment, is not the great equaliser. Not only are schools and universities not equalisers, if anything, they are stratifisers – they stratify society. Their grading systems, for example (0-50 = fail, 51-64 = pass, 65-84 = distinction, and 85-100 = high distinction) are a dead give-away. The education system stratifies, not equalises.

Furthermore it gives the advantage to those who gain private tutoring. It disadvantages those whose father drives a bus, while mum works a nurse. Of course, corporate media will always highlight the rags to riches myth by focusing on individual cases that can be shown on TV and in Hollywood movies. Horatio Alger dime novels still sell under other names and at a higher cost. These individuals cases exist but what they are is just that: individual cases. They are the exception, not the rule. Ruling is done by the elite. They follow the Golden Rule – those with the gold rule to use as a weapon!

Once in employment, those from working-class backgrounds are getting paid less for doing the same work – that is, for doing jobs at the same level, same company and same department. Inside companies, it’s the same old thing: the privileged dominate the upper echelons. In companies with absentee-increasing, productivity-decreasing, and stupefying open-plan offices (James 2019), such egalitarian organisation of space masks a very hierarchical career structure. The biggest problem with the human capital thesis is that it implies that people operate in a vacuum, that their work life is cut off from outside influences and that their career progression is driven solely by their own skills, merits and actions.

Unlike working-class children, a senior commissioning editor in a powerful corporate position openly admitted, those with a privileged backgroundscan always get bailed out by Mum and Dad. However, he added, if you’ve got nothing to fall back on, and you’re out of work for three months, you’re fucked. Inside companies, the cushioning of upper class people continues through what is called mentoring, i.e. corporate surveillance. Supported like this, such sponsored mobility individuals reach the top largely because they are selected by those already in senior positions and carefully inducted into elite worlds. In short, sponsorship from above tends to advantage the privileged. To them that have, as the biblical saying goes, it shall be given.

The sometimes rather invisible support for the privileged by the privileged already starts at the job interview. This is where HR-managers assess whether or not a candidate is fitting in. HR-managers talk of fit in or f*** off!. Upper- and middle-class candidates are more likely to achieve. Mastering behavioural codes is pivotal to getting on in all the professions we examined. It is a key way of signalling that you are the right type of person to get ahead, that you fit, and it is duly rewarded by senior decision-makers.

In addition, upper- and to some extent upper-middle-class candidates also have another advantage. In elite occupations, it’s not just what you know that matters, but who you are and how you present yourself. And that, in turn, shapes what you are perceived to know. Elite education gives candidates the self-assurance to present themselves with confidence. During years of elite training, they have become very good in creating the perception that others perceive them to know it all. Boris Johnson is a fine example of both elite education and making sure that others perceive him as someone who knows.

On the downside, though, working-class children internalise negative feelings of self-worth and that leads them to reject the education system and then this often leads to self-elimination from the education system which is rooted in an unconscious estimation of their objective probabilities of success. And if by some fluke they do make it to the top, such mobility often comes with emotional difficulties. These individuals routinely reported battling feelings of insecurity and inferiority in the elite workplace. Elites who are drawn from a narrow background have no such qualms.

In a capitalist class society, it pays to be privileged. In other words, make sure you choose the right parents before you are born. Wherever you look — or even if you don’t know where to look — there is a class pay gap and a powerful and previously unobserved…inequality. Furthermore, people do not necessarily have an equal capacity to cash in their merit or realise their talent. Hence through the widespread mushy ideology of equal opportunity, the clean slate, hard work pays, etc.,  we are made to believe in ourselves. If you can dream it, you can do it. Furthermore, help is often social – in the form of informal sponsorship. It is called networking. But some networks are better than others.

Merit and personal achievement are what the upper class want the middle-and working-class to believe in. In reality it is more often than not who you know. There still is the old boys network, where elite appointments are contingent on a set of old school ties [the striped neckties of Eton, for example, or the right connections by title and blood] who pull strings for one another, and whose relationships are rooted in the shared experience [including] Oxbridge and private members clubs. In the UK, it is Oxbridge, in Australia it is Sydney and Melbourne University, in the USA it is Harvard and Yale. The names change, the class structure stays the same. The right school tie with the right emblem embossed on it, like the right handshake and the correct form of address in the right accent, that’ll get you the job you want, no matter what kind of a dumb-bell you really are.

Despite – or perhaps because of – ideologies such as we all live in a middle-class society and the common hallucinations that everybody has the same opportunity in life, effort pays, hard work will get you to the top, rags to riches, etc. the reality looks rather different when examined empirically.

Such an empirical class analysis maybe conducted in the UK or elsewhere. It applies to many individual case surprisingly well. Still, what is important is not the individual but the structure. The structure of our class societies conspires against those from middle- and working-class background to an every increasing magnitude. Still to case studies show how social mobility and class works:

I am socially mobile – to some extent. My great-grandfather was a day labourer, my grandfather was a back-smith, my father was a tool-maker first and a manager later. I was educated at Boston University [not quite Harvard] and at Warwick University [not quite Oxbridge]. I became a lecturer [not a professor] at a working-class university [not quite an Australian elite university]. Australia’s upper-class, like elsewhere, likes those who legitimate capitalism [university academics] to live close to them. So, I live in an affluent suburb [not quite Sydney’s Point Piper]. In other words, social immobility applies to my case surprisingly well.

My story is not quite parallel because my ancestors were East European Jews who made it to America at the end of the nineteenth century. My great-grandfather in the Ukraine worked in a sawmill, but had to escape the Czar’s 25-year-army recruiters; my grandfather was born in Hudson, New York and became a conductor on a horse-drawn trolley in old New York and later a seller of wholesale vegetables for one of the big public markets. Neither of them had much of formal education. By sheer grit and determination, during the Depression my father studied at NYU to be a dentist—he couldn’t afford to go to medical school—but not one of the wealthy ones. And I typically (of that third generation of Jewish immigrants to America) went on to study literature at university. Since my maternal grandmother’s brother was one of the founders of the ILGWU and had the honour of being shot in the stomach by the Pinkerton Men after the big Triangle Women’s Waist Shirt Factory Fire, I grew up no friend of the capitalist class or its stooges. My own academic life has been a wandering one—USA, Canada, France, Israel and New Zealand—which made administrators and managers wary of my independent thinking: hence there was little or no advancement up the institutional ladder. My wife and I now live what may be called a modest life of retirement in a quiet suburb on our kiwi pensions. Despite a few nasty little run-ins over the years with the establishment, I have managed to avoid the rat race.

Still, what is important is not the individual but the structure. The structure of our class societies conspires against those from middle- and working-class background to an every increasing magnitude.

Friedman and Laurison’s Class Ceiling is published by Policy Press.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (2013) and The AfD(2020). He is currently completing a book on Media Capitalism.


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