Your incorrect theory of class

We know nothing, Channel 4's Jon Snow admitted on the day after the election, we didn't see it coming. 

Of course, we Corbyn supporters can all gloat about this. Our political instinct in backing Corbyn as a real possibility, as someone whose strategy could potentially work if given a chance, was vindicated. Having been mocked and misrepresented by the Progress intellectuals -- averaging as heavyweight as a Scientological 'clear' -- and pundits from the trashfire New Statesman, we have a right to be a bit triumphalist.

Sure, to be kind, how could anyone see it coming? The polls were wrong. Not all of them, but most of them. They operated on very conservative assumptions modelled on the 2015 general election, in which they had overestimated Labour's support. 

But then, to be more scrupulous, it's no good making excuses when your analysis goes badly wrong. It would be no use ever making any kind of discovery if all you did was say, "ah well, never mind, you couldn't have seen those results coming". 

And being wrong is a kind of discovery. As a teacher, I'm inclined to say, getting it wrong is the only time you potentially learn anything. We resist data that doesn't fit into our existing schemes of the world if we're doctrinaire; but in the best of cases, curiosity can overcome dogma.

So if there is a crisis of knowing, it's an opportunity. And we should embrace it as something that involves all of us, Corbynistas included, not just the pundits and political establishment. After all, our intuition may have been superior, better grounded, than that of the sneering punditry, but even we -- even those far more optimistic than I -- didn't expect so dramatic an outcome. And those who did often did so on poor grounds.

So there is a crisis of knowing, for all of us. Let's take that and start from there. With that in mind, I wanted to at least take the time to explain a grudge I had through the whole election regarding the polls -- and one, to be frank, I've had for some years.

It's the way they talk about social class. I think, in part, they are responsible for an image of class that is profoundly misleading and contributed to the inability to see what might change.

Most polling companies use a poor measurement called ‘social grades’. This is a system devised by the National Readership Survey, which helps market researchers split respondents up into consumer blocs: A, B, C1, C2, D and E. 

The standard way in which pollsters and media interpret these grades is to say that ABC1 grades are ‘middle class’ while C2DE grades are ‘working class’. 

On the basis of this, some pundits using YouGov’s post-election polls have claimed that the 2017 election showed a complete class dealignment, since the Tories and Labour were evenly split in the two blocs. Certainly, Labour's nostalgic modernisers are keen to stress the idea of a breach with the working class brought about by Corbyn.

Before going any further, let me stress that the actual class composition of the Labour vote probably doesn't make much difference to the polemics coming from the right-wing of the party. The point about the 'class' attack on Corbyn was that it was always a double-bind: he was both too earthy and Old Labour for the middle class, and too trendy and Islingtonite for the workers.

Nonetheless, returning to the "social grades" scheme, I have a couple of obvious questions. First, what is the ‘middle class’ in the middle of? Where is the upper class? Where is the class of employers and owners? If there is no upper, then what we’re calling the ‘middle’ is the upper – which is absurd. 

Second, what does it mean to be in the ‘middle’? According to this standard reading of the ‘social grades’ scheme, the middle includes everyone in ‘white collar’ work from clerical workers to professionals, supervisors and senior managers. This, surely, is an illusory levelling: as if to say, everyone who works in a call centre, from the receptionist to the chief executive, is ‘middle class’. 

The world evoked in this conception of class isn’t really the modern world, where there even are such things as call centres. It is a world in which workers use their hands and leave the brain-work to their social betters. Therefore, as long as you don’t use your hands, or if you have a degree, you can be patronisingly called ‘middle class’ even when you’re working precarious shifts for minimum wage. 

The nation tacitly evoked here isn’t even the Britain of fifty years ago; it is an imaginary past, an Upstairs-Downstairs ideology of class relations. Weirdly, the same ideology which tells us that class voting is a thing of the past, on another level communicates that nothing fundamental has really changed.

It is unsurprising that polling firms would keep using outdated classifications, while many academic researchers use other systems. The British Election Study typically uses NS-SEC social class (a seven-class system that does make room not only for the capitalist class, but also a petty bourgeoisie). Polling firms have data going back decades, and part of their sell is that that continuity; if the data from 2010 can't be compared to 1970 because of a new class schema, some of its value is lost.

However understandable, this is part of the crisis of knowing that we're stuck with. If we stick with an outmoded 'social grading' grid, then what will happen as the 'knowledge economy' and services industries expand, and manufacturing contracts, is that the grid will say that there are fewer and fewer workers. And, on top of that, since it will lump a lot of working class voting behaviour into the 'middle class', it will show that there is 'class dealignment'.

That has been part of the dominant narrative in British politics for decades; the idea of class dealignment. It has given vital grounding to claims that politics had become less 'tribal' and more 'consumerist', with voters making choices in a market. 

The theoretical grounding for that, of course, is a classic text of neoliberalism, Anthony Downs's Economic Theory of Democracy. The upshot of that analysis was that politicians had to seek the centre, where the median shopper/voter was to be found. And that became a truism repeated over and over again on British news and current affairs programming: "elections are won and lost in the centre in this country".

This conferred on a highly contingent, provisional outcome of political struggle -- the emergence of powerful centre through the depletion of the Left, the discrediting of the Right and the diminution of voting turnout -- the status of some sort of metaphysical truth. And, of course, that is precisely what accounts for the shock at Corbyn performing anything like as well as he did -- he ripped up what had been taken to be the political equivalent of the law of gravity.

In saying all this, I don't claim to have a social class schema up my sleeve that pollsters and pundits could immediately make easy use of. Certainly, marxist class theory isn't designed in such a way as to avail polling companies, or anyone else looking for an empirical, quantative measurement of class. 

I do claim, however, that if the law of gravity has failed, it's time for a comprehensive paradigm shift, a complete change in the framework through which we interpret events. Marked, in the meantime, by a degree of intellectual humility appropriate to such a crisis.

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