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April 12, 2013 5:34 AM   Subscribe

In a sense what we have is the Americanisation of Britain, or at least of England. A society where everybody has then sense that they can be anything they want to be, and where hardly anybody can. Crooked Timber's Chris Bertram on the evolution of British society since the seventies.
posted by MartinWisse (20 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
So real economic mobility is down then, but people have the impression that it is up? This paper (which I'm admittedly poorly equipped to fully understand) from the University of Oslo claims that economic mobility in the US is quite low, quite similar to the UK, but that the Nordic countries have a lot greater economic mobility than the first two mentioned. This is contrary to the popular opinion both here and there, I guess. Interesting.
posted by Harald74 at 5:49 AM on April 12, 2013


Has the meritocracy risen? Not really. Actually not at all. The advantages of birth and privilege are entrenched as never before.

That's the natural outcome of a meritocracy. People with "merit" rise to the top, instead of luck or noble birth. Merit, of course, includes the ability to make sure your children have the same properties of merit as you do, so they will stay at the top.

I'm not sure we can do it differently: we used to do it explicitly by birth, for example, but there's no hankering after that. The 11+ and the grammar school system was another approach - but of course people with merit will make sure their children pass the 11+. We could stop one sex or the other from going to university, so it's no longer a match-making service for people of the meritocratic classes. None are particularly appealing: I imagine we'll simply continue with big welfare transfers, either explicitly (child support, pensions) or implicitly (nationalised services like health). Maybe less so than the Swedes, more so than the Americans.

Because vast movement of people from bottom to top (and that's what people mean) only come as a result of rapid social and economic change - like the new post-war de-industrialisation and movement to a service and public-sector-led economy - or war or revolution. I remain to be convinced that we are not simply returning to the norm - the 1940s baby boomers were the oddity, not the current low-mobility status, and it was a result of restructuring in the economy, not public policy.

Of course, there is in fact a vast amount of global social and economic mobility, more than there ever has been, and in the right direction. Millions upon millions of people are successfully moving up from abject poverty to middle-classness. It's just not happening in the West any more, because we've already industrialised and service-ised. And our privilege and right of birth leads us to expect that this progress will be ours, not theirs, so we are unable to see it.

What's next, I wonder? Does the whole world reach Western levels of prosperity, and then workers are able to increase wage demands without the work being moved somewhere cheaper (more productive)? Will environmental degradation and water and oil scarcities kick us back into state planning? War from the new kids on the block jockeying for status and influence, like Germany did back in the 20th? Maybe Marx will be right in the end.
posted by alasdair at 6:01 AM on April 12, 2013 [8 favorites]


I remain to be convinced that we are not simply returning to the norm - the 1940s baby boomers were the oddity, not the current low-mobility status, and it was a result of restructuring in the economy, not public policy.

I think lower prosperity, lower social mobility, is the norm. Where is it written that people are always entitled to something better? The post-WW2 period is the anomaly. The 1940s baby boomers were the oddity and the public policy built around the post-war prosperity of that generation was always a foolish gamble. It all started falling apart in the 1970s and now it accelerates as China absorbs all of the economic growth.

Today's generation now has to pay the rent for the Greatest Generation that feathered its nest with optimistic promises of the future that never had a hope in hell of panning out. The burden to the current generation's mobility will only increase as this glut of optimists hits retirement.

And we'll be back to normal situation of low growth, less prosperity, less stuff, and better lives.
posted by three blind mice at 6:37 AM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ugh. So back to rigid Calvinism, elitism and people accepting their place it is then. So far this thread is far too depressing and ugly to countenance on a Friday, so I'm just going to drop this comment and not get too engaged.

Since all that mobility was just a fluke of structural economic trends, I guess all those other European social democracies that still have much higher rates of social mobility only coincidentally have much stronger commitments to social policy.

Britain under Thatcher and the US under Reagan, however, were the two Western nations that most enthusiastically embraced the new "conservatism." But that's also just a coincidence.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:20 AM on April 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Only egalitarian societies will produce anything approaching a meritocracy. When your child being in the bottom quartile means that their lives will be much shorter and much poorer than yours you will naturally move heaven and earth to move them up, in a way that you might not if all it means is that they'll never have a second house or a BMW.
posted by atrazine at 7:59 AM on April 12, 2013


Note that "aristocracy" and "meritocracy" both mean the same thing, "rule of the best".

Guess who decides who's the best or who has merit? Hint, it's not the ruled.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:09 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


all those other European social democracies that still have much higher rates of social mobility only coincidentally have much stronger commitments to social policy.

See, I'm not so sure they're that much better at social mobility - not like the USA in the 1950s or China now. What they are much better at, and what we should be trying to emulate, are their much better outcomes in terms of human quality of life. I'm prepared to agree that narrowing the rich-poor gap may indeed be part of it, too.

But social mobility above all? Not so sure that's a Good Thing or possible.
posted by alasdair at 8:17 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


See, I'm not so sure they're that much better at social mobility - not like the USA in the 1950s or China now.

For saulgoodman's point to stand, however, it just has to be better than the post-Reagan USA and the post-Thatcher UK, not the outliers you mention. And saulgoodman's point very much stands.
posted by Celsius1414 at 8:49 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think it is a bit more complicated than Thatcher, Regan, class divisions and/or a meritocracy that has become fossilized. There are significant differences between the Scandinavian countries and the US/UK as it relates to cultural/ethnic/religious diversity, absolute number and percent of immigrants, presence/absence of large ethnic/cultural ghettos, differing stage(s) of economic development, effects of militarization and global involvement, historical wealth inequality, etc. I personally find the inequality in wealth in the US appalling, disappointing and foreboding, the daily quality of life higher in the Scandinavian countries (data supports this) and I just do not know about the UK--it seems to be tormented by social policy, colonial guilt, a love/hate relationship with the Welfare State/Capitalism, the simultaneous embracing/rejection of its history, etc. I do love it but I despair for its future.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:52 AM on April 12, 2013


A system where mere wealth and gambling are lavishly rewarded with incredible protection and tax breaks while work is punished is not in any way a meritocracy.
posted by srboisvert at 9:53 AM on April 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Now we have radio presenters talking about how Margaret Thatcher fostered “social mobility”. Other conversations turn on things like “aspiration” and people being able to buy their council houses. My inner social scientist protests: don’t these people know that social mobility is down since Thatcher, that it’s now harder for people to escape the circumstances of their birth than it was then? But the true observation that it is more difficult for people to rise come up against the pervasive perception that people can now be what they want to be and aren’t constrained by strong expectations of social role. The decline of democracy in the sense of popular control contrasts with a sense that society is more democratic in that anyone is as good as anyone else; the intensification of real economic inequality has coincided with a much greater cultural egalitarianism than existed before.

[. . . ]

In a sense what we have is the Americanisation of Britain, or at least of England. A society where everybody has then sense that they can be anything they want to be [but] hardly anybody can.
So people feel more equal when in fact they aren't? Well, yeah. That's because The British Class System has been replaced by the American 'class system'. Where you once had functional classes -- Ruling, Working, and Middle, with at least notional inter-obligations -- it's now a simple sorting -- upper, lower, and middle -- by income/assets with arbitrary boundaries and zero inter-obligations.

Class has no other meaning in America than 'how much y'got?'

The post-WW2 period is the anomaly. The 1940s baby boomers were the oddity and the public policy built around the post-war prosperity of that generation was always a foolish gamble. It all started falling apart in the 1970s and now it accelerates as China absorbs all of the economic growth. . . .

Since all that mobility was just a fluke of structural economic trends, I guess all those other European social democracies that still have much higher rates of social mobility only coincidentally have much stronger commitments to social policy.


Maybe and maybe.

Consider that the decline of social mobility, real wage stagnation, and increase in income inequality are nearly exactly coeval with the increasing financialization of the US, UK, and to a degreee, the world economy.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:01 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Consider that the decline of social mobility, real wage stagnation, and increase in income inequality are nearly exactly coeval with the increasing financialization of the US, UK, and to a degree, the world economy.

This sounds compelling and attractive--But I have a very strong hunch that real inter-generational, or even intragnerational, mobility is (as referenced by 3blindmice) the oddity, fluke and/or exception. Not that it is not an appropriate and admirable goal but look historically and cross culturally; feudalism, Kingdoms, family dynasties, colonialism, landed gentry, tribalism, industrial revolution, theocracies, oligarchies, communism and the list goes on. Anarchist may shun class/economic distinctions but only until some get power or they burn themselves out or get flat screen TVs.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:33 AM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's the natural outcome of a meritocracy. People with "merit" rise to the top, instead of luck or noble birth. Merit, of course, includes the ability to make sure your children have the same properties of merit as you do, so they will stay at the top.
That's not merit, that's privilege. Indeed, it is the definition of privilege. If your mother or father has achieved their position through merit and then use that position to acquire the same for their children, they have stepped in to stop meritocracy and replace it with privilege of birth. Those who are born into a high social position can overall expect to have the same, regardless of their own merit. What of all the intelligence and potential squandered among those who lack the parents to get them the same benefits?

A meritocracy is not only where the children of paupers can become millionaires, but also where the children of millionaires can become paupers.
posted by Jehan at 10:46 AM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I have a very strong hunch that real inter-generational, or even intragnerational, mobility is (as referenced by 3blindmice) the oddity, fluke and/or exception

We built that.

We can build another.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:50 AM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Where is it written that people are always entitled to something better?
Meritocracy isn't an "entitlement". Indeed, it is the opposite. It says that you are not entitled to your position but must earn it. Meritocracy is a social market where the best quality will deserve the best price. That market will drive social improvement if we only let it. Wealthy folk who insist on entrenching privilege distort the market and make our societies inefficient and sub-optimal. The lack of social mobility means that you're not getting the best doctor, scientist, engineer, or professor, but the best from among those who had the life chances to become such. The greatest thinkers and doers of their generation might be cleaning toilets or stacking shelves. The person who delivers your mail is another Einstein, but has been shut out of the merit market.
posted by Jehan at 10:56 AM on April 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


When you really talk to people who supported the economic changes that resulted in the rise of growing inequality and the decline of social mobility, what you realize is that they believe that those are good things and that the previous order was a case of working class people having it too well and enjoying a life that they didn't "deserve" at the expense of other, more deserving people being denied their proper right to pay less towards pensions or own a larger car. Looked at it from this perspective, economic mobility and security are bad things in a meritocracy because they are given to people who don't strictly "merit" such a thing.

What has resulted is that when someone retires in relative (but modest) comfort or having a steady (but modestly paid) job without having attended college or started a business, the reaction from the wealthier and more well educated has become, "he is stealing from us!" because such people are regarded to not "merit" such treatment. It's couched in terms like, "we can't have equality of outcome!" and such, but realistically it is an attitude that someone lower on the social totem pole than you should have insecurity and suffering to go along with it, because otherwise your own position isn't as valuable.

They're effectively modern sumptuary laws to regulate what kind of lives the "lower orders" can feel entitled to. But instead of consumer goods being legislated out of reach, pensions, post-secondary education, and a steady middle income is considered to be the "gold rings" that certain people should have, but not others.

Where is it written that people are always entitled to something better?

Well, the deal tends to be that politicians support policies that improve the overall state of the economy, and that in exchange for supporting these policies, the people get to benefit from that improvement.
posted by deanc at 11:03 AM on April 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


We built that.

We can build another.
,

No, you didn't build anything, I doubt anyone prone to such glib pronouncements could. Adolf, Winston, Franklin, Joe, et al created the conditions in which the last anomaly was allowed to occur. The idea that we are reverting to the mean and that a temporary imbalance in the equilibrium is being corrected is intuitively appealing and depressing in equal measure.
posted by epo at 12:15 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


No, you didn't build anything, I doubt anyone prone to such glib pronouncements could. Adolf, Winston, Franklin, Joe, et al created the conditions in which the last anomaly was allowed to occur. The idea that we are reverting to the mean and that a temporary imbalance in the equilibrium is being corrected is intuitively appealing and depressing in equal measure.

Eh?

It seems to me that there is no equilibrium to return to. Social, political, and economic structures change over time. We respond. It changes again. Sometimes we get a Magna Carta. Sometimes we end slavery. Sometimes we get our pensions stolen, our homes devalued, our workplaces turned into rusted scrap metal and have to start over.

The conditions that allowed the Post WWII rise of and increased security of the middle class, social mobility, social welfare, and everything else good that we feel might now be slipping away were hard-won victories that took decades and oceans of blood to achieve.

It was something our ancestors built.

It is what we must re-build, under todays politico-socio-economic conditions, against todays opposition.

And you'd better learn to enjoy the process a lttle bit, or you're going to be an angry person your whole life.
 
posted by Herodios at 2:45 PM on April 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Adolf, Winston, Franklin, Joe, et al

I find this revealing.

The Great Man Theory never dies, does it? Was not the entirety of the 20th century "peak egalitarianism" the product of the entirety of the society that inhabited it? Or was it a quirk, a gift, an .. anomaly as you put it? Certainly it was anomalous, but then so are many things we take as important today, same-sex marriage for one, that we wouldn't like to go back to presuming an anomaly unrepeatable but for the conditions of a few Great Men.

One of my favorite rhetorical questions, and I wish it would catch on with #occupy or some such, is Who is the economy for? Is it inherently for the winners, and the rest of us should sigh and respect our station? Or is it all of ours, to create, to mold, to imbue with the qualities we believe it needs to have? There's a determinism I find more in Hayek than in Marx. As Glenda Jackson put it in her blistering anti-tribute to Thatcher, all we were taught, growing up, to be vices have been celebrated virtues in this new gilded age. Greed is good, as a certain fictional (and intentionally satirical, but some missed that aspect) character put it.

What they are much better at, and what we should be trying to emulate, are their much better outcomes in terms of human quality of life.

There's a bit of an elephant in the room here, the commons, and the common good. I firmly believe that what is in the public commons is what you might call banked quality of life for the next generation. It is very telling that this public commons is being gleefully and viciously attacked by certain quarters. It's even asserted that because the "government" or the "state" controls trillions of dollars, that makes it the power to fear, rather than "mere billionaires". I suppose schools, roads, police and fire protection, and the occasional defense of the realm are simply the lipstick on the pig. Really, though, what those mean to the safety, the educational outcomes, and some measure of social capability if not the vaunted mobility are all but incalculable.
posted by dhartung at 7:29 PM on April 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Postwar Britain was not rich. In fact it was bankrupt, and yet we created the welfare state. This 'anomaly' argument is ridiculous considering the country we're discussing.
posted by Summer at 1:34 AM on April 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


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