liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
So everybody's been playing with this class calculator, because who doesn't love a find your personality type survey? And this one has the imprimatur of respectability that comes from being on the BBC site with professional graphic design and slick special effects. It tells me I'm "established middle class," which I probably could have told you without going through that rigmarole. Duh, I'm a university lecturer and the daughter of two lawyers, obviously I'm middle class.

It's provoked some surprisingly interesting conversation, though. Some people are saying it's a distraction from the real issues of the sweeping changes to the NHS and social security system brought in this week. Well, yes it is, but the fact that people fill in silly surveys doesn't mean they aren't also engaged in meaningful political activism. This article someone linked on Twitter argues that the whole BBC gimmick is a poor popularization of sociology.

The interesting theme that's emerging is that there is a deliberate misdirection of people's thinking about class identity, and that this prevents effective political solidarity. [livejournal.com profile] blue_mai linked to a rather angry old-Left article which points out that it doesn't really make sense to treat low-level clerical and IT people as middle class just because they work in offices. I often don't find overtly socialist rhetoric very palatable, but Thee Citizen's post made sense to me. I can believe that there is a denigration of genuine working class values going on, and telling people they're middle class when in fact they have no real control over their lives or financial security is plausibly an subtle undermining of their ability to act politically as a collective.

[personal profile] helenic has a magnificent rant about a problem in the opposite direction: middle-class people are being manipulated into underestimating [our] class and relative wealth. [personal profile] helenic's post very much resonated with me; there is a sort of weird reverse snobbery going on where middle class people claim humble origins and / or feel hard done by even though they're pretty much at the top of the social heap, and absurdly wealthy people think of themselves as middle class.

Unlike a lot of people, I wasn't surprised to find I came out as middle class. I have a very typically middle-class job, I have a lot of middle-class interests and hobbies, my parents are both university graduates who had highly paid professional careers. Though my mother gave hers up when I was born, and always kind of meant to go back but never did, itself a very middle class lifestyle choice.

If you go back to my grandparents the picture gets a bit more complicated. Two of my grandparents were doctors (perhaps the most quintessentially middle-class profession) but they also came from immigrant backgrounds. One of my grandmothers was a domestic servant and later a shopkeeper. One of my grandfathers was Public-school educated and came from a family with a degree of inherited wealth from being absolutely classical capitalists, owning a middle-sized family business, but then again people of equivalent economic standing didn't accept him has a social peer because he was Jewish, and anyway his family disinherited him for marrying the aforementioned grandmother, so financially speaking things were pretty marginal when my mother was growing up. But ok, even if it's not very easy to define what social class my family was two generations back, there is such a thing as social mobility and my own generation are pretty solidly middle-class. I mean, my sibs have no money at all because they are a philosopher, a poet and a chef, and one of them is disabled which always intersects weirdly with class assignments. But they have a degree of social and financial security that a lot of people with their level of income don't have.

My own childhood was much like [personal profile] helenic describes: my parents scrimped and saved to pay to send us all to fee-paying schools, which meant we came into contact with people who were richer and higher on the social scale than us, and always felt like we didn't have much money or many of the obvious trappings of wealth. My father supported six people on one salary, which was a stretch but he earned enough to make that actually possible if one was frugal. Based on talking to my friends who went to state schools, I don't think the quality of education I received was vastly better, but I did get approbation and support for being interested in and successful at academic pursuits, rather than getting socially ostracised or even beaten up. In turn, that allowed me to go to Oxford, which in spite of stereotypes is reasonably socially diverse. Or at least, it doesn't perfectly represent the demographics of the country, but because it's a rich, prestigious institution that is currently putting a lot of resource into attracting the most academically able, extremely academically brilliant people can and do go to Oxford from any social background whatsoever. So at Oxford I met people who resented me for being "posh" or wealthy to the point of being spoiled, (as well as members of the actual nobility including minor royals). And now that I'm an Oxford graduate at least some people are forever going to view me as some kind of out-of-touch elitist, no matter how much actual money I have or what politics I espouse.

I am in fact quite happy to identify as middle-class. Middle-class values can be positive values: social stability, education, aspiration, political and social engagement, appreciating culture that requires a degree of effort and connoisseurship rather than just consuming entertainment passively, diversity of ideas. I appreciate that sometimes those things look more like conservatism and conformity, snobbery, meddling in others' lives, consumerism and so on, but on the whole I'm quite happy to be regarded as middle-class.

As for affluent, well. [personal profile] lavendersparkle ages ago linked to a much more detailed wealth calculator of where you fit into the population, rather than just putting you into a crude bracket based on your salary and very rough level of savings. I can't find that calculator again, but it told me I was in the top decile compared to the UK population. I was a little surprised to be at 90 percent, but I would certainly have guessed I was in the top quartile, I'm not ignorant of the fact I'm relatively well off. The thing is, I have a decent, though not vast income, but I'm rich because I have almost no outgoings! I don't have any dependants, which is probably the big one; colleagues at my salary band who are supporting two or three school-age children and an elderly parent or grandparent who needs substantial nursing care may very well feel really squeezed. I also live in a cheap part of the country, I don't run a car, I don't have expensive hobbies, I'm fit and able-bodied. I'm not servicing debt; being debt-free in my mid-30s really does put me in an unusually financially secure position, and one that is becoming rarer because of the way the economy and social infrastructure is going.

To a great extent I agree with [personal profile] hunningham's response to the recent budget. Yes, people like me should be paying more tax. Sadly no political party at the moment is offering me the option to vote for a tax increase against my own direct financial interests; I have voted for such in the past, like the Lib Dems years ago who proposed a 1% in income tax to be invested in education. But then I hesitate. First of all, you'd have to be careful to define who counts as "people like me". I mean, if you just did it based on income, that would hit people with huge mortgage and student loan debt and living in London and supporting families, who may be richer than the population average but are not rich. I remember the "fat cat tax" from the early days of the recent Labour government; sounded good, but in practice it meant that my grandmother lost a substantial chunk of her painstakingly saved pension. Yes, my grandmother, who was working as a maid at 14, at 74 counted as a "fat cat" because she'd put aside a tiny amount of her tiny income each month and invested it carefully. Now, it's true that there are people whose lives are so precarious that they literally couldn't save the equivalent of a shilling a month, but I can't buy the idea that anyone who has any kind of retirement savings at all is too rich and should have their widows' mites redistributed.

And then, well, with this current government I am not sure that increased taxes would actually help the people I want to be helping. I mean, if my tax money isn't going to the NHS, to education, to unemployment benefit or disability support, what's the point of voluntarily signing up to pay more? Maybe it's better to do as [personal profile] hunningham suggested and make a standing order to a food bank. Besides, even as an affluent, secure, Established Middle Class sort of person, I'm getting scared of the dismantling of the social safety net. If I had an accident or a serious illness. If I lost my job or the Higher Ed sector imploded. If if if... And if none of that happens one day I'm going to be too old to continue earning. So emotionally I feel like I have to hoard up every penny I can because if I can't earn money through my own labour then society won't support me, won't repay the contributions I've made over the years. This emotion is of course why the recession drags on and on, because anyone who has any kind of financial break at all hoards their money rather than putting it back into the economy, because everybody is scared.

The other thing about looking at all this business of ranking people by class and / or wealth is that I do feel it's far too easy and not really productive for people at all levels of society to resent and envy "the rich". In fact, most people don't know anything about people who are actually, seriously, rich, they're just impossible for ordinary people to imagine. Everybody comes into contact with people who are just a bit better off than they are, though. I was kind of horrified during the London riots when they interviewed people who were looting little corner store newsagents. They seemed to feel they were sticking it to "the rich": the people who have enough to rent a shop, who are just about able to work 80 hours a week and end up with more money than they started with. Those people are "rich" compared to long-term unemployed people or those who don't make ends meet even when they work all the hours they possibly can. The shopkeepers and others in low paid but at least relatively stable jobs are encouraged to resent lower middle class civil servants who have some degree of pension security, so the government can win popular appeal with really punitive cuts on that group of people. My peers who earn well over the national average wage complain a lot about City types and executives earning six figures. MPs cause howls of outrage when they complain their salaries and expenses aren't generous enough, but in fact their social milieu includes mostly people with considerably more earning power than current MPs. Highly paid businesspeople and opinion formers resent millionaires and anyone who has wealth as well as income. I expect even millionaires feel poor compared to "the 1%". It's all just a great merry-go-round of social and political fragmentation.

I'm not naturally inclined towards redistributive taxation. My economic philosophy is that people should contribute to infrastructure (which very much includes the welfare safety net), and after contributing a fair proportion of their income they should be allowed to keep what they earn. I would like to do something about the problem that some rich people and large companies can use their wealth to leverage avoiding having to pay any tax at all, but I don't think the solution to this is to raise income tax for everybody earning above the median wage.

I hope this isn't completely incomprehensible to non-Brits!
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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