Last month there was a lot of chatter about an article entitled ‘A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’ that claimed to have identified seven distinct classes in the UK. Though not a sociologist, I thought I’d stick my oar into the debate by having a look at the paper.
The identification of seven classes was the result of a large survey conducted with the help of the BBC that gauged the levels of different kinds of ‘capital’ possessed by individuals, including not just assets and income but cultural capital (traditional and popular) and social capital. The authors then used a pretty swish statistical model to identify the most significant clusters of individuals possessing similar amounts of the various types of capital as one another. They thus identified their seven classes, which include an underclass and an elite as well as several distinct middling classes with various mixes of the different types of capital. This is an objective not subjective model of class, it doesn’t matter whether or not individuals identify as belonging to one class or another. The model receives a degree of validation by the fact that different occupations/professions predominate amongst their independently-defined classes (although ‘social capital’ is defined in terms of the occupations of people an individual knows, so the logic seems a bit circular (endogeneity?)).
Unlike the dominant approaches to class in sociology, the methodology is one of ‘bottom up’ formation of categories, deriving its classes from the empirical data, rather than defining classes analytically in a ’top down’ fashion. That makes the paper pretty interesting. The paper isn’t atheoretical though, the methodology is based on the assumption that individuals can (imperfectly) convert different types of capital into one another. I’m not really sure, however, that ‘new cultural capital’ (knowledge of/participation in popular culture) is as important as assets and income for determining individual life-chances as the paper seems to assume. Once, yes, a classical education and knowledge of high culture might have enabled social and professional advancement. Sadly, I’m not sure that knowledge of 80s indiepop, The Wire or Marvel comics confers such an advantage (although fondness for BSG, GoT and amusing cat pictures does seem to help in the world of IR blogging). In addition, why isn’t human/educational capital included as a variable? It’s omission doesn’t seem to make sense as far as I can see.
The major issue with the article is that the class-categories it comes up with are an odd amalgam of socio-economic classes and generational cohorts. This is because the ‘classes’ identified by the survey are in part defined by their income and their assets. But for many individuals in professions and occupations with some kind of career ladder incomes start pretty low, but rise as individuals climb the ladder. In addition, in the usual life-course within industrialised societies, individuals can be expected to build up assets (such as property and pension pots) as their working life progresses. We should expect most young people to have relatively few assets and fairly similar (low) incomes. As individuals grow older their trajectories diverge, with gaps between the incomes of people in different professions/occupations widening. Individuals will then tend to build up asset portfolios at different rates. So in the schema offered by the authors individuals will fall into very different classes based on their age-group. This indeed does seem to have occurred. The ‘traditional working class’ for example is in part defined by its low incomes but reasonably high level of asset ownership (uh oh, something’s gone wrong if we are defining the w/c by asset-ownership), and the average age of its members is significantly higher than the average. ‘Emergent service workers’ comprise low-asset and low-income individuals with high ‘emerging cultural capital’ , i.e. young people of all occupations who are just starting out on their careers and whose trajectories haven’t diverged yet.
The categories are muddled because the survey is a cross-section of the whole population. The usual methodology for research into class is to conduct a cross-sectional survey of an age-cohort and then follow-up the survey at regular intervals. This enables comparison of the trajectories or life-courses of individuals occupying different economic classes and/or status groups. So sociologists are normally more concerned with, for example, lifetime earnings rather than income at a fixed point in time. The methodology adopted by the authors instead compares individuals at very different points along the life-course. Now, maybe the article does tell us something about the broad class-status-generational groups that exist in contemporary Britain. Their survey also highlights the existence of a distinct ‘elite’ class (I might do another post on this) and the decomposition of the old working class that has occurred between generations. But I think most sociologists won’t want to collapse together different sociological categories like this and will stick to the well-established and well-validated ‘top-down’ schemas of scholars like Goldthorpe and Wright.
Yesterday via The Duck I learnt that Kenneth Waltz has passed away. Waltz is a central figure in international relations theory, Theory of International Politics can be considered the founding text of the contemporary discipline. There are some tributes (including my own) and a pair of anecdotes/excerpts that illustrate Waltz’s independence of mind and his knack for pithy insight.
I remember sitting down to read Theory of International Politics as a Masters student, already broadly but superficially familiar with neo-realism from an introductory undergraduate course. At this point I was naively, arrogantly confident that theorists I didn’t agree with could easily be pigeon-holed and dismissed as either dogmatic methodological individualists, naive empiricists, or sophists playing word-games. Waltz fell into none of these categories: Theory of Politics is a rigorous, philosophically sophisticated framework for the analysis of international relations. Striving to establish a parsimonious account of international relations as a bounded realm governed by its own structural laws, it draws on microeconomics, Durkheim and Newtonian physics. Like most everyone else in the discipline, I also believe that it is wrong on many of its major points. But everyone who has attempted to think systematically and rigorously about the international system subsequent to Waltz has had no other option but to engage with him. It’s for this reason that even radical critics such as Rosenberg have acknowledged their debts to Theory of Politics.
In engaging with Waltz, scholars of international relations have subjected Theory of International Politics to innumerable criticisms. Many of these criticisms, which often consist of pointing out that Waltz’s theory ignores X or Y, were misconceived. The most convincing interpretation of Theory of Politics, that of Goddard and Nexon, sees Waltz as putting forward a ‘spare account of the dynamics of anarchy’ within a bounded sphere of international politics. This account is offered by Waltz, not as a description of the world as it actually is, but as an idealised framework to enable explanation of particular events against a baseline of expectations. The more serious criticisms, therefore, were those that accused neo-realists of sleight of hand by equivocating between methodological and substantive claims (i.e. outlining a model and then treating this as an accurate description of reality). In addition, arguments from social theorists and historical sociologists have put the validity of this sort of approach into question. Mann, for example, argues that it is impossible to convincingly separate bounded spheres of social life from one another and identify autonomous ‘system-logics’ of such spheres.
Nonetheless, much of the most interesting and insightful contributions to international relations theory – such as those of Cox, Buzan, Little, Rosenberg, Spruyt and Ruggie – have been direct responses to Waltz’s opus. The engagement with Waltz is one of the few things that gives International Relations any kind of coherence as an academic discipline. It is impossible to understand contemporary International Relations without a familiarity with Waltz’s work and for that reason he is sure to be studied for a long time to come.
Although I’d intended to keep up with the blogging, a number of unexpected things landed in my lap over the last month and so I haven’t been able to muster the energy to write anything worthwhile. But after the weekend I should have a bit more time and mental space to write.
Following up on a line of research that resulted in a paper recently accepted for publication, I’ve been digging into the sociological literature on class and stratification. Today I read relevant sections from Dahrendorf’s Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, which is widely cited in the literature and seems to have been a major influence on debates. His ‘conflict theory’ of class is interesting: he attempts to set out a theory of class in terms of ‘authority relations’ rather than economic relationships between actors. This schema has some oddities, not least Dahrendorf’s categorisation of postal workers as members of the ruling class. Michael Mann picks up on this quirk in The Sources of Social Power vol. 2, but Mann’s conceptualisation of the middle classes owes a lot to Dahrendorf. The middle classes in mature industrial society are, Dahrendorf argues, ‘born decomposed’ – they occupy various positions at different gradations within the administrative hierarchies that characterised contemporary industrial society. The working class(es) have also experienced decomposition, as industrialism has produced not a single mass of proletarians but several gradations in terms of skill and training. The skilled working class blends into the white-collar salariat. So far, so persuasive as an general account of changes within industrial society up until 1959. The distinction between ownership and control is pretty important, distinctions along similar lines were later made by other class theorists such as Goldthorpe and Wright. Dahrendorf also provides a pretty sharp discussion of other theories of class put forward by scholars such as Djilas and Burnham.
But Dahrendorf takes his argument further, in a direction that seems absurd today, arguing that industrial society is no longer capitalist. This is because of the separation of ownership and control between capitalist shareholders and managers. Marx accurately described the conditions of his own age, in which capitalist owners managed their factories in person, directly facing propertyless, non-organised workers at the coal-face of production. Dahrendorf argues that this all changed with the rise of the joint-stock company. The intensity of class conflict in the late C19th and the early C20th was merely the result of an overlapping set of conflicts over authority relations, which have now been diffused more generally through society and the economy. Not only has the struggle between capital and labour been overshadowed by other complex and cross-cutting conflicts, but capitalists no longer seem to exercise a great deal of agency within society on Dahrendorf’s account. What I found extraordinary about Dahrendorf’s account, however, was the bizarre claim (from a 2013 vantage point) that
Never has the imputation of a profit motive been further from the real motives of men than it is for modern bureaucratic managers
If that claim was true in 1959, it certainly isn’t one that anyone would make in 2013. It seems fairly obvious that the interests of managers of capitalist enterprises are closely aligned with shareholders, indeed the right argues that managers ought first and foremost act to maximise shareholder value as agents of shareholder principals. The left, meanwhile, argues that managers and capitalists have effectively become a single profit-driven class. Dahrendorf’s claim looks like it originates on another planet rather than from half a century ago. What does this imply? That Western societies were, for a brief interlude in the post-war era, post-capitalist ‘industrial societies’ but reverted to capitalism between then and now (presumably sometime after 1979)? Or perhaps that, despite his sharp conceptual analysis of the new middle classes, Dahrendorf was mistaken and Western societies were always capitalist and that economic relations – rather than generalised authority relations – have always underpinned their social structures? Or that, as Mann might argue, certain sources of social power oscillate in terms of their relative importance, with economic power now reshaping Western societies because of global economic integration?
Still, there’s a strong anti-authoritarian spirit that runs through the book, emphasising the role of conflict in a pluralistic society and rejecting the demand for enforced consensus made by its enemies.
Good article by DeLong on the scale of the damage caused by the Global Financial Crisis and the subsequent recession:
In the Great Depression that struck the U.S. in 1929, the subsequent twelve years before American mobilization for World War II erased the last shadows of the Great Depression, production averaged roughly 15% below the pre-Great Depression trend, for a total depression waste output shortfall of 180% of a year’s production. Today, even if U.S. production returns to its stable-inflation potential by 2017–a huge if–we will as of 2017 have incurred a depression waste output shortfall of 60% of a year’s production.
The losses from what I have been calling the Lesser Depression will not be over in 2017. As best as I can foresee, there is no moral-equivalent-of-war on the horizon to pull us into a mighty boom to erase the shadow cast by the downturn, and when I take present and values and capitalize the lower trend growth of the American economy as a result of the shadow into the future, I cannot reckon the present value of the additional cost at less than a further 100% of a year’s output today, for a total cost of 160% of a year’s production. The damage is thus equal to that of the Great Depression, counting a 1% of production shortfall as equally painful whenever it happens.
The U.S. economy today, however, has two and a half times as many people as the U.S. economy of 1929. And the U.S. economy today is five–or perhaps more–times as rich as the economy of 1929. In terms of the sheer real value of goods and services lost due to the depression waste output shortfall, the fact that the U.S. economy today is some 12.5 times the size of the economy of 1929 means that the absolute size of this downturn looks to be some fourteen times the size of the Great Depression.
DeLong also makes a concise, empirically supported argument that the US remains a long way from its debt capacity. As he also argues here, there seems to be enormous, unmet demand for safe assets in the form of treasury bonds. But rather than prevent painful deleveraging by issuing debt to meet this demand, policy elites seem set on inducing further liquidation through austerity. If bleeding the patient fails, fetch more leeches. The mistakes of the Great Depression are blindly repeated as if Keynes had never put pen to paper.
The obvious difference between the Great Depression and now, noted by DeLong, is that no geopolitical crisis looms to provide a deus ex machina for the economic travails of the US or Europe and the opportunity to reconstruct the world’s economic architecture.
As every first year politics undergraduate will be aware, once upon a time there was a debate within political sociology between elitists and pluralists. Elitists in political sociology, represented by scholars such as C Wright Mills, argued that political institutions exhibit a systemic bias in favour of certain dominant groups within society, i.e. the ruling classes. Pluralists, such as Robert Dahl, argued that no one set of organised interest groups could maintain permanent control of the political process within modern democracies.
Events over the past decade make pluralism seem rather prima facie implausible. One would certainly want some strong evidence to support such a claim during a period of increasing inequality and displacement of the costs of risks taken by globalised financial sectors onto general publics.
Instead, there seems to be mounting evidence from political science – where a basically pluralist outlook tends to dominate – that the elitist theory provides an accurate account of the current state of politics in the OECD. Via Kevin Drum a summary of a pilot survey by Page and Bartels that suggests that the policy preferences of US politicians seem to track the policy preferences of the wealthy much more closely than those of average citizens. Via Chris Dillow a recent paper by Torija that argues that politicians of all major parties work to maximise the preference-satisfaction of the top few percentiles of the income distribution. He argues that this is a new phenomenon that has arisen since the 1970s, which is interesting as it suggests that the problem is less ‘structural’ and intrinsic to capitalist democracies than ‘conjunctural’ and reflecting recent historical circumstances.
What relevance is all of this to international relations? Well, it gives a boost to more elitist/structuralist theories of international relations and foreign policy such as neo-Gramscianism (Robert Cox, Stephen Gill), and might undermine some of the complacency of pluralist theories such as ‘new liberalism’ that regard states as neutral agents that act on behalf of shifting coalitions of social actors.
The ‘Game of Thrones’ series has provoked interest and discussion by IR scholars since it originally premièred - Charli Carpenter providing what were probably the most interesting and perceptive analysis of the series through the lens of IR theory. Whilst many people made good points and fair criticisms in those discussions (many of which apply with full force to the series but less so to the books themselves), I think that Tom Holland really has his finger on the pulse of the series in this article, emphasising the parallels between events in the saga and the historical realities of the bloody business of kingmaking and medieval statecraft. It’s the verisimilitude with the oppressive, patriarchal and violent era which inspires it that sets GoTs apart from the sanitised romantic fantasy that is often served up within the genre. Holland isn’t reserved with his praise:
The result, paradoxically, is that there are sequences where the invented world of Westeros can seem more realistic than the evocations of the past to be found in many a historical novel. No fiction set in the 14th century, for instance, has ever rivalled the portrayal in Game of Thrones of what, for a hapless peasantry, the ambitions of rival kings were liable to mean in practice: the depredations of écorcheurs; rape and torture; the long, slow agonies of famine. The pleasures of historical fiction and of authentic, adrenaline-charged suspense, of not knowing who will triumph and who will perish, have never before been so brilliantly combined. Imagine watching a drama set in the wars of the roses, or at the court of Henry VIII, and having absolutely no idea what is due to happen. No wonder Game of Thrones has been such a success – and that historians can relish it as much as anyone.
A bit late in the day to comment on the situation in Cyprus, but the fiasco provides an interesting example of what behavioural economists call ‘the money illusion’. The money illusion refers to the phenomena that most people, most of the time evaluate alternative outcomes in terms of nominal currency values rather than in the real value, the purchasing power of a currency. The money illusion was pretty central to Keynes’s approach. He argued that workers are more resistant to nominal wage cuts than real wage cuts, with significant consequences for unemployment and recovery from recession. Keynes’s folk psychology has been backed up by research in behavioural economics that provides evidence that individuals judge alternatives using fixed reference points such as nominal monetary values. So workers might well accept below inflation pay rises (real wage cuts) but respond with industrial action or withdrawal of effort in response to equivalent nominal pay cuts. Behavioural economists have connected these tendencies to widespread psychological biases that predispose people to treat losses very differently from gains.
Cyprus provides an example of how strongly people react to monetary losses. It is one thing for savings to lose their real value year on year due to imported inflation and ultra-loose monetary policy. It’s quite another to start knocking digits off personal savings accounts. People might grumble and complain about the former, but it isn’t perceived as directly confiscatory in the way that the latter is. Add to this the indignation that populations across the OECD have felt about the prospect of paying for the mistakes of others, violating a set of pretty basic norms about fairness and moral responsibility. Thus the furious response to the clueless bailout plan for Cyprus. Of course, this should have been obvious to everyone involved – it’s a testament to the disconnection between the worlds that elites and publics currently occupy that it appears not to have been.
Blogosphere Round-Up I: Ideas and Interests, Lyotard vs. Habermas Redux, Democide and Structural Violence
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been a bit busy submitting one journal article and revising another for publication. As a result I’ve gotten a bit behind with the blog. An empty page looks a bit daunting when you are out of the groove. So I’m going to do a bumper round-up of interesting debates on various blogs that have caught my interest over the past week:
There was a very interesting discussion of the role of ideas and interests in sustaining the policies of austerity over at Crooked Timber. The comments thread was particularly excellent, with commentators providing some excellent reasons why a hard distinction between ideas and interests is difficult to sustain. I particularly liked the points made by Rich Puchalsky, who pointed out that if good-faith belief in a set of ideas motivated agents we would expect them to change their beliefs and actions when those ideas were demonstrated to be weak. This isn’t what we find with regards to austerity. Also excellent was the distinction Peter Dorman made between four possible mechanisms for how ideas can arise from interests. This is the kind of high-level debate which, in all honesty, is often too difficult and time-consuming to find within the traditional structures of academia.
Second, I somehow managed to miss a spat from last October that span out of discussion of a review by Corey Robin of Daniel Rodger’s Age of Fracture. Nils Gilman, the author of an excellent book on the role of modernisation theory in US foreign policy, endorsed the view expressed in Age of Fracture that the 1980s and 1990s intellectual trend of post-modernism shared a great deal with the reactionary, individualist spirit of that era. This provoked Adam Rothstein to offer a rebuttal in an attempt to acquit post-modernism of the charges against it. He makes the fair point that we should properly distinguish between post-modernity and post-structuralism – the latter was developed as an attempt to make sense of the former and so can hardly be held accountable for it. As an intellectual historian, Gilman was able to provide a compelling contextualisation of post-modernism as a broad intellectual trend that helped to undermine the intellectual basis for collective action as well as, in its vulgarised forms, provide a ready-made set of anti-scientific arguments for the political right. For my money, Gilman has the better of this one. The mini-debate was, as Gilman noted, a rerun of earlier Habermas vs. Lyotard/Foucault arguments. The problem with Rothstein’s attempted rebuttal, in addition to its descent into hyperbolic polemic in the last paragraphs, is that he doesn’t seem to realise the shape of the battle-lines. He rightly notes that post-modernism/post-structuralism was not just the product of the Reagan era, but had deeper roots in the 19th ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. But he doesn’t seem to realise that many have criticised Ricouer’s categorisation. Specifically, Marx can be interpreted as a theorist of depth whilst Nietzsche can be seen as a theorist of surfaces: the former is concerned with the way that appearances mask reality whilst the latter holds that it is masks all the way down. Simplifying massively, the latter position is more or less that held by contemporary post-structuralists, whilst the former is hewed to by Western Marxists and Critical Theorists. This is why the two camps of theorists have been at contretemps so often and why people in the latter camp such as Terry Eagleton had such a low view of the general post-modernist trend. Rothstein wants to have his cake and each it, he conflates two very different positions: there is an objective reality which appearances misrepresent; there is no objective reality, just an ever-shifting array of interpretations which have real social effects. If you’re going to make a stab at defending post-modernism, actually defend post-modernism.
Third, Martin Hewson has continued a discussion we began in the comments thread for my post on Django regarding genocide and mass-killing. I think he pretty much hits the nail on the head, but I’m less sceptical about the idea that poverty might be considered structural violence under certain circumstances – especially given the sliding scale between economic warfare and less direct imposition of conditions of economic deprivation.
Is there any link between these three topics? Well, maybe my interest in these three discussions arises from an issue I’ve been pondering since the Millennium Journal of International Studies conference last year: how best to work towards contributing to a non-dogmatic, analytically rigorous materialist account of world politics.
So, the world has a new pope. Coming from Argentina, Pope Francis I seems to be the first pope from the global South. Arguably, he’s the first pope from what some call the ‘semi-periphery’ – middle income nations that play an intermediate role in the world economy. I suppose though that it could be argued that Poland was part of the semi-periphery, but that depends on whether we regard the communist block as being part of the world economy or standing outside of it and opposed to it. I also have to admit that I’m not sure about the precise geographical parameters of the semi-periphery in the late classical or dark ages. I don’t think Immanuel Wallerstein saw the world-system of modern capitalism stretching that far back in time, as according to his account the capitalist world-system began in the 16th Centruy.
In any case, the papacy has been analysed within the context of the historical world system by Robert Denemark, who’s opposed to Wallerstein’s periodisation as well as other attempts to organise history according to transitions between epochs. According to Denemark, there were no clear patterns to changes in the class origins of popes during the whole period in which the capitalist world-system is supposed to have been emerging and the periods in which industrialism, modern nations, states and classes arose. Denemark suggests that talk of great transitions is bunk, supporting Frank’s view that world system history is best understood in terms of continuity and cylical repetition. Interesting, but isn’t it possible that this only shows the power of the Vatican and the Catholic Church as organisations capable of insulating themselves from external social pressures?
The historical significance of a pope from the global South (but still very much of the West) is left as an excercise for the reader… and countless op ed columnists I’m sure!