On The Meaning Of Class


I have been reading, The Meaning Of Socialism, by Michael Luntley. I was led to this because his brother, John Luntley, has been a dear friend of mine for over 40 years.

Michael is a professional academic philosopher currently teaching at Warwick University and specialising in Wittgenstein – so from my perspective it did not augur well!

But this book is a bit of a find. It’s very readable and accessible and makes some fascinating distinctions. It could also have been written yesterday as the Luntley’s vision of socialism is as fresh and relevant today as it was when the book was written in 1989.

One of principle distinctions the book makes is between the Marxist use of the concept of “class” and the real-world nature of “class” in the UK. Luntley suggests that in Marxist economic terms there are those who own and use capital, (Capitalists), and everyone else. In numerical terms Capitalists themselves are such a small group that the Marxist definition doesn’t really help us, and, like me, he regards the intricacies of “class” in the UK as a principally cultural rather than economic phenomenon. He sums it up like this:

“The problem with the English class system is that it systematically obstructs social integration. It provides keenly felt and generally, closely observed demarcation lines between the different reference groups in our society. It ensures that ours is a fragmented society…..

From the point of view of the privileged classes, those for whom success, wealth and graceful living are a birthright, the degradation of the unemployed takes place in a different country. They (the unemployed) live in different places, in state-owned housing; they go to different pubs; they seek out different entertainments; they walk different streets and drive different cars; they look mean and hungry, and they struggle in different schools and languish in different hospitals.

The English class system’s failure consists in the systematic way it allows us to forget those who occupy these different lands and who fight for a life in different places. It packages our concerns for those like ourselves. That is natural. What is unnatural is the rigidity of the packaging, the block to any further integration between our different reference groups, the fixed demarcation lines of concern. And it does not matter how often you read accounts of what it is like to live [Sic] on benefits, for as long as you are reading of the lives of those, who due to the class divisions in our society, constitute a different nation there is no framework for the natural concern for a fellow human being to develop and encompass.

The problem for the English Left is to articulate frames of reference that not only replace the logic of Capital but shatter the packaging of the English class system…..

Our task then is to redefine our civil society. We have to shake off the constraints of our class system and…… refashion our communities within an integrated society in which it is not unnatural to be moved by the plight of those for whom any future at all, let alone one in which they flourish, is something that only happens to others. There are various key domains in which we must act and break up the hegemony of capital and the heritage of our class system.”

Michael Luntley.
The Meaning Of Socialism.
Duckworth. 1989.
ISBN 0715623060

This succinctly describes the social effects of the tribal and cultural aspects of the English class/caste system and helps explain how the English Petite Bourgeoisie and Managerial classes can so readily identify with the interests of Capital although structurally this often goes against their own interests.

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