Class in Europe: Staying Together and Coming Apart

By Paul Collier - 16 August 2012
Class in Europe: Staying Together and Coming Apart

During my lifetime two class wars have been fought to resolution across Europe: one economic the other cultural. The outcomes of the economic class wars are uncontroversial. In Britain the middle class won the economic war: social protection is relatively poor (most notably for pre-school and the elderly), labour markets are only lightly regulated, and top-end income taxes are relatively low. In contrast, in continental Europe, the working class won: high social protection, regulated labour markets, and higher taxation.

But what is less openly discussed is the outcome of the cultural class wars. In Britain the working class won: mainstream culture – the daily exposure of ordinary working class people – decisively broke free from middle-class dominance. The clearest manifestation of this is the divergence in the media where mass market newspapers designed for the barely literate, such as The Sun, coexist with middle-class newspapers such as The Telegraph. In continental Europe the mainstream culture remained essentially middle-class. For example, the biggest circulation French newspaper, Ouest France, is far closer to The Telegraph than The Sun. The conjunction of victory and defeat may be explicable: in Britain middle-class victory in the economic war may have generated sufficient guilt and backlash to undermine the confidence needed to maintain control of mainstream culture. Analogously, in continental Europe inclusive social protection may have made a common culture easier to maintain.

Culture matters because it helps to shape identity. Economists are realizing that the identities which people choose to adopt matter for their performance – see Nobel Laureate George Akerlof’s new book Identity Economics. Meanwhile, social psychologists have discovered the power of imitation: people imitate role models. The standard economic framework in which behaviour is shaped by incentives needs qualification: incentives work only within the parameters set by adopted identities. Popular culture can be thought of as a menu of downloadable role models that shape the identities that ordinary young people adopt. In some mundane but important respects the menu conveyed by middle-class culture is more functional than working class culture: a more stable marital environment; aspiration rather than fatalism; deferred gratification rather than bingeing.

As revealed both by the riots of 2011 and school results, Britain has a new indigenous underclass characterized by educational underperformance, unemployment and marital breakdown to an extent without parallel in continental Europe. Its parallel can, however, be found in America, as revealed in Coming Apart, the new book by the American conservative libertarian Charles Murray. His book divides into the first nine-tenths, which describes social change, and a final tenth of cranky libertarian diagnosis. Those first nine-tenths build up portraits of social change in two stylized communities: Belmont and Fishtown (for Britain the equivalents would be North Oxford and Rotherham). For Belmont recent decades have been good: it has become the home of the new elite. The elite have inherited not wealth but brains, and a stable family upbringing; their brains gave them access to the newly meritocratic universities, and their parents gave them functional habits. The new brain-based economy rewarded these characteristics with prosperity. In contrast, Fishtown has fallen apart, starting with the family: divorce, fluid co-habitation, and single parenthood have all risen massively. Alongside family disintegration work habits deteriorated: whereas in Belmont prime-age men worked harder, in Fishtown increasing numbers chose not to work at all. Alongside personal deterioration came a loss of sociability in Fishtown not matched in Belmont: less civil association, less trust, and more crime.

So why have America and Britain developed an indigenous underclass whereas continental Europe has not? What have they experienced in common over recent decades that other European societies have missed? I suggest that the explanation is that both Britain and America have adopted the same cocktail of weak social protection and a virulently crass popular culture. The epicentre of that culture was the Murdoch empire from which the rest of Europe has been protected by language. Murdoch culture – Fox TV in America, Sky TV, The Sun and The News of the World in Britain – has reset the norms of behaviour. Educated families – Murray’s new social elite – have largely sheltered ourselves: it is culture that has ‘come apart’, polarized between a mass market of Murdoch and middle class islands. Absurdly, Murray blames America’s social crisis on generous welfare: if it were, it would be Scandinavia in crisis not the Anglo-Saxons. Nor is it due to cultural elitism: the Anglo-American elite is no more sophisticated than that in continental Europe. Its educated families are entirely justified in huddling together to protect their offspring from being engulfed by Murdoch’s degradation.

The culprits are neither the underclass themselves, nor the new elite, but those who have perpetrated this combination of weak social protection and cultural collapse.


This post first appeared on Social Europe Journal 

For further background to this topic please see Branko’s latest article for Global Policy Journal and a related podcast from Joseph E Stiglitz:

Branko Milanović - Global Inequality: From Class to Location, from Proletarians to Migrants

Joseph E Stiglitz - Podcast - The Price of Inequality

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