A large amount of the sociological debate on social class has focused on whether the working class is in decline or more recently if they are perhaps becoming middle class. Modern politicians often suggest that we are living in a “classless society”, Tony Blair in 2000 stated that the “class struggle has ended. ” Karl Marx (1818-83) however believed that there are two classes in a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie, who owns the means of production and the workers, who are exploited because they could only survive by selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie.
Marx’s immiseration thesis predicted that class divisions would become more polarised as intermediate classes merged with either the bourgeoisie or sink into the working class. Max Weber (1864-1920) distinguished class groupings into four categories, these being the propertied class, the property less white-collar workers, the petty bourgeoisie and the manual working class. Weber predictions in sharp contrast to Marx were that the changes in industry would lead to a diversification amongst the classes which would in turn cause the middle class to expand rather than polarise into the working class.
The working class contains different sub-cultures; one of these being the proletarian traditionalist. This section of the working class were usually found in small close knit communities and the males were employed in long established industries such as mining, docking and shipbuilding. These workers possess a strong sense of belonging and solidarity. They were united in their support for the Labour party and trade unionism. The work they done was usually dangerous and they were badly paid. Although there was no job security they possessed huge pride in their craft and the skills they had.
The proletarian traditionalist is not an individualist; David Lockwood (1966) describes ” a public and present orientated conviviality” which ” eschews individual striving to be different. ” Unlike the middle class proletarian traditionalists do not pursue individual achievement by trying to gain promotion at work or success in running their own business. Rather they identify strongly with the pursuit of collective goals. Marx (1867) stated that the bourgeois would develop complex technology to replace manual work, which would leave the homogeneous working class people unskilled machine operators.
However in contradiction to this view Dahrendorf (1959 Class and Class Conflict in Industrial society) predicted that the introduction of technology would make the manual working class increasing heterogeneous. He stated, ” Increasingly complex machines require increasingly qualified designers, builders, maintenance and repair men and even minders. ” As technology advanced further and work patterns changed Harry Braverman (1974 Labour and Monopoly Capitalism. ) argued that many non-manual jobs had become so de-skilled that they were indistinguishable from manual work. This was the theory of proletarianisation. The middle classes were converging with the working class. )
Crompton and Jones (1984) (Sociology review November 1995) put the point forward the majority of the de-skilled work was carried out by women. Gallie (1994) argue that because women are frequently found in part time jobs this will further decrease the quality of women’s jobs in terms of skill. Kirk McMann (The making of a British underclass, 1992) argued that this situation was creating an “underclass. ” A study conducted by Routh (1980) found that manual workers declined from 79% of those in employment in 1911 to just under half in 1971.
This decline can be seen to be connected to the advanced technology that has revolutionised the workplace. More recent evidence by Benyon and economist Keith Cowling (1998) argue that this decline does not necessarily mean the end of the working class. Looking at the service sector Cowling claims for example McDonalds or taxiing are another source of manufacturing for a “new working class. ” According to government figures, living standards for manual workers improved by 35% between 1979 and 1991. This fact prompted Zweig and Kerr (1960) to suggest that a more affluent manual worker was being absorbed into the middle class.
They came up with the embourgeoisement thesis. To test this theory Goldthorpe & Lockwood et al (1968 The affluent worker in the class structure) carried out a detailed study on 229 manual workers and 59 white-collar workers in the prosperous area of Luton. By testing their attitudes to work, interaction patterns within the community, aspirations and social perspectives and their political views Goldthorpe & Lockwood et al found that although prosperous the manual workers had no desire to become middle class.
This study did however highlight that unlike the traditional proletarian, the new affluent workers attitudes had changed in that work was seen as a means to an end. They were more family centred and home based. This led to the conclusions that although embourgeouisement was not taking place a “new working class” was evolving. A follow up study done in 1992 by Fiona Devine (Affluent workers revisited) contradicted the findings of Goldthorpe & Lockwood’s study. She found that the workers did not have an instrumental attitude to work.
The threat of downsizing, redundancy and fixed term contracts had re-created the old traditional solidarity with fellow workmates. Money was not their only concern, for example they were also concerned with the distribution of power at work, and were interested in securing humane and fair treatment for their colleagues and themselves. Devine rejects the idea of a “new working class”. Her study led her to conclude that the Luton workers she studied do have aspirations as consumers and their living standards had risen, but they would like to see a more egalitarian society.
As mentioned most politicians would like us to believe that we live in a classless society. Tony Blair believes that the majority of British people are middle class. A recent ICM opinion poll (Guardian 12/99) revealed that British people now see themselves as middle class, with the people describing themselves as working class down from 54% to 41%. Serge Mallet (1963) said that the working class has become too difficult to define and it seems that forty years later the same sentiment may still apply.
As to the question on whether the working class is in decline, the evidence would seem to point at yes it is. Whether the working class is becoming middle class however is one argument that sociologists have different views and definitions about. Certainly work conditions and wages have become almost indistinguishable and more people perceive themselves as being middle class. Due to the demands of the free market economy, changes in working conditions and the introduction of advanced technology the working class has become a fragmented and less distinctive group, but they are still identifiable.