Social mobility and other vulgarities

“If the poor are to rise, the rich have to fall,” writes Phillip Collins in The Times.

This is yet another salvo fired in the skirmish raging on the ground of social mobility. La donna wants to be upwardly mobile, there are no two ways about it.

That the article is as inane as all of Mr Collins’s other output wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it didn’t represent the widespread morass sucking the issue in. But it does, so a few comments are in order.

First, equating social mobility with the economic kind means confusing two things related to each other only tangentially. Underneath this confusion lies (in both senses of the word) Marx’s definition of class as ‘relationship to the means of production’.

To divest this gibberish of its pseudoscientific fog of recondite vocabulary, the more money, the higher the class. Yet anyone who believes this must also believe that, say, Henry Ford occupied a higher rung on the social ladder than, say, Winston Churchill.

This is a glint thrown on social thought by the flashing strobe light of what I call ‘totalitarian economism’, viewing the whole complexity of life from the economic perspective. The resulting intellectual epilepsy endangers the moral and intellectual life of society.

Class is defined not by money but by culture, as anyone who has ever read Trump’s tweets will attest. And it’s culture, not just love, that money can’t buy.

So fine, let’s forgive Mr Collins this terminological imprecision – God knows he isn’t the only one. Let’s also forgive him such truisms as: “The children of parents who are not equipped to pass on too much knowledge or wisdom will have, by the age of three, heard perhaps a million fewer words than the children of professional parents.”

So a household full of books is more likely to produce cultured children than one full of crushed beer cans? Crikey. Who coulda thunk.

One could offer only one measure to bring that observation in line with the desideratum of the rich falling. Such bibliophile parents should be electronically tagged with a device monitoring the number and length of words they use in the presence of children. The device must have a feature sending an electric shock through Dad’s testicles every time he accuses junior of ‘contumely’, ‘indolence’ or ‘discourtesy’.

Mr Collins doesn’t go into such fine detail, but one assumes that’s the sort of thing he has in mind when suggesting that: “A society that really cared about being mobile would find a way to ensure its princes could slide down a snake too.”

But we’ve already established that at issue here is economic, rather than social or God forbid cultural, mobility. And in this area Mr Collins does offer a practical solution: “If Britain were to start creating more high-quality professional jobs, that would do wonders for mobility.”

Or not, as the case may be, would suggest anyone who remembers the demise of Barings, Britain’s oldest merchant bank, killed dead by an upwardly mobile lout Nick Leeson. The mobility curve of its subsequently dismissed employees must have swerved downwards quite sharply as a result.

The trouble with the Collins Model (or shall we call it Paradigm, as in ‘Brother, can you paradigm?’) is that it doesn’t add up arithmetically. For one ‘high-quality professional’ programming a conveyor-belt computer can put hundreds of manual workers out of a job.

What are they supposed to do? Retrain as Times columnists? By the looks of it, the intellectual leap between the two points isn’t unduly long, but there would be too many formalities to overcome and technicalities to surmount.

There are only so many fund managers and systems analysts that an economy can support. But even assuming that this number is limitless, producing enough people qualified to fill such positions would involve a paradigm exactly opposite to the one for which Mr Collins’s Marxist loins ache.

For greater numbers of people to move up the social ladder, there should be a ladder in the first place. Without it, society will never climb out of the putrid swamp of coerced egalitarianism – as has been shown in every place where egalitarianism has been tried in earnest.

When Britain was still Britain, the proper hoists for social mobility were extant. Prime among them was the grammar school, a state institution offering the bootstraps by which the more capable poor children could pull themselves up.

It’s true that children from wealthier families didn’t always have to demonstrate ability to gain access to good schools. That, however, is the way of the world – life is unfair, to repeat a cliché.

At least grammar schools opened paths to social, economic and cultural rise to a quarter of the population. The rest were indeed more likely to die within the same class they were born to, a situation that upsets Mr Collins no end.

The assumption seems to be that there’s something inherently demeaning and undignified about staying within the working classes. This is condescending bilge.

By way of experiment, look at the newsreels of football matches from the 1950s, when most spectators were working class, in the Marxist sense of the word. Now compare those crowds with today’s well-heeled fans, which they have to be to afford £50 tickets regularly.

The old crowd were well-dressed, well-behaved, well-spoken, full of dignity and good cheer. Today’s lot are snarling, swearing, violent louts, sporting tattoos, proletarian clothes and mugs contorted by rage.

Our problem isn’t too little social mobility, but too much. Mobility of any kind is only commendable when it signifies movement towards a worthy destination – not just any old movement.

But Mr Collins needn’t bother: we’re halfway there. The rich have already fallen – from the high perch where money, culture and political power were in the same hands. It’s as a direct result of that tumble that the poor haven’t risen.

6 thoughts on “Social mobility and other vulgarities”

  1. Idiots like Collins ignore the empirical truths of human history – that trying to provide equality of outcome produces universal misery and a backsliding of the human condition. Whereas providing equality of opportunity achieves the exact opposite. To put it another way, if we took all the wealth of the top 3% and redistributed it, we would all be better off to the tune of around £20 and there would be universal unemployment.

    I seem to recall a socio-linguistic theory by a chap called Bernstein(?). Two children, one middle class, one working class, are told to put on their coats before going out to play. Both ask: ‘why?’

    The working class child is told: ‘Because I said so – do as you’re told.’

    The middle class child is told: ‘Because it is cold outside, you’re likely to catch a chill and, if you do, you won’t be able to go to your friend’s birthday party tomorrow.’ Thereby promoting early reasoning skills in our young, future captain of industry/ military officer/ professional (I deliberately left out politician!).

    It makes sense to me, although I would still advocate testicular electrodes for anyone who uses a word like ‘contumely’ – even if my dictionary supplier blesses you Mr B!

    1. Well, you see, I think we’re duty-bound to use the richness of English vocabulary to the fullest. Use it or lose it, as the saying goes. English has more words than any other European language, and roughly three times as many as Russian. Words like ‘contumely’ rub the foreigners’ nose in their own lexical deficiency, surely a worthy goal.

      1. Absolutely!

        I accept your generalship of our lexicography – just so long as you accept, as a good British General should, the occasional bitching from the rank and file!

        The ‘bitching’ is, of course, gratuitous – it only occurs when I link my advanced English students to your site and I then get a flood of questions. At best, it fills a two hour lesson, at worst – it’s ‘Oh shit!’

        Carry on sir!

  2. This illustrates a point made by the Third Earl of Chesterfield, in a letter to his son, that there is absolutely zero correlation between class and breeding.

  3. “Class is defined not by money but by culture…”, this is very evident when one often notes that when a lad from the “western suburbs” of Sydney wins a ridiculous amount of money from a lottery. He’s catapulted into a new culture when he buys the mansion on the rim of Sydney harbour. However, the neighbours almost talk another language, go to the nearby Opera House and yacht on the harbour. He then feels he hasn’t moved twenty suburbs but twenty planets. “House for sale” sign is invariably soon wacked in the ground. He then buys a better house nearer to the R.S.L club, a new car and a beach house where he use to try to afford a holiday…and a new C.D. player for the complete A.C./D.C. collection.

  4. “Class is defined not by money but by culture, as anyone who has ever read Trump’s tweets will attest.”

    Upper class blue blood in the U.S. is old time big money. A Rockefeller or a Kennedy. Those that appreciate the finer points of life. Art, fashion, high-brow pursuits such as the ballet or the opera, etc. Few upper class blue blood to include Don are really appreciative of such matters, making a pretense mostly.

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