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Against Aspiration: How the Cult of Social Mobility Throttles Class Consciousness

Since 2016, the government has annually, albeit intermittently, commissioned a report on the ‘State of the Nation’ with regards to social mobility. The British people’s ability, or lack thereof, to ascend the social ranks has long provoked concern; since Corbynism resituated class-based analysis and introspection within the public consciousness, the institutions of state have sought to prove that social mobility is not yet dead. From the government itself, to the media and the think tank lobby, many have busied themselves quantifying people’s (in)ability to climb the rungs of the ladder, and, motivated either by naïve optimism or cynical denialism, proposing solutions to allow the cream to rise to the top. Yet in spite of the attention given to it, the insistent praise lashed upon it, and the ever-increasing promises made of it, social mobility for young people today is more inaccessible than it has been for any generation in the past 50 years[1].


Predictions and promises made at the inauguration of the Keynesian regime about the eventual shape which that regime would take are still yet to come true. Economic and social inequality are far from eradicated — the richest 10% still control 43% of the wealth, and the accumulation of capital in the uppermost ranks of society far outpaces the stagnation faced by the majority[2]. Meritocracy is further away than ever, and high-paying industries are continually dominated by the privately-educated upper class[3]. Thus, the assertions of democratic socialists, like G. D. H. Cole in 1968, that inequality, if not class, could be abolished through the welfare state in Britain, with greater political stability and total unanimity than could be achieved through revolutionary means, have rung hollow within our political reality[4].


The ideal has been devoured by the uncaring material: this imagined welfare Leviathan, which could answer the needs of its people at all levels, cannot exist owing to the simple impossibility of dismantling the class distinction without revolutionary change to the economic structures of society. The welfare state was never depoliticised or completely secured in Britain for this reason, and a mere eleven years after Cole’s prediction, Thatcher campaigned and won on an oath to cut welfare spending. Since then, the class distinction in Britain has only grown more defined as the remaining vestiges of the welfare state are suffocated, starved, and condemned from above. So why is the idea of social mobility so fervently upheld in this country, despite its proven failures? On the matter of inequality, politicians from both major parties have conspired to pull the wool over our eyes to legitimise their inaction. Thatcherite obfuscation of the rigidity of the class dynamic has firmly taken its place within the Labour Party, rendering its discourse virtually indistinguishable from that of its blue cousin. The promotion of aspiration, as an ideology of self-help, is used to give the impression that Labour are on the side of ‘ordinary people’ without the hassle of committing to systemic change. Criticising it puts you in a precarious position within British poli tical discourse: it’s hard to cast doubts on social mobility from the left without being cast in with its critics from the old right, who oppose it out of a desire to strictly maintain class divisions. Nonetheless, we oppose it not because it poses any danger of dissolving the class hierarchy, but because it is in fact a self-preservational feature of the capitalist state, made all the more dangerous by its sheep’s clothing of idealist redistribution.


In a political discourse which blockades even mild reformism with a barbed-wire fence, let alone any mention of socialism, any discontent towards the class system must be boomeranged back towards the malcontent as the indictment of individual failings. Aspiration is then propagandised with increasing militancy as the best choice for an individual to ‘beat’ the totality of capitalism — that is, to conquer it, not to destroy it. Aspiration offers a promise of jam tomorrow to disillusioned youth facing a world of high rent, underemployment, and alienation. But more importantly for vote-winning, this discourse also appeals to the other side of the generational divide, soothing the boomer and Gen X throngs of former Yuppies, who throughout Corbynism had fanatically blustered that their own bootstrap-pulling, not redistributive policy, had secured their place in the suburbs, saving them from the mines, the factories, and the dole. Both sides are being sold an illusion.


As we go into 2024, not only does Corbyn’s promise of redistribution seem like a distant memory, but even the mildest suggestion of reform feels impossible within mainstream discourses. Last summer, Starmer promised to empower individuals to move beyond their station – speaking in defence of his new education policy, he affirmed that with a bit of hard work, his subjects-to-be will be more than capable of smashing the ‘class ceiling’. He obscures the truth of the matter as he does best. The unfortunate reality is that anyone trying to smash this ceiling will accomplish little more than chipping off a few flakes of paint. Once they’ve banged a few more times, they’ll receive a very strongly-worded noise complaint from the upstairs tenants, insisting they sit back down.


Starmer has opened the new year slandering redistribution as ‘fundamentally disrespect[ing] people’, yet it is undeniable that above his so-called ‘class ceiling’ is not the sky, but an attic whose ghostly dwellers will furiously defend their space. Does he really think that anyone could ‘smash’ that ceiling from below, letting the class distinction crumble? No, nor does he want that. Instead, we are to climb up the rusty ladder alone, knock on the trapdoor with an application letter in hand, and, with sufficient genuflection, be invited in, kicking the ladder back down once we find our feet. Of course, a few people are inevitably lucky enough to ascend the ranks, and these dwindling cases are used as justification for the zombification of social mobility discourses. Yet what anyone on the ‘left’, by any definition, should want is no ceiling at all: the ability for each and every person to receive a decent education regardless of their parents’ income, to find work according to their skills, and to attain a comfortable standard of living by virtue of being a person. This cannot happen without the abolition of class itself. What meritocracy can take hold in a society like ours, with a mediaeval aristocracy, a public school network which dominates high-level industries, and vast disparities in living conditions, educational offerings and employment opportunities across its territory? All of this must go if we are ever to create equality of opportunity from birth, but who, since Corbyn’s failure, will ever have the will to argue against it within electoral politics?


What turns aspirational discourse from infuriating in its naïveté to insulting in its gall is the knowledge that what was previously considered almost universally attainable — stable housing, stable employment, and adequate disposable income — is now restricted to those with considerable financial and social privilege, and thus presented as something that only a chosen few can aspire to. Buying a house, for example, is now more unaffordable in Britain than at any time since 1876[5].


Unfettered privatisation and laissez-faire economics have only deepened the existing social order, while marketing themselves as unleashing the country’s potential. As long as the nature of our society is determined by the whims of profiteers, the quality of our lives will continue to decline for their aggrandisement of wealth. Living standards for those at the bottom have plummeted[6], while the vampirism of a fattening bourgeoisie is left uninterrupted by the state, which waves off the profit-hungry price gouging of bills and goods in the name of pro-business policy. To advocate the virtues and the ethos of social mobility is to accept this ever-worsening poverty in our country as something permissible — or worse, natural — abandoning hope of systemic alleviation of poverty and instead encouraging individuals to try, and most likely fail, to outpace it.


With the shift of the burden of responsibility onto the individual, it is inescapable that certain individuals will be able to succeed while some are damned from birth. Starmer’s education policy succinctly highlights this wilful perpetuation of connate inequality: in state schools, his groundbreaking approach to increasing social mobility is a focus on improving the formality of English pronunciation. The phrase ‘to treat the symptom and not the cause’ comes to mind. Meanwhile, he has reneged on any commitment to taking resources away from private schools despite their continual role in furthering class-based inequality of attainment, defending the right of ‘hardworking parents’ to send their children to elite institutions. Working-class children are expected to fend for themselves armed only with feigned RP accents, while the ability of rich parents to buy their children’s high-power futures is left untouched — this is the inevitable fate of faking meritocracy within a fundamentally unequal society.


There is nothing left-wing or radical about this, no more than the American Dream. Aspiration’s dogma, repeated ad nauseum through all main channels: forget those of your own class, fetishise wealth and cultural capital, and try to make it big. The people left behind? They must not be trying hard enough, they must not be as intelligent or as skilled as you are, they must lack financial sensibility. We have returned to the Victorian dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor, though it is dubious whether this concept ever truly left the psyche of British political society. Faced with structural inequality, it seems that both our red and our blue politicians can only ask, ‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?'


References:

[4] Cole, G.D.H. (1971) ‘Socialism and the Welfare State’, in I. Howe (ed.) Essential Works of Socialism. 2nd edn. New York, N.Y: Bantam Books, pp. 768–786.


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Danny Tye is a Barnsley-born Politics and Spanish graduate, and a co-founder and co-editor at Red Riding Magazine, retelling the radical history of Yorkshire. Growing up in the post-industrial north, they have a deep personal interest in the history of capitalism, and of popular resistance to its various historical forms. Other areas of focus in their work are the multifaceted politics of queerness and the changing nature of propaganda throughout recent history.

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