Telling who belongs where in the social order in the queue at Sainsbury's has become far from easy. We may all seem equal as consumers, but in the world of production, hierarchy still rules. That jocular phrase "the boss class" says it all.
Or does it? Take, for example, Howard Davies, the City bigwig. He carries a torch for Manchester City. Nowadays it is common for rich and powerful men to identify with soccer clubs. They might sincerely answer the question - "Who are you?'' - by referring to their Saturday afternoon vocation. An affectation, surely? It is something completely outside the sphere that matters - employment - where their identities are secure. Thanks to their money, they can afford a class-free bit on the side.
But put it that way and it sounds patronising towards the hundreds of thousands of non-rich people whose being is bound up with the fortunes of a club. And not just a soccer club, either. The Ministry of Sound, the Fridge or Subterania are no less defining. The leisure scene is a maze of taxonomies, based on clothes, drugs, DJs, musical style. And all of it matters, deeply, in defining who people are. According to a study of young people in Newcastle upon Tyne, identity derives not from a job, or lack of one, but from their sense of themselves: where they meet their mates, what and how much they drink, who their friends are.
Social classification remains as relevant as ever, yet conventional labels no longer seem to provide much information. In a recent book, David Marquand argued that left-right should give way to a distinction between what he called hedonists and moralists. Earlier this week, a study based on MORI data suggested that the terrain of politics needs a new set of fences. People are libertarian, authoritarian and a lot in between, but they do not fit easily into partisan templates of formal politics.
That is, presumably, the reason why Tony Blair strove before the election to spring his party from its historic identifiers. It is why some of us want proportional representation - to allow pluralism of values a clearer expression in the political field.
So against such a background, it comes as a shock to be told not just that class is still with us, but that social classes are shaped in no radically different way from what they were when, 150 years ago, two German immigrants wrote the Communist Manifesto. The Office for National Statistics and the Economic and Social Research Council have published their revision of the old division of the social classes (class one, "professional'', class five, "unskilled occupations'' and so on). Instead, they propose eight classes, from professionals, employers and managers in bigger organisations (class one) down to never-worked and long-term unemployed (class eight).
The sociologists are saying that there is still one way of distinguishing people, at least for official purposes, and that is by looking at where we work and how much power we have when we get there.
On one obvious level, the sociologists are right: behind the clubs and the pubs and the leisure identities lies money. No money, no work, no lager, ecstasy tabs or flash clothes. Howard Davies belongs to a different universe, in terms of his and his children's life chances, from most of the rest of Manchester City's supporters. Health and the likelihood of falling prey to a long-term illness are closely related to occupation. A child's educational attainment links with dad's job.
But there is another view. Old-fashioned class just does not capture the way we live our lives as free-to-choose individuals. People are not to be cribbed and confined by the positions they occupy in the labour market. They can break out.
The materialist theory of history got going a long time before Karl Marx. One of its devotees once said man is what he eats. This week we had the Consumers' Association having a go at the Two Fat Ladies and fellow celebrity cooks for encouraging us to eat unhealthily. The response was swift: one of the great divides in the modern world is between those who enjoy their food and those for whom eating is a guilt trip. Are jobs and income really the way to understand how people struggle to assert a personal identity in a bureaucratic world? No, the world, and the people in it, are more interesting than that by far.Reuse content