Is class a zombie category? – by Daniel Byrne ‘Talent is 21st century wealth. … It is the nation’s only hope of salvation … Not equal incomes. Not uniform lifestyles or taste or culture. But true equality: equal worth, an equal chance of fulfillment, equal access to knowledge and opportunity. Equal rights. Equal responsibilities’ (BBC, 1999). This section of Tony Blair’s speech, given in 1999 during a Labour Party Conference, is one of many ways how one could have introduced this subject.
However, this specific one points to something which is taken for granted, namely true democracy. If one works hard at it, this will one day pay off. This could be a starting point for what Ulrich Beck (2000) calls ‘zombie categories’. According to him, we are free from traditions and from uniformity and are striving for individualization. Hence, traditions die and leave ‘zombies’ behind, categories which are ‘dead long ago but still haunting people’s minds’ (2000: 80).
One of these categories, which Beck claims, have turned into a zombie category, is class. To get a better grasp of what is meant by this and where Beck’s ideas come from we shall first seek to define the individualisation concept, on which the ‘zombie category’ concept is dependent, and its opposite – the ‘social class’ concept. Secondly, we shall give a general definition of ‘zombie categories’ and its implications. Thirdly, we will look at negative and positive aspects of individualisation theories.
And finally, we will conclude that there is no ‘pure’ individualisation, which means that class must still to a certain extent be alive. We will thus be able to put forward a different approach, which seeks to include both individualisation and class as legitimate concepts. Before I start defining what a ‘zombie category’ is, it is important to understand Individualisation theory. Individualisation is considered to have emerged mainly through Globalisation (i. e. ommunication and transportation which are increasingly conducted on a world scale thanks to advances in technology) (Bauman, 2000) and Neo-liberalism, which is the current political and economical trend towards a global, ‘flexible, open labour market’ (Standing, 2011: 7). The main founders of this theory (Beck, Bauman and Giddens) agree on several aspects of how it is constituted: The most important component in the Individualisation process can be found in ‘reflexivity’ (Giddens, 1991). Firstly, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim describe his phenomenon through a shift from lifelong projects to ‘reflexive’ biographies (2002: 2). According to this, individuals are becoming more and more ‘obsessed’ with reconsiderations of their own identity, not only because acceptance of new identities in societies has increased but also because identities or roles can be altered whenever this is felt to be convenient, since ‘shaping [identities] is easier than keeping them in shape’ (Bauman, 2000: 8). Secondly, lifelong projects also are turning into ‘do-it-yourself’ biographies (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 3) through institutionalised individualisation.
This is illustrated by Margaret Thatcher’s (1987) description of society as non-existent: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. ” (Thatcher quoted in Steele, 2009) According to Individualisation theorists, people are encouraged to reflect on themselves and responsibilities have knowingly been put on the individual citizen, so that ‘do-it-yourself’ biographies have become the new foundation of society.
The same trend towards individualisation is reflected in David Cameron’s ‘Big society’ where ‘people don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities’ (Number 10, 2010). The third and last component of the Individualisation theory is a consequence of the two previous components described, namely the notion of ‘risk’.
Beck (2000, 2006, 2007), Bauman (2000), and Standing (2011) constructed this recent concept to explain how old social classes have dissolved in importance to give way to new inequalities, inequalities in risk distribution. Beck even goes as far as calling contemporary societies ‘risk societies’ (Beck, 1992). According to Individualisation theorists, risk is becoming a part of everyday life: through work (i. e. employment flexibility, job flexibility, skill flexibility) (Standing, 2011), education (i. e. greater stress on education and training) (Mythen, 2005), consumption (i. . risk of climate change, pollution, etc. ) or even through the risk of catastrophes (i. e. incidents such as Chernobyl or 9/11) (Beck, 2001). However, through disparities in education, incomes etc. , risk is also becoming unequally distributed while giving rise to new inequalities which do not fit into the old class schemas (Standing, 2011). What is meant by ‘old class schemas’? Wright (2003) distinguishes between four different ways of looking at class, which are of interest when defining it: (1) ‘Class as a subjective location’ (i. e. ow people locate themselves in a social structure); (2) ‘Class as objective position within distribution’ (i. e. how people are objectively materially distributed); (3) ‘Class as the relational explanation of economic life chance’ (i. e. what explains inequalities in life chances and material standards); and (4) ‘Class as a dimension of historical variation in systems of inequality’ (i. e. how variations in classes throughout history and in different countries are to be understood). As Wright (2003) correctly states, Marx and Weber’s class analysis are essentially the two most influential traditions in sociological theory.
However, Weber, in contrast to many other class theorists (Marx, Goldthorpe, Wright), uses, not only a production-based, but also a consumption- based analysis. This is due to the fact that he uses not only occupational and economic indices, but also uses ‘status groups’ as an indication to describe the unequal distribution of power within a community, which he sees as the cause of classes (Weber, 1948). Of course, our main interest in to define class. However, even though Weber makes a clear distinction between ‘class’ and ‘status’, they stand in an important relationship to each other.
Hence, the reason for unequal distribution of power, he argues, can be found in three phenomena: ‘class situation’, ‘status’ and ‘parties’ (1948: 181). Each of these manifestations works toward a different distribution of power within a community, which creates or reproduces class categories. Therefore, the first layer of stratification is found between ‘property’ and ‘lack of property’ (Weber, 1948). It is within these categories that further stratification will be found, where ‘class situations are further differentiated’ (1948: 182) between what kind of services the property-less give and how those who have property make use of it.
While class situation is entirely based on the market situation in relation ‘to the production and acquisition of goods’, ‘status’ stratifies according to consumption (1948: 193). ‘Status groups’ can incorporate individuals from different class situations. What brings these people together is their peculiar life style and their wish to belong to the circle. Hence, their market situation has to be of some income standard since the distinction is customarily expensive consumption. ‘Parties live in a house of power’ (1948: 194).
Compared to Status and class situation, which can be placed in the social or economic order, ‘parties’ seek to acquire ‘social’ power by influencing certain communal actions (Weber, 1948). As one can easily see, ‘status’, ‘class situation’ and ‘parties’ are closely interlinked to constitute an inequality of power in communities. The most important of the three in this paper is obviously people’s ‘class situation’, which leads to ‘class’ in general. However, I will also make use of ‘status’ in relation to class, because one could consider them interrelated.
The next question is ‘What is a zombie category’? A Zombie in modern times, as represented in many Hollywood blockbusters, symbolises dead/inanimate bodies that have been brought back to life through some supernatural power. It is largely on the basis of this definition that the author, Ulrich Beck, develops his analogy. According to Beck social classes are ‘dead long ago but still haunting people’s minds’ (2000: 80) to an extent that they are ‘blinding us to the real experience and ambiguities of the second modernity’ (Reay, 2006: 288).
This analogy is reflected in the statement made by Tony Blair: ‘The class war is over. But the struggle for true equality has only just begun’ (Blair, 1999). Anthony Giddens (amongst the most popular Individualisation theorists), one of Tony Blair’s advisors. It is therefore easy to understand where his ideas come from. However, this statement also sumps up what is at stake and leads to the main questions raised in this paper: Is inequality exclusively connected to class or (just as Blair has suggested) can it be understood separately from it?
Is class still alive in contemporary societies? If inequalities are still alive, can class be claimed to be dead while inequality in communities persists? If Beck is right in claiming that class is dead and alive at the same time, that is to say a zombie category, there are several consequences that follow this argument. As already mentioned earlier, Individualisation theorists claim that Individualisation has brought about social changes. The ‘melting power of modernisation’, as Bauman (2000: 6) calls it, melts macro to micro, ‘politics’ to ‘life-policies’.
More importantly, other categories of society, such as family, neighbourhood, nation and gender, must surely also be turning into zombie categories. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002) put three arguments forward, showing how people are liberated ‘from traditional roles and constraints’ (p. 202): (1) ‘Individuals are removed from status-based classes’; (2) Women are cut loose from their ‘status fate’ of compulsory housework and support by a husband; (3) The old forms of work routine and discipline are in decline with the emergence of flexible work hours, pluralized underemployment and the decentralisation of work sites’ (pp. 02-203). What is happening is not so much that the death of class is causing the emergence of further zombie categories, but rather that class and other traditional structures (family, neighbourhood, nation and gender) are melted down to the individual’s experience. In this sense, Beck’s argument consists of pointing out that these categories have vanished, but that theorists and societies still talk about them and theorise with them to describe today’s society. Whether these Individualisation theories are convincing or not, there are major inconsistencies in the way they are presented.
I shall outline the strongest critique first. Val Gillies (2005) wrote her article in response to increasingly inappropriate and individualised social class distinctions. Her main interest is in Blair’s view of ‘meritocracy’ (i. e. the merit for talent in the twenty first century), as described at the beginning of this paper. Meritocracy, which is the perfect example of institutionalised Individualisation of responsibility in contemporary societies (appointments and responsibilities that are assigned to individuals based on their ‘merits’), has been criticised for ignoring people’s educational backgrounds.
As Gillies interestingly points out, the term ‘working-class disadvantage’ has been replaced with a more convenient ‘social exclusion’, and this has been stated prominently in welfare agendas, which focus on ‘generating opportunities as opposed to direct financial or material aid’ (2005: 837). However, as many other authors (Bauman (2011), Standing (2011)) have pointed out, through such a system based on merit, the socially excluded tend to not be seen ‘as victims but as failures in self-governance, unable or unwilling to appropriately capitalize on their lives’ (Gillies, 2005: 837).
Based on her own research, she points to different approaches to parenting in connection with education, depicting class differences. One essential difference she found was the way parents supported their children through school. Parents from middle-class backgrounds tended to encourage their children, on the basis that they are ‘special’ and need special attention given to her needs. Furthermore, middle class parents were often ble, where necessary, to draw on economic capital to pay for private lessons or to diagnose children as mentally restrained which ‘acts as an important bargaining chip’ (Gillies, 2005: 847). In comparison, parents from working-class backgrounds tended to be content as long as their children fitted in. Being different or ‘special’ carried negative connotations for working-class parents (2005: 845), who usually have neither the money, nor the educational basis to help their children in school.
Another example is found in Reay (2006) who also bases her research as well on classrooms and the educational system in Britain. Interviews she conducted with pupils of different schools, showed that a clear-cut distinction was made in the pupils’ minds where parents came from working-class backgrounds. The panopticisms (Foucault, 1977) of everyday life for these children made them describe themselves as ‘rubbish’, ‘no good’ or even as ‘a nothing’ if they didn’t manage to achieve certain levels (2006: 300).
The constant fear of not achieving makes these children embrace their identity of being working-class. Both examples, therefore, clearly show that Individualisation theories fail to account for this clear presentation of class differences. As Reay describes it, education is becoming the troublesome un-dead of the English education system (2006: 289). In the first example given by Gillies, it can clearly be seen what crucial role parents’ own backgrounds play when it comes to give pupils their support in school, and how understanding of that support can differ from class to class.
In the second example, Reay gives a powerful account of how pupils see and feel cultural background through the systems and even their own teacher. A further criticism of Individualisation theory can be described through the preoccupation with middle-class points of view. The way Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002) describe ‘reflexivity’, as a ‘homo optionis’, the human being with all the choices of what to become next or for the time being (2002: 5), seems very optimistic, maybe even too optimistic.
As Atkinson points out: ‘How many people can be said to actually live in such a way? ’ (2007: 360). It could be said in Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s defence that they do recognise inequalities in income, education, risk, etc. , but that these do not have any importance, since ‘the individual, not his or her class, becomes the unit for the reproduction of the social in his or her own lifeworld’ (2002: 203). However, turning back to Atkinson, how many women or even children (mostly in terms of education) can say that they have been given every option?
When looking at the latest statistics published by the OECD (‘Families are changing’, 2011), one can see that families and lifestyles have changed. There is no doubt, however, that share of part-time work being done by women compared to men (Table 1. 2) is still very high. According to the OECD ‘the gender gap is also very large for managerial and supervisory jobs’ (OECD, 2011: 34), which is true not only in respect of the United Kingdom, but also for other countries, where the worst gender gap for managerial and supervisory jobs can be found in Japan and Korea.
This shows that there still are restrictions to the ‘homo optionis’, but also that these restrictions also differ depending on what country we look at. Table 1. 3 shows an even harsher reality as regards life options. According to these statistics the poverty rate for children still lies at over twenty per cent for countries, such as the United States, Turkey, Poland and Israel. The rates for the Spain (17. 3%), Portugal (16. 6%), Italy (15. 3%), Ireland (16. 3%) and Japan (14. %) are not much better, and even Luxembourg (among the richest countries in the world, by GDP per capita (IMF, 2001)) has a child poverty rate of 12. 4%. The numbers have no doubt dropped over the last 50 years, but it still remains that describing contemporary societies as belonging to the reflexive ‘homo optionis’, is far from the reality. A final critique of the Individualisation theory is its lack of objectivity. Arguments based on ‘de-traditionalisation’ or ‘reflexive identities’ are all very subjective.
It is easy to claim that our generation is much more reflexive on choices than former generations because the latter are in the past, and citizens of the older generation, or first modernity as Beck likes to call it (2000: 79), are not there to defend themselves. The same applies to ‘de-traditionalisation’. Of course, individuals who were lucky enough to have seen generations come and go, tend to look at the present and think “When I was younger, things were different”, but has this not always been the case?
Once a tradition is established, a younger generation will produce a ‘better’, a more ‘fashionable’ tradition. On the other hand, the opposite could be said about class analyses which tend to be purely objective. However, as Mythen (2005) puts it: ‘It may be difficult to falsify the diffusion of the individualization process, but – by the same token – it is equally difficult to ‘prove’’ (p. 136). Class bases itself on inequalities, and these can be found, for example, in income or poverty distributions.
An Individualisation theory basing itself on unequal risk distributions will prove to be more difficult to analyse. There seem to be many inconsistencies in the Individualisation theory, especially when it declares that class is dead and when it comes to proving it. However, there are still certain trends whose analysis would seem to indicate the existence of individualisation. I shall take a closer look at three of these trends. These are: (1) Divorce rates; (2) consumerism; and (3) work flexibilisation. (1) Divorce rates usually are a good indicator for Individualisation trends.
The reason for that is that, if divorce rates are high and marriage rates are low a large part of the community must either be in a non-marriage relationship or single. In both cases, individuals’ choice could be interpreted as striving for a life free from constraints and/or traditions. When looking at recent statistics on marriage and divorce, one finds rates very similar to those just mentioned. In figures 4 and 5 one can firstly see how divorces have relatively increased in many European countries since the 1970s, especially in Germany, Switzerland, Finland, United Kingdom, Iceland, Austria, Belgium (OECD, 2010).
At the same time the number of marriages has enormously decreased in the last 40 years. Especially when looking at the number of marriages in the UK since 1889 (Figure 6. ), one can clearly see the decrease in demand for this once so traditional practice. These statistics could then be seen as an increase in singleness or non-married relationships, which could then again be interpreted as an increase in demand for ‘free from constraints’-relationships, and a further increase of acceptance of more responsibility for one self. 2) The second example to depict individualisation in communities is mainly based on recent arguments put forward by Zygmunt Bauman in ‘On Consumerism coming Home to roost’ (2011). Bauman’s concern with consumerism in contemporary societies has already been introduced throughout many books. However, in this recent online article he makes an astonishing but acute link between consumerism and the August riots in England. According to him, consumerism is what distinguishes industrial times (2011).
Businesses have moved out of Europe to seek cheaper labour, and concentrated themselves on increasing consumption in ‘western’ societies. Through this shift consumption has become ‘the drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common’ (Bauman, 2011). But, bearing in mind that not everyone has the ability to consume, Bauman makes the classical distinction between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, which in correlation with neo-liberalism, creates ‘defective consumers’ which cannot participate in the consumption process, but are constantly reminded of their bad luck.
Through this whole process, Bauman argues that the riots in August 2011, which mainly consisted in shop looting, were ‘not hunger or bread riots. These are riots of defective and disqualified consumers’ (Bauman, 2011). This undoubtedly shows the shift in culture from industrial to consumer society. While consumption in industrial times only played an important role for ‘status groups’, such as described by Weber (1948), it has spread throughout society in contemporary times, leading to the life-essence of ‘I shop, therefore I am’ (Bauman, 2011).
This can easily be linked to individualisation, when reconsidering ‘reflexivity’ and ‘do-it-yourself’ biographies. Each individual’s own responsibility is to reflect on himself and consider “What do I want to be seen as today? ”, while knowing that those ‘identities’ will be available in shops (Bauman, 1998). (3) The last trend can be conceived through the notion of ‘work flexibilisation’, and more precisely through Guy Standing’s work on ‘the Precariat’ (2011).
His argument as well relies on the recent rise in neo-liberalism, creating new forms of inequalities. He proclaims that work flexibilisation caused by neo-liberalism brings about job insecurity, by ‘transferring risks and insecurity onto workers and their families’ (2011: 1) and leaving businesses with more freedom and flexibility in arranging work distribution. Through this trend a new class is emerging, which he calls the ‘precariat’ and which is not comparable to the ‘working class’ or the ‘proletariat’ since these classes never experienced job insecurity.
Again it is not difficult to incorporate risk and job insecurity to the Individualisation theory and even Margaret Thatcher’s quotation referred to at the beginning of this paper. So far we have looked at several aspects of the relevance of individualisation and class theories. Individualisation theory was seen as applicable in many aspects of life when looking at work flexibilisation, consumerism, marriage and divorce rates, and especially when trying to understand individual decision-making.
Clearly, risk perception plays a very important role in contemporary societies especially when looking at the distribution of risk in society through work related risks, consumption risks, educational risks etc. However, traditional aspects of life, which are said to have disappeared by Individualisation theorists, can still be found in education, gender inequalities and also other areas, which have not been dealt with in this essay (e. g. voting traditions).
When reconsidering Wright’s four points defining class, we can see that class has been relevant (1) in a subjective field (Weber’s ‘status’ analysis), (2) in an objective field and (3) as an account for inequalities (Gillies and Reay’s education analysis). The last point (4), accounting for global and historical differences, is rather more difficult since cultural differences cannot really be explained through class theory, nor Individualisation theories. Hence, we shall argue that there is no ‘pure’ individualisation. Class is not a zombie category.
However, neither can it be said to be ‘fully’ alive since Individualisation theories can prove that new forms of inequalities can be found in contemporary societies which class theories will not be able to explain. Nevertheless, to find a solution to Wright’s fourth point, we can ask ourselves a last question: Does there have to be an Individualisation theory ‘killing’ class? Skeggs (2004) describes two points, which we already presented in this essay, in one phrase: ‘the dominant bourgeois models of the self are … dangerous; they always present the working-class as individualized moral lack. (2004: 91). In other words, as we have already argued, individualization is a middle-class concept, a concept in which the working-class finds it difficult to participate. Another quotation can be given by Gillies: ‘Middle-class selves are necessarily defined in relation to working-class inferiority’ (2005: 843), while reflecting on parents’ different approaches to encouraging their children in school. In short, one might say that Individualisation comes from the top and class from the bottom.
While individualization matters to middle and upper class, class still matters far more to the working-class. At the same time, the middle and upper classes try to distinguish themselves from lower classes, while lower classes are forced to go with upper classes’ concept of individualization, reflexivity and risk-perception. To analyse society through one lense would be misleading. Hence, we must recognize that both concepts play their role, whatever aspect we shall look at in society, just as Weber (1948) described class and status, together, creating power inequalities.
One social theory, which does recognise both concepts, is Bourdieu’s (1984) description of social classes. This relies on various forms of capital, which make class: (1) economic capital; (2) cultural capital (education throughout life); (3) social capital (connections and group memberships); (4) symbolic capital (how different types of capital ‘are perceived and recognized as legitimate’ (Bourdieu, 1987: 4)). Each of these capitals play their role in defining classes, however, on an individual level.
Even though Bourdieu does not specifically mention that his theory incorporates Individualisation, it is mostly through the work of cultural analysts, who use Bourdieu’s theory to practice their research, such as Skeggs (2004), Gillies (2005), Reay (2006), Morgan (2011) and others, that the acceptance of different ways of life can be perceived. By analysing social difference and distance based on the individual’s experience, these analysts describe class relations in a different light, which has lead to new theories based on family/intimacy or education.
Through these practices the subjectivity of the Individualisation theory and objectivity of class theories are combined by ‘reducing relationships and value to units that can be counted’ (Skeggs, 2004b) bringing forward practices which respect the individualisation theory and the influence classes (as well as families, gender or even the nation) can have on society. To conclude, one might say that true equality, to the extent Tony Blair was talking about, might require a ‘pure’ individualisation. However, this has not happened yet since its existence relies mainly on the death of class, one of the main causes of social inequality.
Research has shown that inequalities have not been eradicated. Hence, Blair’s statement that the class war is over and the fight for true equality has only started does not make much sense. Regarding the notion of class as a zombie category, we have proven that class is neither a zombie category nor dead. In fact, it still plays a very important role in many individuals’ everyday decisions. As already mentioned, it might play a bigger role for people from working class backgrounds. However, such people are probably as much affected by the middle class idea of individualisation.
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