Can We Speak of a ‘Classless Society’
Can we speak of a ‘classless society’? Stratification is a concept we are faced with on a daily basis, whether it is a conscious or subconscious element of our lives. Class has been a dominant form of stratification in traditional views of society, but man’s evolution in thought, behaviour, outlook, organization and culture has led to critical criticism questioning the very existence of class itself: Does class still exist? Can we speak of a ‘classless society’? Analysing the role that class does or doesn’t play in modern society is interesting because we are our very own sources.
Through first hand experiences of class we can determine the role it plays in our everyday lives. Class can be viewed both subjectively depending on how we think of ourselves, or objectively dealing with how we are structurally located in society. (Milner, 1999) Therefore, combining our subjective, micro-level understanding of class with a macro-level, objective analysis of class, we can determine the degree to which class persists in modern society. The idea of stratification and class will continuously persist as it provides a foundation for organization and identity in society.
Although the word ‘class’ will never die, the traditional role class plays in society has certainly died. ‘Social Class’ is the class of today; it has followed the death of the rigid, traditional and intolerant class of yesterday. Today people are more empowered and can take control of their social standing, an idea supported with the current social mobility and emergence of the middle class. ‘Social class’ classifies people in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, age, culture etc. Naturally, economic class continues to play its role in society, but it does so in harmony with other aspects of ‘social class. Class is disintegrating because people are becoming more individualistic. What matters today is how people see themselves, as opposed to how they are viewed by society. (Pakulski, et al. , 1996). Traditionally, society consisted of inherited classifications between masters and slaves, and lords and peasants etc. , which constituted the ‘natural’ way of association. There are certain parts of the world where people still live by their inherited class. In India for example there is a Caste System, in which every individual is categorized into divisions (colour, ancestors, rank).
There are four main castes with various sub-castes and each have a large amount sub castes within them, furthermore outside the caste system are the ‘Untouchables’ who are oppressed and viewed as impure all the time. The four main castes: Brahmins–priests Kshatryas–warriors Vaishyas–traders Shudras–laborers A significant classical view of class is that of Marx. His traditional view of class contained two distinct classes: Bourgeoisie or the capitalist class, who own their own means of production, and the Proletariat or working class, who own their own labour. Marx, et al. , 1848) Exploitation between these two social groupings in the capitalist production process defined Marxist class (Pakulski, et al. , 1996). The Marxist view is ‘real’ and ‘objective, furthermore its concerned with the different strata as a whole rather than the individuals within them (Saunders, P. 1990). For Marx, social power was achieved purely through economic class. He viewed class as a rigid and positional aspect of society. Hence, his interpretations of class failed to account for the fluidity of modern class.
Conversely, Weber’s view of class is much more synonymous with the role class plays in modern society. He looks at class in terms of the cultural and social roles it plays in society and focuses more on stratification through consumption rather than production. (Pakulski, et al. , 1996) He juxtaposes class as an economic relation with class as a social relation, unlike Marx who predominantly focused on economic class. Weber analysed class in terms of status and stratification in the light of: property, ownership, occupational skills, religion, legal rights, lifestyle and consumption.
This view of class is still relevant in today’s society and therefore Weber’s view of class is not wholly classified under the ‘dead’ or dated outlook on class. Weber did also look at class in terms of economic relations and the possessions of economic goods, as well as market position. He believed that life chances are determined by how one is positioned in the market. (Weber, 1922) This relates to the Indian Caste systems where members of a high caste (Brahmans) enjoy more wealth and opportunities; members of a low caste (untouchables) perform unwanted menial jobs.
The ‘Untouchables’ being the lowest stratum are regarded as underprivileged, demoralized and ‘backward’, hence given the jobs such as sweeping, garbage collector and regarded as impure individuals- the idea that once they touch another individual there needs to be a cleansing as the ‘untouchables’ are ‘dirty’. Individuals were relatively powerless, as they could not acquire wealth or status through changing position in a market place. Today, however, hard work and merit allows for social mobility and people have a stronger influence over their position in society. Milner, 1999) Having said that, some individuals do not get the opportunity of social mobility- due to the fact that they are either uneducated or the fact that they do not have the right social networks.
Gandhi named the Untouchables “Harijians” (Children of God)- by doing this he tried upward mobility by trying to elevate their status through different means (befriending and eating with the impure). ‘Underclass’ in general tend to suffer multiple deprevisation, as they are dependent on state welfare (if given) and have low levels of education hence making it harder for upward mobility (Saunders, P. 990) Social mobility and individual control over social standing has been greatly strengthened through the modern preoccupation with education. The increased priority given to exposing larger proportions of society to education has empowered individuals, allowing them to use their educations as a tool to overcome ‘class’ barriers. Overall, the ability to move up and down the social ladder in present day society makes class that is classified purely in an economic sense irrelevant. Economic’ class is no longer a steady, inherited, and ‘life-long’, concrete concept, as people can change their economic standing within their own life p or across generations. The concept of the ‘middle class’ has also arisen through the idea of social mobility and empowerment through education, and does not concur with Marx’s traditional view of class. Today, the ‘proletariat’ of traditional Marxism is being replaced by machinery as the advancement in technology has made some manual work redundant.
Furthermore, the idea that many modern companies do not solely rely on legal ownership of a company, but instead hire people due to technical competence, gives people the opportunity to hold managerial positions that have a lot of power. This is the idea of recruitment via ‘meritocrality’ and hints at the death of classical conventions of class. Therefore, the idea of objective class being defined as the relationship between the ownership and non-ownership of productive resources has greatly dissolved (Lee, et al. , 1996).
Having said that in India the opportunity of mobility is limited it all comes down to the status, power or class of the individual- this is due to the fact that India is still developing and full of politics, an individual would have to have the right connections in order to do or acquire anything but most important factor in accomplishing anything in India would be money. Furthermore if an individual is a Shudras they would have less capital compared to the Brahmans, hence decreasing their chance of opportunities they can take.
Within the Indian caste system most people remain in one caste their entire life and marry within their caste. Although class is viewed differently today, it does not necessarily mean that modern views of class are more ‘equitable. ’ In fact, there is still a strong lack of equity within the different classifications of gender, ethnicity, sexuality etc; furthermore there are parts of the world where class is a vital aspect in their everyday life and interaction. The difference being that in contemporary society people are more attached to individualist and consumerist forms of discrimination and inequality.
It can be said that today consumption is more important than production, class is no longer a ‘lifetime experience’, but instead thought about as an ‘individual biography’, and exclusion from the labour market is the more appropriate way to think about poverty. Although the concept of class is ever-present, the objective and subjective role it plays in society has been greatly transformed within the western society, thereby accounting for the death of classical class theories.
Having said that India could never be a classless society as people are not acting constructively to escape class divisions, this is due to the fact that most ‘underclass’ cannot undergo upward mobility, as they do not have the opportunity or resources. Class is a social relationship that invades each individual’s lives. There has been a death of traditional class within the western society as individuals are acting constructively to escape class divisions and go towards a classless society, however an evolved definition of class continues to dominate the 21st century.
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