work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

more sociology from the daily mail (well – the lse actually… but nowhere as beautifully presented as here)

11.04.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

I think the commonly used phrase is “You couldn’t make it up”…

Yes – the same families that were at the top of the social pecking order following 1066 are still there 2013.  This is surprising if one thinks of events like the Industrial Revolution in crudely Marxist terms as radical overturn of a hitherto feudal society where the aristocracy is in charge replacing it with a capitalist society where the bourgeoisie is in charge – i.e. an event of massive social mobility. It is also surprising if one thinks of a capitalist market society in crudely Liberal terms as one of opportunity, which should mean continuously increasing social mobility ever since the 17th century and accelerated mobility under pro-market governments such as, ideal-typically, the Thatcher administration. None of that – there seems to be a perennial “elite”.

The funny thing is – the Daily Mail don’t pick up on the researchers out-of-thin-air explanation for the persistence of status difference: they think it’s some sort of genetico-cultural inheritance – the ideal justification for elitism and against the much hated “social engineering”

Strong forces of familial culture, social connections, and genetics must connect the generations. There really are quasi-physical “Laws of Inheritance.”

They do not reflect on the plausibility of each single element of these proposed “quasi-physical laws” and thus imply that these people have some superior family culture and genetic make up (whereas the “social connections”, i.e. good old social closure is played down several times in the paper – not convincingly though). There is a simple problem with the quasi-Darwinian argument: How can you think that what is superior “character” adaptation, a better fit, in the times of Norman Conquest, in the feudal feuds throughout the Middle Ages etc. is supposed to be also a better suited character to deal with the challenges of the Industrial Revolution, and then with the post-Fordist economy the later 20th century, i.e. how the same adaptation should be advantageous in radically different environments, is anybody’s guess… But if anybody were to buy into the idea that the privileged are privileged and remain privileged because they are just hereditarily of superior character, I thought the the Daily Mail might have been the most likely place to find such a view (I haven’t checked, but maybe in the comment boxes, surely?)

There is a much better explanation though: For England, not only is the liberal myth of mobility under capitalism not true (for an introduction into reasons for just why that my be – consult Ralph Miliband…), the traditional Marxist story is also flawed – according to Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood who not only shows that the English road to capitalism went through an unbroken line of ownership from feudalism via agrarian capitalism to industrial capitalism (Wood 1991), but also that this is in line with Marx’s own theory of the origins of capitalism, while the story of the urban bourgeois revolution against rural aristocratic feudalism is not (Wood 1995). It is a case of inheritance after all – but not so much of genes and culture, but one of connections, power and property.

Miliband, Ralph (1969): The State in Capitalist Society: An Analysis of the Western System of Power, New York: Basic Books

Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1991): The Pristine Culture of Capitalism: A Historical Essay on Old Regimes and Modern States, London: Verso

Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1995): Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press


2 Responses to “more sociology from the daily mail (well – the lse actually… but nowhere as beautifully presented as here)”

  1. Daniel Smith says:

    My obsession with names is shared by the daily mail now, i see!

  2. … yes – actually thought “must tell Daniel” when writing this up…

    I’ve gone through my old excerpts – here’s a bit that resonates with something I’ve recently read on some gentry-aspirational clothing brand 😉

    ‘Capitalism tends to purify class of its “prescriptive” extra-economic trappings and is generally inimical to justifications of class based on extra-economic principles. It is, for example, hostile to the kind of ideology that justified the feudal order, invoking a divinely ordained social hierarchy as part of a Great Chain of Being. One of the typical paradoxes of English history is that the special needs of capitalism were met by reinforcing old ideologies. But since pre-capitalist “extra-economic” principles of juridical or corporate inequality were increasingly unavailable, the burden was shifted to an exaggerated and often ludicrous emphasis on matters of style, culture and language.’ (Wood 1991: 37)

Skip to toolbar