Class psychology

The psychology underlying the British class system is what makes it unique, explains Sandra Jovchelo

I have been living in Britain for 16 years and during this period have acquired that kind of outsider/insider perspective that anthropologists describe as a mix of estrangement and familiarity. You become part of the place and yet not quite. I have learnt how to enjoy gardening and the best winter puddings in the world, but if there is something I still find intriguing and peculiar about Britain is the class issue.

The force of class here is very striking. Certainly stronger than in any other comparable industrialised Western society. Social and cultural psychologists around Europe refer to it jokingly as the “British hang-up”.

Indeed what makes class in Britain so unique is not so much the reality of the class system, but the psychology that lies beneath it. Class is central to the collective psyche of this country. Here there is awareness of class, talk about class, jokes about class, and embarrassed glances about class.

Accents, manners, intonation, food, impression and expression management are all subtle and pervasive markers that establish from the very beginning who you are and where you belong. Class here is an attitude, something you believe in or you do not, something you argue passionately about, something you feel in your gut and you understand as well as the language you speak.

Quite apart from different positions people occupy in the class system and the different experiences they have in relation to it there is widespread and immediately recognisable shared knowledge about class. Opinions may vary but everyone knows the terms of the debate and what class is about: it has a place at the very core of the collective consciousness of this country.

Such an ingrained way of thinking and behaving around a notion is part of what social psychologists and historians call mentalities. Mentalities are powerful and sticky ideas that run in history, get handed down through generations, are cemented in all kinds of social institutions and ultimately in the behaviour and psychological make up of individuals. Mentalities are made of beliefs and deep-rooted in behaviour; they are difficult to change and tend to survive long after social structures are gone.

As part of the British mentality, class is resistant to change and difficult to transform because it is deeply entrenched in the way Brits speak – and language is the single most important symbolic system shaping any human community - and in the disciplining of bodies, one of the most powerful psychological mechanisms for socialising the young and reproducing social orders. Every time someone speaks and moves it starts all over again.

Ironically whereas the mentality about class in Britain is unique, its reality is not. The UK situation is not altogether dissimilar from other comparable European countries.

Across the board class still matters, as the strong correlation between educational achievement and family background demonstrates. But there has been tremendous social mobility in the post-war years, which might be slowing down considerably, but not completely.

It would be plainly wrong, and indeed politically undesirable, to state that material distinctions are gone, but the old differences between the upper, middle and working classes have been displaced by more complex scenarios, where diversity of lifestyles and use of income, multiculturalism and new global cultural references complicate distinctions and unsettle the ways in which identities are defined and group affiliations take shape.

The hard consequences of class are real enough for the many people who are at the sharp end of the class system. But these should not overshadow the reality and potential of the many new routes for socialisation and identity that are opening and challenging the social frameworks of class in contemporary Britain.

Today people cross borders and seek identity in ways that were unimagined and indeed almost impossible just a few decades ago. There are new sociabilities in the scene, new ways of organising communities and of establishing social solidarities. This should wake us up to what is new ahead. Britain’s old psychology of class needs to catch up.

Sandra Jovchelovitch is Head of the Institute of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, where she also directs the Masters Programme in Social and Cultural Psychology. Her research interests are in the social psychology of community and public spheres, the making of belief systems, and inter-cultural dialogue. Her new book “Knowledge in Context: Representations, community and culture”, about the impact of socio-cultural contexts on the development of knowledge, is out now with Routledge.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times