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The Class of 2013: Social disparities, radical change

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The debate around social classes in society, which seemed to vanish from the public debate, has received a new lease on life this week in Britain. A new survey commissioned by the BBC, entitled The Great British Class Survey, ascertained that in 21st century Britain, the classic class division of working, middle and upper class are applicable to only 39% of the population. Based on an online questionnaire, in which 161,000 people took part, the researchers concluded that from the three traditional social classes seven different social classes have emerged.

These newly identified classes range from elite at the top to the precariat at the bottom. Historically social class was based mainly on wealth, however, this current survey, conducted by sociologists Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from Manchester University, attaches importance to social capital (connections) and cultural capital (interests and activities), as much to economic capital. Is it possible to draw parallels to the class structure in the Middle East, as it is presently experiencing some of its most radical political and social changes in decades?

Climbing up, sliding down the ladder

The upper echelon of British society is still composed of the elite which is wealthy, privileged and fares well in all three capital levels; at the bottom are the precariat who are the poorest in the society and also lack connections or access to cultural capital. This as such is not new, but some of the other social classes that emerged, for instance the technical middle class, the new affluent workers, or the emergent service workers, represent changes that have taken place in British society and beyond, since the introduction of the welfare state in the 1940s. These changes were accelerated in the age of rapid technological changes. Opportunities emerged in many parts of the world for people to better their situation economically.

Historically, the middle classes have been the agents of revolutions, mobilizing the masses into challenging autocratic regimes. Recent decades saw the expansion of the middle class in the Arab world.

Yossi Mekelberg

This also facilitated climbing up the social ladder, allowing them access to culture in a way which was not available to earlier generations. What is commonly known as globalisation intensified and accelerated the social mobility for many millions, enabling them access to education, information, health, technology, and to an extent political power unheard of before. This process of social mobilisation linked also to the spread of a more democratic, pluralistic political system, modernisation and the secularisation of the state system in large parts of world. Migration has also played a significant role in these changes, through introducing different ways of life free from the legacy of the former social order. While migrants differ in their initial wealth, most of them lack connections upon their arrival in the new society and their cultural capital is different from the one that is valued in their new country.

What hasn’t changed is the tremendous gap between the bottom of the social ladder and the top. The 15% at the bottom’s annual income does not exceed £8000, and only one in 30 of these individuals will complete a higher education qualification. The elite in comparison, which comprise 6 percent of the population, are educated at the top universities, well connected, enjoy an income of nearly £90,000 and their savings are more than 160 times of those of the poor. Many believe that the face of British society has changed considerably and is less rigid than in the past, enabling more people social mobility. Nevertheless, social class tensions still exist.

Disparities in the Arab world

Not without parallels, one of the motivations of the Arab Spring has been to address social disparities, which are endemic to the region. As observed by Sir John Boyd Orr, a Noble Peace laureate, “When the fabric of society is so rigid that it cannot change quickly enough, adjustments are achieved by social unrest and revolutions.” Historically, the middle classes have been the agents of revolutions, mobilising the masses into challenging autocratic regimes. Recent decades saw the expansion of the middle class in the Arab world. Already in 2002, a report compiled by Arab Scholars on behalf of the United Nations Development Report warned that in terms of economic capital much had improved in the Arab world, but in what can be regarded as social capital most of the people in the region were underprivileged. The region had made enormous strides in increasing life expectancy, reducing child mortality and doubling adult literacy, yet some lacked good governance and political participation or freedoms.

In certain aspects tradition and religion play a very significant role in the society and thus have a substantial restraining impact on social mobility. Conversely, within the Arab world an educated, globalised, technologically savvy generation has emerged, which is highly active in social media. This group aspires to social mobility and is less tolerant towards those that hinder it. Whether the Arab Spring will help this group and others in the Arab world to access the three capitals depends to a large extent on the nature of political systems developing in each of the countries experiencing this revolutionary tide. The Arab Spring is still in its nascent stages trying to deal with the thorny legacy of decades of autocratic regimes. In some cases guaranteeing freedoms and empowering the society competes with ensuring stability and law and order, with the latter having on more than one occasion the upper hand.

The British survey shows that despite enjoying hundreds of years of continuous parliamentary democracy, the society cannot or is unwilling to secure adequate access to economic, social and cultural capital for everyone. Even in an advanced capitalist society a significant part of the society lives in the margins of either privilege or deprivation, whereas the rest of the society is more socially mobile. The social class structure that might emerge from the Arab Spring has the potential to gradually facilitate access for increasingly more people to the three capitals, while ensuring their freedoms. There is no magic formula to reach this aim. Nevertheless, those that lead the social-political change should draw on the lessons from experiences elsewhere and still remain organic to the region, reflecting its traditions, values and history without compromising good governance and freedoms.

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s College in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. You can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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