Social Mobility


Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with through the looking glass

“We might imagine the mobility of ‘social mobility’ as simply a matter of moving about. But we all know politicians who use this phrase are talking about moving up. Moreover, they mean moving ‘up’ some concept of a class ladder or economic pyramid or their metaphorical ilk.” The words ‘social mobility’

I am grateful to Alice for bringing the topic of social mobility to my attention. It is a very pertinent one in view of the increasing gap between rich and poor in the UK, an inequality greater today than it was in 1997 when New Labour took the reins of power. Disbelief was my first reaction when I first became aware of this fact, but it served to reinforce my view that in many ways Tony Blair was much more of a Thatcherite than a keeper of leftist ideals.

In a speech in Norfolk on Friday, Sir John Major expressed shock at the domination by a private school-educated elite and well-heeled middle class of every sphere of modern public life. The former prime minister blamed Britain’s stunted social mobility on Labour policies, including the abolition of grammar schools.

In many respects, Major’s views support the concerns expressed by my fellow blogger. He does appear to take it for granted that social mobility, “moving ‘up’ some concept of a class ladder or economic pyramid” is inherently good and desirable.

After some consideration I think I’ve come to an understanding as to the source of this divergence. Both the former PM and Alice speak of social mobility, but the context in which they discuss it differs. It is a matter of “is” versus “ought” and this is the crux of the matter. I’ve discussed this difference between politics in the now versus what politics ought to be in “men are always wicked, unless you give them no alternative, but to be good” – and this applies to social arrangements too.

At a theoretical level, I share Alice’s concerns. I agree with her assertion that the idea of social mobility “perpetuates the idea that hierarchies are both natural and something to aspire to.” In a truly democratic – that is egalitarian – society, the existence of such a term and everything it implies would be obsolete. So much for life as it ought to be.

As for life and society as it currently stands, I have to admit that the possibility of fashioning a better life for oneself continues to hold great power. I do trust that even in our hierarchical society, it is not absolutely necessary for social mobility to rely “on the existence of people staying below to be superior to.” 

Back in the USSR there were many a poster proclaiming that good old Soviets were fighting wealth. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. Why should we fight wealth? Surely it would be better by far if we were all wealthy. The gap between the rich and poor does not require necessarily for a decrease of the wealth of the upper half, it could mean an upward mobility, an increase in the standard of life of the lower half instead. Of course, I do not include in this the obscenely rich top five per cent – a decent human life can hardly need that extent of greedy accumulation of material goods.

Silver linings.


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