Sunday, January 17, 2010

Can Gordon Build a Society of All the Talents?

"Social Mobility for All" was a central theme in the Prime Minister's keynote speech at the Fabian Society New Year Conference on Saturday, held at Imperial College London.

"I believe in an aspirational Britain. Opportunity and reward cannot be hoarded at the top, and it is not enough just to protect people at the bottom. I want to see the talents and potential of all the British people fulfilled: social mobility for the majority.....

"So let me be explicit today; social mobility will be our theme for the coming election and the coming parliamentary term. Social mobility will be our focus not instead of social justice, but because social mobility is modern social justice."

The Prime Minister's vision of what he called an "aspirational society" rests, if I have understood the speech correctly, on three principle actions:

1) a government-backed job creation strategy

2) continued investment in education and training

3) maintaining well-funded public services

The full text of the speech can be found here.

Although I share many of the PM's aspirations for a society where there is genuine social mobility, I am doubtful that merely "inputting" in the ways outlined above will achieve this outcome. This is because such actions leave many of the essential structures that hinder social mobility in place.


1. the dominance of global firms - run by elite professionals who wield significant economic and (indirectly) political power - whose size enables them to dominate markets rather than compete within them (except with other global firms).

2. the employer-employee relationship as the primary model of paid work - with the attendant insecurity this brings as workers' wages are seen as an expense to be cut in times of downturn.

As a self-employed small business owner, I have been increasingly looking in the last year or so into the distributist theory of economics. My own preliminary thoughts on distributism are here.

Simply put, distributism envisages a society in which the vast majority of members own private , productive property. Ideally, in the distributist world, as many as possible would pursue individual owner-operated trades which intimately link production with ownership.

In his speech, Mr Brown asserts the need for markets to exist within a moral framework. Jay Griffths argues that part of what defines the morality of an organisation is its size.

"We speak of economies of scale, and I would suggest that there are also moralities of scale."

In my opinion, inputting at the bottom will not create genuine social mobility unless these is forced restraint and limitation at the top. The rules that govern the economy we have - which allow businesses the possibility of unrestrained growth and periodic collapse - are man made. Other economic rules, which not only broaden opportunity but also restrain greed, are necessary if the Prime Minister's aspirational society is to become a reality.

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Steve Smith said...

Your post seems to engage with something I have been thinking about recently, namely what are the underlying meanings that politicians, journalists and others give to the different social positions people inhabit when they talk about 'social mobility'.

'Middle class' is constructed as something to which to aspire, and it seems to me that the dominant meanings given to those who inhabit this class are that they are hard-working, law abiding, respectable and self-dependent. In so being, those who inhabit the working class are constructed as lazy, untrustworthy, dishonest and welfare scroungers. The big turnaround over the last thirty years or so is that to be working class, rather than about being something to be proud, is shameful and to be rejected. Such is the power of labelling that people often go on to believe and act accordingly - both those within and outside that social grouping.

All this labelling helps to reinforce the status of middle class people and the status quo. It seems to me that what you are calling for, and what I suggest here, includes the need for a renewed consciousness raising by those who fall outside of the middle class, and for them to self-organise and co-operate to generate the types of social organisations about which you speak.

Al Shaw said...

It's interesting as well in the PM's original speech that he specifically cites a number of markers which he suggests are indicators of social mbility into the (desireable) middle class: car ownership and taking foreign holidays are included in his list.

Ho hum.