Two new books on social class

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley for Marx & Philosophy Review of Books 

Erik Olin Wright (2015) Understanding Class. London: Verso. 260 pages. £14.99 pbk. ISBN: 978-1-78168-945-5

Mike Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin Random House. 449 pages. £6.29 pbk. ISBN: 978-0-241-00422-7

michael-ainleyContradictory class locations?

Erik Olin Wright is a US sociologist who in his 1985 book Classes developed the moratorium idea that lengthening education (which happened first in the USA) effectively removes young people from the labour market and consequently any allocation by occupation that could situate them in a class. As explained and generalised to others in apparently increasingly fluid capitalist societies, they thereby occupied ‘contradictory locations within class relations’ and so were ‘simultaneously in more than one class… [with] contradictory interests pointing in opposite directions’ (as summarised in this new book on p.168), taking on characteristics attributed to Marx’s petit-bourgeoisie.

Wright also tried to integrate Marx with Weber who had argued that, as well as Marx’s class divisions based on ownership or non-ownership of capital, there were also groups with different ‘marketable skills’ in the labour market. Weber’s was therefore a more labile and adaptable description than the two Marxist classes of capitalists and proletarians. However, Wright proclaims in the preface to this book that ‘My own approach to class is firmly embedded in the Marxist tradition’ and he looks back over a long career to ‘clarify and appropriate what is valuable rather than simply discrediting the ideas of rival approaches… to try to systematically integrate those insights into a broader framework.’ Whether he is successful or not can be judged from his conclusions Read in full

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