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


The Coming of Age for FE ?

michael-ainleyPatrick Ainley  reviews

Ann Hodgson (ed) (2015) The Coming of Age for FE? Reflections on the past and the future role of further education colleges in England. London: Institute of Education Press. £24.99. Pp.223

Clifford P. Harbour (2015) John Dewey and the Future of Community College Education. London: Bloomsbury. £17.99. Pp.178

                            Read the Post-16 Educator reviews  Here 

Book Review: The People, The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010


Patrick Ainley

When Eric Hobsbawm asked in 1978 whether the forward march of labour had halted, he was calling attention to a possible political reversal, not bidding Farewell to the Working Class as Andre Gorz did two years later. More recently, Guy Standing in 2011 proposed the birth of The Precariat, a ‘dangerous new class’ growing alongside the dwindling proletariat, while in the same year Owen Jones suggested that the entire English working class had been turned into Chavs (2011) – read more at  (


The robots are coming? The economic and educational implications of the ‘Second Machine Age’.

untitledMartin Allen   reviews  The  Second Machine Age. Work Progress, and Prosperity in a time of Brilliant Technologies

Erik Brynjolfsson and   Andrew McAfee’s   The Second Machine Age ( Norton  2014,  ISBN  978-0-393-23935-5 ),  is  an important contribution to the  debate about the effects of  technological change on the workplace and the changing shape of the occupational structure.

Advances in computer technology are seen as being responsible for the disappearance of what were considered to be ‘routine’ jobs with Goos and Manning’s 2003 paper  about the polarisation of the occupational structure providing  the  basis for what is now commonly referred to  as the ‘hour-glass’ economy, where  increased employment in cognitively-based professional work, but also  the expansion  of new labour intensive unskilled occupations in service sectors still  dependent  on personal contact, has resulted in a ‘hollowing out’ of the middle. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee now argue that even the more highly-skilled ‘knowledge-based’   professional occupations are at risk as a result of the ability of digital technology to turn everything into ‘ones and zeroes’.  Citing Google’s  ‘car with no driver’ as one of the clearest  examples of how  human superiority is in jeopardy as  machines are increasingly able to codify distinctly ‘non-routine’ activity,  they argue that it’s wrong to assume that  jobs requiring ‘college level’ qualifications are hard to automate while ‘kindergarten’ level  employment is easy.

The MIT researchers don’t  commit to any definitive conclusion on the exact extent technology will eliminate jobs and remind us that there continue to be activities that even the most intelligent machines find difficult, from ‘walking up stairs’ to ‘picking up a paper clip’ and that humans continue to have the imagination to innovate. In their paper, Oxford researchers Frey and Osborne are more specific in their paper After examining 702 established occupations they estimate about 47% of current US employment is at risk ‘perhaps over the next decade or two’ and that ‘sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide’. 

Education and the digital age

Most of those who write about the potential of technology to transform the workplace also see a need for major changes in education. Like them, Brynjolfsson and McAfee see the school system as reflecting the requirements of a previous age – the 20th century, (or even the nineteenth?). They call for new Montessori -inspired classrooms emphasising ‘self-directed learning, hands-on engagement with a wide variety of materials and a largely unstructured school day’. ‘Acquiring an excellent education is the best way to  ensure you are not left behind as technology races ahead.’ Technology is now contributing to this through the growth of on-line learning resources and open courses, pioneered by organisations like the Kahn Academy.

But while many of these recommendations would be seen as progressive alternatives to  the ‘Gradgrind’ programme of Michael Gove,  like other ‘moderniser’ approaches to education, Brynjolfsson and McAfee overestimate  the relationship between the content of the curriculum and the needs of the workplace, sidestepping the social function that education plays in the regulation of young people’s labour market chances.  As Radicaled has consistently argued, rather than educational standards struggling to keep up with technological advance,  the real  crisis for education is that young people become ‘overqualified’  for the limited number of  jobs available to them and as a result, exam certificates are increasingly devalued – an issue touched on, but not developed in the chapter on ‘Recommendations for Individuals’.

As we have also argued, the examination reforms introduced by Michael Gove are designed to control pass rates and restore more limited expectations. A consequence is that the more generic vocational qualifications promoted by modernisers are not considered as ‘powerful knowledge’ and in many schools have constituted a ‘secondary modern’ stream.  Thus, to gain status, Gove has demanded vocational qualifications become redesigned around ‘academic’ principles.  The unstructured days of Montessori, while a progressive development for some, would sharply undermine the social control function of schools. Unfortunately, many teachers would probably see this as undermining their ability to control learning and threatening their ‘professionalism.’

New economic policies are needed

A strength of The Second Machine Age is its interdisciplinary approach and the way in which a detailed explanation of technical progress is combined with more general economic policies for dealing with the collapse of employment opportunities in the 21st century as advances in technology produce winners and losers whilst income inequalities continue to widen. A range of policies are examined,  for example  proposals for a universal social income as well as the use of a negative income tax;  though the authors continue to put their faith in technological progress allowing the economy to grow and generate new jobs, particularly those with high skills and high earning power.

A weakness is a lack of attention given to the possibility of any real opposition to how new technology is used; not just from particular occupational groups that may have the most to lose, but also the opportunities for labour movement organisations to reorientate their activities and  make demands for both the sharing of work and the reduction of working time. It’s now almost 35 years since Andre Gorz’s  Farewell To the Working Class,  argued for just that.

Book Review: Baker’s proposals are not a real alternative to Gove.

9781780938448Kenneth Baker’s 14-18 A New Vision for Secondary Education was published earlier this year, as Michael Gove’s offensive on the secondary curriculum continued unabatedly.  Concerned about how the emphasis on Ebacc subjects  would marginalise  vocational learning  and openly critical of Alison Wolf’s proposal that vocational options should be restricted to 20% of the Key Stage 4 curriculum, Baker enlists support from Mike Tomlinson, Alan Smithers and others.

Though the book includes some interesting ideas for the recreation of ‘middle schools’ and its back cover enjoys a range of endorsements, it doesn’t really provide a ‘new vision’, at all.  Rather it’s a return to the ideas of Ron Dearing and post-14 ‘tracking’ (Baker himself having set up the Baker Dearing Education Trust).  Brought in to  rescue Baker’s doomed  ten subject National Curriculum from growing teacher unrest, not to mention a SATs boycott in the early 1990s,  Dearing proposed that young people chose either academic or vocational pathways at age 14. During the next decade a vocational courses established themselves in most state secondary schools. Ostensibly promoted as enabling more curriculum choice reflecting a student’s ‘aptitude’ the reality was that schools put their less academic students on the GNVQs and BTECs.

The Gove curriculum  (and Wolf’s recommendations) is designed to roll-back this approach. Instead a subject based and ideologically loaded ‘grammar school’ curriculum has been imposed on all students.  Even if the English Baccalaureate proposals have been overturned,   GCSE has been rewritten to resemble the post-war O-level.  Vocational qualifications have been pruned and excluded from school league tables on the grounds that they are less rigorous and less demanding and that comprehensive schools have deliberately entered students for them, to improve league table positions.  Gove has tried to position himself as somebody wanting to restart social mobility, arguing that everybody will now have the chance to study the ‘core’ subjects valued by prestigious universities. The reality is that for most young people, the chances of upwards mobility will fall even further.

 Celebrating   a diversity of learning   opportunities even arguing young people may have particular aptitudes is one thing.  Calling for   different types of  ‘Liberal Arts’, ‘Technical’  ‘Sports and Creative Arts’ and ‘ Career’  schools at 14 as Baker does is quite another.  Baker, who has already been instrumental in establishing University Technical Colleges (UTCs) of which five are now open and another 28 approved, points to European counties like Germany and Holland;   where there are different schools for different routes. In the UTCs students will spend 40% of time on their technical subjects and 60% on a more general curriculum, including learning a foreign language  though this  will be tailored to their specialism, Baker giving  ‘German for engineering’ as an  example.

In terms of labour market placement it’s certainly the case that  German technical education has worked well, though it’s the  German apprenticeship system  to which 60% progress after they leave school and where 90% who complete, go into employment, that is seen to be the centre piece of the ‘dual system’.  Baker says little about apprenticeships and nothing  about how the German  model  has been based, at least until now, on a conception of ‘social partnership’ between employers and trade unions; rather than the free market.  The current UK system of apprenticeships   has little in common with this – Baker seems ignorant to the fact that 70% of those participating in apprenticeships are adults, most of whom    are already working for their employers.

Neither  do Baker, or any of the participating authors, attempt any real analysis of changes to occupational structure and which are most advanced in the ‘flexible’ labour markets of the UK and US. Baker is right to dismiss the ‘misguided optimism….held for several decades that a computerized, knowledge-based economy will provide a massive number of jobs for knowledge workers’ (11) but completely wrong to assume that economic prosperity and low levels of youth unemployment will depend on the re-emergence of skilled manual work (  and an education which allows young people to ‘get their hands dirty’ (,-schools-for-getting-your-hands-dirty).  

As a result, Baker’s proposals are more likely to resemble the British ‘tripartite’ model of the post-war years and they should not be regarded as an alternative to Gove.  Progressives should continue to defend the idea of ‘common schools’ which provide a good general education for all young people.  Baker’s proposals promise neither.

Book Review Michael Apple



Asks Patrick Ainley in a review of Michael Apple’s Can Education Change Society? (Routledge 2013, 9780415875332, pp.188, £23.99) that revisits some of the previous discussion in PSEs 71 & 72 over education and social control

Michael Apple disarmingly answers the perennial question of his title by saying, ‘It depends’. What it depends on he develops over the next 187 pages ‘from the position of multiple oppressed groups’, rather than in terms of the orthodoxy that education can change society ‘only if it overtly challenges class and capitalism’ (12)…………

Download  Apple