Over at the Guardian, Paul Mason writes about the disintegration of Britain's working class. The occasion is the publication of a report on educational achievement, analyzed in terms of the ethnicity of pupils. It turns out that white British kids fall behind during their school years, with working-class non-immigrants driving the downward trend.
This educational report, put out by the liberal think tank CentreForum, identifies something expounded in detail by Charles Murray in Coming Apart. Murray focuses with the American context, but the trends are the same. Over the last two generations, the social well being of white working class Americans has declined precipitously.
Great Britain’s sharp class distinctions (and class consciousness and loyalties) make things quite different. Murray details the erosion of the American middle class consensus, which was to a great extent a denial of class differences. Mason speaks of the erosion of a distinctive working class culture that promoted solidarity and social cohesion. But the general trend is the same: The bottom end of society isn’t just economically poor, it’s socially impoverished.
Why? Given that Mason is writing in the Guardian, one knows the answer: Thatcherism. Free market capitalism, imposed by Thatcher, has deprived the native-born working class of their culture. It was “based on work, rising wages, strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid.” Dropping into a conspiratorial tone, he continues, “It all had to go, and the means of destroying it was the long-term unemployment millions of people had to suffer in the 1980s.”
I don’t want to downplay the role of economic policy in the rise and fall of working class culture, both here in the United States, and even more so in Great Britain. However, Mason needs to read Mary Douglas’ insightful analysis of the cultural war on the working class, Natural Symbols.
Mason speaks of “strict unspoken rules against disorder, obligatory collaboration and mutual aid.” He also points out that immigrants who are doing better than the white working class “have social and religious institutions that promote cohesion.” As Douglas shows, a culture of strict rules was attacked in the 1960s, and it has been ongoing, often prosecuted by the kinds of progressives who read the Guardian.
Unrestricted choice is a boon for the powerful. It can be tough on the weak. Thatcher liberalized the British economy, and that meant weakening state-sponsored support of a system in which the working class had solid status and some times real power. What Mason ignores is the fact that his progressive friends liberalized the moral economy of the West. That process has deprived the working class of a great deal of social capital—certainly the “strict unspoken rules,” but also the “obligatory collaboration,” something undermined by the individualism of today’s morality of self-definition.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.