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Three questions about the sociocultural class
This week, Matt Goodwin, a well-known British political scientist, published Values, Voice and Virtue, a book arguing that a ‘new elite’ of university-educated progressives dominate British society, to the detriment of lower classes. I have yet to read it – it was published a few days ago – but have read Matt’s recent pieces in the Sun and Times, summarizing his argument.
Fierce debate has erupted on Twitter, critics arguing that Matt adopts a loose definition, exaggerates the influence of new elites and underestimates the challenges which this class faces.
Whilst I rate Matt – his work on national populism is excellent - I agree with much of the recent criticism, particularly about the extent of the influence of the new elite.
Nonetheless, I am unhappy with the state of this debate. Whilst we need tighter definitions of new elites and more nuanced conceptions of their power, some critics are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As readers know, I am sympathetic to postliberal understandings of sociocultural sectors and social justice ideology.
In the hope of advancing this debate, I have three questions. Primarily, the questions address Matt’s critics – I find that critics are good at identifying problems with Matt’s arguments, but less good at reflecting on their own assumptions - yet they also raise issues with Matt’s positions.
1/ Do you agree that a sociocultural class exists?
In several ways, this class is distinctive. Working in industries such as education, healthcare and the arts, sociocultural workers tend to have left-liberal political values. This reflects occupational profiles; in such jobs, task structures are ambiguous, necessitating creative responses, and hierarchies are flatter.
Sociocultural classes may not monopolize power (see below), yet the size of this class, its proximity to power and its distinct values mean that it deserves attention. For example, sociocultural classes hold more favourable attitudes towards social justice ideology and have been central to its emergence.
Some of Goodwin’s critics are enjoying problems with the new elite argument too much; it enables them to dismiss analysis/criticism of the sociocultural class as right-wing scaremongering.
This will not do. If one dismisses arguments about a new elite, it raises questions about sociocultural classes and the nature of their influence. As debate progresses, I hope that critics will examine these issues from different angles.
2/ How is power distributed in a liberal democracy?
Goodwin’s critics emphasize that the British left has been in opposition for 13 years. As Stephen Bush noted, the Times piece asserted that the new elite favoured the Labour Party, yet affirmed, two paragraphs later, that this elite had everything its own way before Brexit.
But this can be overplayed. Whilst the right enjoys electoral hegemony in Britain, power is diffuse in liberal democracies. Beyond electoral politics, culture is crucial, left-wingers such as Gramsci long acknowledging this.
As a mature liberal democracy, Britain has a large sociocultural sector, this including higher education, the arts and media. Owing to the sector’s production of culture and media, it has key influence over national debate. And as we have seen, sociocultural workers tend to have left-liberal values.
Given this, I think that some degree of bias is inevitable in organizations such as the BBC and universities; organizational cultures tend to reflect the values of employees.
In response, some argue that government control constrains left-liberals. I doubt this is feasible; in liberal democracies, government influence has limits and, in such sectors, senior managers tend to have left-liberal views.
So, how is power distributed in a liberal democracy? If one adopts a pluralist view, it is difficult to deny that sociocultural sectors have a significant power base.
3/ Does the ideology of the sociocultural class correspond with its interests?
The existence of a sociocultural class raises questions about its interests. As we have seen, members of sociocultural classes tend to hold left-liberal values. Curiously, certain progressives dismiss or ignore arguments which link these values with interests. This is unfeasible. Every scholar of ideology, from Marx to Mannheim to Foucault, establishes a link between ideology and interests, albeit through different routes.
Recent developments in progressive ideology raise several questions. Why is support for progressive ideology concentrated among richer citizens? Why has the profile of redistributive goals become lower?
Other well-known books have addressed these issues, Christophe Guilluy and Michael Lind also facing criticisms for their polemical tone. Whilst I agree with some criticisms, I cannot believe that progressive ideology is unrelated to the interests of sociocultural classes; consensuses within the sociology of ideas are contrary to this.
Probably, progressives avoid such questions because it makes them feel uncomfortable. Few relish scrutiny of their values, preferring to regard them as self-evident.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. This debate may be heated, but I am glad that we are discussing these crucial issues.
In time, I will read the book and may review it in a future post.
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