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A Class Society

By the middle of the 19th Century British subjects were divided, politically, into two classes - the Nobility, and the Commons. Below these was a mass of population, which used to be commonly termed the rabble, or dregs of society, having no political rights. But the nomenclature which obtained was deduced from social gradation. In this classification, English society was divided into three grades - the Aristocracy, consisting of the Nobility and Gentry; the Middle class; and the Working class.

The Aristocracy par excellence consisted of the titled nobility of the realm, who inherit rank and lands by primogeniture. The descendants of the younger sons of nobility simply rank as gentry. They belong to the aristocracy by right of blood, and enjoy the social distinction thus conferred.

The noble English Aristocracy held its position in virtue of blood and wealth. The heir to the title inherited the lands, as essential to maintain his rank. Daughters and younger sons must be provided for by the savings of their aristocratic parents. These descendants of noble houses were numbered in the ranks of the Gentry so long as they have sufficient property to support them without resorting to any industrial pursuit.

In Great Britain, branches of the Aristocracy may, consistently with their caste, become clergymen or lawyers ; may enter the army or navy; or occupy a post under government, in some department of the civil administration. All other pursuits were considered degrading. As soon as necessity compels the adoption of any industrial occupation, social position was lost, and the person sank, as the case may be, into the Middle, or the Working class. It was, therefore, the special care of aristocratic parents to provide for their younger children.

The Middle class was distinguished from the noble Aristocracy above them, as being of plebeian descent, and engaged in some business avocation; and from the Working class below, as possessing sufficient means to obviate the necessity of personal labor. The Middle class had its own aristocracy, consisting of the great merchants, manufacturers, shippers; an aristocracy of wealth, as distinguished from the aristocracy of blood. The mass of the Middle class comprised all embarking capital in industrial pursuits who do not engage in personal labor - the merchant who overlooks his clerks; the manufacturer; the gentleman farmer who employs his capital in the cultivation of rented lands; and all persons not of noble blood, engaged in the learned professions and government service.

The Working class comprised all who were in service; and all who engaged in personal labor, in any department of business. Shop, or storekeepers who attended behind their own counter, clerks, teachers, governesses, artisans, mechanics, laborers, swelled the ranks of the Working class. But the aristocratic principle was as visible, here, as in the classes above them. The shopkeeper who worked in his own store is much higher in the social scale than those who worked for hire. The teacher and the clerk held themselves above the mechanic who labors with his hands; and the latter, having regular, steady employment at fixed wages, regarded themselves as immeasurably superior to the millions of laborers employed in commerce, in agriculture, and in the various menial departments of industry.

These three grades of society - the Aristocracy, the Middle class, the Working class, were universally recognized in 19th Century England. There were first, second, and third class seats in lecture rooms, theaters, and churches; first, second, and third class cars on railroads; and the undertakers announced upon their signs, "First class burials," "Second class burials," "Third class burials," with the respective charges attached to each.

The system of centralized commerce that prevailed benefited the landed nobility, who had increased their rents four fold; and the Middle class aristocracy, who engrossed the manufacturing and commercial industry of the world; but it grievously oppressed the great mass of British population belonging to all these classes. Its tendency was to increase the aggregation of wealth, and to multiply the burdens of poverty.

The term social inequality describes a condition in which members of a society have different amounts of wealth, prestige, or power. Some degree of social inequality is found in every society. When a system of social inequality is based on a hierarchy of groups, sociologists refer to it as stratification: a structured ranking of entire groups of people that perpetuates unequal economic rewards and power in a society. Ascribed status is a social position assigned to a person without regard for that person's characteristics, for example, being a Queen is an ascribed status, as is being a female. By contrast, achieved status is a social position attained by a person largely through his or her own effort. This can be positive or negative so a person can be an ex-prisoner or a judge. These are achieved statuses.

Many early writers and philosophers viewed society as being like an animal or human body. They shared the view that all the separate parts of the body worked together to create something whole. They claimed that everybody works together for the common good of us all, as do body parts for the organism. This shared view is known as consensus theory because it is based on social agreement. Functionalists claim that inequality and stratification is functional for society and a source of social order.

The political and philosophical perspective known as the New Right is associated with the politicians Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and Ronald Reagan in the USA. The principles of the New Right are based on the theoretical viewpoints that are very close to functionalism. In Britain, the New Right became associated with underclass theory, which is supported by writers such as Charles Murray and David Saunders. These writers both claim that in the UK, benefit systems mean that people make a rational choice to stay poor, because it is easier to stay at home on the dole than go to work. They claim that some people go on to develop a culture that is state dependent, against traditional values, criminal, irresponsible and destructive. They suggest that people are often lazy and selfish so they must be encouraged to work by making welfare payments low enough to make life uncomfortable.

Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) was an economist, philosopher and journalist who was motivated by concern for workers who were experiencing terrible poverty while all around was great wealth and power. He was a revolutionary who believed in working for a classless society. Marxism was not a powerful force in sociology until the 1960s and 1970s when it formed the basis of a challenge to functionalism. The bourgeoisie own property, factories, wealth, technology and knowledge. Those who work for them are the proletariat and they own nothing but their own ability to work. Marxists, more than any other perspective, embrace the concept of social class. Karl Marx said all societies (with the exception of primitive hunter/gatherers) are divided along class lines. Rather than defining class by occupation, Marx adopted an economic definition based on people's relationship to the means of production.

The expressions 'U' (Upper Class) and 'Non-U' (non-Upper Class) came to prominence in Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige (1956). In more class-aware environments the basics include: loo or lavatory never toilet; sofa never settee; napkin never serviette; supper never tea; drawing room or sitting room, never lounge or front room.

The term upper class in Britain meant the aristocracy. Even self-made billionaires like Richard Branson couldn’t be upper class, as they had no titles and no ancestors who fought at Agincourt [neither did the titles aristocracy, but that is a different matter]. They were “in trade,” or “new money,” a shameful thing to be, and so could never be more than middle class no matter how rich they were. So middle class came to mean the non-noble well-to-do, and anybody who was below that aspired to be in it. The word "posh" has long meant fashionable or luxurious [a posh hotel], but it has come to mean something tTypical of the upper class, especially in the United Kingdom [eg, a posh upbringing], or affectedly imitating characteristics of the upper class; pretentious: a posh accent.

In British English slang, a "toff" is a derogatory stereotype for someone with an aristocratic background or belonging to the landed gentry, particularly someone who exudes an air of superiority. In the Sherlock Holmes movie "Hound of the Baskervilles", a Hansom cabbie describing a fare "dressed like a toff". In 2015 Ed Miliband was seen by voters as 'being more of a toff than David Cameron', costing his party votes on the doorstep. This north London elite view of the world, just doesn’t play.

David Cameron was never really able to shake the label. The British prime minister came from a family line packed with pedigrees and is distantly related to the queen. (Cameron is her majesty’s fifth cousin on his father’s side.) He attended Eton and Oxford, naturally, and belonged to the latter’s version of Skull and Bones, called the Bullingdon Club. His wife is descended from King Charles II and is the stepdaughter of an Astor. The district Cameron represents in Parliament, Witney in idyllic Oxfordshire, boasts rolling hills beloved by equestrian enthusiasts - an enclave of Tory power.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2016 15:42:26 ZULU