Monday, 16 May 2011

Were there three classes in Victorian Britain?

The majority of contemporary and modern analysts have adhered to the three-class model. Harold Perkin argued that, as the result of industrialisation, urbanisation and the midwifery of religion, a class society emerged between 1789 and 1833 or, more precisely between 1815 and 1820. Class was characterised

...by class feeling, that is, by the existence of vertical antagonism between a small number of horizontal groups, each based on a common source of income. [1]

The paternal view of society was not, however, destroyed by these class antagonisms and the potential conflict of emergent class society was contained by modification of existing institutions. For Perkin, compromise was a central reason for the persistence of older social values and structures and that only an ‘immature’ class society was characterised by violence. Each class developed its own ‘ideal’ and, by 1850, he believed, three can be clearly seen: the entrepreneurial ideal of the middle-classes, a working-class ideal and an aristocratic ideal based respectively on profits, wages and rent. The ‘struggle between ideals’ was

...not so much that the ruling class imposes its ideal upon the rest, but that the class that manages to impose its ideal upon the rest becomes the ruling class. [2]

In Perkin’s model, the mature class society that emerged by the 1850s was, despite the differences that existed between classes, not marked by overt conflict but by tacit agreement and coexistence under the successful entrepreneurial ideal.

Class 5

Between 1880 and 1914 class society, according to Perkin, reached its zenith. [3] The rich, both large landowners and capitalists, drew together in a consolidation of that new plutocracy that had already begun to emerge in the 1850s. The middle-classes, ever more graduated in income and status, came to express those finer distinctions in prosperity and social position physically, both in outward appearance, in dress, furnishings and habitations and in their geographical segregation from one another and the rest of society in carefully differentiated suburbs. So too did the working-classes, in part involuntarily because they could only afford what their social betters left for them, but also, within that constraint, because those working-class families who could chose to differentiate themselves equally, by Sunday if not everyday dress and by better and better furnished houses in marginally superior areas. Only the very poor, the ‘residuum’ as Charles Booth called them, had no choice at all and were consigned to the slums. They were the most segregated class of all because all the rest shunned them and their homes. Segregation, by income, status, appearance, physical health, speech, education and opportunity in life, as well as by work and residential area, was the symbolic mark of class society at its highest point of development.

Class society in Britain in 1880 already contained the seeds of its own decay. The three classes each had their own powerful ideals of what society should be and how it should be organised to recognise and reward their own unique contribution to the welfare of the community. Each class in a segregated society believed that its contribution was most vital and should be rewarded accordingly.[4] The landowners, capitalists and middle-classes saw themselves as providing the resources and organising ability that drove the economic system to provide the goods necessary for the survival and civilised life for the whole community. Those in the working-classes who thought about it saw themselves as providing the labour, the sole source of value, without which the resources and management would be in vain. The increasing class conflict of the late-Victorian and Edwardian period was the struggle for income, status and power arising from this clash of incompatible ideals. It was into this tripartite struggle that ‘the professional class’ came contributing both to the struggle and to the means of resolving it.[5]

Class 6

Between the constitutional class between the Lords and the Commons between 1909 and 1911 and the General Strike of 1926, class society in Britain underwent a profound crisis. The crisis was essentially to decide whether Britain was to continue along a path of increasing class conflict culminating in social breakdown or revolution or whether there was to be an accommodation between the classes of the kind that gave mid-Victorian Britain its viable class society. The crisis was largely one between the classes of capital and labour, in which the government became reluctantly involved, by no means wholly on the side of capital. It was complicated by the co-existence of three other crises, any one of which was a potentially violent challenge to the established order. Connected or not, the co-existence of threats of violence from the Suffragettes, from Irish Nationalists and from Ulstermen over the future status of Ireland and from the more aggressive trade unionists, raised fears of social revolution before 1914 just as the co-existence of revolutions in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey as well as Ireland gave rise to the same fear after 1918. The crisis was also complicated by the outbreak of war in 1914. In the short term, the war suspended all four crises but it ruthlessly laid bare the shortcomings and deficiencies of society, the economy and the political system. It confirmed the appalling effects of poverty on the mass armies recruited to fight it, the weakness of British industry and management in producing the munitions of modern battle and the incompetence of the minimalist state to conduct modern warfare on the grand scale. [6]

As long as professionals were few in numbers and depended mainly on the rich and powerful for their incomes, they tended to temper their social ideals to the values of their wealthy clients. With the development of industrial and urban society, however, the professions proliferated, their clients multiplied and, in certain cases, for example in preventive medicine, sanitary engineering and in central and local government generally, the client became in effect the whole community. They became much freer to act as critics of society and purveyors of the terminology in which people came to think about the new class society. In different ways, they attacked the laissez-faire individualism of the entrepreneurial ideal. Through social legislation, the development of trade union immunities, changing attitudes to poverty and in the emergent welfare state after 1906, they challenged the ‘amateur’ spirit of society and enhanced the position of the professional expert. By the mid-twentieth century, the professional ideal had achieved hegemony as complete as the entrepreneurial ideal had done a century before.[7] But, just as the entrepreneurial ideal had started to decline at its apogee, the professional ideal started to lose its appeal once it had achieved moral and cultural hegemony. Public service professionals were confronted by a backlash led by professionals in the private sector. And, by a strange paradox, this private sector backlash took place under the banner of a new version of the entrepreneurial ideal that harked back to the individualistic enterprise of a century earlier. [8]


[1] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, p. 37.

[2] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, pp. 218-270 for discussion on the ‘struggle between ideals’.

[3] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, pp. 27-63.

[4] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, pp. 62-114.

[5] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, pp. 171-217.

[6] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, pp. 218-285.

[7] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, pp. 359-404.

[8] Ibid, Perkin, H., The Rise of Professional Society: England since 1880, pp. 472-519.

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