Is the UK becoming a classless society? Part 3 of 6

Part Three Neo-Marxism and Neo-Weberianism 


  1. Neo-Marxism andthe Rejection of Post-Capitalist Theories

Modern Marxists have rejected all of the above-mentioned post-capitalist arguments and argued that a modernised form of Marxist theory still offers the best theoretical framework for the analysis of contemporary capitalist societies. Important Neo-Marxist contributions to the analysis of modern capitalism include the following.

  • The work of Antonio Gramsci, who argued for a less economically determinist reading of Marx, emphasising the importance of capitalist hegemony and of long term strategies for the transition to Socialism and subsequently to Communism. Click here for further information on Gramsci.
  • The work of Ralph Miliband in The State in Capitalist Society (1969) and in later studies such as Divided Societies (1991).
  • The Miliband-Poulantzas debate over the nature of the capitalist state.
  • The work of Erik Olin Wright on contemporary capitalist class structures (see below).

       Also very significant is the work of John Scott Who Rules Britain? (1991], who combines Marxist and Weberian insights to argue that in the UK a very small capitalist class comprising perhaps 0.1% of the population (about 450,000 people) exists, and that this small capitalist class is also effectively a ruling class (see below).

Also Click here for a very useful article by  Graham Scambler entitled From Power Elite to Ruling Oligarchy which focuses on the economic and political power of the super rich

As well as providing useful information on the nature of capitalist class structures and the nature of capitalist states, some of these studies also call into question whether radical socialist change in advanced capitalist societies is to be achieved via revolutionary change, on the Russian model, and whether capitalist working classes can any longer be regarded as potentially revolutionary classes, as in orthodox Marxist theories.

Please note that I cannot do justice to the complexity of these contributions in this short summary, but I hope that the introductory points which I do make will encourage students to investigate some of this work for themselves if they are pursuing their Sociology studies beyond their Advanced Level Sociology courses.

5.1 Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society


One of the best-known reassertions of the continued relevance of Marxist theory was provided by Ralph Miliband in his study The State in Capitalist Society [1969]. In this study, Miliband aims to disprove the claims of the post-capitalist theorists which have been outlined above and to show that an economically dominant class continues to exist in capitalist societies, and that this class exercises decisive influence over the activities of capitalist states. (Click here for an article on Ralph Miliband's The State in Capitalist Society.)

Miliband makes the following arguments, most of which would be accepted by most contemporary Marxists.

  • The conclusions of the Managerial Revolution were inaccurate, because even if large companies were increasingly controlled by their senior managers rather than their owners, there would be no significant change in business practices because of the similarities of class background and (by implication) of attitudes and values of managers and owners, because managers often own large amounts of shares, and because other company survival and growth depends ultimately on high profitability.
  • Nationalisation had not reduced the power of the capitalist class because generous compensation had been given, because the profitable sector of private industry had not been nationalised, and because nationalised industries recruited managers from private industry who followed broadly similar business objectives. Nationalised industries might even indirectly subsidise private profit from time to time by charging lower prices than might have been the case if these nationalised industries had remained in the private sector.
  • Changes in the UK capitalist class structure had been far less significant than suggested by post-capitalist theorists:

◦        It was claimed by Marxists and others that any redistribution of income and wealth which had occurred during the first half of the 20th century was mainly between the rich and the comfortably off (and often members of the same families), with little improvement in the relative position of the poor.

◦        Even if the skilled sections of the working class had become more affluent, they remained significantly worse off than most members of the middle class and had not by the mid-1960s significantly changed their attitudes and values, and continued to vote primarily for the Labour Party in general elections.

◦        Abel-Smith and Townsend had demonstrated that poverty, at least in a relative sense, had not been eliminated by the Welfare State which, in any case, according to Marxists and others, operated as an important agency of social control.

◦        Social class differences in educational achievement remained significant, and the chances that working-class people might be upwardly socially mobile into the upper class were far smaller than the chances that people born into the upper class would remain there; members of the dominant economic class could relatively easily pass on wealth, power and privilege to their children, therefore facilitating the social reproduction of the capitalist class structure from generation to generation.

Thus, MiIiband concluded, a dominant economic class continued to exist and to exercise economic power in the private sector. He went on to argue that this dominant economic class was also a politically dominant ruling class which exercised decisive power over the State such that the capitalist state served the interests of the dominant class, usually at the expense of the rest of the population. Miliband argued that the theory of democratic pluralism provided a grossly inaccurate explanation of the distribution of political power, although, at the same time, he did not argue that the power of capital is the only factor determining the direction of State activity, but rather that it is by far the dominant factor and that working class organisations (the Labour Party and the Trade Unions) are engaged in "imperfect competition" with it .They may in certain circumstances gain important victories for the working class, but these victories do not challenge the overall dominance of capital and may in fact, ultimately, help to sustain it by sustaining what Marxists consider to be the myth of pluralist democracy.


5.2. The Miliband-Poulantzas debate

Miliband's analysis as outlined in The State in Capitalist Society has been criticised from a Structuralist Marxist perspective by Nicos PoulantzasThe main elements of Poulantzas' approach may be outlined as follows:

  • Poulantzas adopts a broad definition of the State to include the Family and the Education System. Here, his approach is similar to that of Althusser in his use of ideological state apparatuses.
  • Poulantzas argues that individuals’ actions are determined less by their own attitudes and values and more by the positions which they occupy within the structure of society. For example, a senior Civil Servant helping to devise economic strategies in a liberal democracy will be obliged to take certain decisions irrespective of his/her own personal views or social background because the capitalist state depends upon the existence of a thriving capitalism economy to generate employment and taxation revenues without which the capitalist state cannot function. Similarly, the environmental policies to be pursued by capitalist states are constrained by perceived needs to maintain the profitability of capitalism. This implies, to Poulantzas, that Miliband, in The State in Capitalist Society, has overestimated the importance of shared social background of state and business elites and has underestimated the force of the structural constraints of capitalism, which helps to explain the failure of social democracy to transform capitalism despite the working-class origins of some of the leaders of social democratic governments.
  • The Bourgeoisie is not a unified class but consists of different fractions (big business, small business, manufacturing capital, finance capital, importers, exporters, high tech, low tech etc.) which may experience important conflicts of interest over the detailed organisation of capitalism even though they have a common interest in the continuation of the system as a whole. The relative power of the different fractions of the capitalist class varies over time, but in the UK context, Marxists have tended to argue that it is finance capital which has been able to exert decisive influence over state policy, sometimes at the expense of other fractions of the capitalist class.
  • According to Poulantzas, the institutions of the State operate with some Relative Autonomy. This is the most significant phrase in the Poulantzas theory. Because of the differences of opinion within the capitalist class, and because it will sometimes be necessary to make concessions to the working class, the State needs to have some freedom of manouevre to resolve disputes and make concessions so as to ensure the continuation of the capitalist system as a whole. However, the freedom of the State is itself limited by the fact that it, too, operates within the constraints of a capitalist system.

Thus, according to Poulantzas, the State is a little more independent of the Bourgeoisie [i.e. relatively autonomous] than it is according to the early work of Miliband, although following some theoretical disputes in the I970s, Miliband did move a little closer to the Poulantzas position while warning of the dangers of what he called structural super-determinism!


5.3 Ralph Miliband, Divided Societies


Although The State in Capitalist Society (1969) is probably Ralph Miliband's best known work, I also recommend strongly Divided Societies (1991). In this study, Ralph Miliband developed a model of a fragmented capitalist class structure, which to some extent reflected some of the ideas which had been developed by C.W. Mills in his study The Power Elite. Thus, in Miliband's new model, capitalist class structures could be divided into 8 sections.

A dominant class containing four sections:

  1. a dominant Economic Elite: the people who wield corporate power by virtue of their control of major industrial, commercial and financial firms.
  2. a dominant Political Elite: Presidents, Prime Ministers Cabinet Ministers, Senior Civil Servants, Judges.

      These two sections, the dominant economic elite and the dominant political elite, together make up the Power Elite.

      The next two sections are those parts of the dominant class that do not belong to the power elite:

  1. the people who control and may also own a large number of medium-sized firms.
  2. members of a large professional class of lawyers, accountants, middle-rank civil servants, military personnel, senior university teachers – in short "people who occupy the upper levels of the credentialised part of the population".

5 and 6. These two sections comprise the "Petty Bourgeoisie or lower middle class". It should be noted here that many other theorists use the term "Petty Bourgeoisie" to refer to owners of small businesses and self-employed craftsmen (they are usually men). However, in Miliband's formulation the Petty Bourgeoisie encompasses owners of small businesses and self-employed craftsmen plus "semi-professional, sub-managerial, supervisory" workers such as teachers, social workers, lab technicians and lower-level civil servants and local government officials". This seems to be a slightly unorthodox usage of the term “Petty Bourgeoisie”.

  1.  the working class, which obviously includes skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers. However, according to Miliband it also includes "clerical, distributive and service" workers, as well as the wives or partners of these workers who may not themselves be in employment. It also includes unemployed persons, pensioners and the children of working-class parents. On this basis Miliband argues that the working class accounts for about two-thirds to three-quarters of the population. However, others would argue that this overstates the size of the working class and that, for example, many routine non-manual workers might more accurately be regarded as members of the lower middle class. [See section below on the Proletarianisation of the Clerical Worker]
  2. the underclass, which is recruited from the working class and made up of the poorest and most deprived sections of the working class and is therefore distinct from the bulk of wage earners. These workers are the long-term unemployed, the disabled and the long-term sick who are heavily dependent upon state benefits and/or help from relatives and/or charity. It must be noted that Ralph Miliband does not subscribe in any way to the neo-liberal version of the underclass associated with theorists such as Charles Murray. These theories of the underclass and criticisms of them are discussed briefly below and will be discussed in more detail in a new document.

Thus Miliband offers a Neo-Marxist model of capitalist class structure which emphasises the continued dominance of economic and political elites while recognising the fragmentary nature of the class structure. He also reiterates his arguments form The State in Capitalist Society stating that theories of post-capitalism are inaccurate in several respects, and that capitalist states continue to be dominated to a considerable extent by interlocking economic and political elites.

As already mentioned, Marx and Engels stated in the Communist Manifesto that "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles", and Miliband devotes two chapters in his study to the politics of class struggle. He argues that since the C19th workers have been able to exert at least some pressure from below to secure voting rights, trade union rights and the development of the Welfare State which have at least improved workers' living standards to some extent. However, he accepts also that the working class could not at any stage of its history be regarded as a revolutionary class, and that in the case of the UK, the trades unions and the Labour Party have been far more concerned to promote gradual social reform of the capitalist system rather than its transformation.

Meanwhile, he argues that the dominant economic class and the state which primarily reflects its interests have been involved in class struggle from above to secure the maintenance of the capitalist system. For example, in the era of the post-war consensus, trade unions have been incorporated into economic decision-making processes as a means of curtailing their radicalism. Furthermore, in the era of Thatcherism, new industrial relations legislation has been used to reduce trade union power; income inequality, which had been reduced during the post-war consensus, increased significantly in the Thatcher era due to the introduction of more regressive taxation and the abolition of wages councils designed to protect the incomes of the lower paid; and despite some expansion of welfare state spending, high levels of relative poverty remain, as do inequalities of educational opportunity and social class differences in health and in life expectancy. These patterns of inequality persist to a considerable extent because the capitalist-controlled mass media orchestrate propaganda in support of the capitalist system and against leftist critics of capitalism, and other agencies of socialisation such as the family and the education system tend to encourage conformity with the capitalist status quo.

Whereas it is argued in classical Marxism that the working class would be the ultimate agent of revolutionary change, Miliband agreed that up to the late 1980s there had been very little evidence of revolutionary working-class consciousness, and that trade unions and social democratic / socialist parties had failed to address adequately the existence of significant inequalities based on age, gender, race and sexuality or the increasing likelihood of environmental damage. It consequently came to be argued that these issues could be better addressed by new social movements of various kinds that were prepared to focus their attention more specifically on these particular issues, rather than via class-based politics.

However, Miliband argues that these problems derive essentially from the existence of capitalism as a system in that it is working-class women, working-class ethnic minority members, and working-class gay people who are most likely to experience most strongly the effects of discrimination, and that it is the capitalist system which is the ultimate cause of environmental damage. He therefore believes that political unity among new social movements, socialist/social democratic parties and trade unions is essential if these issues are to be addressed effectively, and that greater efforts must be made to encourage working-class people to recognise the evils of ageism, sexism, racism, homophobia and environmental damage if progress is to be made. Thus, although class politics remains central to Miliband's strategy, he recognises the need for a coalition of progressive forces if radical [and anti-capitalist] change is to be achieved.

 Click here for information on Socialism for a Sceptical Age, Ralph Miliband's final book, published in 1994.

5.4. Neo-Marxism and Capitalist Class Structures: Erik Olin Wright

Marxist theories have sometimes been criticised on the grounds that his theory of class polarisation predicted the relative decline of the middle class, whereas in practice from the mid-19th century onwards it is very clear that, for a variety of reasons, non-manual employment has increased relatively to manual employment in capitalist societies, suggesting that the relative size of the middle class has actually increased rather than decreased. However, as mentioned at the beginning of this document, Marx did in his later work predict the growth of the middle class, and modern Marxists have also suggested that one should not equate the growth of non-manual employment with the growth of the middle class because routine non-manual clerical work has to a considerable extent been proletarianised such that many clerical workers can more accurately be described as members of the working class rather than as members of the middle class, although many non-Marxist sociologists have rejected the theory of the proletarianisation of the clerical worker.

Neo-Marxist theories which recognised the growth of the intermediate strata and the increased fragmentation of contemporary capitalist class structures were developed by Erik Olin Wright. In Wright’s first theory, he distinguishes between the capitalist mode of production and “simple commodity production”, and between social classes and contradictory class locations. Thus, the Bourgeoisie are a social class because they both own the means of production and exercise strategic control over the production process. The Proletariat are also a social class because they are non-owners of the means of production and have zero or negligible control over the production process. The Petty Bourgeoisie are small-scale owners of the means of production but do not hire labour. They are seen as a capitalist class but operating outside of the capitalist mode of production.

Other social groups are in contradictory class locations: managers and supervisors do not own the means of production but do exercise some control over other workers and over the production process; small employers own and control their means of production but employ very few workers; and semi-autonomous workers do not own the means of production but do have some control over their own labour. E.O Wright's first theory is illustrated in the diagram below.

In E.O Wright’s second model, class membership depends upon ownership or non-ownership of the means of production, credentials (i.e. qualifications), and degree of control in the work place. This leads to a 12-class model of the class structure with 3 ownership classes and 9 non-owner classes. The non-owner classes vary in terms of their possession of skill/credentialled assets and organisational assets. Thus, in the model there are several intermediate groups, although there is no single middle class, while the Proletariat has neither skill/credentialled assets nor organisational assets. There are clearly some similarities with a Weberian approach, given the high degree of fragmentation; Wright also admits that the working class may not be a revolutionary class. As a result, some sociologists have concluded therefore that his work is barely recognisable as Marxist, while Wright himself came to describe his theoretical approach as one of "pragmatic realism" in which he was prepared to combine differing approaches to class analysis.

[If you require more detailed information on Erik Olin Wright, Click here and here and here for Prof. Graham Scambler's blog posts on Erik Olin Wright.]

 [If you are intending to pursue your studies of social stratification in more detail, I strongly recommend that you read the work of Erik Olin Wright himselfClick here for the website of Erik Olin Wright and here for a recent article by Erik Olin Wright. Vi these links you will find some of Erik Olin Wright's detailed contributions to the development of Neo-Marxist scholarship. Erik Olin Wright passed away in January 2019 [R.I.P.].

 [Advanced Level Sociology students approaching the study of Marxism for the first time should begin with more introductory explanations of Marxist theories before consideration of Professor Wright's work, which is, however, mentioned explicitly in the Stratification and Differentiation option within the AQA syllabus, although for examination purposes students should concentrate on Professor Wright's models of the capitalist class structure which are discussed above.]

5.5. John ScottWho Rules Britain? [1991]

Modern Marxists have agreed that in the UK, as in other advanced capitalist societies, a dominant economic class continues to exist, deriving its income mainly from its investments and/or very large salaries. However, there are disputes as to the size and characteristics of this dominant economic class. For example, writers such as J. Westergaard and H. Ressler (Class in a Capitalist Society 1976) argue that this class represents perhaps 5%–10% of the UK population, whereas John Scott combines Marxist and Weberian insights to argue that in the UK a very small capitalist class comprising perhaps 0.1% of the population (about 450,000 people) exists, and that this small capitalist class is also effectively a ruling class. Scott’s analysis of this capitalist class uses the following analytical framework.

Entrepreneurial capitalists approximate to the Marxian Bourgeoisie. They are individuals who either own their companies outright or are majority shareholders, and they involve themselves very directly in the organisation and management of their companies.

Rentier capitalists are wealthy individuals who own large amounts of shares in more than one company. They do not take an active role in the organisation and management of these companies, but they take a keen interest in share price trends, and given their large financial holdings may well have a substantial influence on company policy.

Executive capitalists are directors and senior managers of large companies. They receive very high salaries and may also have substantial shareholdings in the companies which they control and manage, although their personal shareholdings will represent only a small proportion of the total shareholdings in those companies.

Finance capitalists are directors and senior executives of financial institutions such as unit trust companies, pension funds and banks which own significant proportions of company shares. They are appointed to boards of directors of companies in which their institutions have significant shareholdings and may well sit on the boards of more than one company.

John Scott also points out that the categories in the above table should be regarded as "ideal types" in the Weberian sense. In reality, individuals may simultaneously occupy more than one position within the above quadrants, and they may also move between the different categories. Thus, it is possible that an entrepreneurial capitalist will own significant amounts of shares in other companies, and that significant rentier capitalists may be co-opted onto the boards of companies in which they have significant shareholdings.

The role of finance capitalists in the determination of company policies has become increasingly important as an increasing proportion of company shares has come to be owned by financial institutions. Here John Scott presents data for the 1980s, but the trend is apparent also in the most recent data. Click here for recent data on institutional share ownership.

He then discusses long-term trends in the distribution of income and wealth, noting that from the 1940s to the mid-1970s there were trends toward greater income equality and, to a lesser extent, to greater wealth equality. but that these trends were reversed during the 1980s. He then argues that although the richest 1% of the population might be seen as especially affluent, "this is a much wider group than the capitalist class which is a considerably smaller group than the top 1%", and that "the core of the capitalist business class comprises about 0.1% of the adult population". He then presents data on the wealth of the most wealthy families within the core of the capitalist class in 1990, recognising that these can be regarded only as estimates since full data on wealth ownership are simply unavailable.

More recent data which were cited at the beginning of this document indicate that the increases in income inequality which occurred in the 1908s and 1990s have not been reversed in the last 20 years, and that wealth inequality remains very considerable. For example, Click here for a Parliament Research Briefing on Income Inequality in the UK, Click here for Rich List 2019 [BBC], and here for Rich List 2020 [BBC], which provides recent information on Britain's richest individuals and families.

In the final chapter of his book, John Scott argues that "Britain is ruled by a capitalist class whose economic dominance is sustained by the operation of the state and whose members are disproportionately represented in the power elite which rules the state apparatus. That is to say Britain does have a ruling class." Thus, although throughout his study John Scott does point to important differences between his analysis and that of Ralph Miliband, both authors do point to the very high levels of political influence of the dominant economic groups within UK society.

Thus Neo-Marxists have criticised theories of post-capitalism and updated Marx' theories of the class, state and revolution. They recognise that capitalist class structures have become more complex and fragmentary but continue to argue that ownership and non-ownership of the means of production remain important determinants of class membership and that, since capitalism is characterised by the private ownership of the means of production, classes are inevitable under capitalism. It is inevitable also that the economically dominant capitalist class [however defined] will also exercise considerable dominance over the activities of the state. In the context of modern capitalism, Marx's theories of working-class revolution require significant modification.


  1. Neo-Weberian Theories and ClassInequality

It has been argued that Marx's theory of social classes is inadequate in that he is said to have concentrated too much on the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie and failed to predict the growth of the middle class, although, as already mentioned, he did predict this in his later theories.

 Critics also argued that Marx underestimated the importance of non-class differences in societies. Gender and ethnic differences may be given inadequate coverage in Marxist theory.

 It is also claimed that Marx underestimated the importance of divisions within the main social classes – for example, the importance of the divisions between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled working-class people that might reduce their class solidarity and, therefore, reduce the likelihood of revolution.

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) made several important criticisms of Marx's class theories:

  1. A person's class position depended not only on ownership or non-ownership of wealth but also on their incomes, fringe benefits and opportunities for social mobility. These variables, combined together, described an individual'sMarket Situation.
  2. Capitalist societies could be divided into 4 main social classes: the propertied upper class, the property-less white-collar workers, the Petty Bourgeoisie, and the manual working class.
  3. Divisions within classes might occur as a result of divisions of status within these classes. While class, as we have seen, is basically an economic concept, status refers to one's standing or prestige in society. It might be the case, sadly, that black people have less status than white people in the UK, or that Catholics have less status than Protestants in N. Ireland, and these status differences may restrict the unity of the working class.
  4. Divisions within these social classes were more important than Marx thought. Such divisions might mean that the working class would never unite and that, as a result, anti-capitalist revolutions simply would not occur.
  5. In any case, even if apparent socialist revolutions did occur, they would serve only to entrench the powers of party and state bureaucracies rather than leading to the emancipation of the working class.

 From the 1950s onwards, Weberian sociologists have made very important contributions to the analysis of UK capitalism.

In Neo-Weberian analyses of the UK class structure, it is argued that although the UK class structure is fragmentary, it would certainly be incorrect to argue that the UK is becoming an increasingly classless society. Examples of the Neo-Weberian approach include the following (each of which are discussed in more detail in my documents on Weberian Theories of Stratification will be available shortly).

  •  The Proletarianisation TheoryThe Black Coated Worker and its aftermath
  • The Embourgeoisement TheoryThe Affluent Worker studies and their aftermath
  • The Oxford Social Mobility Study and the subsequent development of the NS SEC class schema.

 6.1. The Proletarianisation Theory: The Black Coated Worker and its aftermath 

 In The Black Coated Worker (1958), David Lockwood aimed to analyse the class position of clerical workers and to assess whether they were experiencing a process of Proletarianisation. In this study, Lockwood adopted a recognisably Weberian approach and measured the class position of clerical workers in terms of their market situation, their work situation and their status situation. His conclusion was that the class position of clerical workers was uncertain for the following reasons:

  1. In terms of their market situation, clerical workers, even in the 1950s, were earning less than many skilled manual workers

although they did continue to enjoy fringe benefits such as better working conditions plus sickness and pension schemes not available to manual workers.

  1.   With regard to their work situation, at least in relatively small-scale offices, clerical workers enjoyed closer working relationships with senior management than did manual workers, although this was changing in large open-plan offices and typing pools.
  2.   Clerical workers continued to enjoy a higher status in the community than did manual workers, although this, too, was changing.

 Insofar as the class position of clerical workers was gradually deteriorating, this could be explained by the facts that the expansion of education meant that many more people now had the skills necessary to undertake clerical work, and that trades unions had succeeded in gaining substantial pay increases for manual workers which meant that clerical workers no longer enjoyed an earnings advantage in many cases. As a result of this, clerical workers, too, increasingly joined trades unions. To repeat, Lockwood saw that the class position of clerical workers was changing, but he argued that by the late 1950s they occupied a position somewhere between the working class and the middle class.

There have been several more recent studies of the class position of the clerical worker, some of which accept the Proletarianisation Theory and some of which reject it. For example, John Goldthorpe has argued that clerical workers should not be described as working class because many of them are young and can reasonably expect to move on to managerial positions in later life, so they are unlikely to adopt a working-class identity during their relatively short time as clerical workers. Conversely, Rosemary Crompton and Gareth Jones have claimed that clerical work is increasingly done by women, and that their chances of promotion to managerial level are much smaller, such that they can be described as part of the proletariat or working class.

 Several complex issues are involved in the detailed analysis of the Proletarianisation Theory, but in view of the disagreements that exist between real experts in this area, it surely does seem reasonable to conclude that the class position of clerical workers is uncertain.

 6.2.  The Embourgeoisement Theory: The Affluent Worker studies and the fragmentation of the working class

 Just as the class position of routine non-manual workers has become uncertain, so it has been argued that the more affluent sections of the manual working class may have experienced a process of Embourgeoisement and become part of the middle class. There are several aspects to this theory, but it was heavily discredited in the 1960s in the work of Goldthorpe, Lockwood , Bechhofer and Platt. By the 1980s, as some working-class people experienced improved living standards, bought their own homes and shares in privatised industries, and increasingly voted Conservative, some people again began to argue in favour of the Embourgeoisement Theory. However, sociologists also pointed out that in many cases, middle-class living standards had improved even more, such that affluent manual workers might still be best described as a "new" working class rather than as part of the middle class. [I hope to provide further information on the work of Goldthorpe, Lockwood and co. and on criticisms of it by, for example, Fiona Devine in a subsequent document on the working class.]

Despite the Goldthorpe-Lockwood criticisms of the theory of Embourgeoisement in the 1960s, it was again argued by the 1980s that significant changes were underway in the economic circumstances and political attitudes of working-class people. It was argued that deindustrialisation had resulted in the decline of traditional industries and high unemployment in the regions where proletarian traditionalist attitudes had been most prevalent, but that working-class living standards had increased for those workers who remained in employment in more modern industries, and in these thriving areas especially working-class membership of trade unions and support for the Labour Party declined. Psephologists P. Dunleavy and Christopher Husbands explained differences in Labour support within the working class in terms of sectoral differences between workers, while Ivor Crewe posited significant differences in voting behaviour between a new working class and an old working class.

 As the living standards of manual workers in secure employment did improve significantly and more and more of them bought their own houses and shares in privatised industries, they were more likely to vote Conservative now than they had been in the 1960s, thus contributing importantly to Conservative General Election victories of 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992. Perhaps these voting patterns indicated that Embourgeoisement of some sections of the working class was underway by the 1980s, although other sociologists, while recognising that the working class had become more fragmentary, continued to dismiss the theory of Embourgeoisement on the grounds that, despite increasing working-class affluence, wealth and income inequalities had actually increased significantly. They also made important distinctions between the economic circumstances of working-class people and changes in their political attitudes as evidenced by their voting behaviour. Thus. for example, John Westergaard pointed out that in the 1980s and 1990s economic class inequalities were actually hardening and that declining working-class support for Labour should not be taken as evidence of increasing classlessness.

 However, it has been argued that the working class is an increasingly fragmentary class and that divisions within the working class seem to be increasingly important: divisions between skilled and unskilled workers; between those in secure work and those insecurely employed or unemployed; between northerners and southerners; between black and white; between men and women, and so on. The working class is indeed a fragmentary class.

Also, it has been argued that the 1980s saw the beginnings of the development of an "underclass" in the UK whose living standards and opportunities are significantly worse than those of the working class as a whole. Here sociologists have distinguished between structural and cultural variants of Underclass Theory. Structural views of the theory maintain that an underclass has developed because of changes in the structure of the world economy, resulting in the de-industrialisation of capitalist economies and mass unemployment caused by the relocation of manufacturing production to developing economies with lower labour costs. On the other hand, in cultural versions of the theory, underclass membership is said to derive from the development of dependency culture deriving from excessive expansion of welfare state support which needs to be cut back if the growth of the underclass is to be reversed.

 It is true that some sections of the working class are severely disadvantaged, but critics of the Underclass Theory argue that these disadvantaged groups are still visibly part of the working class as a whole. There has also been especial criticism of Charles Murray's variant of the Underclass Theory in which he explains the persistence of the underclass in terms of the cultural pathology of its members rather than in terms of wider structural factors which inhibit opportunities for disadvantaged groups no matter how hard they may try to improve their situation. Whether or not an underclass exists, the existence of mass relative poverty has major implications for the analysis of the UK class structure. I hope to provide further information on Underclass Theory in a subsequent document

 Most recently, further fragmentation of the working class and of the class structure in general has been evident in Scotland as attitudes to Scottish independence divided the social classes, and in the UK as attitudes to Brexit divided the class structure with absolutely monumental political consequences. I shall not consider these political issues here but merely reiterate that analysis of the working class from a mainly Weberian perspective has certainly emphasised the increasingly fragmentary nature of the working class.

 Marxists may well continue to emphasise the importance of the fundamental economic exploitation experienced by all members of the working class, but it certainly does appear that the divisions within the working class emphasised by Weberian sociologists have had major effects on the attitudes and behaviour of working-class people. However, although the Weberians emphasise class fragmentation, there is nothing in these Weberian theories to suggest that the UK is becoming increasingly classless.

6.3.  The Oxford Social Mobility Study and the subsequent development of the UK NS SEC class schema

In their study Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, John Goldthorpe and his associates developed an essentially neo-Weberian model of the British class structure to investigate patterns of social mobility in England and Wales. For purposes of the study, a 7-class schema based upon differences in market situation and work situation was developed, where market situation referred to “respondents' sources and levels of income, their degree of economic security and chances of economic advancement”, and work situation referred to "their location within the systems of authority and control governing the processes of production in which they were engaged and hence in their degree of autonomy in performing their work tasks and roles”.

 Goldthorpe and his associates subsequently made some modifications to this schema and came to use a class schema based upon a combination of employment status [distinguishing between employers, the self-employed and employees] and different forms of employment regulation [service contract, labour contract and intermediate contract] [see below].

 The Goldthorpe schema was subsequently adopted with some further modifications to form the basis of a new official system for the analysis of social-class membership known as the NS SEC Classification, which was introduced in 2001. The precise details of the current version of the NS SEC Classification are complex and may be found via the following link.

Click here for a full description of NS SEC Categories as of 2016, and Click here for a letter on social classes comparing the NS SEC schema and the GBCS Schema. I present below some of the main points from this publication.

  • The NS-SEC is an employment-based classification, but it can also be used to provide coverage of the whole population via the allocation of pensioners to appropriate NS SEC classes on the basis of their previous employment and the introduction of further separate categories for students, the unemployed and those who have never worked.
  • Individuals' allocation to their appropriate NS SEC classes depends upon their employment status: whether they are an employer, self-employed or employee, whether a supervisor, and upon the number of employees in their work place.
  • Individuals' employment situations are classified in terms of their labour market situation, their work situation and the nature of their employment contract.
  • "Labour Market situation equates to source of income, economic security and prospects of economic advancement", and "Work situation refers primarily to location in systems of authority and control at work although degree of autonomy is a secondary aspect.”
  • The NS SEC also distinguishes 3 forms of employment contract. This is explained in the above publication as follows:
  1. "Service relationship: the employee renders service to the employer in return for remuneration which can be both immediate reward [for example salary] and long term prospective benefits [for example assured security and career opportunities]. The Service relationship typifies Class I and is also present in weaker form in Class 2.
  2. Labour contract: the employee gives discrete amounts of labour in return for a wage calculated on the amount of work done or time worked. The labour contract is typical of Class 7 and in weaker form in Classes 5 and 6
  3. Intermediate: these forms of employment regulation combine aspects from both the service relationship and labour contract and are typical of Class 3."

It is then argued that individual occupations can be classified in terms of the different types of employment contract attaching to them and therefore be allocated to appropriate occupational classes within the NS SEC schema. Some examples are provided in the table below.

The NS SEC data can be presented in several differing formats, as is indicated in the document mentioned above, which refers to the following schema:

  • a schema based on 8 analytic classes.
  • a schema based on 16 operational categories and sub-categories.
  • "collapses" of the 8 analytic classes schema into 5 categories and 3 categories.

The most frequent presentation is in terms of 7 NS SEC classes combined with an 8th category for those who are long-term unemployed or have never worked. Also, in some formats data are included on full-time students and those whose occupational status cannot be classified.

Data based upon the 5 class categorisation are presented below and analysts also sometimes refer to a 3 class categorisation comprising the Service Class (NS SEC Classes 1 and 2), the Intermediate Classes [NS SEC class 3, 4 and 5) and the Working Class [NS SEC Classes 6 and7)

Some Recent NS SEC data

Click here, and then in the table of contents click on Section 8: National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS SEC) for data on the NS SEC in the 2011 Census, subdivided according to Gender.

 More detailed data on the distribution of individuals in the 2011 Census to the NS SEC social classes can be found here and here. I have used this source for my own calculations which appear in the following table. (The 2011 Census column calculations do not add up to 100% because of the inclusion of subdivisions of Categories 1 and 8 and also because of rounding.)

 The 2011 Census data can be updated using information from the Labour Force Survey data. In the following table I have used information from the Dec 2017 Labour Force Survey to calculate the distribution of individuals to NS SEC social classes; click here for two charts and tables based upon these data. The first chart refers to totals of employed people, and the second chart illustrates that there are significant gender differences in employment as among the NS SEC social classes. The Labour Force Survey data are based upon samples and thus provide a reasonable degree of accuracy but not necessarily total accuracy. Also note that LFS data do not include all of the categories included in the 2011 Census Data, which means that in relation to the percentages of individuals working in the 7 NS SEC categories, the Census Data and the LFS data are not directly comparable.

In relation to the NS SEC data it is important to note the following points:

  •  In Weber's original 4-class scheme, one social class contained property owners, and insofar as neither the original Goldthorpe schema nor the NS SEC schema includes a separate NS SEC class of property owners, they could to some extent be seen as departures from the Weberian 4-class schema.
  • Since the NS SEC schema is based upon employment status and occupation, it does not include as a separate class category of individuals who are independently wealthy and have no employment status or occupation. However, information is available here on the distribution of wealth related to the NS SEC categories; although, as expected, members of NS SEC Class 1 are most likely to own high levels of wealth, there are some very wealthy individuals among the never-worked or long-term unemployed category.
  • It should be noted that although the NS SEC schema is based upon employment status and occupation, it is not based in any way on the levels of skill associated with individual occupations, as was the case in the previously used Registrar General's Classification.
  • The schema is not fully hierarchical in that NS SEC classes 3, 4 and 5 are not listed in hierarchical order.
  • No distinction is made between non-manual and manual occupations as was the case in the RG Classification.
  • There are no references to the terms upper class, middle class and working class. Click here for an article by Graham Scambler which points to the limitations of the NS SEC [ and subsequently the GBCS] for the analysis of the higher reaches of the UK class structure.

 The NS SEC schema has also been used to illustrate the existence of significant social-class differences in educational attainment, as in the Youth Cohort Studies which were unfortunately discontinued in 2007, leading to the far from satisfactory procedure of using eligibility for free school meals as a broad indication of social-class membership. NS SEC data are also used to illustrate the existence of social class differences in enjoyment of good health and in life expectancy.

Click here for the most recent 2017 data on NS-SEC membership and life expectancy, which indicate that for men average (mean) life expectancy in 2017-2018 varied between 82.5 years in Class 1 men to 76.6 years in Class 7 men, and between 85.1 for Class 1 women and 80.8 for Class 7 women.

Thus, for Neo-Weberian sociologists, class inequalities continue to exist and to exercise a major influence on life chances.

    The NS SEC Classification and recent trends in the UK class structure

The NS SEC and Long-term Changes in the UK Class Structure

In the following diagrams the original NS SEC categories have been collapsed into 5 categories and estimates have been made for the distributions of individuals among these 5 categories prior to 2001, which is when the NS SEC Classification was first introduced. It is clear that since 1951 the proportions of male and female workers in the Managerial and Professional category have increased, and the proportions of male and female workers in the routine and semi-routine occupations have declined. The proportion of female workers in the intermediate occupations has declined, but it remains higher than the proportion of males in these occupations.

Male labour force by occupational class 1951-2016

Census and 2016 Annual Population Survey


Female labour force by occupational class 1951-2016

Census and 2016 Annual Population Survey



We may conclude that although Neo-Weberian theorists point to the increasingly fragmentary nature of the UK class structure and dispute classical Marxist theories of working-class revolution, they do not suggest that the UK is in the process of becoming an increasingly classless society. 

For Part 4 - Click Here