Friday 10 December 2010

What is 'class'?

Class divisions in society are often thought about as divisions between 'haves' and 'have nots', rich and poor, etc. This is too shallow a perspective. I think class is really a social dynamic where different sections of society, demarcated by the types of language game they play, do not look after each other. Their games become exclusive and detrimental to one another as they seek to continue to play their game knowing that its continuity is at the cost of others being able to continue theirs. In passing the legislation of student fees today, the government has set up such a social dynamic. This will no-doubt resurrect old-fashioned radicalism and the 'class war' discourse. But that discourse is deficient, and I believe the real challenge is to understand better the injustice in what has just happened so that we might do something constructive about it.

I have always been a bit sceptical of 'old-fashioned' radicalism. After all, we all seem to be 'middle class' now - aren't we? The events today are making me think. The image of the day is that of the shocked Charles and Camilla as their car is attacked by student protesters. There is little doubt that the legislation passed today is no 'skin off the nose' for the rich, and unfortunately for them, Charles and Camilla are the epitome of 'the rich'. The legislation will enslave the poor in financial arrangements over which they have no control.

In helping to solve the Universities' problem (actually, only the 'posh' universities' problem), the legislation creates huge problems for those learners who do not happen to have rich parents to bail them out in their education. I think the problem is basically one of 'positioning', and Rom HarrĂ©'s work is very useful to help unpick it.

Universities and the government have 'positioned' learners as consumers of (reified) learning services. The inauthenticity of this position is probably its most debilitating effect. There's little learners can do to escape it. However much they know deep down that education is a human good (and as such is ultimately political), the positioning has been done in an authoritarian way, exploiting the controlling privilege the governing class (the language game played by those in power) has over everyone else in its effort to continue its existence unchanged. It is important to remember that such authoritarianism is what any government does at some level. The great Islamic political philosopher Ibn Khaldun's definition of government is instructive: "an institution which prevents injustic, other than such as it commits itself". But that's a definition which identifies the most unpleasant and the best regimes in history as forms of government. But the difference between good and bad governments lies in the way they 'position' what they govern.

In HarrĂ©'s theory, authoritarian positioning robs the individual of that part of the self which establishes itself through social discourse: there is no discussion; you are told what you need. But the biggest surprise in all of this - and the fact which belies the category error at the heart of the government's thinking - is that suddenly students everywhere are finding their voice, and saying in unison what everyone knows deep down: education is political! Education is ultimately about how we should look after each other in a society. In that discourse, the social dynamic of 'class' really matters because it is precisely about looking after each other (or not...). It is about positioning each other well, leading a good life.

Maybe the category mistake of tuition fees has short-circuited politics back into education...

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