Zoe Williams on social mobility – essential reading for all with concern about inequality

Posted on

Zoe Williams has written an exceptional article on social mobility in the Guardian this morning. I strongly recommend reading it all but the kernel of her idea can be found in the following edited highlights. She says:

Social mobility sounds unarguable, but like so many other ideas that are apparently self-evident – the primacy of the "hard-working family", the ubiquity of "generations of worklessness" – its apparent simplicity is a cover.

[E]ven if social mobility was achieved, what is so great about a society in which the outliers of each class can move relatively freely up and down the hierarchy? What's so great about being able to escape the gutter, when the bulk of people are still in it?

Part of the reason that class has become so ossified is that, in this time of great inequality, the consequences of dropping from any given class to the one below it are severe – you would move heaven and earth to prevent your children fetching up in blue-collar employment when wages at the bottom are no longer enough to live on. No wonder people try to lock in their privilege by paying for education. The only rational solution to that is to work towards a time when there is less difference between the classes.

This new-soft-left alternative, where you fix it to fast-stream the clever kids out of deprivation, leaving the rest to blame themselves for their shabby prospects because they turned out not to be clever enough … well, obviously it's not what any sensible person would call communism. It's not what you'd call socialism either. It's not liberal egalitarianism, or any of those more fine-tuned theories that make it possible to be a leftie and still own a house. It's not left wing and, fundamentally, it doesn't make anything any better.

Even if the waters of the social fountain were in perpetual motion (and you can bet that Clegg doesn't mean that by "social mobility" – he's talking about other people's kids having the freedom to rise, not his own having the potential to fall), you'd still have to accept, even embrace, the idea of some people living and dying in the sludge. Who could ever line up behind such a laughably shoddy vision of the future, a world in which everything looks roughly the same, but each class has had a very slight reshuffle in personnel?

This debate, as it's framed by the coalition – do you believe in social mobility, or do you believe in sink or swim? – is bankrupt (like so much else). I don't believe in either.

I agree.

I don't want opportunity for a few to get rich and so change their individual fortune at cost to everyone else.

I want opportunity for all. And that does not come from mobility. That comes from serious redistribution. Nothing else will do.