Tell a Dutch inhabitant that the Netherlands is a class society and they would most probably disagree with you. However the gap between the higher and lower educated is increasing in terms of employment, housing and political participation: they live in separate worlds. A new class society has emerged based on educational differences. That people notice categorical differences is not necessarily a problem in itself, provided that people remain tolerant of such differences. However this is unfortunately not always the case. In a study on perceptions of class differences (soon to be published in Sociology), I found that higher-educated interviewees construct a moral hierarchy based on differences in educational level and personal development: greater moral worth is attributed to those who are educated. That people value one social category as ‘more worthy’ than another category is problematic: it reinforces segregation.
Class and crime
Is class still important in relation to criminal law? Several now dated studies provide evidence of class justice, notably in the prosecution and trail phase and to a lesser extent in the investigation phase. And while the judiciary is no longer an elite institution, access to legal aid has been cut back for those who cannot afford it, thus increasing injustice. As socioeconomic inequality has increased in the last decades, we should be concerned about class justice.
Simultaneously, the criminal justice system has widened its net to include the control of anti-social behaviour and disorder – think of broken windows policing. Controlling disorder is even more susceptible to class justice, as definitions of such forms of transgressive behaviour are ambiguous, being intertwined with interpretations of divergent lifestyles and debates on socio-cultural integration. Another more recent development that merits our attention is the shift of social control to citizens under the guise of active citizenship (in the UK they call it the Big Society). As it is particularly the higher-educated among us that are successful in exercising social control – having a voice in setting police priorities, mobilizing police and municipal resources – one can see why we should be concerned about class. Social control is imbued with class divisions because it is always about drawing normative boundaries,
Making class powerful
Access to education has spurred intergenerational mobility, however it has not eroded class hierarchy. Yet we wish to believe that everybody is of equal worth and that only our individual choices, and not our background, count. Class is a taboo. Individual freedom is the highest good and class conflicts with that ideal. Making an effort to develop and educate yourself makes you a more worthy person. Never mind that not everyone has the means or ability to develop themselves. In this view achievement is a choice, and if you don’t make that choice you are responsible for your own deprived position. Our neoliberal culture and politics which emphasize individual responsibility and consumption conceal class hierarchy and its structural causes. Class is powerful because it is hidden, Pierre Bourdieu argued. We are doing a good job of making class powerful.