Social Class in Europe: New Inequalities in the Old World by Cédric Hugrée, Etienne Penissat, and Alexis Spire

Book Review by Ben Wray

Everyone interested in the politics of Europe should have this on their bookshelf. It is remarkable that it hasn’t been done before now, but Hugrée, Penissat and Spire – three French sociologists – have for the first time written an empirical account of social class at the European level, and do so in a superbly dynamic and interesting way.


Looking at Europe through the lens of social class – and taking Eastern Europe as seriously as the west – illuminates the material tensions which under-gird the surface level movements in European politics. The authors identify clear socio-economic trends in class formation, and how these in turn affect the politics of class (“mobilised classes”).

The key finding of the book is that differences between social classes have been “accentuated by the process of European construction”, even as the language of class politics has declined precipitously in that time. The EU’s liberalisation of trade and people under Maastricht and Lisbon, without concomitant social protections, has forged a capitalism that is “extensively Europeanised, and class relations along with it”.

A divergence can be observed between north & west Europe (the Scandinavian countries, and the UK, Ireland France, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany), where standards of living are higher, the working class is smaller and the benefits of liberalisation are greater, and south & east Europe (from Portugal to Poland), where poverty and precariousness is more widespread, the working class is larger and the impact of continent wide “re-locations” of capital and people acts to reduce working age populations through emigration while intensifying corporate domination of their economies by north & west Europe.

A new European division of labour has thus developed, as “the former countries of the east and those of the south effectively constitute the workshop, the market garden and the breadbasket of countries in the north and western Europe.” In the richer countries, “skilled service jobs predominate”, and they also have a disproportionate share of people in “dominant class” positions, especially in the financial sector.

Meanwhile, the emigration of people out of central and Eastern European has provided the dominant classes elsewhere with low-paid domestic workers and house-builders to exploit, applying “downward pressure” on the wages and conditions of workers in those sectors. The working class has been exposed to international competition, but the same sort of labour market movement from east to west is more difficult at the top end of the labour market – few Romanian and Hungarian CEOs are competing for jobs in London and Paris. If anything, the movement of workers among the dominant class predominantly works in the other direction, with northern and western capital sending their own people to head up subsidiaries in eastern and central Europe. The authors show how European liberalisation looks very different depending on which country, and what class, you are in.

The authors counter the widespread view that the middle class in eastern and central Europe has under-gone a transformation in living standards since European integration, instead arguing that while this section may be middle class on an EU-wide scale, in their own countries they make up the dominant class; a thin managerial layer that has benefited from privatisation and foreign direct investment from north and western European capital. They now secure that wealth behind gated communities, with the gap between them and the working and lower middle classes growing. This is a theme of the book – common sense assumptions about the affects of European integration are often blind to class dynamics, and thus “deceptive”.

“Macroeconomic indicators suggest a relative narrowing of the gap between the countries of the East & South and North & West,” Hugrée, Penissat and Spire find, “but behind this deceptive image of overall increase in wealth, the economic changes have mainly benefited a minority, and have increased inequality between regions.”

The explanatory power of a social class analysis in making sense of the systematic disadvantages women (especially working class women), face in the distribution of economic power in Europe is clear here, as well as the fact that immigrants to the EU are generally working low-paid, precarious jobs (cleaners being the single largest foreign labour category). Far from class analysis ignoring inequalities of race and gender, it can illuminate its true form within the social structure.

Class structure

The basis of the book’s analysis is an innovative conceptualisation of class structure, which includes both financial wealth and ‘cultural capital’, a mixing of Thomas Piketty with Pierre Bourdieu. Which groups of workers should be in which categories can always be a subject

of debate, and it is easy to pick holes in the authors’ formulation, but it has a number of advantages.

The working class: The authors see the working class as combining two broad sections of workers – manual workers, and white-collar workers. This is also broken into skilled and unskilled, so that the four segments of the working class are: skilled white-collar workers (e.g. nursing assistants) at seven per cent, small-scale self-employed workers (e.g. farmers) at 15 per cent, skilled manual workers (e.g. machine operators) at 38 per cent, and unskilled manual workers and white collar workers (e.g. retail assistants, agricultural labourers) at 40 per cent.

So this schema excludes more high-skilled sections of workers like nurses and IT technicians from the working class, but what it captures is the section of workers which tend to be most exposed to insecurity and international competition, as well as being politically “excluded” (a point we will return to). It also shows that the idea physical exertion has disappeared in Europe is a bit of a myth; 50 per cent of the working class still have jobs which involve ‘carrying or shifting heavy loads’, while 65 per cent work standing up.

The differences in size of the working class under this schema in different European countries shows its utility from the point of view of this study: it highlights the divergences in the division of labour across Europe. The working class in Portugal, Spain and Greece in Southern Europe and the whole of Eastern and Central Europe is the majority of those who work. The European average of the working class is 43 per cent; the single largest group in society but not the majority. In all the countries of north & west Europe, the working class is smaller than the average level.

The middle class: Hugrée, Penissat and Spire see the middle class not simply as the middle in terms of financial wealth, but at the “interface between the working class and the dominant class”, in terms of its relationship to power at work and in society more broadly. There are four key divisions within the middle class, which reflect the potential for this class section to split politically, towards either allying with the dominant class or with the working class. The division between public and private sector, with the public-sector middle class tending to be more socially aware while the private sector middle class are focused on the merits of hard-work, and an upper and lower division, between those with “a certain degree of autonomy” and those “in positions of subordination”.

The widespread view of the “squeezed middle” due to austerity since the austerity era began post-2008 is viewed as largely mythical here, with the authors finding that the middle class has been “relatively protected”, with only 5 per cent of middle class workers over 25 years old made unemployed during the Eurozone crisis of 2011. Risk of unemployment is far higher among the working class. On average, the middle class represents 38 per cent of employed people in Europe, with the European division of labour again clear here, as the countries with a middle class above the mean primarily being those in the north and western Europe.

The dominant class: This is possibly the most controversial of the authors’ class schema, opting for a broader definition of the elite than is perhaps typical of a left-wing analysis. The dominant class represents 20 per cent of the European population here, and includes engineers, lawyers and even artists and journalists. The idea is to identify those who are “linked to the globally privileged group”, and thus who’s interests are clearly aligned with its success.

There are some contradictions with this formula. Hugrée, Penissat and Spire include “precarious intellectual workers” – journalists, artists, researchers, web designers – within the ‘dominant’ category because of their high-level qualifications and cultural connections, despite the fact the authors acknowledge this does “not protect against certain forms of marginalisation”. How can one be both dominant and marginalised?

However, the dominant class conception does have a number of factors in its favour: 1) it identifies all those who have close proximity to power, with influence over regulation, employee working arrangements, and a clear path for career progression towards the top of the ladder. It seems broadly correct to say that this is a class of people who’s interests are in general aligned with those of the system. 2) The breadth of this class definition means it is large enough and there is sufficient European survey data for comparative purposes with the middle class and working class on views, voting patterns, etc. This allows for an inter-section of economic class analysis with political class analysis which is the book’s strength. 3) Economically speaking, this section of society are those most tied into financial capital. The accumulation of financial wealth as well as high-incomes is what distinguishes the upper end of the middle class and the bottom end of the dominant class, and the authors clearly show that the “higher one climbs up the social hierarchy, the more tightly entwined financial and cultural capital become.”

Unsurprisingly, the dominant class are by far the most active in European business and politics settings, they are well-travelled and often educated in another European country from that of their birth. And again, this class group is generally constitutive of the dichotomy of a continent divided between north & west and south & east.

Social class and European politics

The stark realisation when reading the final section of this book is just how clearly political divisions map on to class divisions in Europe today.

First of all, European politics is made up of people overwhelmingly from the dominant and middle classes. One in two MEPs are from the dominant class, with one-fifth graduating abroad. Meanwhile, the working class is almost entirely unrepresented in terms of political representatives in Brussels.

In non-parliamentary groups like lobbies and advocacy organisations, the working class has little more representation. Even in terms of trade union membership, just 9 per cent of the working class are in trade unions, compared to 13 per cent of the middle class and 15 per cent of the dominant class.

“The entire base of the social hierarchy is excluded from political life,” the authors find.

In terms of EU policy outcomes, it is difficult to find policies from Brussels that specifically favour the working class. Erasmus “favours socially advantaged students”. Lorry driver and post worker directives have worked to undermine “protective standards created at national level”. The Common Agricultural Policy has been to the advantage of big, commercial farming over small family farms. In the Eurozone, caps on public spending have “eroded” welfare systems, and “have not been replaced or supplemented by forms of social security shared across countries”. The elimination of exchange rate devaluation and the ECB’s primary goal of price stability has left the “cost of labour” as “the last remaining adjustment variable for national economies”. It should not be surprising that political exclusion at European level generates policy outcomes which weaken working class power.

And in terms of voting patterns, again the class distinctions are clear. Europe is a major political issue in almost every European country now, but “these new class conflicts” are “not located in a European arena of mobilisation: they remain confined within national boundaries.” It’s in national (rather than European Parliament) elections that the working class are most likely to mobilise, as well as in referendums.

“Support for Europe is higher among managers than among manual workers and unemployed people, higher among graduates than those whose studies were limited, and higher among city dwellers than among those living in rural areas,” the authors find.

Fifty-seven per cent of senior managers and professionals voted for Remain in the UK 2016 referendum, compared to 36% of manual workers, low-skilled workers and unskilled manual workers. Similar demographics are observable in the Irish and French European referendums. In the Greek memorandum referendum in 2015, doctors, lawyers and engineers voted for the Troika’s deal, while 72 per cent of the unemployed voted against.

These class dynamics in European politics has created unusual party-political bedfellows. “Left-wing parties”, Hugrée, Penissat and Spire state, “find themselves trapped between the high expectations raised by social Europe and the failure to meet them.” Meanwhile, “the radical and far right…thrive on the hostility of the neoliberalism imposed by European shackles”. In lieu of an alternative which seeks to satisfy the demands of the working and lower-middle classes, the radical right have “succeeded in transforming social discontent into national withdrawal”. What of the radical left?

“While attempts to reform the European Union in a more ‘social’ direction have failed, an increasing number of parties of the radical left are considering a possible exit from the European Union or at least the eurozone: La France Insoumise, the Portuguese Left Bloc, Podemos in Spain, Die Linke in Germany, etc,” the authors find. “For many of them, defending the protective framework of the national state can be a short-term response to social dumping and the dismantling of the public sector.”

As an alternative to “national withdrawal”, the authors advocate EU-wide social labour law policies such as a 3 per cent limit on unemployment, above which countries are sanctioned, and a “maximum rate of precariousness”.

“By initiating a project that highlights the need for a European labour law, social protection and public services, and drawing on the opportunities offered by digital technologies, trade unions and voluntary organisations could propose systems of solidarity and protection favourable to the most precarious occupational groups, such as Uber drivers or Deliveroo workers,” they write.

These are laudable ideas to put the interests of the working class at the forefront of European politics, but what Hugrée, Penissat and Spire have expertly illuminated is the crystal clear relationship between dominant class power and outcomes which serve dominant class interests. It’s difficult to see how the latter is reversed, without first tackling the roots of the former.

Whatever political conclusions you wish to draw, the materialist analysis of social class in this book offers a sound basis upon which a genuine debate about political strategy on the European left can take place.

Social class in Europe: New inequalities in the old world by Cédric Hugrée, Etienne Penissat, and Alexis Spire.

English translation by Rachel Gomme with Eunice Sanya Pelini.

Published by Verso

ISBN: 978-1788736282

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