By Max Lawson

Years ago when I had just joined Oxfam as a young policy adviser, I had written a policy paper on the subject of World Bank Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) which were at the time plans that all developing countries had to come up with to secure funding.  They were intended to be drawn up with the participation of all sections of society.  My paper was about best practice in doing this, drawn from my work with colleagues and allies in quite a few countries.  One of the conclusions was that the consultations should seek to include people from all backgrounds and classes.

I got the paper back from my bosses’ boss, the very scary head of policy and advocacy who I had barely spoken to at that point. It had red pen throughout, and on the front it said, ‘good paper but please remove all reference to the world class- Oxfam is not a Marxist organisation.’

My feeling is that this reaction to class analysis is still very much the norm. I think it is a terrible shame, as it brings a poverty to our understanding of the greatly unequal modern world, and what needs to be done to fix it.

Class, and a class analysis, was such a huge thing in the past. Seeing things from a class perspective was automatic and often profound in what it revealed about society and people.  I think of the incredible history books written by Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson, writing history from the point of view of working-class people, rather than the soap opera of Kings and Queens.  They really turned my mental world upside down and made me rethink everything I thought I knew.

The contrast with today’s world is I think is dramatic.  Every so often issues of class come up, but rarely outside of narrow bits of academia.  It feels a bit like the scene in planet of the apes when they uncover the ruins of a former civilisation.  The phrase ‘working class’ is still used by some politicians, notably in the United States, but generally a systematic understanding of the impact of class on society is pretty much gone. 

I am guessing but I think the reason for this amnesia is partly tied up in the response to my paper from my big boss all those years ago.  There was a sense that a class analysis and being a Marxist were the same thing, and that as Marxism faded and the cold war ended, so did the idea of social class as a way of understanding society.  It is also in some ways a wilful amnesia because the ruling classes would always prefer not to be singled out and identified.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the demise of class analysis and a class narrative has gone hand in hand with an explosion in economic inequality and the fortunes of the super-rich. This is unfortunate, because looking at people’s socio-economic background and how that impacts on their life chances is not necessarily the same as calling for a wholesale end to capitalism.

The power of a class analysis

Very often a class analysis can explain why something has happened the way it has, and it is an invaluable tool in understanding politics and power dynamics in a society. I remember a good book from some years ago called ‘Africa works’ which used a class analysis to make the point that the simplified presentation of many states in Africa as ‘failing’ is not useful.  Better to see these states as actually succeeding extremely well for a certain ruling economic class; the authors maintained that explains much better the continued ‘failure’ of states.  This capture of politics by a specific class is vital to understanding why progressive policies consistently fail to happen, something we have sought to explore in Latin America in our work on political capture. Basically, there is no need to be a Marxist to feel that class is incredibly important and useful as a frame of analysis.

Class is about economic power, but it is about so much more, notably the way that money is transformed and consolidated through society and culture into a myriad of different ways in which people differentiate themselves.  The way we speak, the way we eat, the clothes we wear, our views and understanding. The social networks, the friends, the connections.   The multiplicity of ways in which we differentiate ourselves from one another in terms of our socio-economic background. How these multiple signals conspire to project a negative picture of those from the working class, form a barrier to access, and justify privilege.  In this way I think class is a far richer frame of analysis than terms like ‘the rich’ or ‘the poor’ or even ‘elites’.

My wife, who is a from a working-class background in the UK remembers well how much she felt like an impostor; having to put on a particular accent and behave in certain ways to fit in, ‘to play the game’.   It was all about the subtle social and cultural signals that constantly reminded her she was an outsider.

Is socio-economic class a uniquely British thing that is not relevant in many countries?  I don’t think so. Talking to colleagues and friends from many different places over the years I think that your socio-economic background and class is relevant in most places. And I think it makes sense that it is most relevant in countries that are the most economically unequal, and that includes almost all of the global south.  

I think instead the British influence is more insidious.  All over the British empire the colonial policy was to divide and rule. First to solidify and clearly demarcate social divisions in society and then to privilege one group over another.  This was perhaps most evident in India for example, where ancient divisions were concretised and solidified into the byzantine system of caste classification under the rule of the British.

This association of caste with colonial rule led to a strong demand at independence with the constitution of 1950 to put mechanisms in place what Piketty has called the ‘most systematic affirmative action policy every attempted anywhere’.  By the mid 2010’s, more than half of the Indian population qualify for some form of affirmative action, such as reservations for places in higher education or the civil service for those from so-called lower castes.

The story of India is instructive in other ways.  Despite having an elaborate system of reservations in place to ensure the so called lower castes are represented, this system has largely failed.  This in turn is I think because India remains a deeply unequal country, and one that has largely failed to put in place the progressive taxation and universal public services needed to benefit the vast majority of Indians, and to reduce inequality.  At around 1% of GDP India spends less on health than almost any other nation in the world, a fact that was starkly apparent when the Delta variant swept the country earlier this year.

We also have witnessed a sharp rise in atrocities against Dalits and Tribals in India – a response to some from these groups breaking through clutches of caste and gaining wealth/ jobs/ etc, showing how the social and cultural prejudices are so relevant too.

Just as with gender, ethnicity, religion or race, making room for a few working-class people in managerial positions is no guarantee of a more equal or fairer society on its own.   Particularly if these spaces are bestowed from above rather than fought for from below. 

But that does not mean we should not be seeking to do so.

Every organisation should be collecting and publishing statistics for a start and seeking to tackle the class ceiling.  Measuring the size of a problem and publishing this information is a very important step towards challenging prejudice.

I was really interested to see that this is what the accounting giant PWC are doing. In their annual report for 2021 they publish data not only on the class make up of their staff (15% come from a working class background compared to 56% of society) but also the class pay gap; the median pay gap between staff, including partners, from higher and lower socio-economic classes was 12.1 per cent. 

Our own organizations that are working on fighting against inequality and for social justice could learn from this. We hear often across our sector that we don’t collect data on class. At a meeting on increasing diversity in Oxfam about ten years ago I asked HR how many people in Oxfam come from working class backgrounds and I was told that we don’t collect statistics on that.  I wonder what the equivalent headline would read for our sector in a country like the UK: “XX per cent of Big INGOs staff hail from higher socio-economic class”.

Far from diminishing this would only enrich our understanding of power and inequality in the workplace. It would also enrich understanding of gender and race, with which class so often closely intersects, and which it is of course just as important to collect data and take action on.

This kind of effort could also contribute to of a broader rapprochement with socio-economic class and an indispensable way of understanding how our societies work, and how they could work a lot better.

But it can only ever be a start. It is particularly ironic for example that PWC is leading in this area of publishing statistics on class whilst dedicating their best and brightest staff to helping huge corporates avoid tax on an industrial basis and fuel ever growing inequality.

Ultimately what is needed is not just a bit more room at the top for a few people who are not posh. It is about radically reducing the gap between the top and the bottom altogether. 

Max is theHead of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Chair of the global People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Image Credits

  1. Featured image: Photo by Leon on Unsplash
  2. Report Cover Page. Rosa Cañete Alonso. Captured Democracies: A Government for the Few, 2018:
  3. Image of the British Raj:
  4. Article Screenshot, “PwC: 80 per cent of Big Four’s staff hail from higher socio-economic class”: