A lot of talk at the moment about the fact that Britain has the lowest social mobility of any developed country. It is quite a comment on the legacy of Thatcher and Blair that they have accomplished this, despite the fact that both were fulsomely committed to the opposite and both argued that their policies would achieve the opposite. It does not take much to answer the question of why mobility is shrinking, at least from the point of view of government policy.
But there are far more radical and important questions that need to be asked. The first is, why is there a ‘ladder’ at all? What is the ladder? The fact is that we neither recognise nor care how society really works, and that the mere existence of any ladders means that there will always be someone at the bottom. Does there need to be? If this the natural order? If it is, then it doesn’t sit well with the fact that for 90% of human history we managed to have classless, non-stratified social systems.
Of course, the scale and complexity of modern societies, especially after the rise of industrialism, amplifies the problems to a fantastic degree. But these revolutions also gave the tools, intellectual, social and political, to solve the problem. So why don’t we – even to the point that we don’t even recognise that the problem – the problem of the ladder itself rather than the rate of movement up and down it – exists any more?
Are we now wholly incapable of envisaging a world of practical equality? Evidently so.