Class-ifying London: Questioning social division and space claims in the post-industrial metropolis

Excerpt from Mark Davidson and Elvin Wyly

The composition and distribution – not the existence – of class in post-industrial London has changed, but the conflict engendered by continually rising inequality persists and mounts, despite what mainstream urban research asserts…

Street art by Banksy.

Street art by Banksy.

Post-industrialism, it seems, heralds a post-materialist, post-social-theory world without class antagonisms. Cities—the dense concentrations of inequality and terminal class conflict that inspired Marx and Engels—are now typically approached via theories and policies that carefully avoid any explicit reference to class politics. Richard Florida provides the most vivid example. Cities throughout the world urban system have sought Florida’s advice on how to begin or sustain economic revitalization, but all of the refined, market-tested PowerPoint performances conceal an essential paradox: attracting the creative class is about avoiding all serious thought about the fundamental meanings and inequalities of … class. Florida (and others such as Charles Landry, 2008, 1) preach and (re)create a rhetorical hegemony where class is stripped of antagonism, so that discussions of opportunity and wealth can proceed until eventually there is no need to even mention the word … class. The utopian kernel in this discursive web is the prospect of an inclusive and creative city where, given the right dose of technocratic efficiency (Žižek, 2006, 2), the city trenches of class divisions (Katznelson, 1981, 3) can finally be backfilled. The fact that this narrative continually emanates from the likes of Florida and Landry is not surprising. What is, however, is the increasing tendency for urban scholarship to reflect a similar politics.

Florida’s brand of post-industrial neoliberal utopianism is today widespread; both in academic and policy circles. Take, for example, both the current coalition and previous Labour governments in the UK. Here, poverty and inequality have consistently been reduced to the problem of inclusion; a technocratic concern where any notions of structural inequality—and associated demands for redistribution—have been all but erased (Powell, 2000, 4; also see Fincher and Iveson, 2008, 5). The same rhetorical recasting of social relations is evident elsewhere. In Europe, the concepts of poverty and social exclusion have become synonymous:

“the terms poverty and social exclusion refer to when people are prevented from participating fully in economic, social and civil life and/or when their access to income and other resources (personal, family, social and cultural) is so inadequate as to exclude them from enjoying a standard of living and quality of life that is regarded as acceptable by the society in which they live.” (EU Council; cited in Ferrera et al., 2002, p. 228, 6)

This re-imagination of socio-economic relations has therefore effectively recast social class as completely absent of antagonisms. For the post-industrial city, economic growth—by any means necessary—has become the unproblematic axiom of urban policy (Harvey, 1989, 7). Moreover, poverty and inequality are viewed not as (potential) consequences of economic growth, but rather inhibitors to this very mission (see Cochrane, 2003, p. 227, 8).

In this paper (full version available here), we wish to disrupt this uncritical framing of post-industrial urban social geography. Our intervention makes two main points. First, we draw upon debate in sociology and political philosophy to probe the claim that post-industrialism has heralded a transformation in urban class relations. Specifically, we question the assumption that long-term changes in the occupational structures of cities in the Global North mean that urban class relations have transcended the antagonisms of the industrial age. Although the traditional industrial working class has declined in cities such as London, UK, the antagonistic social relations that were the concern of their representative organizations (e.g. trade unions, the [old] Labour Party) have not. As such, we should not mistake the changing appearance of class structure with the disappearance of class antagonism. This mistake, we argue, has been at the centre of recent commentaries of urban social change and gentrification (Butler et al., 2008, 9; Hamnett, 2003, 10; see Watt, 2008, 11). Our second, and related, point uses the methods of classical factorial ecology to describe the contemporary class structure of London, a city recently used to support the idea of the middle-class city (Butler et al., 2008, 12). We find a social structure significantly changed from that of London in the 1960s, but one that still contains a significant working-class presence. Moreover, although this presence cannot itself prove the actual experience of antagonisms, it does demonstrate that the reading of declining antagonisms via an increasingly middle-class social structure is fundamentally flawed.


“Every component of gentrification, when radically analyzed, leads to the same conclusion, Hamnett’s facts, I suspect, if critically thought through, no less than Slater’s.” (Marcuse, 2010 p. 187, 13).

“How did we get here? Following the collapse of communism in 1991, Edmund Burke’s notion that “In all societies, consisting of different classes, certain classes must necessarily be uppermost”, … became the commonsense wisdom of the age.… A new market extremism came into play.” (Ali, 2012, 14)

“The division of the world economy into classes is a fact that is only ignored because it is so frighteningly obvious.” (Hitchens, 1994, 15)

In this paper we have argued that parts of the contemporary urban literature have stripped class of its antagonistic dimensions; separating social class from its relations to capital (Žižek, 1999, 16). We point to Richard Florida’s creative class thesis as an exemplar. In particular, we point to the fact that he pushes a class agenda, one based upon a utopian universalized upward mobility, which identifies no necessary socio-economic antagonisms. We also see this mirrored within the academic literature. Focusing on Butler et al.’s recent characterization of London as a middle-class city (2008), we highlight the (persistent) problem—accentuated by post-industrial change—of reading class relations from class structure schemas. Here, we argue that the Goldthorpe-inspired, neo-Weberian social class classification of the UK Census is problematic, not least because it maintains a theoretical basis developed from industrial circumstances. This is most notable in Butler et al.’s identification (2008) of middle-class growth (1981–2001) in the SEG 5.1 and 5.2 groups; a grab-bag of occupations with questionable class identity. More problematic, however, is the reading of a decline in class antagonisms from an uncritical usage of the class structure schema.

Through the acceptance of SEG 5.1 and 5.2 populations as firmly middle class and the paired characterization of expansion in these groups as London becoming homogeneously middle class, Butler et al. (2008, 17) bury London’s complex social geography. Using a classical factoral analysis, we produce an alternative reading of London’s social geography. We show the persistence of ‘working-class’ presence throughout London, in the very neighbourhoods and regions they have been mapped in the 1960s (Daly, 1971, 18) and 1980s (Congdon, 1989, 19). Through disrupting Hamnett’s professionalization thesis (1994), this is meant to recast debates over neighbourhood change, and particularly gentrification, where a macro-narrative of ‘middle-class-ization’ has meant the issues of displacement and working-class existence have been dismissed via a concomitant ‘replacement’ thesis (Hamnett, 2003, 20; also see Watt, 2009 21, on the class tensions within social housing).

This stated, our factor analysis certainly shows London’s ‘working classes’ to be diverse and socially and spatially fragmented. There are multiple industrial, ethnic, education and religious planes of division in the city’s socio-economic groups. The city’s middle classes, as demonstrated by the SEG categories themselves, are also diverse. What we therefore highlight here is the persistent problem of dealing with class structure (Wright, 2005, 22; Bourdieu, 1987). Without the archetypal industrial working classes from which to posit class positions (note: as we show, these might be in decline, but they are still present—not ‘lingering’!), divisions are more difficult to identity (Rancière, 1999, 23). Furthermore, without this group the mapping of class relations is made more difficult; being incapable of (problematic) simple transposition.

Yet, we follow Žižek (1999, 24) and argue the absence of this simple reading of structure onto relations is productive if not cast as a diminishing of class antagonism per se. Žižek draws upon Freud’s death drive as metaphor and follows Laclau and Mouffe (1985) to view antagonism as persistent:

‘There is no solution, no escape from it; the thing to do is not to “overcome”, to “abolish” it, but to come to terms with it, to learn to recognize it in its terrifying dimension and then, on the basis of this fundamental recognition, to try and articulate a modus vivendi with it.’ (Žižek, 1989, p. 5, 25)

Placed onto the neighbourhood scale, does this not provide us with a better way to approach the question of class and the city? A way to identify the ways in which capital necessarily generates conflict and antagonistic relations? A way to view the struggles over space and place that take place in gentrifying neighbourhoods? A way to understand inequitable geographies of investment? A way to understand how the commodification of housing erodes community? A way to understand why low-paid immigrants work evenings to clean the offices of the creative class? Our conclusion must be thus: that the characterization of the middle-class metropolis, devoid of antagonisms, existing as a space of elective belonging, performs a fetishistic politics. We must confront the ‘terrifying dimension’!

The following graphics and tables from the original full paper are available here:

Mark Davidson is Assistant Professor of Geography at the Graduate School of Geography Clark University Worcester, MA; Elvin Wyley is Associate Professor at The Pennsylvania State University; M.A.

See full article in CITY 16.4 here.


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