Book Review – Le Déclassement

Camille Peugny‘s Le Déclassement stands in the tradition of sociology of social stratification and social mobility. The book is composed of Peugny’s study on this topic, not just as a feeling of uncertainty and insecurity towards the future but as a socioeconomic reality that is both objectively measurable and subjectively experienced.

What the déclassement (I cannot find a proper English term  – apart from downward mobility – for this, so, I will keep the French concept or use downward mobility). According to Peugny, the déclassement refers to any individual who does not succeed in maintaining the social position of her parents. It is the opposite of the metaphor of the social elevator, symbolizing upward mobility or, as Peugny calls it, a social descalator taking an individual down the social ladder. What the study describes is this trajectory of individuals confronted with downward social mobility.

Such a definition implies that we are looking at intergenerational mobility both objectively (relatively easy to measure) but also subjectively in that individuals often use the social position of their parents as a point of comparison. Moreover, culture and socialization never really prepare individuals for the experience of downward mobility, especially when one has been socialized in privileged social classes with ample economic and cultural capital. The higher one is, the harder one falls.

In societies where success and getting ahead are highly valued and promoted, there is no doubt that downward mobility is stigmatizing especially when success and failure are defined as a reflection of one’s moral worth. One only needs to read the nasty comments made by Congress people regarding the long-term unemployed to see that mechanism at work. Of course, in the context of global competition and increased precarization, though, there has been some debate as to whether the social elevator is still fully functioning.

What Peugny aims to show then is that downward mobility is not an individual failure but a structural condition. This is sociological imagination 101, biography and history, personal troubles and public issues. The increased frequency of such downward mobility makes it a structural problem that actually suffers from a deficit of visibility as opposed to the homeless or the unemployed.

What Peugny’s study also shows is that the men and women who experience downward mobility also experience a reshuffling of their value system and that increased downward mobility goes a long way towards explaining the increased conservative turn of French politics.

Of course, Peugny starts his study with a bit a history, the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism and the rise of the post-industrial society with its great risk shift and the greater privatization of profits and socialization of risks and costs. Also mentioned is the impact of global competition on labor through greater flexibility, that is, insecurity as well as the increased polarization between the primary and secondary labor market.

As Peugny notes, as described by sociologists, the post-industrial society is highly unequal and unable to deal with the victims of the new global order. Increased stratification has indeed been amply documented for years by sociological research. This results is a progressive degradation of prospects for social mobility, greater immobility and downward movement for the generations following the Baby Boomers. As Peugny summarizes the data, upward trajectories are more difficult for the children of disadvantaged classes and downward trajectories are more frequent for the children of privileged classes.

Another structural factor playing a major part in social mobility has to do with the state of the economy when one enters the labor market. The very first years of one’s career largely determine one’s entire professional trajectory. One’s transition from college to workforce, largely influenced by the state of the economy, is key to one entire work life. In the US, 2/3 of one’s salary increase over one’s career can be attributed to the first 10 years of one work life.

And speaking of education, it is still true that education is a first protection against the risk of downward mobility. But of course, education is still part of social reproduction of inequalities which means that the already privileged are better able to protect themselves. What Bourdieu showed in the 1970s regarding the importance of cultural capital still holds today. Which means that the experience of downward mobility will be especially hard on those who were successful in school and find themselves in situation of overreducation and overqualification. This means that for the cohorts born at the end of the 1960s (lucky me!), higher risk of downward mobility is combined with higher educational levels.

This means that the notion of meritocracy is called into question. One usually discusses meritocracy by considering the triangle of (a) social origin, (b) educational level and (c) and social position of individuals. One measures meritocracy by measuring the link between (a) and (b) on the one hand, and (b) and (c) on the other. A more meritocratic society is a society where the link between (a) and (b) is weakening, that is educational prospects are less and less tied to social origin. But a more meritocratic society is a society where the link between (b) and (c) grows stronger, that is where education fully plays its part in allocating positions based on merits and not privilege.

So, as Peugny shows, there has been indeed a weakening of the link with (a) and (b) with mass education and especially greater access to higher education but this has not been accompanied necessarily with a strengthening of the link between (b) and (c) with an increase in the link between (a) and (c). Which means that the second condition for increased meritocracy is no longer fulfilled. Which also means that we witness two contradictory trends: elevation of the educational level with a degradation of the prospects of social mobility.

From a subjective point of view, there is no question that downward mobility is a source of social suffering triggered by the gap between aspirations created by the position of origin and the actual social position where one ends leading to a loss of confidence, a sense of loss of control and social disorientation and a reexamination of one’s identity since the downwardly mobile do not really know where they stand in the social space of positions. Downward mobility is a source of interpersonal conflicts and a shrinking of social networks.

The experience of downward mobility is a play in three acts: (1) high aspirations fostered by socialization and culture; (2) successful educational career. These individuals played the school game well and reaped the rewards; (3) the third step should be professional success, but instead is replaced by downward mobility. This disjunction between the first two elements and the third is what creates individual experience of frustration.

In societies characterized by cultures of individualism, this is especially hard for individuals to stomach since they feel they did everything right and got slammed at the end anyway and have a hard time applying the same individualistic explanation to their failure. So, as Peugny’s interviews reveal, these individuals re-write their biography to provide an acceptable frame to their failure and rationalize their situation (for instance by claiming a purely utilitarist or hedonistic of their professional situation) or they may blame the school system, the government.

For the downwardly mobile, there is also a sense of having disappointed their parents and wasted the sacrifices they made, as well as having broken the progressive social ascension throughout the generations. This means that downward mobility may also result in individuals isolating themselves from their families, in a form of retreatism as defined by Merton’s strain theory.

Downward mobility also has collective and political consequences, as mentioned above as downward mobility leads individuals to reexamine their system of values and beliefs. So, downward mobility is correlated with intolerant attitudes, hostility towards minorities and recent immigrants. Downward mobility is also associated with a combination of (a) authoritarian ethnocentrism against the Other, and (b) a closing of attitudes towards economic and social issues where the downwardly mobile tend to be hostile to economic laissez-faire but with a low level of social concern, that is, unlike members of the working class, the downwardly mobile are less concerned with reducing social inequalities.

This is not necessarily contradictory, for Peugny, as the downwardly mobile may blame a laissez-faire system for their failure but they also reflect a need to distinguish themselves (in Bourdieu’s sense off distinction) from other members of their social class or those below them (such as the unemployed). These downwardly mobile see themselves as different from the failures of society, those on government assistance, for instance. They create a moral division between the “good” unemployed (those victims of global competition or accidental circumstances) and the undeserving unemployed (lazy, dependent). They would, of course, belong to the first category and are keen on deploying their moral traits to the interviewers: having been good students and consistently employed is proof of moral worth where “being consistently employed” becomes the true measure of success.

As a result, this category of overrepresented among voters of the far right. As Peugny notes, because they are blue-collar workers or white-collar employees, they are against laissez-faire and for a strong protective state against global competition. But because they are downwardly mobile, they redefine their trajectory through a virulent discourse directed against those who dependent on state aid, those who do not work, the unemployed by choice, the immigrant stay-at-home mother with multiple children collecting family allocations. A fertile ground for the nationalist, far-right political parties.

Needless to say, structural problems have only structural solutions. Peugny does not spend much time on those but does suggest that there need to be mechanisms to improve the transitions from education to the workforce, as well as increased resources to higher education. Unfortunately, long before the recession, Western governments were already on the retreat regarding active public policy. After all, Sarkozy and his slogan of “work more to earn more” signifies a retreat of the state from workers’ lives. But this was only the latest iteration of the idea that the state is broke and so, individuals are on their own or that the state is too tied up with obsolete social functions and costs and that painful reforms are necessary (to be borne by the least privileged, there was money enough to bail out the financial world).

So, politically, there is not much hope to deal with the structural dimensions of downward mobility.

A must-read.

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