Top Marx

Who Gets What?
May 12, 1995

Though John Westergaard has written comparatively little throughout his distinguished career in sociology, what he has done has been of a remarkably high scholarly standard and consistent in its adherence to a distinctively British version of Marxism. This has always combined close attention to empirical evidence with adoption of Marxist concepts, to most effect in Westergaard's (and Henrietta Resler's) powerful Class in a Capitalist Society.

In Who Gets What? Westergaard stays true to his Marxist roots, even though it is now unfashionable to do so. Marxism's central concerns - class inequalities - appear to many to have little if any relevance to the late 20th century when so much more is made of race and gender differences and highly variable lifestyle patterns.

But Westergaard makes his case for the relevance of class analysis in an unusual way for a Marxist. While most Marxists start their accounts with definitions that identify who does what, Westergaard's concern is with who gets what. He also has little time for looking at people's self-perceptions of class inequality. His primary concern is with class in itself, regardless of what the subjects may feel about it. The sociologist, he says, must be left to determine people's class from what they receive rather than from what they think. And Westergaard has little trouble in showing that a sharply unequal British class system survives, with a top one per cent forming the capitalist core, a further 2-3 per cent occupying the top rungs of the professions and the peaks of government and 30 per cent being the best-placed salariat.

The first part of the book is concerned to defend Westergaard's theoretical orientation that centres on distribution, chiefly against production-based ways of identifying class - he is cheerfully rather Weberian. The second part considers the role of public policy in influencing inequalities, focusing on the success and failure of the welfare state in taming the excesses of capitalism. While he is doubtful that welfare measures have made serious inroads into capitalism, some do challenge, at least potentially, the operation of capitalism. The third part is vintage Westergaard, with attacks on the "plain sociological blindness" that ignores the highly privileged and on the feminist overpromotion of gender inequalities to such a degree that these are given similar weight to those of class.

Westergaard's long-held reverence for testing propositions with an appeal to evidence permeates the book, in contrast with a tendency among some Marxists to let theory run away with them. If for nothing else, this book should be read for the judiciousness and calm reason of Westergaard's case.

But Westergaard is also passionate. He observes that the majority of people in Britain believe the present distribution of resources to be unjust. This empirical evidence accords with Westergaard's own commitment. Not surprisingly, he urges Labour to "break the mould" in ways that support widespread discontent with the present distribution of rewards. There cannot be much hope of that, but this book testifies most effectively to the salience and strength of Marxist sociology long after Marxism has been pronounced dead.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

Who Gets What?: The Hardening of Class Inequality in the Late Twentieth Century

Author - John Westergaard
ISBN - 0 7456 0107 3
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 204pp

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