Is Class a Zombie Category?

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Is class a zombie category? - by Daniel Byrne

‘Talent is 21st century wealth. … It is the nation's only hope of salvation … Not equal incomes. Not uniform lifestyles or taste or culture. But true equality: equal worth, an equal chance of fulfillment, equal access to knowledge and opportunity. Equal rights. Equal responsibilities’ (BBC, 1999). This section of Tony Blair’s speech, given in 1999 during a Labour Party Conference, is one of many ways how one could have introduced this subject. However, this specific one points to something which is taken for granted, namely true democracy. If one works hard at it, this will one day pay off. This could be a starting point for what Ulrich Beck (2000) calls ‘zombie categories’. According to him, we are free from traditions and from uniformity and are striving for individualization. Hence, traditions die and leave ‘zombies’ behind, categories which are ‘dead long ago but still haunting people’s minds’ (2000: 80). One of these categories, which Beck claims, have turned into a zombie category, is class. To get a better grasp of what is meant by this and where Beck’s ideas come from we shall first seek to define the individualisation concept, on which the ‘zombie category’ concept is dependent, and its opposite - the ‘social class’ concept. Secondly, we shall give a general definition of ‘zombie categories’ and its implications. Thirdly, we will look at negative and positive aspects of individualisation theories. And finally, we will conclude that there is no ‘pure’ individualisation, which means that class must still to a certain extent be alive. We will thus be able to put forward a different approach, which seeks to include both individualisation and class as legitimate concepts. Before I start defining what a ‘zombie category’ is, it is important to understand Individualisation theory. Individualisation is considered to have emerged mainly through Globalisation (i.e. communication and transportation which are increasingly conducted on a world scale thanks to advances in technology) (Bauman, 2000) and Neo-liberalism, which is the current political and economical trend towards a global, ‘flexible, open labour market’ (Standing, 2011: 7). The main founders of this theory (Beck, Bauman and Giddens) agree on several aspects of how it is constituted: The most important component in the Individualisation process can be found in ‘reflexivity’ (Giddens, 1991). Firstly, Beck and Beck-Gernsheim describe this phenomenon through a shift from lifelong projects to ‘reflexive’ biographies (2002: 2). According to this, individuals are becoming more and more ‘obsessed’ with reconsiderations of their own identity, not only because acceptance of new identities in societies has increased but also because identities or roles can be altered whenever this is felt to be convenient, since ‘shaping [identities] is easier than keeping them in shape’ (Bauman, 2000: 8). Secondly, lifelong projects also are turning into ‘do-it-yourself’ biographies (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002: 3) through institutionalised individualisation. This is illustrated by Margaret Thatcher’s (1987) description of society as non-existent: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.” (Thatcher quoted in Steele, 2009) According to Individualisation theorists, people are encouraged to reflect on themselves and responsibilities have knowingly been put on the individual citizen, so that ‘do-it-yourself’ biographies have become the new foundation of society. The same trend towards individualisation is reflected in David Cameron’s ‘Big society’ where ‘people don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities’ (Number 10, 2010). The third...
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