Social mobility -- down and up? Like Roman slaves?
Listening to Gordon Brown waxing lyrical in another pre-election address, this time about social mobility, you wonder if he (or his think tank) have quite thought this one through.
No-one could possible object to the slogans: "opportunity and reward cannot be hoarded at the top and it is not enough to protect people at the bottom"; "the glass ceiling is not merely to be raised but broken"; plus a promise of the "biggest wave of social mobility since the second world war". Who, apart from the loony right, would ever get up and argue that the poor should stay poor no matter what their talents were, or that the glass ceiling should stay firmly intact....or that we should energetically push BACK such elements of social mobility as have been achieved since World War II?
But no political argument to which it would be impossible 'in polite society' to object is worth the paper it is printed on or the airwaves on which it is disseminated. It is, in other words, only a slogan, not an argument.
In this case the real questions are twofold. First: HOW are we going to deliver on the promise of social mobility? The usual answer of 'blame Oxbridge for our ills and interfere with the well thought out system of university admissions in the <false> name of fairness' wont do.
The second is even more important, and usually neglected: namely, how are we going to manage the downward social mobility of some that must inevitably be the consequence of upward social mobility for others -- unless (on our current system) we imagine a period of unparalleled economic growth combined with the import of an underclass (with no upwardly mobile prospects) to do the shitty jobs that are left unfilled. All social progress has losers as well as winners. It is often, and probably correctly said, that the increase in numbers of women students at Cambridge in the 1980s (which, needless to say, I wholly support) came at the expense of working class boys (which I deplore).
The answer in the general social mobility case must be that government needs (or better WE need) to work towards a system in which success and social hierarchy are differently configured, and in which the thrusting upwardly mobile are not forced simply to trample on others on their way to the top, or wave them goodbye from above (sending the odd food parcel), or look happily on as others tumble down past them. Can we imagine a society in which if I leave my job as garbage collector, I am not simply forcing someone else into the undesirable place I have left? Doesn't this mean thinking again about what we value and what brings status and rewards? And how pay is distributed? (Is it awfully old fashioned Socialism to suggest that an interesting job is in part its own reward?)
You might think that ancient Rome was a paradise of Brown-style upward social mobility.
After all, it is clear that in those Italian towns about which we know much (Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum...) a considerable proportion of the citizen body in the early empire was made up of ex-slaves moving up into the full Roman citizen body. But it wasn't a simple case of massive upward mobility that we could replicate.
For a start high rates of mortality caused sufficient gaps in the hierarchy that men (and it was only men) could travel upwards to fill those gaps without others having to travel down. Secondly, the ex-slaves had usually replaced themselves before they left slavery (with children born to slaves in slavery before they were freed providing the next generation of slaves). And third, there was indeed a vast underclass from which to draw -- the rural and industrial slaves, who rarely if ever won their freedom and who could be slotted into the places left by the freed slaves, on their ambitious way upwards. Not to mention of course a few captives in war.
Brown needs to do a lot better than the Roman model.