‘You never will be a rock star’: Britain, social mobility and the exploitation of hope

Britain once feared the 'excessive desires' of the 'undeserving poor'. Today, the myth of a socially mobile UK is built on the promise that everyone can reach the stars: the production of irrational hope and the canny management of disappointment.
Ansgar Allen
11 November 2011

“You’re not a rock star, you never will be a rock star and the only big thing about you is your hair”.  This was the crushing verdict of X Factor judge Louis Walsh last Saturday.   It sparked an almighty row across the panel with Kelly Rowland replying: “Louis I think you’re out of order for telling someone what they’ll never be”.  

This indignant riposte went to the crux of the matter.  Who, today, has the authority to tell us what we are capable of achieving?  We must be allowed the freedom to find ourselves, and then once we have done so, to find and define our own individual path to success.  Nobody has the right to limit what we can hope for, not even Louis Walsh.

At its most basic, the X Factor is a programme about social mobility.  It provides the propellant for a lucky few to rise up the socio-economic scale to riches.  Beyond the narrow existence of Walsh and Co, the issue of social mobility is one that generates heated debate:

Can talent rise to riches?  How much overall mobility is there in society?  When has it risen in the past?  Why did it rise?  When did it fall and who was to blame?  Take, for example, the universities minister, David Willetts, who earlier this year blamed feminism?

Soon many will blame David Willetts. 

With the vast increases in tuition fees, the accompanying abolition of the education maintenance allowance, and in the overall economic climate of recession, many will ask:  Is social mobility about to suffer another inevitable decline?

These are important questions.  They are repeated time and again in various forms by an ongoing troupe of politicians, policy-makers and academics.  Social mobility is an issue that occupies those on both the conventional right and left, with the general assumption being that, somehow, mobility should be encouraged.  Differences quickly emerge as to exactly how this should happen, but the underlying assumption remains.  Few would publicly support a policy of mobility reduction. 

In this respect, social mobility functions as an unquestioned, perhaps unquestionable social good.  It serves as an organising principle by which we judge the justice and progress of society.  What we require, simply, is more of it. 

Past approaches to social mobility

Social mobility has not always functioned as near irrefutable social good.  The prospect of upwardly mobile citizens was once to be avoided.  In 1807, a Tory MP warned that “giving education to the labouring classes of the poor” would encourage “subordination” by teaching the poor to “despise” the “employments to which their rank in society had destined them”.  Education would allow the masses to “read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity”.   Elevating the poor would make them liable to revolt, or so the argument went.   

Mass schooling did eventually arrive.  However, the new schools did not breed sedition, as some feared they would.  They were places of moral and disciplinary coercion.  In addition to their role in forming a well-trained and responsible citizenry, by the twentieth century schools were also functioning as institutions of human sorting.  The poor were to be elevated in a highly controlled and rational manner.  This administrative task was about more than the pursuit of fairness and social justice.  It was felt that advanced societies could not afford to waste talent: locating and redistributing talent became a matter of national efficiency.  

Early plans for securing social mobility were highly mechanistic.  They were designed to replace traditional and rather sporadic systems of patronage with devices of cool precision.  These historical developments are significant because they contrast so absolutely with our present way of doing things, telling us a lot about the nature of our present. 

For example, competition between individuals for jobs was seen as a potential threat.  It was felt that the heat of competition would encourage irrational hopes.  These fanciful dreams would then interfere with the (rational) administrative machinery.  

Cyril Burt, a key government advisor and influential educational psychologist, suggested that irrational motivations should be all but removed from vocational decision-making.  He believed that professional guidance should replace the “selfish” desires, “fond ambitions”, “gossip” and “fantasies” of parents who, we are told, generally suffer from a “lack of psychological insight”.  

This was 1924.  The situation in 2011 could not be more different.  The “fond ambitions” identified by Burt are now the foundations upon which social mobility is built.

Another strong contrast can be observed in the way schooling was divided and layered:  In the early twentieth century, schools in England and Wales were separated into a primary and secondary phase.  This is when the distinction between grammar schools and secondary moderns arose.  All children were tested at eleven years and then matched to schools that would ‘suit’ their abilities, and lead to appropriate jobs. 

Reformers, including those on the left, campaigned for so-called ‘parity of esteem’ between schools.  It was felt that all school types, whether they were grammar schools leading to professional careers, or modern schools leading to lower-paid jobs, should be made ‘equally acceptable to parents’.

Parity of esteem was never achieved.  Indeed, with the benefit of hindsight, as a project it appears ridiculous, certainly impossible and perhaps disingenuous.  However, this drive to achieve equal acceptability was in tune with the logic of its time.  Pupils who combined ‘low’ ability with ‘excessive’ ambition were seen as a danger to the system.  They, or their parents, might undermine administrative efforts that were matching ‘types of mind’ to types of school and vocational routes. 

Social mobility today 

Today the situation could not be more different.  We are no longer concerned with parity, but do our best to encourage competition between schools (a system that is based on disparity).  Free schools are the latest addition to an overall provision that is almost deliberately unsystematic.  In this new (dis)order, variations in school status have transformed in our perception from potential danger to principle of organisational enhancement.  Schools vie for esteem as they endlessly compete for more pupils and a better position in the league-table.

Social mobility has lost its earlier attachment to grand mechanisms of social redistribution.  The idea that psychological experts and central agencies should administer the distribution of talent (through the distribution of education) is a rapidly fading early twentieth-century dream.  This has been replaced by the exhortation:  “We’ve tried equality.  We’ve tried social engineering… But what about just letting people get on with it?”. 

According to the ideology of our times, social mobility has been elevated as if it were some sort of life-force, that will always be, by its very nature, beyond the control of the social engineer.  The most we can hope to achieve is a small amount of regulation.  Small battles are fought for a little more openness, a little more fairness, a little less patronage and so on.  But the grander projects of the social engineer are no longer in vogue.

Last year three Italian academics predicted that organisations could become more efficient if they promoted people at random.  Whether their mathematical models are to be believed or not is unimportant.  The research question itself betrays our dominant ideology: natural social systems are often better ‘left alone’.

So how exactly are people ‘left alone’ when the social engineer retreats, when we give up on the idea that all talent must be perfectly rewarded by an appropriate position and income?  Do we end up with a situation close to Hobbes’ state of nature: ‘every man, against every man’?  Are we left with nothing more than a chaotic battle of social repositioning? 

It is certainly tempting to see things this way, but that would be a mistake.  Social mobility is still wrapped up within systems of coercion, though these systems are undoubtedly becoming harder to see.  This is because mobility is taking the form of a personal responsibility to achieve and advance.  At the same time, failure is also personalised as being down to a lack of aspiration.  All of this unfolds within a well-articulated framework of power, and one of the key devices in use here is the instrument of hope. 

It was once felt that variations in esteem would impede the proper allocation of individuals and lead to aspirations and desires for social advance that were in excess of individual abilities.  Once seen as a factor to be removed, Burt’s “fond ambitions” are now routinely encouraged in a society that is built upon the exploitation of hope.   

Television programmes such as The Apprentice and Young Apprentice (BBC), Dragon’s Den (BBC) and The X Factor (ITV) in particular demonstrate how this works.  Each show seeks to encourage the most ambitious dreams, however, most contestants will fail and many were unrealistic to hope in the first place. 

How we expect contestants to cope when confronted with failure is intriguing.  A degree of drama or obvious disappointment makes for good viewing, and yet, it must remain within a boundary of acceptable distress.  Otherwise we would label the show ‘unacceptably cruel’.  The producers are faced with a challenge: to provide us with entertainment that is based on the exploitation of hope and yet keep the effects of disappointment in check.  Those who fail cannot be allowed to transform their despair into violence against the system that judges them, nor should they be allowed to reach a point where they take it out on themselves. 

This scenario is symptomatic of a broader trend: social mobility has come to rely on unrealistic hopes.  The challenge today is to instruct individuals in the techniques of coping with disappointment.  

Mass schooling was once feared because it might give people ‘ideas’.  The educational challenge was to somehow suppress the potentially ‘excessive’ desires of the poor. 

Today the problem is its opposite.  Schools must help encourage the belief that personal effort will bring its rewards and that there is no ceiling to the desires of the diligent.  The coercive task facing schools today is, therefore, rather different: to teach the unlucky majority how to keep things in perspective when failure occurs, and to always try and try again. 

These techniques are not absolute, nor are they impossible to subvert.  Perhaps the August riots should be seen, more optimistically, as the product of small cracks within the current regime of power.  These riots revealed a “deeper malaise” very different to the one Theresa May had in mind.  They expressed the violence of a social system that functions through the manipulation of hope.

Today’s date is marked by a sequence of 11’s.   According to the dark arts of numerology, the number 11 “has no connection with divine things, no ladder reaching up to things above.”  For this reason, it seems topical, if only in a trivial sense to think about life without ladders and reflect on the statistically small chance that most people have of reaching the riches above.


This article is based on research carried out at The University of Sheffield.  The full argument will soon be published in Power and Education Volume 4(1) and the British Journal of Educational Studies.  It is based on a paper delivered at the Discourse Power Resistance conference earlier this year. 

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