Is the (punitive) middle class fed up with the lower class?

gated community inner circle (flickr)

Dutch criminologist Pieter Spierenburg recently argued that the growing class inequality in the Netherlands is responsible for increasingly punitive attitudes among the middle and upper classes:

The increase in power differences between social classes is the ultimate backdrop for the stagnating emancipation of prisoners and the harsher penal climate. The neoliberal-inspired globalization results not only in a considerable increase in the distance between the social classes, but also, particularly among the middle- and upper class, in a tendency to endogamy [marriage within the same social class, GE] which only reinforces the ‘we-feeling’ among the better-off. As group they more and more oppose those who they hold responsible for crime and disorder. Their patience with the mainly lower-educated and lower-class criminals has ended. They demand with an increasingly louder voice that the government imposes stricter punishment. (my translation)

Furthermore, offenders’ and prisoners’ opportunities for power largely depend upon the support of middle and upper class others (lawyers, politicians, professionals). As social distance increases, their support to the lower classes weakens.

Punitive turn

Spierenburg’s argument fits in with the widespread claim in the criminological literature that crime control in western societies has become increasingly punitive (see for example here for a brief analysis of the ‘punitive turn’ in the Netherlands). There is also quite some consensus that this punitiveness particularly targets the lower classes: they are confronted with all sorts of exclusionary measures from imprisonment to banishment from public spaces. This literature is one of the reasons that I became interested in researching the role of class inequality in crime control.

But there may be evidence that the claim should be nuanced: inequality may indeed lead to demands for stricter control of the lower classes but it is not necessarily a demand for punishment. This week I read an essay written by Belgian sociologist Mark Elchardus in a Dutch publication titled ‘Beyond social class – On new social divisions in society’ (2012, my translation). The title suggests that social class no longer matters, but in my reading the two essays provide evidence that class still matters, although it is now different from traditional class divisions. The Dutch Council for Societal Development (RMO) in 2010 also observed a new division based on education and did conclude that ‘we tend towards a class society’.

Different worlds

In his essay ‘Education as (new) social division’, Elchardus describes how the gap between the higher educated and the lower educated in the Netherlands (and Belgium) now manifests itself in numerous outcomes among which income, employment, health, relationships, political participation, world views, insecurity, trust and various attitudes. According to Elchardus, ‘it is not an overstatement to say that low- and high-educated people live in different worlds’ and that

We may thus expect that an education consciousness grows in society, that is, a consciousness of the noted differences, a self-consciousness of groups who demarcate and define themselves based on educational level and who perhaps undertake political action to improve their position. (my translation)

Education consciousness is experienced particularly by the higher educated but non-existent among the lower educated, as it is difficult to associate with a ‘lacking’ of something that provides status and respect. The observation that education-based differences result in educational consciousness could be interpreted as evidence that class still matters, as education becomes the basis of identification and disidentification among and between people. Intuitively, this analysis of social divisions also provides support for the argument that social inequality leads to punitive crime control towards the lower classes.


However, Elchardus questions the (again: widespread) belief that the gap, in all its forms and shapes, between the lower educated and higher educated is growing. His analysis of this claim offers insights that also question the inequality-leads-to-punitiveness claim. There is no clear evidence that the gap is indeed growing (we don’t have the data to analyze this). The gap between the rich and the poor has actually become smaller in the last decades.

If we accept that the gap in terms of views on social problems and political attitudes has grown, Elchardus suggests that this gap should be attributed mainly to the changing attitudes of the higher educated: as European modernization progressed, they have become more ‘cosmopolitan’, while the attitudes of the lower educated stayed much the same. Elchardus rejects the idea that the lower educated as ‘losers of modernity and globalization’ have become dissatisfied, frustrated and intolerant.


What does ‘cosmopolitan’ mean? Political scientists say that political attitudes now relate not only to people’s socioeconomic position but also to their social-cultural attitudes. Important for my question is that the cosmopolitan attitude entails openness, tolerance and anti-authoritarianism and is the opposite of, among various things, a preference for tough repressive crime control and a conflict approach to understanding society. The literature shows that, put simply, higher-educated people tend towards the political left, while lower-educated people tend towards the right (thus ‘against’ their socioeconomic interests).

If the cosmopolitan position entails all this, it is difficult to imagine that it also involves punitiveness and intolerance of the behavior of the lower class. So how do we get from a cosmopolitan political position to a punitive approach to crimes of the lower classes? Of course, not all higher educated people hold the cosmopolitan position; a certain proportion tends towards the political right. But it does raise questions about the claim that the middle and upper classes are collectively fed up with lower-educated and lower-class criminals and therefore demand stricter punishment, as Spierenburg and others claim.

Egalitarian paternalism

The middle and upper classes may indeed have lost their patience, but it need not translate into punitiveness (alone). It may also translate into ‘egalitarian paternalism’, a concept that is elaborated in the PhD thesis (2013) of sociologist Marguerite van den Berg on the practice of parenting guidance in Rotterdam (see also a short article in Dutch here). Egalitarian paternalism is ‘selectively targeted at lower-educated poor urban populations that are considered “not-yet-autonomous”’. The form is egalitarian, as professionals avoid being authoritarian: they feel uneasy with denouncing the (often lower-educated) mothers’ way of upbringing and with telling them how to raise their children.

Nonetheless, the goal of egalitarian paternalism is to change lives indeed: ‘to help the “not-yet-autonomous” to become free, responsible and autonomous individuals’. The social control of the higher educated directed at the lower educated here thus aims to produce more autonomy and more equality. Van den Berg concludes:

My research supplements scholarly discussions of the criminalization and penalization of the poor […]. Like in the United States […], urban safety policies and repressive strategies have proliferated in the Netherlands too […]. But in the Netherlands, paternalist strategies supplement these punitive measures.

To return to Spierenburg’s argument that growing class inequality in the Netherlands is responsible for increasingly punitive attitudes among the middle and upper classes: under the surface of increasing punitiveness towards the lower classes we may find increasing paternalism, too. Perhaps there is still some patience left among the middle and upper classes, depending on where you look for it.

Photo by Janet Daniel on Flickr

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