“Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
Til you think you’re so clever and classless and free
But you’re still f*cking peasants as far as I can see”
So there I was in the bar, enjoying an incisive conversation with a fellow traveller. Left-wing by instinct as well as intellect, with a south-east small-town upbringing, having moved to London for work and a touch of the cosmopolitan, we had a lot in common. We were busy putting the world to rights and everything was going fine, when out of the blue he dropped the bomb. ‘Of course’, he said, ‘I’m pretty middle class now’.
Awkward pause. Should I let it go, or say something? To be or not to be?
You see, he’d already mentioned that he worked in IT support. Let’s break this down: if you’ve just inherited a controlling stake in a chain of IT companies, never need to work again (even if you choose to), and you claim membership of the ruling class, that’s accurate. (Although, does anyone now admit to being a member of the ruling class?) Alternatively, if you’re a manager or director of an IT support contract, earning multiple times as much as those you’re employed to manage, ‘I’m middle class’ is also fair enough. But IT support? It’s a working class job, with a working class salary and, ultimately, working class status too.
How did we get in such a mess about class? Like any subject, in our over-saturated lives we generally only know what we pick up from family, school and the media. Most people aren’t taught politics at school, and most don’t learn anything at home because their parents went to the same type of school they did. Which leaves the media, of which more later. Class is a concept of political economy, and concepts are tools: how we use these tools affects the outcome of the job we want doing. So that what we’re using these concepts for, and why, and in whose interests, are questions we should always keep in mind.
There are two parallel developments in recent decades: to talk about class seriously (i.e. politically) is regarded as being outdated; more specifically to talk about the working class is seen as outdated. However, most of us work, or compete to find work, because we have no choice; we sell our labour power in an exchange which increasingly gives us little security, frozen wage levels, a shrinking pension, and scant trade union protection. Most people are a couple of months’ lost salary away from acute financial crisis, even homelessness. This position of political and economic powerlessness is shared by the vast majority of the population, yet we are told that to define, to highlight, to encapsulate this shared position as a class is outdated. Real, lived experience suggests otherwise, even as the language we’re taught to use denies us our ability to express the obvious.
John Prescott is famously quoted as saying ‘We’re all middle class now’. Except that he never actually said it. What he did say was: “My background is working class, but it would be hypocritical to say I’m anything less than middle class now’. For someone with such a reputation for incoherence it was a notable nod towards an intelligent, materialist definition of class: one based on power (he was Deputy PM at the time). Class is not about how we feel, or talk, or behave, or how we grew up: it’s about our position in society now and the role we play in the power structure, if any.
Part of the problem is that the concept of working class was formed in the UK during an era of mass employment in primary and manufacturing industry: those industries have mostly gone now, or at least been relocated. So we could argue that the working class now is to be found in Bangladesh or China, but that would be to miss the point, which is that the working class is the majority of any population that performs the necessary social tasks, whether in factories, or in countries like the UK, largely now in offices. That despite the deepening recession we still enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to previous generations or to most of the world’s population represents no paradox: the same was true back in the Victorian era.
The pull of the ‘golden age’ is strong, for the Left as well as the Right. But it makes no more sense to get sentimental over the iconography of certain types of traditional working-class job (miners, dockers) than it does to get trade-snobbish over the proliferation of unskilled jobs (service jobs, administration) as not being ‘proper work’: people just go where the work is, and always have. The working class developed in the first place due to technological changes in the countryside which forced agricultural labourers to move to the towns; later, the emergence of mass trade unionism followed efforts to organise the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in new large-scale industries, such as dockers: their ‘proper’ status was fought for, not pre-ordained. Around this time clerical work had a certain status, and Governmental class designation (A, B, C1, C2, etc) enshrined office workers as a class separate from the majority. But that was over a century ago. The same system is still being used despite the fact that office work is now the norm, and includes some of the most exploited workers in the country, doing some of the most menial work – call centres being an obvious example.
To sum up in a sentence: the requirements of production have changed, the relations of production haven’t. Perhaps we should consider updating our iconography and replace the hammer and sickle with a keyboard and telephone?
The idea that we’re all middle class is tossed around along with the idea that class doesn’t matter any more, even though the two ideas contradict. In this doublethink economic realities are forgotten, let alone basic logic: if we’re all middle class, what are we in the middle of? The alleged features of middle class life are defined as: office work, (private) suburban housing, increased access to technology and leisure, etc – attributes which represent the majority experience in the UK. This experience is then defined as middle class, in a classically circular argument which proves nothing.
Without implying any hostility for the real middle class – Doctors are middle class by nearly all definitions, for example, and no-one is against Doctors – the reality is that only a small section of the population (professionals, managers) have any real status, security of wealth or control over their working lives. The rest of us, the majority of the population, are wage slaves. So that if you draw a median cross-section through the population you quickly and easily discover something politicians, journalists and advertisers haven’t yet noticed: so-called ‘Middle Britain’ is working class.
But class has been depoliticised, of course. Supposedly class isn’t about work anymore, it’s all about leisure: what newspapers or books we read, how we dress, where we drink, our taste in sport and entertainment, and so on. To listen to all this you would think that back in the ‘golden age’ everyone was alike. On the contrary, there have always been huge variations of experience and lifestyle within the working class. Marx himself is accused of having had a reductive analysis, but he defined other sub-classes too; what he did famously hold was that the two main classes would become increasingly polarised, and in this he has been proved substantially correct in countries like the UK, although not yet in quite the way he hoped. The disparity between rich and poor today is higher than it has been for a century, and it’s getting worse. But meanwhile the class war has subsided, or you might say that only one side is fighting.
And this is where the ‘middle class’ myth serves its purpose, as the Trojan-horse of false consciousness, turning political concepts that could liberate us into tools to keep us in mental slavery. On the one hand we’re in collective denial about the control (political-economic) class has over our lives, while on the other hand we’re obsessed with the signifiers of ‘cultural’ class. The result is an intellectual paralysis.
Who constructs this narrative, and in whose interests? Who are the ‘we’ in ‘we’re all middle class’? Who defines, interprets, controls and officiates over the content of this notional national debate? The media is notorious for addressing itself: London media focuses on London, media people focus on the kind of people, with similar backgrounds of the kind of people, who work in the media. We all do this in a way, it’s possibly ‘natural’ to see your subjective world (and that of those around you) for an objective truth; the difference is that journalists have the power to project their perspective as a ‘shared’ experience. If journalists see themselves as middle class perhaps this explains why the rest of are told to as well.
Working class people have always struggled for a better standard of living, for better education, for more leisure time. The labour movement has been at the forefront of these struggles. And yet, when we do win these advances politicians and the media are right there waiting to tell us we’re not working class any more. At the sharper end of working class life, where people are out of work or otherwise alienated from mainstream society the same culprits tell us we’re lower class, underclass, or chavs (the new ‘undeserving poor’). This is divide-and-rule disinformation that defines the working class out of existence, and we need to be alert to the dangers and consequences of internalising these attitudes.
Why does it matter so much what we’re called, or call ourselves? Because it both reflects and reinforces our political analysis of where we are and where we’re going. As countless imperial powers have found, if you can destroy a people’s sense of their own cultural identity, you can destroy them politically, and vice versa. It’s no accident that Thatcherism (from 1979 to the present) has worked so hard to deny the working class their very name. Middle Class means rootless, apolitical, individualist, isolated: ‘there is no such thing as society’. In contrast, Working Class is collectivist, and materialist: it defines us by what brings us together, what we have in common, and what we commonly lack. It leaves a question mark hanging over that void, that absence of power and control, a question mark that invites a challenge to the way things are, a challenge the ruling class are still scared of.
Every year there’s another survey/poll from a think tank or newspaper promising revelations about class identity in the UK. The results are both varied and consistent:
1) A majority (and a huge majority in equivalent electoral terms) self-identify as working class, this despite decades of ubiquitous cultural propaganda to the contrary. However, this result is de-emphasised and instead presented as a decline.
2) A majority define themselves as middle class, but closer inspection reveals huge swathes of the population who can only be intelligently described as working class (e.g. non-manual/office workers.)
3) Poll options are weighted towards the middle class, with the working class pre-supposed to be a minority group.
4) Respondents are guided towards cultural/lifestyle-based distortions of class definition, rather than the political-economic reality.
5) Increasing numbers of people are dissuaded from recognising membership of the working class by perceptions of it as a stigmatised social group, reinforced by survey method including the biased framing of questions.
Classic examples of the above include 2011′s Britain Thinks survey, which offered three categories of middle class to choose from but only one working class, and 2010′s Policy Exchange survey, which found that while most people ’saw themselves’ as middle class, a majority also set middle class salaries at above £40,000, which would exclude most of the population from that category.
This kind of confusion can only be explained by the fact that too many people have been persuaded to see Working Class as a negative label, and Middle Class as one with a set of positive, aspirational associations. Instead of abandoning this debate we need to get stuck in and argue back.
‘Middle class’ isn’t aspirational: it’s a call to individual free-for-all: acquiescence to a perpetuation of everything that’s broken in Britain. It’s a ticket to an further atomised, privatised, compete-with-the-Joneses, I’m-alright-Jack society where you can’t get a council house or a dentist, your local hospital’s closing down and the playing fields have been sold off. A society of unemployment, crime and the growing absence of community solidarity. You don’t defeat your enemy by singing his song.
If we’re talking aspirational, let’s reclaim working class identity. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were aspirational; Socialist Sunday Schools were aspirational; the Diggers and Chartists and Communards were aspirational: their aspiration was the same shared by trade unionists and socialists today: that collectively, as a class, leaving no-one behind, we will advance into a future where we own and control every aspect of our lives, starting with the work we do, why and how we do it, and how we share it. The benefits that the small number of middle-class people gain from their higher status today are ones which everyone should have access to: that’s our aspiration. That properly organised, we can reduce work to the strictly necessary, and eliminate the wasteful market, useless toil, and their disastrous effect on ourselves and our environment.
Dennis Skinner once said something along the lines of ‘Why wouldn’t you be proud to be working class, the class that produces everything’. But let’s remember too, that we’re not proud to be working class because we want to remain working class. That’s a badge of slavery to a disenfranchised social group. We want political and economic control: we want to be the ruling class. Until then:
“A working class hero is something to be.”
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