If we’re all working class, then really none of us are working class

October 7, 2008

One thing I find really interesting and sometimes really upsetting about Britain in general and the British Left in particular is that everyone but me and Tony Benn identifies as working-class.  At the Marxism conference a few years ago, I attended a session discussing “non-productive labour”, which I interpreted to mean people working in call-centres and similar areas.  Imagine my surprise then when university lecturers and senior civil servants start discussing the difficulties they face as non-productive labourers and members of the working-class generally.

 Until yesterday, I thought this identification was based on two things.  First, an effort to ignore one’s own privilege.  People identify as working-class so they can think of themselves as oppressed, and therefore avoid having to take responsibility for being middle-class, not to mention being white or male if they happen to be either of those things.  In feminist groups I’ve been a part of,  one of the biggest obstacle to discussing race has been the working-class identity of group members.  People honestly believe that if they are working-class then they can’t possibly have white privilege.

 Secondly, I figured that part of it was cultural, especially Up North.  Most people here actually do have proletarian grandparents – my partner’s grandfather, for example, worked in the steel mills in Sheffield until they were closed.  So people were identifying with working-class as part of their culture without looking to closely at their current economic realities.

 Last night, however, thanks to a very interesting discussion with some orthodox Trotskyists, I realised that in fact, we’ve been talking at cross-purposes.  We’ve been using different definitions of class.

 For me, class is about a combination of things – the amount of money a person earns, the amount of money their parents earn(ed), the amount of options they have at a given time, the choices they are able to make, and envision making and generally the lifestyle they are able to lead.  I know that a lot of this is pretty intangible and nebulous, but so is the concept of class.   My mother likes to say that we’ve been broke, but we’ve never been poor.  Money was tight at various times in my childhood, but I never doubted I’d go to university – and neither did anyone else.  In primary and secondary school, I was seen by my teachers and peers as a bright, middle-class student – the principle demographic of universities in Canada.

 More recently, my partner and I have been flat broke – I mean, “how are we going to pay the gas bill this month” broke.  But if you look around our flat, we have a ludicrous amount of  stuff – a tv, a freeview box, two computers (I have a laptop, he has a PC), various kitchen gadgets, etc., – all bought for us by middle-class family members and friends at various times.  Even when there was mould growing in our wardrobe (I wish I was joking) we knew that if we ever were in serious danger of being evicted, our families would lend us money.  Most importantly, we knew it was temporary – even when things were at there most bleak, we had this sense that things would get better eventually (and they did).

 So, by my definition your average university lecturer is at least middle-class.  They earn a higher-than average wage, they’re very well educated and have options as a result of this, and most of the lecturers I know own their own house and their own car and lead comfortable lives.  They may have debt from acquiring their PhD, but they will be able to pay it off without it seriously infringing on their lifestyle.  This is obviously not universal – a single parent, for example, at a low-paying university may not have a middle-class standard of living.  But on average, a university lecturer is middle-class.

 However, the radical left in the UK tends to use the orthodox Marxist definition of class, which measure your class by your relation to the means of production.  So lecturers are working class because they don’t own/run the university.  When my Dad was working as a salesman he was working-class but when my parents ran their own business, we were petit bourgeoisie, even though we actually had more money and more financial stability when my Dad was working for someone else.  The people with whom I was talking tried to explain this as an issue of solidarity – there is no solidarity among the petit bourgeoisie.  But, actually, my parents continued to be decent people who treated their employees well when they ran their own business, whereas some of the other salespeople at the company for which my Dad worked were completely unethical and had no issues with exploiting anyone they could.  And it’s not just my parents – my experience of working for small businesses has been positive, whereas my line managers when I worked for a call centre (theoretically, my fellow workers) were very happy horribly exploiting me. 

 I don’t think the traditional Marxist definition is very useful today, because it erases the genuine economic privilege held by a lot of people who don’t own the means of production.  There is no comparison between lecturers and call-centre workers.  Solidarity is not going to spontaneously appear between those two groups.  Furthermore, it’s not clear that those two groups HAVE much in common.  Is a middle-class lecturer going to vote to increase her taxes to provide cheap housing for a call centre worker?  We know for a fact that a lot of them don’t.

 The reason for the dissonance between my idea of class and the Marxist definition is a great example of this.  Most radical leftist North Americans would use my notion of class.  The cradle of parliamentary socialism in Canada is the Prairies – farmers who could only make ends meet if they all worked together started a political party.  Socialised medicine in Canada basically started as towns pooling their resources to pay for a doctor who would then see anybody as required – because no one in town could afford a doctor by themselves.  But by the Marxist definition of class, these farmers – who were up to their ears in debt, and there was a depression and a drought happening simultaneously – were petit bourgeoise, ‘cause they “owned” the farms and farming equipment (usually heavily mortgaged) and as such did not sell their labour but owned the means of production.  The fact that they were dirt poor doesn’t seem to matter.

 In other words:  imagine what Soviet socialism would have looked like if the peasants had run the revolution.

 In fact, I think using this definition actually leads to more economic exploitation.  There was a great article in the LRB in which the author pointed out that, according to polls on this subject, most people in the UK, including a lot of wealthy people, identify as working-class.  So why aren’t we in a socialist paradise then?  Because if someone who owns a car and a house and doesn’t worry about making ends meet genuinely believes herself to be working-class, then the people who are struggling, who live in council housing and need benefits, etc., they are then demoted to the lumpenproletariat – an underclass.  If I, as a “working-class” person, has no trouble making ends meet, those who do are just lazy.  And thus, we have a society where everyone is working-class, and using terms like “scally” and “chav” is considered perfectly OK.

 As I’ve indicated above, this definition of class also erases other kinds of privilege. Traditional Marxism didn’t even attempt to deal with racism.  Engels made a brave attempt at dealing with sexism, but ultimately fails to properly account for the origin of sexism.  Yes, it’s probably true that once men got ahold of private property, they felt the need to control women’s reproductive systems in order to ensure that the property went to their biological children – but why?  Why should we care if our children our biologically ours?  And how did men get ahold of property to begin with, instead of women? Engels puts it down to men being hunter/gatherers – but why were they?  And why should that matter?  Especially as in a lot of societies, women are in charge of agriculture (like most of Africa today), so you’d think that land would be in women’s possession, as we were the ones working it.

 If everything is seen through a Marxist lens, then, there is no such thing as race privilege or gender privilege.  Being working-class is the ultimate oppression, and being white does not mitigate this.  There’s not even much class privilege, because there’s no difference between the university lecturer and the woman cleaning the university.

 Unfortunately, having finally realised what the issue is, I have no idea what to do with this information.  Simply saying “look, I am using a different definition of class than you, and also, you’re still white” is not actually going to accomplish that much.  Orthodox Marxists will just say that my definition of class is wrong.



11 Responses to “If we’re all working class, then really none of us are working class”

  1. Zenobia Says:

    Ack, I hear you about the gas bills and mouldering wardrobes. I actually have the same problem, in that I hear people describe themselves as working class who have more economic privilege than me and possibly grew up with as much, and I’m like ‘grmbl screw you and your hell of bourgeois non-dripping ceiling and ability to pay the electricity bill on time every month and clothes that don’t have holes in them grmblgrrr’. I also don’t think my parents could help out much if I was evicted – on the other hand, I do always have a room to go back to in France, so long as I’m able to go there, and I’m unlikely to ever be homeless. And I did always know I was going to university.

    The other idea I have trouble getting across is hegemony and dominant ideology. I mean, for a start I have a tenuous grasp on it myself. I also don’t have a big white beard which I can stroke while making pronouncements about these things. But when I go on about ‘middle-class values’, dominant ideology and cultural hegemony are the things I’m referring to – then of course I get people (owners of non-dripping ceilings and non-mouldy clothes, curses!!) saying ‘well you might be middle-class but I’m not, I’m working class’. Like, it doesn’t matter when it comes to dominant ideology. And I can see all these women striving towards various aspects of what is basically the dominant, most desirable middle-class feminine ideal in the UK and English-speaking countries in the name of feminism, so it’s frustrating. Then again, maybe I should read up so I get the confidence to use the correct terminology.

    As for putting across what you mean by class, I don’t know – I find the idea of privilege limited, but then again, if you can point out differences in circumstances and expectations, and also in the way people treat you, I mean I walk and talk like a middle-class person whatever the circumstances, so providing I can manage to string a coherent sentence together that day I’m usually fine, compared to someone with the wrong accent or skin colour. And I mean, job description is another thing – try going into the bank calling yourself a cleaner rather than a university lecturer, you’ll notice a difference.

    Not that you don’t already know all that. I don’t know, it might be worth pointing out the changes in the economic structure since the late 19th century, that would be the obvious way to get round it, because in terms of ‘owning the means of production’, about 6.5 people probably own most of it in the world or something, the rest of us have tiny shares or nothing at all, and there are stockbrokers – although there are similarities, it’s not the strutting, patronising landowners from Germinal anymore. So does that make us all working-class now?

  2. […] leave a comment » Pink Scare have a couple of interesting responses to Gwen’s post from yesterday. […]

  3. Arvilla Says:

    Hey Gwen, we’ve had a lively discussion prompted by this post over at Pink Scare. Thanks for stimulating discussion on this topic!

  4. Gwen Says:

    Zenobia – the hegemony aspect is one that neither definition of class handles very well. Class is about more than how much money you have and/or your relationship to the means of production. It’s about access to cultural capital, your sense of entitlement and to a certain extent people’s preferences and tastes. Obviously, any attempt to link taste, culture & class is going to involve massive generalisations. But I think it’s important, because even at my most broke I speak well, in a neutral accent, like things that are considered “a bit posh” and “intellectual”, and have an expectation that my brokeness is merely temprorary. And this matters a lot, particularly, for example, in job interviews.

    Arvilla – Thanks!! I really enjoyed your posts as well. Between your posts and discussions I’ve had with other people, I’ve revised my opinion a bit, so I’ll be posting about this again within th next couple of days.

  5. Gwen Says:

    Zenobia – Sorry missed this part out. I like the idea of privilege, not just class privilege, but also race privilege, gender privilege, etc., because it gets across the idea that you benefit from being in the “right” category (male, white, etc.)even if you can’t see it, and even if you’re opposed to it. It does become limited where it describes phenomenon that are not necessarily entirely beneficial. For example, as a white person, I learned the history of people who looked like me, and I don’t have to know any history of people of colour to be considered well educated. Obviously, this gives me an academic advantage. However, I was actually pretty pissed off when I realised all the stuff I hadn’t learned in high school because of racism – in the end, it would be more beneficial if history covered the history of EVERYONE.

  6. Chameleon Says:

    Gwen, on a completely unrelated note – I have only just discovered your blog via The Bead Shop and I would really love to include this post in the Britblog Roundup, which it is my turn to host this week.
    As I am quite scrupulous about such things, I need to check that the post is eligible (sorry that I have been so incompetent about finding info about you…). You have to be either British (in which case where you live is irrelevant) or a non-Brit living and blogging in the UK.
    I put you down as a Brit, but was spooked by all the mentions of Canada.
    Could you please get in touch with me before Monday 13th (when I intend to post the Roundup) via the mail address on my Profile Page at http://www.redemptionblues.com
    There are only two of us “lefties” who actually host the BBRU, myself and Natalie of Philobiblon (a Green). Not a coincidence that we are both women (the third regular woman host being a former member of the LibDems).
    Many thanks and I hope to bring you many more readers!

  7. […] of High on Rebellion in If we’re all working class, then really none of us are working class, provides a lucid analysis of an elusive and contentious concept.  For an idea that is so […]

  8. Great post and thread.

    I tend to adhere (old habits die hard) to the Marxist definition of class, but I do see the problems with it. But I am REALLY tired of people using educated, elite language that is over some people’s heads (okay, mine) and when called on their exclusivity, saying “But I don’t have any money!” and getting off the hook with their classism in that handy-dandy way.

    It’s getting old, and I don’t even attempt to argue with those people anymore. I mean, they obviously know more than I do, right? (i.e. business as usual!

    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  9. And I can’t remember exactly who it was, but I think it was Cassandra,, who once said if you need an example of how *money* isn’t the sole arbiter of class, check out the way southern, working-class-born-but-now-very-rich Britney Spears is regarded by the press: The focus on her weight, behavior and disheveled lifestyle vs. Paris Hilton’s. Both are subjected to the sexist “skank” stereotype, but only one is considered white trash.

  10. Zenobia Says:

    And I can’t remember exactly who it was, but I think it was Cassandra,, who once said if you need an example of how *money* isn’t the sole arbiter of class, check out the way southern, working-class-born-but-now-very-rich Britney Spears is regarded by the press: The focus on her weight, behavior and disheveled lifestyle vs. Paris Hilton’s. Both are subjected to the sexist “skank” stereotype, but only one is considered white trash.

    That’s very true, in a way Britney is held up as proof that ‘white trash’ can’t handle money and it makes them go batshit, or that if you’re born poor you stay that way, however much money you have, like good taste and the ability to control yourself is genetic or something.

  11. Danny Says:

    Spivak and others deal with this issue by focusing on Marx’s methodology, rather than the orthodox descriptions of class. The descriptions, as you note, were formulated in reference to a very limited range of subjectivities (you kind of have to hold your nose at the Asiatic Mode of Production these days). But if you think about the general principles of systems thinking, class formation, antagonism, and crisis: I think these apply to issues of race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism and that your orthodox colleagues might be able to get a handle on that if you lead them into it. But unless you move the debate from empirical description to process/method, I think the discussions will always decompose into arguments about who belongs to which class and various forms of boundary policing which I think are ultimately self-sabotaging.

    Of course, Bourdieu had a lot of useful things to say about embodied class distinctions…..

    Thanks for your writing, always enjoyable.

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