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.