Contemplating Class


Contemplating Class

March 24, 2013
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Recently I’ve found myself contemplating class. This is something I’ve rarely, if ever, done. On the very few occasions I have done it, it’s been driven by an outside source not my own internal procrastination to find a sense of identity or lament something I’ve lost. You could say I’m almost defined by the fact I don’t think about class much. I’m very much a product of my teenage years being very post-1979 (mostly an 80′s teenage).

I may be unique in this; I may not be.

This time the external driver is the book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class which I finished in about six hours last weekend. If you’ve not read the book I recommend it. It may annoy you and not represent your view of the world at all, but it is worth reading as it does put provocative ideas out there that tend not be part of the narrative presented by the usual sources (politicians, newspapers, etc).

It makes you think, which is always worthwhile.

Epic Class Wars

Obviously, the book is about the demonisation of the working class, but in addressing this topic it covers a range of other issues. Primarily the book challenges the idea that ‘we are all middle class’ and through that addresses the world view that if we’re all middle class then all that is left below ‘us’ is the detritus of society, the feral underclass, in short, the Chavs.

In doing this, the author also establishes his world view of one constant, epic class war. This brings up the book’s second narrative: that class war isn’t over. It didn’t end with the breakdown of the left, as it was understood pre-1979, but continued in the sense that the right has been waging a class war ever since and this was continued through the Blair government. He gives some time to the Blair era, but really likes to focus on Thatcher who apparently brought about the end of the world as we know it. Not only that the right has won, equivocally and completely and this is officially a bad thing(tm).

People tend to take different things from books that are not pitched at the centre ground but from my perspective it is overwhelmingly a book of the left. This isn’t a problem, but that’s the feeling I came away with. The main source of this being the power of the left (and the book does approach things from the perspective of power) is seen as largely positive while the right and associated policies are rarely given a positive narrative. One results in good, the other results in bad. One only ever utters things with altruistic intent, the other is a conspiracy of a ‘ruling class’. I’ve voted for both parties in my lifetime so I find this hard to stomach, but then I voted for Labour in the Blair period so I’ve never been centre left…apparently.

Depending on your political leanings this will probably make the book a no go area, but I’d still recommend it. As while I thought the view that no policy of the right ever came to any good as a bit eye rolling. There is good points raised, such as the fact society is becoming more divided and that wealth could be better distributed, the loss of industry and ‘building things was not a great decision looking back’, etc, are all valid and good points, but you have to get past an overriding left-ist world view.

Beyond The Class Wars

So, if I don’t believe in a continual class war or want to put up with the overly left world view why should I read the book? Simply because it does put forward a number of truths I think that are worth listening to.

The author establishes the fact that the working class has not gone away, it’s just changed. While you can question some of the author’s glowing narrative about eras past, he puts forward the main change was the collapse of industry in the UK. This took away vast tracts of relatively well paid jobs, communities and almost generational careers. This fact is undoubtedly true, though the view that having your life spelled out of you like that portrayed as a good thing fills me with dread. The working class now have jobs in call centres, retail and other low-end service industries that don’t pay the same and are often transitory and verge on the demeaning. There is truth to this as well and he sets out a good understanding of what the working class looks like today.

The author also makes good arguments about how government policies have resulted in sink estates which exacerbates the view of ‘council housing’ as negative due to it concentrating the type of people who end up living in this restricted commodity. Probably true, though he tends to gloss over the fact that many government policies are not so much negative but double-edged. No positives came out of the policies listed (such as right to buy), apparently.

These changes in society have effectively created ‘prisoners of circumstance’ not of their own doing. This I agree with to an extent. While the transformational changes, over a very short period, were crippling and, for some, devastating, we have had economic growth since and the children of those hit have had children. I agree people can be prisoners of circumstance. I disagree they are ineffectual in being able to change those circumstances. Especially as the generations move forward. It’s almost like the author reverses the acceptance of circumstance like stable, generational jobs into the opposite of no future across the generations.

I find the absence of personal agency to change the ‘circumstance’ of both narratives slightly disconcerting.

Overall, the book breaks down the demonisation of the working class by society at large and why it’s largely based on myth, ignorance, extreme examples and a sort of elitist, high society and middle class group think at best and conspiracy at worst. This strand of the book, it’s main point, is by far the best part of the book as it gets down to the details and makes some good points while moving away from what feels like epic nostalgia with painted over cracks and sour grapes. I tended to agree with some of the outcomes and reasons for this as well, but stopped short of a conspiracy.

There is some good material when the author moves into this area, if you can get past the framing narrative of Machiavellian class war and the obliteration of the nirvana (through absence of criticism) that was the left.

Class And Me

The big problem I have with the book is I don’t identify with being working class, as defined by the book. I sort of fit the definition until they extend it to lacking autonomy or control. I certainly don’t feel like I’m from the middle class described in the book. This raises both a personal question and also a question directed at some of the arguments in the book.

The working class: The class of people who work for others in order to get by.Not only those who sell their labour but who lack autonomy or control over their labour.

Personally, I suspect my father was working class, as defined by the book. He had very little career skills as we’d describe them now. I don’t believe he had a ‘trade’ either. He was essentially a labourer. Yet he earned quite a good living with us often being the first in the street to get the nice toys and the gadgets. Christmas was good. I’m pretty sure we were also an early purchaser of our own home when compared to the rest of our extended family (especially on one side). Indeed, I have a vague memory of an epic family argument with my father’s family over the ‘odd decision’ to buy his own home. Memory is vague though, so I may have that wrong, and the argument was about something else.

At some point during the eighties this changed and my father was exiled into a life of periods on the dole and insecure, low paid jobs (often security work) and this was before the invention of the minimum wage. Suddenly, a person like my father went from being able to support a good living to finding it hard to find a job at all, never mind a good paying one. There was a period we were getting food from our church’s provisions for poor families. The fact I never fully understood how soul crushing this undoubtedly was, is a testament to my family life (and is probably very important later), but it was undoubtedly bad times.

Broadly speaking, I guess the generation above me is representative of the working class story in the book. The collapse of my father’s earning power was almost certainly related to the collapse of the heavy industries of the North East and the transition to a service economy. Suffice to say, I do recognise significant elements from the book in terms of how it impacted my family and my father.

Then the next generation comes along, namely myself, the oldest of the family, and the narrative of the book breaks down…completely.

If you believe the book I should have grown up with no hope, from a struggling family in a region with little prospects due to the decimation of heavy industry. It’s probably the case that all of that was true but for the final outcome. Nothing in my world suggested to me I had no future. There was no narrative of that sort revealed to me through my family, the wider society I was plugged into through my friends, etc.

I never felt like I was set for a life of strife and underachievement due to things that were ‘done to me’.

Then you have education. School was free. It was what I made of it. I didn’t come from a rich family. I didn’t have all the ‘cultural capital’ that the Middle Classes mentioned in the book have (also quite true). I went to a comprehensive. It wasn’t the best school in the area (though it worked well for me). I did well. I then went to University. A local one. It used to be a polytechnic, no ivory towers of a red brick. I did limit my choices in some ways and this was, to some degree, influenced by my background. I still insist it was the right choice for the subject I studied. I was paid to go to University! I moved on. I got a good first job and my earning power was significantly higher than my father’s.

The question from all this is: am I unique or is my story representative of a whole strata of society?

This is important because the book doesn’t speak to me at all in terms of its class-ist view. I don’t meet the criteria for working class. I don’t meet the criteria for middle class. My narrative is not acknowledged. Apparently we’re all ‘not middle class’. So..first, where do I fit? And more importantly, if I’m not some unique snowflake the existence of people with similar generational stories as me starts to shoot holes in the some of the narrative in the book. Does the book ignore people like me because it isn’t convenient for the narrative of the class war he wants to tell with only two iconic and ideological sides and people cast into a pre-destined life with no future?

I had every chance in the world and anyone of my generation, who are now the fathers and mothers of the children who now ‘have no future’, did as well.

To say anything else is a lie, unless you let your circumstances define you? Unless you believed others should have been looking out for you and making things better? I didn’t grow up thinking that. The fact my ‘circumstances’ might have been a serious limit on me never occurred to me once. It was all about what was possible.

Yes, the generation above me had careers and aspirations shattered. I have no doubt that the loss of heavy industry was a great and terrible blow to regions of the UK. Yet, I cannot bring myself to believe in the narrative of the author when it comes to the bridging generation…my generation. They had every opportunity. Not that academic? Well, they could have done a BTEC Diploma. I did a BTEC Diploma, it’s what got me on my degree. There was always options and quite often these options were funded. I followed this journey while my family had crippling finances.

There was every opportunity and one reason it might not have been taken by my contemporaries is exactly because of the style of narrative the author adopts in the book which is one of the victim: look what was ‘done to us’, look what’s ‘not being done for us’. These education options aren’t for people like me. I know this happens, Durham University has studies on it. I’ve encountered people who wanted students to pay for University because they didn’t benefit from it being free when the time came for them purely because they didn’t take the opportunity when it was available and somehow that was someone else’s fault (exactly because they allowed this toxic cultural narrative to slip into their lives).

The author is wrong…the generation after the one that suffered in the eighties had every opportunity and to say anything else and draw a picture of a world in which people were trapped by circumstances is…almost a lie.

…And Finally

Ultimately, I found the book fascinating. I found it fascinating because it challenged me to think and to assess ideas. It’s also a book I suggest most people won’t 100% agree with, unless you really are well to the left and then of a particular type. Chances are you’ll agree with some of it and then detest other parts of it.

The fact the book challenges you with agreement and disagreement is the best part of the book because it reflects the reality of the real world, even though the author’s narrative is less so. I don’t believe my generation was doomed because of what happened to our father’s. I do believe the working class still exists and the new shape of that ‘class’ the author paints is probably right. It probably has become socially acceptable to ridicule them to a degree. I think it’s only in post-Financial Crises times the narrative of them having no hope because of things ‘done to them’ isn’t a bit of a stretch.

Read it, it’s worth the time.Even if it just gets you thinking where you came from and where you fit in relation to it all.