Analysing the British Working Class

This is pretty good:

What do you think of when you hear the phrase \’white working class\’? Tattoos? Dangerous dogs? Shellsuits? Scratch cards? Chips? Binge drinking? The BNP? It would be no surprise if the images conjured are negative; in the past four decades, the image of the white working class has gone from hero to less than zero.

In these tolerant days, the one underprivileged group that it\’s OK to find intolerable is the white working class. In our multicultural society, they\’re the unlucky ones deemed to be without a culture. Last year, for example, the editor of Eastern Eye went on television to condemn Channel 4 for allowing \’illiterate chavs\’ on to Celebrity Big Brother. Eyelids remained unbatted. Trevor Phillips was not called upon to issue a statement. The Sky News presenter to whom this comment was made simply nodded his head in silent agreement.

But it wasn\’t always open season on proletarian whites. Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, the working class was flavour of the decade. Films such as Saturday Night, Sunday Morning found something noble, if harsh, in the condition of the indigenous poor. The theatre was filled with angry young men with earthy accents railing against the class structure. Pop music was transformed by cocky lads from humble backgrounds, as were photography and advertising .

A working-class hero was something to be, as the only middle-class Beatle, John Lennon, later sardonically sang. And then, almost overnight, white and working class became a deeply unfashionable combination.

Why?

Back in the Sixties, there was a nobility to the working class and also, crucially, a mobility. It was on the way somewhere. But that optimism has gone. Those who could get out have left, joining an expanded middle class, and those left behind have become the underclass: ugly, obnoxious, feckless and amoral.

Recast the phrasing. There always was a distinction made between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat. The proletariat have become the bourgeois, petty or not, leaving the lumpens alone to be described as the "working class".

Here\’s an idea though: not one I hold very strongly, rather, I put it forward simply as an idea. Something to be explored.

Say that this rather Marxist distinction is in fact true. Does this explain both the social mobility of earlier decades and the decline of it now? That there was a group both desirous and capable of such, held back by the institutions of the time, and when those constraints were removed, they moved? And that there is no such group now so constrained or desirous?

23 comments on “Analysing the British Working Class

  1. I think it is simply that the left have found a new “working class” to champion: ethnic minorities. The old “working class” have been discarded and have become an object of derision.

  2. Kit’s surely right : once it was clear that the WC was not going to help out with a Socialist Revolution, the Left went looking for a new client group to patronise and exploit. It found feminism and, above all, it founded the Race Relations Industry. But why did it become clear that the WC didn’t fancy being cannon-fodder for the Socialists? Perhaps when much of the WC decided to better itself?

  3. I think that significant numbers of working class people voted for Thatcher in 1979 was a huge blow to the left. The same is gradually happening with the Muslims. “We’ve done everything for you, and what do you do, you vote Tory”.

  4. What a strange world you middle-class folk live in. Out here in the world the working class are alive and well, although sadly for the likes of Tim they don’t line themselves up into neat lines of proletariat and lumpen varieties.

    The snob image of ‘chavs’ etc. is just the same old media generated class snobbishness. Working class people who enjoy a glass of dry white from ASDA with their evening meal, believe it or not, do not suddenly transform themselves in to the middle classes.

    Voting for Thatcher simply demonstrated that unlike the upper and middle classes, the working class doesn’t always recognise its class interests, not that they became the bourgeoisie during the winter of 1979.

  5. “Working class people who enjoy a glass of dry white from ASDA with their evening meal, believe it or not, do not suddenly transform themselves in to the middle classes.”

    When Mr. Brown makes the dry white more expensive in order to punish enjoyment, we’ll find out whether they are middle class or not, because it’ll be only the middle classes who can afford it.

  6. “Voting for Thatcher simply demonstrated that unlike the upper and middle classes, the working class doesn’t always recognise its class interests…”

    Translation: ‘Stupid peasants! Do as your political masters and betters tell you to!’

  7. From an American perspective, your government just plain hates you.
    Since you are too proud to return to The Church that kept you safer from tyranny for a thousand years, you’re just going to keep being ravaged.
    Only thing that makes it a little better for Americans, according to catholicfundamentalism.com, is the fact that here we have real churches, like Catholic
    and Baptist, whose sincere believers in divine justice keep some of the bastards at bay.

  8. There has never been a uncontroversial definition of working class; nor has there been a lack of gradations within that class. Skilled workers always thought of themselves as different (often better) than the unskilled.

    There are many competing definitions for the middle/working class divide. Occupation – professional classes are middle; Economic status; Behaviour (do you buy the Guardian or the Sun) and obviously by snobbery.

    Thus we have

    Working class people who enjoy a glass of dry white [mc by behaviour] from ASDA [wc by snobbery] with their evening meal [mc by behaviour/occupation], believe it or not, do not suddenly transform themselves in to the middle classes.

    The conclusion is that unless terminology is agreed in advance, this sort of discussion is pointless. Bob can claim whatever want he wants and still be arguably right, by being imprecise. The critical “aspirational component” of being middle class may be sufficient for Tim but is irrelevant for Bob.

    Voting for Thatcher simply demonstrated that unlike the upper and middle classes, the working class doesn’t always recognise its class interests, not that they became the bourgeoisie during the winter of 1979.

    Now clearly some people became poorer after 1979 – they lost their jobs. However it is at least debatable whether the majority of “working class” became absolutely poorer. In the economic boom that followed 1979 many people (including some notionally in the working class) found themselves absolutely better off. [Note the word absolutely as opposed to relative]. Was it in their class interests to have voted Tory?

  9. we would just go back to enjoying a pint of mild.

    Thank you Bob. I forgot middle class by cliche.

    I also applaud the word “we”.

  10. What is the official left-wing definition of “working class”? Can you elect to be working class? Are you born to it? Or are you selected?
    Can you be “suddenly transformed”? If so which wine and which supermarket?;)

  11. “What is the official left-wing definition of ‘working class’?”

    Precise definitions – anyone who works for a living? – are potentially hazardous. By that definition, the Governor of the Bank of England is definitely WC.

    Aware of the problem, the self-styled “left” made much reference instead to that fabled fantasy “ordinary working people” to garnish political rhetoric.

    Really? I once asked years ago in an online forum when Compuserve still flourished, just who are those “non-ordinary working people”?

    Even more interesting, who are the “ordinary non-working people”?

    Presumably, that category has to include the 2.6 million recipients of Incapacity Benefits?

  12. “Voting for Thatcher simply demonstrated that unlike the upper and middle classes, the working class doesn’t always recognise its class interests.”
    How very patronizing. They didn’t deserve the vote, really, did they?

  13. “Voting for Thatcher simply demonstrated that unlike the upper and middle classes, the working class doesn’t always recognise its class interests, not that they became the bourgeoisie during the winter of 1979.”

    What are “class interests”?

  14. “How very patronizing.”

    Not really. The official terminology in Marxism for those cases where the proletariat persists in voting against its own supposed class-interest is “false consciousness”.

    There’s evidently a lot of it about, which is one reason why Marx’s predictions about the inevitability of the social revolution failed to materialise except in a few under-developed economies where capitalism hadn’t made much progress, like Imperial Russia.

    Curiously, Marx, hounded out of mainland Europe in 1848, sought asylum with his family in London, the capital city of the country with the leading capitalist economy of his time – look up at the Blue Plaque on the front of Quo Vadis Restaurant next time you’re in Dean Street, Soho.

    Francis Wheen, in his recent biographical study of Marx, reports that Bakunin, a Russian anarchist (1814-76), believed that Marx served as a police spy.

    Wheen writes that the evidence suggests that is likely so – but then, dear reader, refresh your knowledge of Marx’s scurrilous comments in the Communist Manifesto about other leftist ideologues.

    While he researched his magnus opus in the British Museum Library, Marx and family eked out a living at the margins on his occasional journalism augmented by subventions from Engels, who ran a commercially successful family textile business in Manchester. Marx needed to differentiate his product.

  15. Btw according to highly regarded recent scholarship, for the c. 30 years prior to Marx and family settling in London as asylum seekers in 1848, real wages in Britain had been rising rapidly.

    Try MW Flinn: The Standard of Living and the Industrial Revolution (1997):
    http://www.ehs.org.uk/society/pdfs/Kirby%2025a.pdf

    See also: Industrial Revolution and the Standard of Living, by Clark Nardinelli:

    “The Lindert-Williamson series produced two striking results. First, real wages grew slowly between 1781 and 1819. Second, after 1819 real wages grew rapidly for all groups of workers. For all blue-collar workers—a good stand-in for the working classes—the Lindert-Williamson index number for real wages rose from 50.19 in 1819 to 100 in 1851. That is, real wages doubled in just thirty-two years.”
    http://www.econlib.org/Library/Enc/IndustrialRevolutionandtheStandardofLiving.html

    So much for Marx’s thesis of the “increasing immiserization of the proletariat” through industrialization.

  16. There is the aristocracy. They had not need to care what people thought about them since their money rolled in come what may. They became decadent.

    Now there are the Chavs. They have no need to care what people think about them since their money rolls in come what may (from the rest of the populations taxes). They are antisocial.

    Perhaps the problem could simply be that the lumpen proletariat have fallen out of the working class completely to form their own distinct class sucking on the taxes from the working class (which by Marx’s analysis would actually include most of the people in the middle classes as well as what is recognised as the working class).

  17. You may be partly right in that many more aspirant working class types grabbed the opportunities of the sixties, seventies and eighties, elevating themselves into the middle class leaving a less aspirational working class behind. But I don’t thin this is the full story.

    There’s also the issue you always like to point out – incentives. The increasingly generous social welfare system has removed some of the incentives people once had to try and elevate themselves. When the state provides all the wide screen tvs and bling a heart could desire why make the effort to be mobile?

    I’m not saying this phenomenon is universal, but I’d suggest it also plays its part.

  18. This was a really interesting article and I think that its really important that we recognise there is a working class who are hard working and aspirational. As a working class person with a degree I want my kids to know its ok to be part of the working class and do well and have values – we shouldn’t just be left with the choice of joining the middle classes or the underclass – we’re neither.

Leave a Reply

Name and email are required. Your email address will not be published.