Monday, 29 February 2016

Feeling invisible is the least of working class problems

“If I was of colour or had a disability or a different sexuality I just wouldn’t even bother turning on the television, because you feel invisible,” Times columnist and author of How to be a woman, Caitlin Moran, told the Radio Times last week.

“The lack of working class people in culture at the moment is notable,” she went on. “And when they are represented … Take Benefits Street. It’s the only time I’ve seen people on benefits on television, but you didn’t get to hear them talking about their ideas on philosophy or politics, you didn’t get to see them being joyful – it was simply about surviving, and that made them look like animals. It didn’t show them as human beings.”

This is true but something jars. Representation of working class people is not the same as representation of other so-called minorities. It’s far more troublesome because the implications of genuine representation are far less containable. Put simply, it’s possible to have a resolutely capitalist society that is authentically diverse, and comfortable with multi-ethnicities, equal representation of women, fluid sexuality and disability. It’s not possible to have a resolutely capitalist society that pays more than lip service to working class lives and experiences.

Merely on a superficial level, working class representation in culture is different. The problem is not invisibility but abject distortion and hostility. When the working class is heard in popular culture, it’s invariably with the prefix ‘white’ as if working class views can only be amplified in racial terms. Benefits Street, Benefits Britain, On Benefits and Proud, Benefits by the Sea, On the Sick, Benefits Hotel, Benefits Cat* etc (it’s quite a long list) are all fixated on looking down at people whose lives, intelligence and moral scruples are presented at a qualitatively lower level than those of the viewer. People live in ‘benefits’ houses, have ‘benefits’ babies and smoke ‘benefits’ fags.

These portrayals are dripping with condescension, stereotypes and malice. Invisibility would be a major advance. You could compare this representation with the way homosexuality or ethnic minorities were depicted in the 1970s but even that was less spiteful. It’s like the venom that’s now not acceptable to vent on other racial groups or non-heterosexual people has been stored up to be spewed on targets few will defend.

What does working class mean?

However these depictions are not of the working class per se but people on out of work benefits. The closer people are materially to those at the bottom of the heap, the more they may well want to differentiate themselves. “I don’t think I would want to be in the same class as somebody who takes what they can and has the attitude of ‘Well, I’m better off not working,” Lorraine, a fork lift truck driver, is quoted as saying towards the end of the book, Social Class in the 21st Century.

Just under half of society, if you credit official definitions, are now working class. 10.6 million people in Britain can be described as poor (in work poverty has now overtaken out of work poverty), as their income is below 60% of the median. A further 760,000 are claiming Jobseekers Allowance and 2.3 million are getting either Incapacity benefit, or its successor, Employment and Support Allowance. The term ‘working class’ can be applied to all of these groups, or just one, depending on your intention.

It’s possible to react to working class stereotypes in the same way as racial stereotypes or homophobia. Just as there is sexism and racism, so there is classism. The solution is to fight an attritional battle on sexist, racist, homophobic or classist attitudes so that eventually society is free of them. In this ideal world, working class people have their voice heard equally in culture in the same way that women, ethnic minorities, non-heterosexual and transgender people do. The working class are not looked down on or stereotyped.

But this would be a false utopia. Being working class is not a collection of attitudes to be respected, or the spur behind an ambition to colonise the commanding heights of society, but a state of being that should not exist. The aim should be a classless society. The working class should be abolished. And that is a truly transgressive aspiration.


It’s easier to see the distinction if you examine society’s acceptable and seemingly unstoppable radical edge, the push for diversity. Since 2010’s Equality Act it has been illegal to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of, not just sex or race, but sexual orientation, transgender status or disability. Discrimination obviously does happen but officially it shouldn’t. Government departments have been at the forefront of this drive. The Home Office has been recognised as one of the UK’s Top 50 Employers for Women and offers guaranteed interviews to qualified people with disabilities.  Secret service agency MI5 been has named ‘employer of the year’ by LGBT rights charity Stonewall. In the US, since the time of George W Bush, the US federal government has declared itself in favour of ‘workplace diversity’.

Allied to this, there has been constant pressure to make corporate boardrooms and the upper echelons of public sector bodies more reflective of society. The 30% Club campaigns for greater gender balance at board level in the UK. Groups such as OUTstanding claim business can benefit from greater productivity by enhancing representation of LGBT people at executive level.

It is, without question, a good thing that society, and its cultural expressions, reflect its actual diversity. Gay and transgender people, in particular, have suffered terribly from bullying and worse. The current stigmatising tone of coverage of benefit claimants prepares the ground for sanctions and cuts to sickness benefit. So a more realistic, and, gulp, sympathetic portrait may have tangible effects.

But cultural diversity and equal treatment by employers are profoundly inadequate tools for dealing with the inescapable inequality and autocracy of the capitalist organisation of society. This becomes apparent when you consider how the working class fits into the diversity agenda. The short answer is, it doesn't.

If an employer doesn’t want to discriminate, for example, against working class people, how are they to proceed? They could aim to ensure that people with working class backgrounds aren’t excluded. That would be difficult to define and enforce, but beyond these surface difficulties, whether a working class person even gets to the application or interview stage, is dependent upon innumerable factors. These elements, such as education, childhood experiences, parental wealth, ownership of assets, or cultural capital are produced by entrenched political and economic forces, and not within the gift of enlightened employers to bestow.

The result is that, despite the ostensible backing of Left and Right for greater social mobility and equal opportunity, the reality either gets worse or remains static. Two decades ago, Conservative Prime Minister John Major promised a ‘classless society’.  With impeccable amnesia David Cameron now claims the Conservatives as the ‘party of equality’. But class cannot be undiscriminated away.

A cooperative economy

However the incongruity goes far deeper. Genuine representation of working class opinions and experiences cuts against the grain of organisations built on hierarchy and career progression. For a telesales worker, a front-line nurse, a fork lift driver, a cleaner or a receptionist to have an equal say in the management of the organisations they work for presupposes an end to the arbitrary power of management, and the reaping of profits by senior management and shareholders. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Power should steadily accrue to those who ascend career ladder. So working class experiences and opinions are necessarily suppressed in favour of those of the upper middle class.

If, however, you wish society to genuinely listen to the experiences of working class people, you have to move towards a cooperative economy, in which the distinction between employer and employee is abolished. This doesn’t mean that a division of labour is no longer needed or that management disappears as a function. But it does mean that enterprises and public sector organisations become classless and democratic. The huge cooperative enterprise at Mondragon in Spain, which contains over 250 businesses, indicates this is quite feasible.

The implications of such a change are massive for a society increasingly defined in terms of status, seniority and inequality. But, like a basic income heralding a post-work future, a cooperative economy could be just as liberating for those convinced they benefit from the current make-up of society, as for everyone else.

*This one is made up but I’m hopeful Channel 5 will commission it

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