I wanted to write a response to the previous article about the anti cuts movement because frankly, I’m obsessed with class (I can’t even make a curry without wittering on about it). I think it’s because I have experience of being in a variety of social situations where differences in class have been thrown into sharp contrast. When I was at University I used to sit in English Literature seminars at the University of Edinburgh with Upper Middle Class London types, and then catch a bus to Muirhouse where I would complete a 3-hour detached youth work shift spending my time forming relationships with ‘youths’ in areas of deprivation.
And me? Well…I’m part of a vast but confusing group of people whose parents grew up, proper working class like (their parents went down’t mine, mill, factory). Because of certain social changes that happened during the 70s/80s/90s, and a variety of factors, my parents got jobs like ‘graphic designer’ and ‘bank clerk’ and they bought a house. I find it uncomfortable to identify as middle or working class, and find myself somewhere between the two – skint, unemployed but educated, with some stability at home whilst knowing I may never be as comfortable as my parents. The group described in the timely ‘Jilted Generation’.
From looking at my own position I came to the conclusion that there are different types of class identity – structural and cultural. Structurally, many of the people criticised for being ‘middle class lefties’ will actually be working class. What is their relationship to the means of production? What do they do for a job? Are they bosses or do they work in a cafe? What power do they have over their work?
However, these same people may be culturally middle class – university educated, Guardian reading. Their language might alienate those who are culturally working class.
Equally I have met people structurally middle class whose culture is more working class (footballers might fit into this, not that I’ve met any footballers).
It’s difficult because, middle class culture and structure is privileged over working class culture. However, we have a media system run by the upper middle classes and owned by the ruling class, which is targeted largely at the working classes. The desired aim of all this is to make the working classes sympathetic to the ruling class and upper middle class (see the royal wedding for example). This can put middle class lefties, and other lefties into conflict with some members of the very working class they are trying to represent! What a pickle.
I think that class and the anti-cuts movement is an important topic to deal with, and I’m not sure that we are about to see the split that Lisa mentions. Nobody, not even the upper middle class lefties exist in a vacuum, they are as she mentions privileged by society. They are also more likely to find themselves getting into dialogue with other privileged people on the right (i.e. @mrharrycole) than they are to actually listen to working class people. This is obviously dangerous. I think the split Lisa talks about could be avoided, and it involves a bit of reflection and constant re-evaluation of our actions.
Being an upper class lefty is like being a male feminist ally or a white anti-racist. Yes, you can be part of the movement – but you have to reflect on how your privilege affects what you do and how you treat others.
I think class is simultaneously vital, and something we should not get bogged down in. How we respond to the issue is the important part.
So here are a few ideas I had about negotiating this minefield. Feel free to rip them to shreds, I am not trying to tell people what to do more thinking about my own experiences of class and the left.
If you are an unambiguously upper middle class lefty (Laurie Penny/Adam Ramsay for example).
- Don’t hide it! You can’t help your background, don’t pretend to be something you’re not, people respect honesty.
- Listen to working class people, first and foremost, in the same way that you would women about feminism if you’re a man. Don’t tell people that they are wrong about their own experiences.
- Do you meet in a group? Where is your group? Is it easy to get to if you live in a poor place that is further away? Is there a pressure to buy expensive drinks etc?
- Recognise that your education and the way your speak may affect your ability to communicate your ideas in an accessible way. I know sometimes there are big words you need to use but like, try to be inclusive. Also, don’t be too judgemental about things like conspicuous consumerism or eating at MacDonald’s etc.
- Use your privileged access to publicity channels to draw attention to working class causes; Laurie Penny is pretty good at this.
- Reflect reflect reflect on your own behaviour, but like – don’t get depressed! It’s better to get it wrong, accept that and try again than it is to just duck out of the anti-cuts movement. I would rather have an upper middle class person getting it wrong on the left, than being right on the right, or even stuck in apathetic malaise.
Some additional tips if you find yourself in a weird middle ground (this is a bit where I give myself some hints).
- Accept your status, don’t obsess about it too much. (I always fail at this one) Try not to be too defensive when people assume you are better off because of your educational advantages.
- Try not to get too annoyed by the privilege of other lefties. Yes, you might want YOUR own guardian column/more money/PhD too, but you’ve probably got advantages compared to the unambiguously working class. Getting annoyed at people like Laurie Penny, because you want to be Laurie Penny is never going to help you. In any case, have you seen how much crap she gets?
- Remain critical of class structures within your movement as a whole and in your local groups, work to make things more accessible, think, prod, make connections.
- Connect with already existing working class activism and causes and make links. Seek these out; don’t wait for them to come to you.
If you are proper, working class like….
Well I’m not going to tell you what to do.
Let’s face it, class is more than what we wear, eat and say – however those things can be used to make other people feel small. What matters is how we critically reflect, communicate and ultimately what we do.