What we talk about when we talk about class.

The BBC’s class calculator has come in for a lot of mockery this week, with Bristol Anarchist Federation’s alternative class calculator being probably the most succinct response. While I don’t have much interest in the class calculator itself, which sounds like a load of bollocks, I think the question of sociological and economic definitions of class is an interesting one, and one that’s worth thinking through. As anyone who gets involved in class struggle politics quickly discovers, terms like “working class” are used to describe different things depending on who’s speaking. For the purposes of this article, I’ll use “economic class” to describe the very clear-cut capitalist/wage-labourer distinction that Bristol AF, and most other revolutionaries, talk about, and “sociological class” for the kind of common-sense, “if you went to uni and listen to Radio 4 you’re middle class, if you have a regional accent and eat pork scratchings you’re working class” category that’s used more widely.

Most revolutionaries use some variation of the economic two-class distinction – for instance, my own “about” section on this website starts off by stressing this. But not all of them do – for instance, Class War defined the middle class as a separate group with interests opposed to those of the working class, a position which sometimes expressed itself as sneering at teachers and the like, and the now-defunct group Openly Classist argued that “the real enemy of working class people-the enemy that keeps them suppressed-is not capitalism, not the State, not the never defined “Ruling Class”, but this dominating class, the middle class.” It’s fairly obvious that any ideology that sees teachers and Michael Gove as having the same class interests is rubbish, but I think that other groups can be a bit too hasty to write off anything outside the basic economic class division. Worst of all is the sadly common hypocrisy where people jump from one definition to the other according to the situation, so your mate who went to Oxford but you think is sound and agrees with you about most things is objectively proletarian if you look at their relationship to the means of production, but those Trots/anarchists/feminists/environmentalists/liberals/whatever over there are a bunch of middle-class idiots who you don’t have to take seriously because everyone knows half of them are students*. I don’t think anyone’s really immune from this habit, I’d guess that anarchists probably call Trots middle-class about as often as the other way around.

Revolutionaries who rely on the economic class division often tend to see the sociological distinction of working and middle class as a social construct that’s used by the system to divide and rule, which I think is largely true, and then conclude from that that it’s not really worth bothering with. This conclusion is a lot more problematic, as social constructs aren’t just imaginary, they have real effects – nationalism is another system that’s used to divide and rule the working class by making people fight against each other instead of for our shared class interests, but that doesn’t mean that all we need to do is point this out and then Israelis and Palestinians will suddenly start holding hands and singing the Internationale. Similarly, we may all belong to the same economic class, but that doesn’t mean that someone who is identifiably culturally middle-class won’t feel out of place at an anti-bedroom tax meeting held on a housing estate, or that someone in trackie bottoms and an England shirt will feel at home at a meeting of the lecturers’ union UCU.

If anyone doubts the importance of these divisions, it’s worth thinking about the experiences of 2011, when two completely separate revolts took place, the public sector strikes of “middle class” and “working class” trade unionists and the riots of “underclass” youth, but no contact was made between these two groups. The economic working class certainly exists in the sense that some of us have to sell our labour in order to survive, while others profit off it, and which category you’re in has a major effect on your life, but it doesn’t exist in the sense of being a single unified group.

Rather than sharing a single experience of what it’s like to be working class, wage labourers are fragmented up into many different sections – as well as the obvious dividing lines of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and sociological class, there’s a number of important and overlapping divisions like private sector workers versus public sector workers versus claimants, unionised versus un-unionised workers, and those in stable, permanent employment versus those in temp jobs. These divisions matter, and the tensions between workers and claimants won’t just go away if we close our eyes, click our heels together and repeat “we’re all proles together”, any more than patriarchy will. We need a strategy to attack them, and that requires a full, open and honest discussion of them, without getting defensive about our own backgrounds or trying to pretend they don’t exist.

Privilege theory comes in for a lot of criticism, but I think it can be a useful tool for some areas. When thinking about the sociological categories that get labelled as “working class” and “middle class” I don’t think it makes sense to see them as totally separate categories with opposed interests – again, thinking back to the big public sector strikes of 2011, that’d mean that the sociologically middle class professionals striking had opposing class interests to the cleaners and other manual workers who also took to the picket lines that day – but I also don’t think we can write them off altogether, so viewing them as different groups within the economic working class with varying amounts of privilege makes sense to me.  This means that it’s not a bad thing, or an inherent contradiction, for sociologically middle class people to be involved in groups based around the economic working class, any more than it’s a problem for men or white people to be involved in these groups, but if an organisation’s overwhelmingly dominated by any one of these categories, then that is a problem, and it’s worth thinking about why that is. For instance, someone who’s been to university, and received systematic training in forming and expressing their ideas, will tend to have an advantage when it comes to discussing ideas, and so will find it easier to get attention and respect in groups, like most political organisations, where these skills are highly prized. The more a group is made up of a people who share a single cultural background, the more they’ll lack knowledge of other experiences of working-class life, and it’s worth being aware of this, as well as the fact that any organisation dominated by people from one background is going to be offputting to people from other backgrounds.

The many different groups that make up the working class are continually being brought together – examples of this include the way that some ethnic groups, like Jews, Irish Catholics or Afro-Caribbeans, experience less racism than they used to, or students at Sussex University are making better links with workers on their campus, and the Pop-Up Union is bringing workers from different trade unions and job backgrounds together – and driven apart, as with the increasing demonisation of claimants, or the way that mass redundancies mean that shared workplace cultures are destroyed and replaced with the forced isolation imposed by the welfare system. This means that, for revolutionaries, our task is not to place ourselves at the head of some mythical united working-class movement, as some on the left still fondly imagine, but to try and do what we can to encourage the processes that bring people together, and resist the ones that divide them. This can take an endless number of different forms, from arguing that union meetings should be opened up to other workers, to bashing racists in the street, to challenging lefties who deny the existence of patriarchy, to spending half your lunchtime arguing with that person at your work who’s always talking shite about people on benefits. It’s a huge task, and one that’s not helped by simplistic positions that downplay the extent of the problem, whether they take the form of wishing patriarchy away by viewing sexism as just about individual attitudes, or viewing sociological class categories as irrelevant because they’re not the same thing as economic class. We can only begin to work towards solutions once we’ve recognised the problems.

Post-script: Kill the team leader in your head.

This post is now quite long and gloomy enough, but while I’m on the subject I just wanted to quickly bring up a related problem, which is the extent to which, as individuals, we’re all forced to collaborate with capital against each other. This individual collaboration is another problem that’ll need to be worked through before we can ever arrive at a straightforward class struggle of workers versus bosses.

On one hand, anarchists recognise that we don’t have a free choice over what we do with our lives, and we’re all forced to compromise to some extent in order to earn a living, and even people engaged in some of the most harmful jobs, like weapons manufacturing, can take impressively radical actions when they start to collectively challenge their conditions. On the other hand, we recognise that there are some things you just don’t do, no matter how much you need the money: strikebreaking being one, becoming a cop being another fairly uncontroversial example. But it’s not just coppers and scabs who make their money by fucking people over – what about bailiffs? Or supermarket security guards? Or jobcentre workers who sanction people? UKBA staff who carry out raids and remove immigrants might be completely beyond the pale, but what about the thousands of staff employed to make sure the Home Office’s murderous bureaucracy runs smoothly, or the cleaners and catering staff in detention centers, or the people who schedule appointments for ATOS?

Industries like debt collection and Welfare to Work provision are likely to carry on growing and growing, so it’s likely that in the future we’ll see more struggles by workers in these industries, simultaneously fighting back against capital’s attacks on their own standard of living while helping to ruin other people’s lives in the interests of the economy, as with the Prison Officer’s Association. And in our own lives, a lot of people are desperate to get into paid employment and out of the collapsing welfare system, so it’d be good to have some kind of shared clarity on what compromises are acceptable and unacceptable in order to earn a living.

As well as the fact that many jobs require you to fuck over other working-class people for your employer, there’s the related problem that, rather than just having one bloke with a monocle and top hat giving everyone else orders, modern workplaces often require all the workers to enforce work discipline on each other. Team leaders and shift supervisors who do most of the same work and earn a tiny bit more in return for pushing everyone else to work harder, but even workers at the very bottom of the ladder are often forced into driving our co-workers onwards and helping our bosses keep an eye on performance, as with work teams that are collectively rewarded and punished according to results, so it’s in everyone’s individual interests to discourage each other from slacking off. None of this changes the essential antagonism between those of us who have to sell our lives in order to survive and those who get rich off our backs, but it does highlight, once again, the vastness of the challenges that we’ll have to find our way through if we ever want to be able to face our enemies openly and directly, as one class against another.

* no-one ever looks good doing this, and that includes the many anarchists who do it, but, as with so many other kinds of depressing lefty behaviour, it reached a new low during the SWP crisis, when loyal supporters of the Central Committee led by Professor Alex Callinicos, a man who has literally spent his entire adult life in academia, tried to suggest that a party member who had spoken out against covering up rape must have been led astray by the “pull of petty-bourgeois thinking” because he was doing a PhD. Seriously.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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4 Responses to What we talk about when we talk about class.

  1. Pingback: Vampires aren’t actually real, though. Class is: a reply to Mark Fisher’s castle of bollocks | Cautiously pessimistic

  2. Pingback: What Lena Dunham Taught Us About Unpaid Labor | PopularResistance.Org

  3. Pingback: Redacted: some critical notes on the ideas of Red Action | Cautiously pessimistic

  4. Pingback: Enjoy hipsterphobia as part of a balanced diet | Cautiously pessimistic

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