The rise of the
That even welfare-dependent people are now considered part of the proletariat shows how screwed-up class has become.
According to the State of the Nation 2013 report, published by the think-tank British Future, nearly 60 per cent of Britons now define themselves as working class. This was compared with only 36 per cent of respondents who described themselves as middle class.
The report’s author is rightly puzzled by this sudden hike in proletarian identity. ‘How do we define class?’, he asked. ‘Are people judging themselves by their lifestyle, their ambition, their parents or by what category they think is the most cool?’ It’s a telling sign of the times that the list above omits a very important category of social class: occupation. When everyone from salaried professionals (46 per cent of the respondents) to the unemployed define themselves as working class, it’s clear that class identity is not what it used to be.
It could be argued that, defined objectively, social class refers to a person’s economic position relative to the way society is organised. This means social class is reproduced spontaneously through the production process. So in objective terms, the division between the owners and non-owners of the production process still exists today. It’s still a readily identifiable hierarchy in British society. Indeed, taking this definition in isolation, some have concluded that the growth in the number of those in work globally shows the working class to be more dominant than ever.
But even examining social class using occupational criteria alone raises a number of problems. Last October, the Office for National Statistics revealed that 9.07million, or 22.6 per cent, of the British working-age population are economically inactive. That is, a very significant minority in Britain have a relationship with welfarism rather than with work. The definition of proletariat is an individual whose only means of survival is through selling his labour power. When individuals can survive in Britain without having to sell their labour power, they can no longer be classified as ‘proletariat’ in any meaningful way. Instead, those individuals become déclassé. That long-term welfarism can be considered part of a ‘working-class identity’ shows how degraded ‘class identity’ has become.
Indeed, it is the question of subjective class identity that is all-important when examining social class. Until relatively recently, working people’s identification as a class represented a belief that they had common interests. To be class conscious was to recognise that both the workplace and society were not organised in working people’s interests. Collective organisations, such as trade unions, developed in order to represent and defend their members’ economic interests. Consequently, a genuine working-class identity was once bound up with an outlook that was different and independent from other class interests. Although working-class independence was quite limited in Britain from 1945 onwards, a residual sense of ‘us and them’ still prevailed – particularly against the state and state agencies. This meant a flinty commitment to self-reliance was deeply ingrained within the British working classes, especially among its more radical and militant sections.
In Austerity Britain (2008), historian David Kynaston noted how leftists were suspicious of the emerging welfare state because ‘it kept workers in a suspended state of animation’. That is, it sapped them of the energy and initiative to play an active role in shaping society. The huge take-up of welfare payments in recent years, and the idea that welfare dependency is a way of life, shows the extent to which an independent working-class identity has been pretty much destroyed.
To identify yourself as working class today often represents a fatalistic belief that you’re hard done by, and probably in need of state assistance. By contrast, in the postwar period, being working class was seen as a temporary stage to be transcended, either through upward mobility or the abolition of class relations in society. This is also why there was once an aura of explosive radicalism surrounding a working-class identity. Such radicalism denoted dissatisfaction with the existing social order and an ambitious desire to topple it in your own interests. Today, working-class identity seems to be bound up with adapting to a permanent position at the margins of society
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All this has had an impact on the middle classes, too. Free from the pressures of an active and ambitious working class below, the middle classes (and increasingly the upper echelons) don’t feel compelled to act as leaders in order to preserve the existing order or their sectional interests. As such, today’s middle classes distance themselves from any well-to-do background that once emphasised leadership and responsibility in public life. Thus, pretending to be working class - as many of the ABC1s (middle classes) did in the British Future survey - reflects a discomfort with the demands of societal leadership. It also reflects a shifting form of political identity within the middle classes, whereby the politics of pity and concern for the poor has become the means through which ‘decent’ values can be paraded. Middle-class professionals who define themselves as working class reflect the belief that being ‘working class’ means an attachment to state benevolence or hostility towards consumerism.
Class identity as a signifier of whether you support or want to prevent social change no longer has any bearing today. The absence of a class-based antagonism in society means that identifying yourself as ‘working class’ has very conservative and negative connotations. When 22 per cent of the working population are not in employment, working-class identity today can come across as a celebration of fatalism, victimhood and powerlessness - the very opposite of the original working-class identity. No wonder it’s safe for nearly everyone to identify themselves as working class now.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.