Celebrate your identity! That is, know your place

A new report says fewer workers now define themselves as ‘working class’. Maybe they’re rebelling against the stifling politics of identity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Identity Politics Politics UK

In a speech in London last night, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill debated Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes, on who or what is giving the lower orders a rough time today. O’Neill’s opening comments are published below.

If you ever watch the later films of Mike Leigh, you will notice that all of them have a recurring character. From High Hopes through to Secrets and Lies through to Vera Drake, this character always, always makes an appearance.

And the character is that person who has left his or her working-class community. That person who has turned their back on their working-class roots and foolishly gone off in pursuit of the middle-class dream.

The character is usually a woman. She is always miserable and soulless. She lives in a big but heartless house, full of perfectly polished ornaments. And she is forever committing embarrassing social faux pas, which of course middle-class Mike Leigh fans find hilarious. Leaving aside Topsy Turvy, I challenge you to find any recent Mike Leigh film which doesn’t feature that character.

And it’s a character which speaks to a very powerful prejudice amongst today’s liberal elite – a prejudice which says that there is something weird, something unnatural, something morally dubious about working-class people who leave their communities.

It is seen as an act of betrayal. They have abandoned community solidarity and have been won over by, or rather have been brainwashed by, the rampant Thatcherite culture of consumption and one-upmanship.

In answer to the question of who or what is demonising the working classes today, I would say that that prejudice is one of the most decisive things. That prejudice against working-class people with ambition, against working-class people who aspire to own more stuff or to move to nicer, leafier suburbs or simply to have The Good Life, is really the driving force behind modern liberal snobbery.

It’s a prejudice which has been around for nearly 30 years. Right from Loadsamoney through to the attacks on ‘Essex Man’ and ‘Basildon Man’ through to the assaults on yuppies, with their vulgar fast cars and their vulgar common accents – working-class people with material aspirations have had a special place in the middle-class canon of hate figures.

They are often depicted as fishes out of water, trying to live a life that they are hilariously ill-suited for. So one group that everyone loves to mock is the footballer’s wife, drinking her Chardonnay, living in a ghastly Mock Tudor mansion, ruining Tuscany for everyone else by insisting on holidaying there. Who do these people think they are? What are they doing in our social circles?

That sentiment was explicitly expressed in a Guardian article about a nouveau-riche nightclub frequented by the footballer Wayne Rooney. It described the club as ‘a tawdry place where the clientele seem to be under the misapprehension that drinking champagne is a symbol of class’.

And it is that prejudice against the grasping, greedy sections of the lower orders which fuelled the attack on so-called chavs in recent years. Chavs are mocked for having bling, for their love of fashion labels, for daring to wear Burberry, which of course only posh people can really carry off.

Ironically, the so-called defenders of ‘chavs’ also buy into this prejudice. So in his book, Mr Jones favourably quotes Hazel Blears as saying: ‘I’ve never understood the term “social mobility” because that implies you want to get out of somewhere… And I think there is a great deal to be said for making who you are something to be proud of.’ In other words, know your place. The one thing that chav-bashers and chav-defenders share in common is a profound discomfort with working-class individual aspiration.

This liberal prejudice has even been given the stamp of scientific authority in recent years. Books by the psychologist Oliver James and the social scientist Richard Wilkinson claim it is a provable fact that our desire for more and more stuff makes us mentally ill. If you chase after material goods you will catch a disease known as ‘Affluenza’. That is how powerful and deeply ingrained the liberal disgust for aspirant working-class people has become: it has been turned into ‘science’.

What is behind this relentless cultural demonisation of working-class people who might want to leave their communities or create new lives for themselves? I think there are two points to make about this prejudice.

Firstly, it is just wrong. It is wrong to make such a savage distinction between good working-class people who stay in their communities and bad working-class people who abandon them. Or between ‘rugged individualism’, which is seen as bad, and ‘community spirit’, which is seen as good. In fact those two things inform and reinforce each other.

There is far more interplay between the individual and the community than this childish prejudice lets on. Often the youthful ambitions of working-class individuals will actually be nurtured by their family and friends, who want them to go somewhere better. And those individuals who do leave and who do make loadsamoney almost always keep a connection with their community: they might employ their old working-class friends or they might send a weekly cheque to their mother or grandmother.

The idea that it is bad to be socially mobile, and by extension that it is good to be socially immobile, is really just a rehabilitation of the old sneering prejudice that the poor should not get ideas above their station.

And the second point about this prejudice, which is far more powerful on the left than it is on the right, is that it speaks to a profound shift that has taken place in left-wing thinking in recent years. It speaks to a shift from focusing on ‘class consciousness’ to focusing on ‘class identity’; from treating working class as a political and social condition to treating it as a permanent and fixed identity.

In the past, radical left-wing thinkers, even some champagne socialists, were more interested in ‘class consciousness’. They were more interested in the working class becoming conscious of its position as a class and of its power to overthrow the class system. Indeed, the aim of radical left-wing activism was really to bring about the end of the working class.

Today, liberal and left-wing thinkers are obsessed with ‘class identity’. They have turned being working class from a social predicament, a social status, into a fixed cultural identity. They see it, not as something that might be and maybe even should be brought to an end, but as something that should be celebrated.

So they go all misty-eyed for the culture and values and spirit of these noble savages, and at the same time they have created a whole armoury of abuse and insults for any working-class person who dares to reject his identity and to try to become something else. In their fatalistic, identity-obsessed outlook, the working-class person who leaves his community is not simply trying to ‘get on’ – he is sinning against the natural order of things, against his fixed position in the world, against the whole politics of identity. Their embrace of the idea that working class is an identity, rather than a product of the capitalist system, makes them furiously hostile to anybody who dares to break out of that. Ironically, in such circumstances, the man or woman who rebels against his working-class identity, as defined for him or her by others, is striking a far better blow for working-class self-respect and self-determination than those middle-class outsiders who say: ‘Be proud of who you are.’

It’s no wonder, then, that according to a report published by the think-tank Britain Thinks last week, fewer and fewer workers are describing themselves as ‘working class’. When being ‘working class’ no longer means being powerful and transformative, but instead means knowing your place and living like a permanent exhibit in a cultural zoo that will apparently exist forever, it isn’t surprising that people want to wriggle free from that. Maybe they are refusing to to accept the Fate designed for them by those middle-class celebrators of the old, decent, back-broken working class. And of course when they refuse to accept that Fate, by making loadsamoney or by draping themselves in bling, they are severely chastised for their disobedience.

In truth, there is nothing permanent about being working class. The working class has only existed for a few hundred years, and there is no reason that this class should still exist in a few hundred years from now. I hope it doesn’t. And I hope that the next working-class uprising will be against the elitist and middle-class do-gooders who encourage working people to revel in their identity, as if they are going to live like this and work like this forever.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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