Illustration by Rachel Macnaghten
When P.G. Wodehouse had Archibald Mulliner visit an impoverished district of London, Bottleton East, a picture of poverty emerged. It is the genius of Wodehouse that this picture is at once veristic and farcical: rather than the anticipated Dickensian squalor of children begging under delicatessen awnings, wrapped in ratty shawls and clattering their teeth at the chill of the wind, Archibald sees them enthusiastically playing hopscotch, grinning like they have enough to eat. Bottleton East, a paragon of conviviality. Even today, this description of the working class would seem jarring – and Wodehouse was writing in 1935! It seems like the question of what is the working class, and what does it look like? has yet to be answered.
During the leadup to the 2021 local elections, and really since around 2014, there has been considerable talk among British politicians, pundits and pollsters of the Labour Party’s ‘Red Wall’. This is a term which refers to the ‘heartlands’ of working-class Britain – the North, the Midlands, Northeast Wales, the residual pauperised towns and cities which were sacrificed once Britain’s manufacturing sector became subsumed by the service sector and national industries were privatised. Within these areas, more and more commonly, the especially white working class appear to be more persuaded by the likes of UKIP and the single-issue Brexit Party than Labour. It is important to understand why and how this happened in order to better get a sense of the modern working class.
In response to the political domination of Margaret Thatcher and her 11-year reign, Labour adopted many of her poses in an attempt to gain what has since become the mantra of lazy pundits and PR bumf: ‘electability’. For example, the founding feature of the creation of Blair’s New Labour was the amendment of Clause IV of the Party constitution, which removed the cause of renationalisation from its agenda, welcoming market ownership of public utilities. What came of this realignment of Labour to a more centrist, Third Way position was the electoral engagement of the middle class at the expense of the working. During this time, as Goodwin and Ford chronicled in Revolt on the Right, UKIP was soaking up the anti-EU sentiments of Red Wall constituencies. Jon Cruddas, too, has argued that even under Corbyn, whose ideology is a refreshing respite from Blairite ‘new capitalism’, the Labour Party has sociologically restricted its voter-base to a minority of middle-class metropolitan students in the South. Hence why places such as Stoke-on-Trent South, a Labour seat for 82 years, turned blue in 2017.
There is an elephant in the room, clearly; but of course it’s too easy to pin this process on the Brexit vote. Brexit is one of those peculiar events in politics whose cause and effect can be reversed: within Labour, the unwillingness to engage in any meaningful debate surrounding the European Union was a part of the process of insularisation as well as a consequence of it. There is, in fact, a tradition of Left opposition to the EU, skippered by Tony Benn and supported by Jeremy Corbyn himself. But because of the appalling way the Leave campaign was handled, left as it was to the work of UKIP and many rightwing Tories, Labour did not want to risk alienating their voters. It is rather a shame. There is a campaign to be made on leftwing, internationalist grounds for withdrawal from the European Union. Instead, the one thing Brexit did do was affirm to the middle class that the working class is characterised by xenophobia and a general ignorance about the way the world works.
This view is unhelpful. One cannot totalise and generalise a majority vote into a single camp and say, ‘I know why they did that, even if they don’t.’ But it is crucial to see how a working-class identity can be broadened to include more modern understandings of what that identity means, to the detriment of neither the stubbornly old-fashioned or the recklessly ahistorical. Far from the condescension offered by middle-class liberals, and far from the parochialism of those clinging to a very twentieth-century idea of a lunchpail labourer, I believe there is a point at which the notion of a working class can be modernised to better respond to the material conditions of current society.
There is a ‘classic’ image of the British working class, isn’t there? This is the industrial, blue-collar North that has been lost to the Conservatives, with its factory chimneys and slagheaps. This is Orwell’s hopeless and desolate young woman who spends her time unclogging a foul drainpipe with a stick.
I think, however, that it is wise to caution against a static view of class. Of any class, I should add. For those in whose hands capital is concentrated, the trappings of class have changed demonstrably. Before, where the haute bourgeoisie swanned about in layered topcoats and paisley cravats towards their favourite gentlemen’s club, there was a clearer line of demarcation between classes. Today, this stout division has dissolved. As Perry Anderson notes in The Origins of Postmodernity, ‘In place of that solid amphitheatre is an aquarium of floating evanescent forms … functions of a monetary universe that knows no social fixities or stable identities.’ Nowadays, Mark Zuckerberg makes his kids do chores, Bill Gates refuses to overspend on clothing, CEOs chum up with subordinates in lovely glass offices, and they prefer to keep their shirts open-necked or better yet encourage the abolition of uniforms in the workplace.
All well and good. But take a look at the consequences of billionaire (and, naturally, millionaire) accumulation of wealth. Last year Jeff Bezos saw his wealth rise rise by $48 billion, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballamer by $15.7 billion, and Elon Musk by $17.2 billion. This as over 25 million workers were laid off, out of work, or experiencing reduced hours because of the pandemic in America alone. This as one-half of the world’s population is made up of the urban poor, according to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. This as more than 690 million people are without food.
This idea of fluidity or instability in class distinctions is key to acquiring a more rounded understanding of what a given class looks like. Some theorists tend to conceive of class in terms of attitude, which, as I have shown, is severely deficient. Just because most executives don’t speak like Jacob Rees-Mogg doesn’t mean that they’ve suddenly nudged themselves down a peg, thereby disguising some presumption of superiority. The conclusion, therefore, is that class is determined on the basis of what one does, not how one acts. Do you work for money, or do you own for money? Do you sell labour, or do you buy it? For the working class, what unites its disparate members is a shared sense of injustice and scarcity. And it is this economic lens which provides insight to an often neglected part of what the working class looks like.
If I urged you to think of a working-class individual, chances are you would think of a sinew-armed, sweat-browed, heavy-eyed, ever-balding, headlamp-lit, sledgehammer-wielding man. If not, I commend you for your historical acumen. You would know, then, that the model of the working-class individual – that is, a proletariat – is and was a woman, whose purpose in, say, British society was (and in many ways still is) to reproduce. The word ‘proletarian’ stems from the Latin for ‘offspring’, after all. Thus the assertion that the only productive, and therefore ‘true’, labour is in making products (see Bolshevik attitudes towards sex work for example) is altogether misleading: the idea of a proletariat did not begin in manufacturing. It will not end there. Women have often taken the brunt of prole work without the recognition. Domestic housewifery, low-paid desk work for the receptionist and the secretary, clerical positions, retail jobs, servants, maids, and nannies.
Class is inherently intersectional, multicultural, multiracial, interactive and discursive. Dockers and miners and men in hardhats are included in that great oceanic title – ‘the working class’ – but they do not encompass it. There are gig workers, zero-hour contractors, customer-service workers; white-collar work is itself becoming proletarianised, and because of that the working class is one of the biggest, most inclusive, fastest growing social groups in the world.
There are elements of class, such as race, that I have barely touched upon here if only for brevity’s sake. (Race and Class is in fact the title of an entire academic journal.) But now we return again to Archibald’s open jaw at the surprise of Bottleton East. Protean, the working class will respond to the time in which it exists, and it will surprise you. The idea of a Red Wall may well be an anachronism, but remember always that ‘the working class’ is a historical term, not a structural or categorical one. Those lamenting the loss of traditional class structures will do well to bear in mind E.P. Thompson’s injunction – the working class was, is, and forever will be present at its own making.