The post-colonial philosopher Gayatri Spivak once famously asked: ‘Can the subaltern speak?’ Colonialism though is not just about race, it is also about that great unmentionable, class. And class colonization is one of the most central features of British social and political life.
Socially, colonization takes the form of gentrification which displaces the working class from the areas they grew up, lived and worked in. Physically, gentrification changes the way a place looks so that the traces of the working class community that had historically lived there are erased as middle class life styles take root (the cafes, the bars, the restaurants, the housing and above all the rising prices). History is re-written and new community traditions invented that completely negate the history that has gone before. The real history has disappeared along with the former inhabitants who are pushed out by a combination of market logic and local and national government social engineering.
As gentrification disperses and displaces working class communities geographically, so the gentrification of the left displaces working class voices and representatives in the public sphere, in the trade unions, the political parties, the media and academia. The recent furor over the UNITE union’s attempts to influence the selection process for Labour Party MPs is a case in point. UNITE General Secretary Len McClusksy complained that Labour Party MPs no longer look or sound like ordinary working people. Judging by the response of the Labour Party leadership, which has been to call in the police, the chances of reversing the three-decade long transformation in the class composition of Labour Party MPs is remote. In 1979 almost 40% of Labour MPs had done manual or clerical work before coming to the House, according to research done by Policy Exchange. By the time of the 2010 General Election only 9% of Labour MPs came from manual working class backgrounds and only 18% had a trade union background, according to the Smith Institute.
Labour politicians today are fully signed up to the cruelty of the political class in the age of austerity. Having no experience of working class life, having no memories of working class hardships, having been formed in an environment completely cocooned from deprivation, want and exclusion from society’s material and cultural benefits, they feel no tinge of pain, no remorse and no sense of responsibility to the class of people so detrimentally effected by the policies they make or endorse. Their middle class norms and upbringing focus remorselessly on career success and individual achievement. Principles, loyalties and pledges are cast aside as the tokens they always were: Nick Clegg is the embarrassing embodiment of the contemporary professional politician, utterly without scruples that cannot be bought by the promises of power.
The same process of gentrification has happened in the media where the career path from private school to Oxbridge to plum jobs in the mainstream organs of public opinion formation is well entrenched. Entry into the unofficial trade union of the professional middle class requires money, privilege, time and networks. The pay-off though is access to what has become a closed-shop. In the fields of drama, film, the news media, stand-up comedy, even music, once a place where working class cultural producers could survive on their UB40s, are now thoroughly dominated by the middle class. Lilly Allen, Florence Welch, Chris Martin, Laura Marling, Noah and the Whale, Pixie Lott, Mumford and Sons were all privately educated. According to the now defunct Word magazine a 2010 survey found that around 60% of chart pop and rock acts came from a private school background where as 20 years ago it was more like 1%. How can you have a culture that has any sensitivity to working class life, working class perspectives and working class norms, if all the doors to entry have been slammed shut? If politics has Nick Clegg, culture has Benedict Cumberbatch whining about how his class privilege really had no bearing on his superstar success.
Yet this tendency to deny how class privilege underpins personal trajectory is most apparent, paradoxically perhaps, in the left-wing career activist. What the left appears to have forgotten is that it is not unproblematic when the middle class leftie speaks instead of the working class. The ability to be heard and have your voice listened to is the product of inequalities of access and opportunity which the left cannot begin to overcome unless those speaking acknowledge their relative privilege. Denying where they come from and how that has smoothed their path tacitly naturalizes the division between those who speak and those who are spoken about. The whole concept of the 99% against the 1% is a powerful way of both focusing attention on that tiny elite who own and control the major resources globally, and of repressing the class divisions within the 99%. The 99%, the slogan of the social movements dominated by the middle class, projects a unity of the majority which has yet to be built, and which cannot in fact be built unless we first acknowledge the real differences and divisions between the middle and working classes within the 99%.
The classic Marxist view that the working class is defined by the fact that it sells its labour power to the owners of the means of production is also problematic for similar reasons. Since Marx’s time there has been an enormous expansion of the professional middle class, especially in the public sector, who in terms of income and other cultural-educational benefits are differentiated from the working class. Typically many of these professional jobs involve some sort of controlling position over the working class which further problematises the notion that the middle class can be simply incorporated into the working class. True, a number of middle class professions, such as teaching have been subject to ‘proletarianisation’ and the middle class can be on the receiving end of employer demands just as the working class usually are. Globalised capitalism is likely to make these tendencies impact further on the middle class, pushing towards a de-differentiation between the working and middle class. Nevertheless the Marxist notion that virtually everyone bar senior managers and bosses are working class points forward to a political project that has to be constituted rather than assumed as an empirical fact in the here and now.
The problem of the middle class career activist, who at least puts in real time at chalk face of routine political work, is redoubled by the recent phenomenon of the celebrity media activist whose power and influence has been magnified by the development of the social media. The nexus between the social media and the establishment media reinforces a neo-liberal culture of individualistic entrepreneurialism where the celebrity self is being constantly promoted. Once again, the tendency to efface the class background which has facilitated the rise of such media celebrities is very much in evidence with various strategies being deployed (how you dress, how you speak, what you say or do not say about your background etc) that obfuscate that background. This means that the privileges of family, education, economic stability and networks that lie behind media success, are erased and therefore the deep structural barriers to what is called social mobility, remain unacknowledged by everyone. The implications of this is that if you utilize your talents and work hard enough, everyone can achieve access to speak in the public sphere. To identify politically with the working class as an oppressed class is certainly necessary for social progress, but to claim a working class identity that does not exist means that the relationship with the working class cannot be an honest one.
At a time when there is a need more than ever for a radical left, the people who are speaking about and drawing attention to the condition of the working class are the cultured and educated elites who do not have the experience of working class life. The crucial point about this is that it reinforces the notion of a passive working class who need to be organized or rescued by the intelligentsia. The people who have the experiences that are being talked about are not the people doing the speaking. The link between experience and its representation in the public sphere is still broken or at best filtered through another optic.
Of course the middle class radical has a crucial role to play if there is going to be progressive change. From Marx and Engels onwards, socialists have come from the ranks of the intelligentsia, and in Engels’ case, the bourgeoisie proper. But as the organizations of the working class are battered and weakened and as the culture of the working class is dismantled, so the middle-class left end up representing themselves more than a working class they are only tenuously connected to. Marx let us not forget, lived in penury and Engels spent his time with the Manchester working class, not at dinner parties with the rich who he regarded as insufferable. In order to collaborate with the working class, the middle class left needs to acknowledge or declare their relatively privileged backgrounds, just as Paul Foot and Tony Benn never attempted to make light of their class background. When media celebrities for example declare that just because their parents were lawyers, just because they went to private school and just because they went to Oxford, that set of ladders does not particularly advantage them, then one really has to ask who the left are speaking to and in whose interests.
The task of the left should be to help develop what Gramsci called the organic intellectuals of the working class: the people who can articulate working class experiences and perspectives because they come from and remain connected to the working class. This has to happen in politics, in the media, in education, and across culture generally. Can the subaltern speak? Yes, if they have the chance.
An updated version of this article was posted on August 19 at 5pm.
Mike Wayne & Deirdre O’Neill are the directors of the feature length documentary The Condition of the Working Class. The film is a cultural-political project that puts into practice the ideas discussed in this article. For more details see: http://www.conditionoftheworkingclass.info