28 January 2021
The responses to Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self by Sam Friedman, David O’Brien and Ian McDonald, along with its companion piece Why do so many professional, middle-class Brits insist they’re working class? by Sam Friedman, has been an amusing distraction for me. In sociology Twitter-land, I’ve primarily seen one gang chin-stroking and calling it interesting, and another yelling ‘It happens here too ya bastards!’ In the corners of social media where the organised left congregate, there have been quiet murmurings of ‘Fucking middle-class twats’, but mostly the response is ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ The only other social media world I look at is football analytics, where neither piece of writing has really been noted.
My own take on the articles is that they’re fine, part of a strain of sociological research which explains what is patently obvious to those of us born into what for now I’ll call ‘economically marginalised communities’. Many of us have never entered into the elite spaces covered in the research, but have experienced a plethora of deflecting tactics by individual denizens of those spaces. For those of you who haven’t read the article, the major takeaway is that many people in elite occupations and from backgrounds which include private schools, ponies, skiing holidays, high-wage-earning parents—and all the other general trappings of what the authors call ‘economically privileged’—emphasise their working-class identity. They legitimise this identification by talking about their parents or their grandparents’ childhoods. According to the articles, this identification enables them to understand their current social position as one they’ve earned on their own merit. As the authors put it:
‘We would therefore argue that these intergenerational understandings of class origin should also be read as having a performative dimension; as deflecting attention away from the structural privilege these individuals enjoy, both in their own eyes but also among those they communicate their “origin story” to in everyday life. At the same time, by framing their life as an upward struggle “against the odds”, these interviewees misrepresent their subsequent life outcomes as more worthy, more deserving and more meritorious.’
As I mentioned before, this is fucking obvious, but I appreciate the research because I can now quote an academic paper when I point out this behaviour when it happens in front of me. I am also on the fringes of academia now, so I’m probably going to get a chance to see more and more of this behaviour, and being able to cite some work is going to be useful. It is however just one in a large bag of tricks that the economically privileged use on a daily basis against those from economically-marginalised communities.
There are plenty of these little tricks, some of them coated in a veneer of neutrality, appropriateness, civility, morality, and taste. Simply put, they are framed as the right way to be human, and the punitive measures applied for stepping outside of this right way are presented as fair and just. They range from exclusion from social circles due to expressing the wrong kind of emotions, to the social exclusion of imprisonment due to the wrong kind of economic activity. One of the tricks that’s often performed within the political left is the cry of ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’
Now before you get grumpy, not everyone who says this is deploying a trick, as there is a helpful and strong argument in favour of this two-class analysis. It highlights the fact that there is a specific group of people on global and national levels who benefit the most from the economic, political, and social order of things. The owning-class-vs.-working-class class analysis also means we have a lot more people on our team. It can, more than any other analysis, be objectively measured and easily explained. For those of us in this for the political organising, this analysis has many merits. However, not all those who insist on yelling ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ whenever any debate around class arises, are doing so in good faith—and those that are acting in good faith are facilitating those who aren’t. Even under a two-class analysis there are massive material differences between those in its conception of the working class, and I’d argue these material differences can lead to very different interests.
The trick—actually I’m going to stop calling it a trick here: the act of violence—that Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self highlights is real. If you view the world through the two-class analysis, then it’s an act of inter-class violence. If you go for a three-class analysis, then it’s one of middle-class violence over the working class. The authors, for good or bad, have gone for a three-class analysis. To them there is a measurable and easily-identifiable middle class, but if your focus when reading the article is on the two-vs.-three conundrum, and not the acts of violence, then you might need a glass of water and a good nap.
In my first book Chav Solidarity I used the term ‘middle class’ (usually followed by some kind of disparaging remark) on every two or three pages. By the end of my second book Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors I was promising I’d never use the term middle class again, deeming it unhelpful. Dear reader, I have used it again. Researching my third book, I’ve interviewed 100 social movement participants about their ideas and experiences regarding class. The split between those who use a two-class analysis and those who use a three-class (or more) analysis was about 40/60, but many of those who would open up with a hard-line defence of a two-class analysis would still talk about the middle-class in economic and cultural terms. Some would talk about it in reference to the communities they come from, as a descriptor of the setting, and others—nearly always those who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s—described an aspiration to become ‘middle class’ that was prevalent amongst those they knew. Others would talk about its usage within lefty social movements as a kind of boogie man, an all purpose term to describe some of the worst patterns of behaviour within the left. I still have to really work through the interview transcripts, so perhaps something else will come forth, but given these two takes, is it possible to suggest that ‘middle class’ is less a class of people, and more a class of being and action? No, I don’t think so either. It was just a thought.
I suspect at the heart of the ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ refrain, and any rebuttal to it, are questions regarding tensions and confusions about the relevance and meanings of exploitation and oppression. Exploitation in the context of class refers to the extraction of surplus labour in economic production, and oppression refers to the marginalisation and misrecognition of a group or individual based upon their class position. Supporters of a two-class analysis argue that what fundamentally matters is the exploitation of the working class by the owning or capitalist class. They say it is the relationship to the means of production and the appropriation of surplus labour that defines class. In this view the questions of oppression have little relevance in conversations regarding class.
This perspective unites in a common struggle the college lecturer in Derby, England with the farmer in Kano, Nigeria, and the tech worker in Montpellier, France with the garment factory worker in Bangalore, India. All are having their surplus labour appropriated by the capitalist/owning class. In emphasising the unity of struggle, space is created for the denial of the ways in which the college lecturer in Derby benefits from the exploitation of their fellow workers in Bangalore and Kano. The end of the farmer’s and the factory worker’s exploitation is not necessarily in the interests of the college lecturer and the tech worker. Within the UK and other colonial nation states, the entire population benefits from this exploitation to varying levels, even if their labour is being exploited at the same time.
The ideas of racial capitalism proposed by Cedric Robinson and Ruth Gilmore, and the Marxist-feminist work of Maria Miles and Silvia Federici, offer up more rigorous critiques of the ways in which race and gender are points on which exploitation can occur within the working class as well as to the working class. But apparently such ideas are not good enough for those who continue to state ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ Exploitation of women’s reproductive labour creates class divisions within the household, and the colonisation carried out by white Europeans maintains class divisions along racial lines that have been present since the birth of capitalism. Only in ignoring these two features of capitalism can one come to the conclusion that there are objectively only two classes. I think ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ is a strategic position, one which like most strategies has pros and cons, but in using it we should be able to drill into its cons, because god knows the enemy will—it already has.
Whilst the exploitation of the working class along racial or gendered lines is acknowledged, the question of class oppression is one that is often ignored by those holding a two-class analysis. It can be argued that a three-class system analysis swings too far the other way, in overemphasising the role the middle class plays in operating the tools of oppression against the working class, and minimising how owning class exploitation of the working class creates class positions. However, I’d argue that an analysis of the mechanisms of class oppression that have been implanted into the everyday lives of some segments of the working class is vital in comprehending the class system as it currently operates.
These tools are operated through both social and political institutions, but also cultural practices. When the focus remains on the institutions, the two-class analysis left is more willing to listen, as it can be rolled into a general critique of the state or government policy. More pushback is received when this is expanded to include the individuals who work within state institutions and the ways in which they may have differing interests to the people they engage with via these institutions. Whether it’s called the middle class or not, a segment of the population has been generated who are socialised to work in these institutions and they have taken their work home with them.
At home and in their communities, a culture has developed. People are raised in this culture, and then go out and join social movements, where they reproduce what they’ve learned back home. Certain forms of behaviour are good, certain forms of behaviour are bad, some will be rewarded, others will be punished. There is a bounty of literature detailing the various ways in which the more economically-privileged segment of the working class oppresses and dominates the more disadvantaged parts through a variety of social, cultural, political and yes, economic processes. Just as important is the fact that everyone who is from those more disadvantaged parts will have their own descriptions of how this oppression and domination occurs. If ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ is true, then it does not speak highly of the working class. Those who talk of a middle class, or more than two classes, won’t talk about intra-class violence, they’ll state that it’s the middle classes who are carrying out the oppression and domination, often at the behest of the owning and capitalist class, but not always, sometimes it’s just in their interests.
That said, specifically defining this middle class in a way that is comprehensive and without flaws is a bit of a minefield. Occupation? Surely a university lecturer is middle-class? Nope, there’s a host of university lecturers who have identified the ways in which they are dominated and oppressed by middle-class peers in their line of work, as well as being exploited by the universities they’re employed by. Nevermind the precarious employment status of many junior academics. And surely a plumber is working-class? But their employment can be better paid and more secure than those junior academics, and they might well occasionally hire/exploit someone. Artists? Writers? Ok, that’s definitely the middle class! Sounds like you’re saying working-class people can’t be creative. Maybe then it’s the context you were raised in? But as overplayed as it is, social mobility in the UK does exist. There are MPs, CEOs, elite sportspeople, scientists, lawyers, and journalists who were born poor and working class, and are now what—rich and working class?
How do we define who still gets to claim the working-class position? There’s a bit too much ‘I know it when I see it’ discourse going on for my liking. But for all its flaws (and there are many), the term ‘middle class’ can get us into some of the difficult and perhaps important questions, ones which engage a little more with the world as we’re living it, rather than the one we’ve read about in books.
The ‘THERE ARE TWO CLASSES, YOU’RE DIVIDING THE WORKING CLASS!’ argument may have had a chance of working at the stage in capitalist development when economic privileges were first handed out to segments of the working class, but the divisions and their reproduction have long gone past the point in which naming them can be considered divisive. Instead, naming them might enable us to do something about them. When someone calls someone or something middle-class, rather than focus on the precise definition of what middle-class is, we could engage with the actions being highlighted (such as the symbolic violence described by Friedman et al.’s research). Rather than ignoring the attempts of the economically privileged to legitimise the privileges capitalism has granted them, we could be investigating how they might affect our organising efforts.
The acts of violence Friedman et al. examine, and the others I’ve mentioned above, have been explored by activists, academics and others for a long time now. Still there are those within the left who refuse to acknowledge them and build responses to them into their political practice. There’s a whole host of reasons for this, and I’m not in the mood to make a bunch of bad faith accusations. So instead I’ll suggest that there is simply a practical political organising reason to take them into account. If your organisation claims a working-class identity, and is primarily made up of those who have the economic, social and cultural capital of the ‘middle class’, when someone who identifies as working-class and who has the economic, social, and cultural capital of ‘working class’ rocks up, they might think you’re all cunts. This isn’t about flat caps, tracksuits, opera vs. hip hop, football, broadsheet vs. tabloid, or regional accents. It’s resources, access, emotions, and embodiment. It’s about different parts of the working class being bred for different roles in capitalism and us having to identify and disentangle what that means as we go along.
As revolutionary socialists, communists, and anarchists of different flavours, whatever class analysis we have, I think we have two choices. We can either continue fighting over the specific language we use to describe the classes, until one analysis wins and the victors can dance in victory of whatever dystopian nightmare the capitalist class have in the meantime created for us, or we can come to an understanding that these differing class analyses are tools for us to comprehend the world around us in order to respond to the gross inequity, injustice, and general fucking devastation that surrounds us. It’s quite possible that whichever analysis we subscribe to, the other one might have something we can learn from, particularly when it comes to the reproduction of capitalist violence in our everyday organising.
1. httpssdvsafv//journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0038038520982225#articleShareContainer2.https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/18/why-professional-middle-class-brits-insist-working-class 3. http://www.dannydorling.org/books/onepercent/ 4. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvr0qs8p5. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520242012/golden-gulag 6. https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/patriarchy-and-accumulation-on-a-world-scale/ 7. https://www.akpress.org/catalog/product/view/id/789/s/calibanandthewitch/ 8. One thread of literature covering the ways in which segments of the working class are oppressed by those with greater levels of social, cultural and economic capital are feminist sociologists from the UK who develop the theories of Pierre Bourdieu. Scholars such as Imogen Tyler, Bevely Skeggs and Steph Lawler. https://www.zedbooks.net/shop/book/revolting-subjects/, https://uk.sagepub.com/en-gb/eur/formations-of-class-gender/book206065https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-954X.2005.00560.x 9. https://www.versobooks.com/books/3093-we-have-never-been-middle-class