Class and Consciousness

How you relate to the World, to other people and the availability of money, is broadly determined by your social class. It is not a strictly determinist process however, and there can be exceptions, but when it is indeed class that is primary, it is the mode of life and relationships to political power that are important.
Manchester slums
Having myself started out in a Victorian slum in a northern industrial city, with a Grandmother who could neither read or write, and having ended up in a professorial post in London University, I am perhaps better placed than most as an observant outsider to many different class configurations. I started out as a Primary School teacher and ended up as Director of Information Technology in a major University and met, worked with, and even taught, many very different people, and in the case of my students, have for long periods taught many different groups whose first language was not English, but, for example, Gujerati or Cantonese. My academic life has involved many different subjects and specialisms, from politics to science, from sculpture to philosophy, and from mathematics to writing.

Nevertheless, I have never lost my broad Mancunian accent, and a working class attitude to all that I do, though this has been vastly better informed than that of my friends and relations back in West Gorton.

Now, this brief scene-setting is important, because without that history I would never have realised what factors are essential in the formation of social consciousness. From the blinkered heart of any similarly privileged (or under-privileged) like-thinking group, it became clear that there could be NO realisation of such things: a sub-group consensus is invariably dominant. So, it is by no accident that much of value in modern literature has come, most often, from the outsiders, who can both see the currents dominant in the waters in which they have to swim, and, with wide-eyed amazement, reject them!

It also takes a very long time, even with such a history, to arrive at such a realisation, because nothing equips you to find alternatives other than a lifetime of experiences: you certainly don’t come up with all the answers in your youth, even if your heart is in the right place. For most of the time you have no choice but to oscillate between various substitute world-views, offered by others, and only with sufficient time, many mistakes, and determined study, do you slowly establish a human standpoint, rather than a commonly-shared class standpoint. And it is a sad revelation, because by that juncture you are already speaking a different language, and no-one from your origins gives any credence to what you have to say. For the majority dwell within only second-hand, class-determined conceptions of the World, and you are either “on another planet”, or alternatively “talking though the wrong orifice.”

Indeed, as a teacher all my life, I have learned that to say it like it is and be understood, requires a pre-prepared audience equipped to follow your meaning, while for any understanding to actually grow, they will had to have traversed successfully many important crises (as well as failed in a fair number of others). The successful teacher has to deal in what are termed Didactic Models, so will have had to arrange for specially designed Didactic journeys on which to accompany his auditors, so that they are guaranteed to both suffer these crises and also see for themselves the necessary new paths required thereafter. You cannot merely tell them the answers, as people only ever really learn from their mistakes. Your job as a teacher is mainly to lead them to good vantage points, and even let them climb a few gum trees along the way, so that they, in the end, see for themselves where to go next.

Of course, what would be entirely inappropriate, would be to deliver to them exactly what I am endeavouring to achieve in this article. For one thing, you would not stay long in post if you did, and you wouldn’t get many takers either, because you would not be taking into account their age and experience – they wouldn’t really know what you were talking about!

Let us then consider my initial statement about World View and class position.

We have to start with Work. How do people get the necessary wherewithall to be able to support themselves in life. Historically, for the working class, it is mostly out of their hands, yet in a contradictory way, they are the people who construct, mend and adjust most things: they are the people who can make things work with practical skill. Yet the fruits of their labours do not belong to them. They get the minimum that their employers can get away with, and effectively have to work all their lives, owning nothing of what they have made.

Their education was not meant to equip them to rise above their normal state, though some (like me) did manage it. The education of the majority of the population was always to serve what they would need to be able to do as employees, and this has changed dramatically since my Grandmother had to bring up a family with literally zero education or income.

While the class I know very little about is that which sits on top of the whole structure and calls the shots, from the upper middle class upwards, the broad reaches of the lower middle class I know very well. I have worked with them in education literally all my life, and none of the real middle class do the kind of work that is familiar to the working classes, neither are they in supervisory roles, which are for a narrow band of workers, who from their detailed knowledge of poaching, make excellent game keepers. The middle class deal in design, teaching and various other professions, and they are usually paid fairly well, and don’t have the same money problems as the workers. There is more inheritance at that level, and financial support from parents who own property. And such advantages definitely produce their consciousness, and in particular their “rights” to such things.

But class has become a dirty word in our aspirational, consumer-capitalist country. People who once would have called themselves working class and been proud of it, now shrug and say “middle class… probably”. How has the fabric of our society changed? Are these real changes? Where do you really fit into it? Class is still as much of an issue as it was in 1950s Manchester, but how has our consciousness of it been changed? These are important questions to ask of yourself and society at large, but the answers won’t be easy or comfortable.

Shape.

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6 Comments

  1. Nice. Considering what class I come from has always been at the back of my mind but I’m not rushing to pigeon-hole myself with one label or the other. Probably the old working-class-that-thinks-he’s-middle-class class.
    Though it seems like the idea of class had been ignored for the past few years but is still very much a real thing and social mobility looks pretty stagnant from where I’m sitting.

  2. Our society celebrates the individual, celebrates success and doesn’t have much time for community or solidarity any more. While everyone just worries about their own social position inequality increases and people get in more debt, live beyond their means to appear further up the social ladder than they actually are. Thatcher and co pretty much destroyed the working class and made it something to be ashamed of, and in the process pretty much killed socialism – which was her aim.

    • Haha, just read your comment after posting mine mick, you echo my feelings exactly.

  3. The above I believe links to the socalled “freedom of choice” which we only think we have. It is sogoverned by our genes, our birthplace and our class. It is not easy to change our class wasy ofliving/thinking- ordo you not agree?

  4. I float from one class to the other, sometimes I’m unemployed (“underclass”), some times I work in “working class” jobs (park attendant, manual labour, retail – shop floor), sometimes professional (graphic design, accountancy). I come from a working class background, my father works at Land Rover as a machinist. But because my dad is very good with money (has 0 debt, has savings and has managed to pay-off his mortgage) he was able to get us a house in a lower/upper-middle class neighbourhood (Solihull). So, I really don’t know where I sit. I know one thing though, a high-flying career and lots of money/possessions/new things doesn’t appeal to me, well money would be nice because it affords you more freedom, but making lots of money and social status is not my number 1priority. Happiness is, and the happiness of those I care for, but what is forced down people’s throats on a daily basis via media/advertising is that money can buy you happiness in the form of that new car, that new kitchen, and the improved (or apparently improved) social status these things will bring you, etc, etc. A lot of people with least money for example try to seem of a higher social standing by buying products which promise to give that impression to others, and as a result they get in more debt and get trapped into social immobility. My father saved and did not fall into the trap of buying crap he didn’t need, as a result he has offered me and my sister more freedom and opportunities to brake-free of his working-class background.

  5. Definitely feel the same about my parents working and saving hard to allow their kids to break free from their working class past. My dad being a University lecturer and the income that afforded us would probably land me firmly in middle class territory, as would the way I currently earn a living… but my whole family outside the nuclear is working class really, and growing up in an ostensibly socialist family has definitely had an effect on how I view class and my position in the world.


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