Who are the working class?
...and where are their voices?
This is the third article in a series on class.
Thanks for reading,
Who are the working class?
'Working Class is not a problem to be solved
Not an accent to be lost
A savagery to be civilised
A roughness to be polished
A wideness in need of a particular type of participation
A background to be assimilated
A society that needs to be mobilised, to be somewhere else.’
Peter Shukie. The Working Class Academics Conference 2020.
Fifty or so people turned up to the Bowling Club in my little Welsh town of Machynlleth, for a launch of issue #1 of Lumpen - Journal for Poor and Working Class Writers. Some of us read our essays and poems out loud and afterwards we partied and talked about the need for spaces where working-class people can tell their stories, uninterrupted, in their own words, with their own voices.
It was one of the most empowering and unusual settings I’ve been in and it made me realise how rarely, we as working-class people hear our stories told by members of our own class. Society is all the poorer because of our missing voices - politically, culturally and socially.
Since that workshop, a couple of organisations have asked me to provide definitions of class and various tools to reduce classist structures.
This is the broad definition of class I usually provide, to get people started.
The National Readership Survey social grades - established over 50 years ago - is a commonly used British class classification system. You might recognise them as the A B C1 C2 D E classifications. It was generally a tool for market research surveys, established when there was still a large manufacturing base in Britain. It’s possibly pretty out of date in terms of representing demographic changes, as its focus is on occupation and education.
More recently a BBC survey updated class definitions including economic capital, like income, savings, house value, plus social capital, such as the number and status of people someone knows.
For background, of course there’s always the bearded grandfather of the class struggle, Karl Marx, who said class is “two great hostile camps…two great classes directly facing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” and our class position is tied to our relationship to the means of production and whether or not we have control over it. You can’t turn Marx’s life works into a paragraph but luckily Teen Vogue of all places wrote a pretty succinct summing up of Marxism.
Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis on the economic and cultural forms of capital is often very recognisable for those of us who have experienced intergenerational poverty and the social and cultural signifiers of being lower class, especially when confronted with middle class dominated environments.
The Centre for Labour and Social Studies, 2021 recently defined working class as:
‘1. Essential [workers] cleaners, drivers, nurses, retail cashiers, social care workers, security guards – and the list goes on.
2. The unemployed (whose ranks are drawn disproportionately from semi-routine and routine workers with lower employment security).
3. People from working-class backgrounds and who therefore, regardless of occupation and earnings, face greater insecurity and inequality in the labour market.
4. People who care for children and family outside of employment, and their contribution to working-class communities is just as crucial as that of employed workers.
5. Working-class people [who] are not in work for various other reasons, such as disability, long-term illness or mental health conditions.’
Some organisations use questions like ‘What was the occupation of your highest income parent at 14?’ (1) to help assess who the working class are in their staff. I’ve also been part of workshops designed to assess more intersectional disadvantages, that ask questions such as:
Did you have more than fifty books in your home growing up?
Did one or both of your parents attend university and at what age?
Did your parents own their own home?
Have any of your family members been arrested or in prison? etc…
Such questions can be useful for building a picture of class, especially where it intersects with racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia, but done thoughtlessly it can leaving working-class and marginalised people exposed and under scrutiny, unless the information leads to real change.
There’s also Katie Beswick’s brilliant paper on legacies of class that come from being raised and embedded in working-class families and communities, and the lasting impact this has on our lives - materially, bodily and culturally.
In ‘Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors’ D. Hunter, refers to the ‘poverty class’ who are ‘the part of the working class that is debased and demonised with the most regularity,’ and this demonisation also comes from ‘other strata of the working class,’ Those of us raised on council estates and from the poorest and most marginalised sections of the working class know this only too well.
What links us as a class?
So what links the working class together, as a class? Obviously there’s no ‘one’ working class, and I definitely don’t claim to be representative of the working class, but my experience of being in a large working-class family and community, plus many years of working in low income communities, and decades of reading the works of other working-class people, means I have some insight into what make us a ‘class.’
We are more likely to have precarious employment and have less control over our jobs and industries. We are likely to have experienced less choice in employment and education pathways. Not all working-class people are materially poor but we are more likely to be, in relation to ‘cradle to grave’ financial stability, like pensions, housing deposits, property and long term stability. We are less likely to have the connections or confidence that help secure well paid, creative or senior jobs. We are more likely to work harder for less long term gain. We are more likely to be living in precarious and more costly housing, especially if we are renting. Our lives are more likely to contain illness and disability - either our own or of our wider family. Our labour is more likely to be making money for someone else, whether through work or rent. We have a higher chance of slipping ‘downwards’ financially with the risk of never getting back up. We are more likely to have extended family members that we support, financially or physically. We are more likely to be unpaid carers or reliant on benefits.
According to oral history experts we are more likely to take part in oral traditions, i.e. the passing on of unrecorded stories through generations. However our lives are less likely to be recorded in the official canons of history. I’d argue we are more likely to have informal networks of sharing, the history of which is explored in ‘The Origins of the Welfare State’ by Bernard Harris. We are more likely to speak with regional accents and dialects. My own example of this are some particular Gloucester dialects that my sister and I use: ‘yeah, right,’ or ‘up town.’ One of my aunties used to write to me in a Gloucester accent: e.g. ‘I bin goin,’ instead of ‘I’ve been going to..’ Think of working class fiction writers, like Irvine Welsh, who authentically keep their local accents in their prose, bringing place to the page.
So where are the working class?
People like to get quite debate-y about class, and whilst understanding class theoretically, politically and abstractly can be useful, if there was one thing I would urge any middle-class person to do, to better understand what being working class is, it would be to follow as many working-class writers as possible from the full range of working-class experience - to read their novels, poems, essays and tweets. To view working class art on its own terms. The middle-class people I’ve met who manage to avoid classist cliches and understand these issues, tend to be the ones who’ve taken the time to listen to, and read the work of working-class people.
So, here’s an incomplete list of some people to read and follow. I’ve linked to some, but they are all easily google-able.
Image description: the cover of Water by Lloyd Jones, a climate fiction story of a Welsh working-class family. The cover depicts a painting of the sea.
There’s the literary histories of Raymond Williams, the stories of Pat Barker’s working class women, Beatrix Campbell’s Wigan Pier Revisited, Jack London’s extensive novels and stories. Irvine Welsh, Niall Griffiths, Crystal Jeans, Colin Burnett and Kit de Wall, Natasha Carthew’s forthcoming: Undercurrent: a Cornish Memoir of Poverty, Nature and Resilience. You can follow Working Class Literature for lots more.
There’s all the works and videos in the Working Class Movement Library. There’s the short stories of Happy Days by Jason Williamson, also the vocalist in Sleaford Mods. Chav Solidarity and Tracksuits, Traumas and Class Traitors by D. Hunter or the poetry collection: See What Life is Like by Dorothy Spencer. There’s the gorgeous reimagining of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists into a graphic novel by Scarlett and Sophie Rickard. There’s Lloyd Jones’s work including, Water, a tale of a working-class Welsh family struggling with the ecological crises, that weaves in Welsh language and culture.
Image description: a frame from the graphic novel: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. A woman cuts a slice of bread. A man in the background dries his socks over the hearth.
For environmentalists there’s Working-Class Environmentalism by Karen Bell, who interviews dozens of working-class environmentalists in her research. There’s the Working Class History podcast. For academics there’s the supportive space of the Working Class Academics and Teresa Crew’s work on class in academia.
For a deep look into working class communities there’s Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain by Lisa McKenzie and the soon to be released and much needed Lockdown Diaries of the Working Class by the same author. There’s the beautifully funny This Country. Dat’s Love and Other Stories by Leonora Brito, is fiction from the point of view of Black and Mixed Race women from Cardiff Docks. There’s Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton.
Image description: the cover of Dat’s Love and Other Stories by Leonora Brito, showing a black woman walking past a cafe, with shopping.
And, there’s Lumpen: The Journal of Poor and Working Class Writers that you can subscribe to. If you’re working class and reading this, and have something to write, you can submit and get paid. They say:
‘Expect to read first-hand accounts of life on the rock face of austerity, alongside critical assessments of the state of the left and activist culture. With poems about football, sex, and loss, stories of education and mis-education, dreams and adventures.’
I’m sure there are many working-class writers I’ve missed. Post them in the comments so we can share and uplift their work.
Next blog: A working class education. From the Miners' Libraries and Mechanics’ Institutes, to the Centre for Alternative Technology and beyond…
(1) Beswick, Katie. "Feeling working class: affective class identification and its implications for overcoming inequality." Studies in Theatre and Performance 40, no. 3 (2020): 265-274.