Personal Blog of Mark Hoskins – Anarchist Writer and Community Organiser
“I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by the investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew—at least they claimed to be Communists—couldn’t have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic. Besides they were too busy fighting among themselves.” – John Steinbeck
I love white runners, I have two pairs of them, one adidas and one le coq. They have a rep for being “skangery” as snobs like the lovin’ crew like to remind us from time to time, but in my book, if it’s a sunny day and you’re not wearing white runners, I don’t want to know you. White runners are class, if a little impractical for the Irish climate, but they aren’t what makes me working class.
I go to football on Friday nights, at which, while wearing popular terrace clothing labels, I sing for my team, Bohs and shout my frustration at players, match officials and opposition fans. This might be a typically working class thing to do, but it also isn’t what makes me working class. Nor does the fact that I like craft beer and jazz make me middle class.
There’s a list of things that people playing working class top trumps like to wheel out to prove they are prolier than thou, but these things are socio-cultural by products of class society and possession of a pair of white runners or a childhood on a council estate doesn’t automatically make you working class. For example, you can have a “working class accent” but run your own small business. That makes you middle class – petit bourgeois to use the old fashioned Marxist term.
What makes you working class then? When you have nothing to sell but your limbs, your brainpower and your precious time, when your main source of income is wage labour, you are working class. Why am I getting so het up about this? Well one of the key tasks that socialists, anarchists and communists should concern themselves with is building class consciousness. To eliminate class society, the majority first needs to recognise it’s own class position and not revel in it but resolve to obliterate it.
Turning class into an identity that you hold onto from birth to death can be divisive in the extreme. It says that people who have a certain accent, certain post code and a certain lifestyle are working class, and if you don’t have those attributes you must be middle class. It’s an attitude that is keenly fostered by the establishment, because it categorises the majority as middle class and sends the subliminal message that these people have a class interest in identifying with the state and existing property relations. It also regulates behaviour and suggests that people who are considered working class should not take an interest in so called high culture, philosophy, political theory and should avoid anything with ‘big words’.
I was considered to be a weird kid because of my interest in such things. I don’t see why. Both my parents left school at the age of fourteen, but both are and always were avid readers. They always encouraged me to read, to learn, and when it became clear that I had a talent for writing, to do that too. There is a rich tradition of working class intellectualism that was always fostered within the mass working class organisations like the Italian Communist Party, the anarcho-syndicalist CNT in Spain and the German SDP in it’s heyday. It is a tradition that the establishment rightly sees as a mortal danger and attempts to destroy through culture policing.
The other insidious element to the ethnisation of class is that the establishment from time to time groom bona fide stereotypical working class types to wheel out to defend the status quo. “Look, here’s a working class person who thinks what we think.” They don’t actually care for the person, whom they usually hold in disdain, laughing behind their backs, but they are a useful tool to discipline working class people. Noel Gallagher is a great example of this. He was the “working class” poster boy of “Cool Britannia”, attended parties with Tony Blair and gave New Labour’s anti-working class poison a sort of prole credibility. Of course nowadays, Noel hangs around with establishment figures and his brother Liam gives him grief on twitter for liking nice wine, one business man to another attempting to enforce working class cultural norms.
More recently here in Ireland, we’ve seen the establishment’s token “working class” man, Mannix Flynn being given a platform on TV and the Joe Duffy show to demonise working class people and to shower disdain on class politics. His opposition to the Apollo House occupation was lapped up by the Irish media. But though Mannix comes from a disadvantaged background and displays the requisite working class mannerisms to play the role, he is actually middle class – he doesn’t sell his labour, he runs his own arts company, Farcry Productions.
It’s not that there is no basis to working class culture, of course there is, but it stems from property relations. That the vast majority of people living in disadvantaged areas are working class should be no surprise, they are the ones in the lowest paying jobs, who can go through long spells of unemployment and that a culture should spring up amongst these conditions is natural. But the majority of the working class in Ireland do not live in typically disadvantaged areas. They live in city apartments, new build housing estates in the suburbs and modern tenements masquerading as flats among other places. As well as being cleaners and factory workers, they are bank clerks, baristas, office workers, sex workers, teachers and retail workers. The one unifying factor is that they sell nothing but their time and personal attributes in order to pay for the roof over their head and put food on the table and, that “they have nothing to lose but their chains.”
Aside from that unifying factor, there are many differences. You can have a tech engineer in google earning big bucks – technically working class, but the salary that gives them a comfortable lifestyle encourages them to be invested in the maintenance of the dominant social order. They are a far cry from the inner city council flat dweller, or the immigrant in the modern tenement in Rathmines. Chances are the well paid google tech isn’t going to be radicalising anytime soon, and probably won’t until such a time when the dominant social order starts to unravel and is no longer a safety net for them.
On the other side of the coin you might have a person from a traditional working class background who owns a small building or plumbing firm that employs four or five people. They are middle class but they might well identify with their working class background and because of their accent, address or cultural traits they can still face discrimination. They are more likely to be stopped by Gardaí than the google tech engineer, they might get turned away from an upmarket bar when the doorman hears their accent, and obviously any leftie worth their salt will oppose this discrimination. All of which makes an excellent case for an identity politics of the disadvantaged.
On its own, set up in opposition to other identities and indeed genuine class politics, this could become divisive, but as part of an intersectional approach, it can be a powerful tool in opposition to capitalism and hierarchy and be a weapon of class struggle alongside syndicalism, feminism, anti-racism and anarchism. As Audre Lorde wrote, “there’s no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives”, and oppressions don’t occur in a vacuum so they should not be fought as if they are. They are part of a tangled web that the establishment weaves, to divide us and to deceive us into believing we are enemies when we should be building alliances.