Amol Rajan: The atomised poor have replaced the 'working class'

 

Last night's London Evening Standard carried a superb piece of reportage on the August riots. Four teenagers, who spoke to the journalist Bel Drew on condition of anonymity, went into great detail about their involvement in the recent violence. Several of their remarks were intelligent, not least the distinction they made between "looters", who were in it for the freebies, and "rioters", who were in it for political reasons.

But one remark struck me more than any other. "Sometimes there aren't all the necessary funds all the time," said "Tyrone", who lives alone with his ill mother, "but we're just like any working-class family, everyone is struggling."

When did you last hear a young person refer to himself or herself as "working class"? I remember a fabulous moment in John Prescott's documentary about class in Britain a couple of years ago, when he asked a girl from a poor family if she was working class. "But I don't work!" she retorted, evidently having never heard the phrase.

"Tyrone" might think he is working class, but he is chasing phantoms. The working class doesn't exist. The term became popularised in early Marxist literature, when the proletariat, to give them their other label, were talked of in terms of their revolutionary potential.

The working class that Karl Marx and his followers venerated had two properties which today's mostly poor do not. First, they worked as manual labourers, toiling physically to produce goods. Now, many such jobs have been outsourced, either overseas or to machinery: witness the decline in British manufacturing.

Secondly, "working class" referred to a solidarity among a certain sector of society. Class-consciousness meant thinking: "We're all in this together – but some of us are more in it than others." Bear that in mind next time you hear George Osborne trot out his favourite phrase.

What has replaced the working class is an atomised poor, more removed from the rest of society – in financial, political, and geographic terms – than ever. The solidarity is gone; that class-consciousness is a faded idea.

The reasons for this are several, from immigration to the weakening of trade unions. We shall return to them in a future column. For now, suffice to say that whether he works or not, "Tyrone" is not a member of a working class in any historically meaningful sense of that term, and his chances of being emancipated from poverty are suffering as a result.

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