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.

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss