Class – why bother?

April 9, 2013 12:47 pm

classic FMI haven’t quite yet finished my degree – I’m just about to finish my second year reading Welsh and Politics at Cardiff University – but I am educated. I got 460 UCAS points, thank you very much. I’m the type of person who listens to Classic FM when I’m writing essays. I go to meetings, and conferences, and workshops. ‘Spring’ being chilly as it is, I’m adorned in a grey, knee-length coat.

Undeniably middle class, you might think. One could hardly imagine someone working class listening to classical music, or wearing a flappy, grey jacket. Perish the thought! (I hope that my sarcasm is detectable.)

Well, you see, the thing is. I wouldn’t like to think of myself as being middle class. My mother is a civil servant of almost 30 years, and my father a baker who has also worked underground, and in the auto industry. I was raised in a 2-and-a-half-bed mid-terrace cottage in a tiny village, (which has nothing more than one school, one church, one small shop, one run-down pub, and one Cantonese take-away) on the border between industrial South Wales and the rural West. We’ve never been poor, but I can assure you that my dad would burst a blood vessel at the thought of being middle class.

How do I fit into that, then? I don’t live in that small, mid-terrace cottage any more; I share a house with 5 other students. I don’t live in South West Wales any more; I live, more or less, in the centre of Cardiff. Now, I know Cardiff is no London or New York, but it is a world away from my little village at home. I’m not a civil servant, nor a fitter in a coal mine, nor a baker; I’m a student who, assuming that the employment market will somehow miraculously pick up during the next few years, will probably end up with a desk job, working 9-5 Monday-Friday, wearing a shirt and tie every day. My job will almost certainly not be what one would traditionally categorise as working class.

BBCClassSurvey

That said, I don’t think of myself as being middle class either. So, what am I to do? Well, helpful as ever, the BBC has come up with the Great British Class Survey, the results of which suggest that there are now 7 classes in the UK. Against my better judgement, I took their test. Apparently, I’m a member of the ‘precariat’ – the lowest of the low. (As a point of particular interest – my home county borough of Neath Port, Talbot is considered one of the top 3 locations for the precariat.) ‘This’, they say, ‘is the poorest and most deprived group.’ The survey’s results suggest that I tend to mix socially with people similar to myself, I come from a working class background, and I rent my home. The BBC’s results would think that I would be a ‘cleaner, van driver [or] care worker’, I would ‘tend not to have a broad range of cultural interests’ (even though I answered in the survey that I listen to classical and jazz, I visit museums and galleries, and – get this – I use social media, and, for the record, I’m politically active and I like to think of myself as a bit of a journalist), and I would probably live in ‘old industrial areas away from urban centres.’

What does this tell me? Frankly, not very much. The BBC classify me as a member of the ‘precarious proletariat’, however I’m nearing the end of a really good degree, I live in my country’s capital city, and for God’s sake, I listen to Classic FM. So… what? Are class boundaries shifting? Are class definitions changing?

I wager that there has always been more than three classes. The unemployed have always had a class of their own, and there are more unemployed people today than for many years, so that’s a pretty sizeable amount of people if you ask me.

That said, I could also suggest that in Wales, there have only ever been two classes – y Werin (the folk) and y Crachach (the posh people). The Gwerin – the workers. The Crachach – the rulers. Now, in that sense, I come from a ‘Gwerin’ background, but I’m now in the ‘Crachach’ – I almost have a degree in Welsh, I live in Cardiff, and I’m socially-, culturally-, and politically engaged.

So. So, so, so. What does that mean for me? What class am I – really?

How’s this? Class, actually, is a load of old tripe. The thing is, we’re all so obsessed with how we’re perceived and what we possess that, you know, we’re forgetting what’s important. I mean, what does it matter if I pay the odd visit to the National Museum Cardiff? Does it make a difference whether I listen to Classic FM or Capital FM? As it happens, I listen to both. But that’s exactly the point! Nowadays, we cannot be defined and categorised by such simple things. Orwell wrote that Britain is ‘the most class-ridden society under the sun.’ You know what? I think our obsession with our class – with where we slot into the apparently all-important social hierarchy – has caused the class system itself to implode.

What we have now, though, is an entirely different situation. Those in the working class or the precariat, (call it whatever you like), may well have stereotypical working class traits, but may also do things, or say things, or enjoy things that the middle class would also stereotypically do, or say, or enjoy, and vice versa. So, yes, traditional class boundaries have shifted, and definitions have changed.

But, what’s really clear is that we have is the privileged and the repressed. I may have a working class background, and I may think of myself as struggling for money, and I can’t afford a holiday, and I can’t shop in Waitrose. But for God’s sake, I’m in University, I can afford to have a night out with my friends at least once a week, I can afford to travel back and forth between Uni and home, and I can actually afford to heat my home, power my home, pay the rent, and actually put food on the table too. I’m lucky.

rich and poorThen, because of decades of under-investment, neglect, and the by now socially normal mode of thinking that ‘he’s below me, he’s above me’, you have the ‘repressed.’ These are the people who are most tragically affected by public spending cutbacks, by so-called benefit reforms, by inexcusable and apparently unending Government ignorance towards the fact that the gap between rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, seems to be getting ever larger. Often, through no fault of their own, these people are kept down – held back – by social structures and norms which we all seem ever so happy to accept so long as we ourselves are above someone.

So, we can harp on all we like about what class we’re in – be that one of the traditional three or one of the new seven – and we can talk about the deserving and the undeserving, the workers and shirkers, the strivers and the skivers, but unless we change our mindset that so long as we’re above someone else all is well, nothing will ever change.

When we talk about those who deserve or don’t deserve, who work or shirk, who strive or skive, all we do is buy into an idea born of the über-upper-echelons of the privileged classes that we peasant-folk can be divided and conquered, and they – those who repress us – can grow evermore prosperous, and the gap between the privileged and the repressed can grow ever wider.

We have a duty – if not to ourselves then to each other – to forget about being precariat, or emergent service workers, or established middle class, or whatever else, and to stand together against repression. People like me who are fortunate enough to be in University. Others who have to make the choice between gas and electricity, and food on the table. Let’s all wake up and remember that there are those ‘above’ us, whose ideas of ‘big society’ only serve to allow them to prosper more than ever, and to keep us down here in our proper station.

Enough is enough, we need a change.

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