Cath Elliott wrote an article in yesterday’s (29 June 2010) Guardian expressing why she is proud to be working class and why “middle class” is an insult she is happy to use — this even though she is aware that she and her partner have “been able to afford to take our children abroad for holidays, and in the grand scheme of things, we’re doing all right.” But, material possessions don’t define class if you’re “a bit of a Marxist”, rather it’s power and ownership of “means of production” (whatever those are now) that matters.
I think social class is important. From one perspective, there is a matrix of class locations related to what sort of skills you need to do your job, how many people you supervise, and whether you own or rent the place where you live (see, e.g., Wright, 1997). This does matter, in terms for instance of what kinds of people tend to talk to each other and (I imagine this is not too controversial) what groups are seen as “scum”. And politicians are affected too: Bigotgate is an unfortunate example.
Although social class matters, I believe it would be more helpful to isolate the meaningful bits of the concept “working class” and focus on those instead of hurling general and vague abuse at the non-working-class, whoever they are.
I’d rather I was never exploited by rude, authoritarian, belittling bosses — I expect others do too. It’s right for people to band together to protect themselves from abuses by people in power. This can be done on many levels, from simply refusing to use automated checkouts at supermarkets and instead talking to people and keeping them in a job, to joining a union and going on strike when the need arises.
The effects of unearned privilege annoy people, rightly, and I think we should continue to fight to ensure that some people aren’t forced into the gutter while others get $$$ in the millions for doing very little. Here I’m not sure how to proceed, but I’m pretty sure insulting the “middle classes” isn’t enough. Maybe everything should be made a little bit more “middle” in a way.
I also think it’s madness to try to remove all variation. Some people are better with their hands than others; some with technological skills like software development; some are better managers. The values of society need to change to allow and reward these different kinds of contribution so it’s not only those wearing suit and tie, spending the day in meetings and signing documents, who are seen as important in society.
Wright, E. O. (1997). Class counts: student edition. Cambridge University Press.