As someone who chooses to self-identify as ‘working class’ and has written about being a ‘working class academic’, I really don’t understand why some people find it so problematic.
The reason I say this is because I repeatedly find myself being drawn into debates about the need to find a ‘better’ or more ‘appropriate’ way to describe those who like me refer to themselves as ‘working class’ without any problem whatsoever. These debates have been ongoing for a few years now, cropping up again recently when I was asked whether ‘socio-economic status’ is a better way of referring to ‘class’ and whether ‘low income family’ is less derogatory (their words, not mine) than ‘working class’.
The ‘problem’ is far from exclusive to the personal and professional spaces I frequent. Take for instance the Guardian newspaper which for whatever reason seems to challenge the validity of ‘working class’ at least once every decade (in 2011 and in 2021). What really interests me though is why ‘working class’ appears to be enduringly problematic for some and why ‘class’ — ‘working class’ in particular — is considered, conceived and duly responded to in markedly different ways to other markers of identity.
Below, I set out some thoughts along with a potential explanation or two.
Identity Choices and Unpacking the Alternatives
In recent decades, there has been a marked shift in how we understand and define our multiple identities. Drawing on Social Identity Theory, the ability to choose one’s identity — or identities — is vitally important on the basis it reifies notions of the self, instils pride in who we are, and strengthens our sense of belonging to certain groups and communities. Unsurprising then that just a few months ago, British Parliamentarians recommended that transgender people should have the right to choose their gender themselves rather than have it assigned or imposed upon them in line with societal norms. Given the same already applies to ethnicity, religion and sexuality, then why not extend the right to choose to all markers of self-identity irrespective? Given that not doing so runs the risk of establishing precedents that hierarchize markers of identity, the benefits of extending choice is something of a no-brainer.
When it comes to trying to find an alternative for ‘working class’, it’s important to stress that there’s no evidence to suggest that those who already choose to self-identify as such either want an alternative or are participating in the ongoing search to find one. For those who are searching for an alternative, one of the most often cited is ‘socio-economic status’: more specifically, ‘low socio-economic status’. Despite its popularity, I can’t recall a single occasion when I’ve heard anyone self-identify on the basis of their perceived or actual ‘socio-economic status’. As such, it immediately feels somewhat baseless. That it has no clear resonance with or meaning to the ‘working class’, also means that it has the very real potential to negate — even erase — the histories and heritages that shape and inform the notions of self and pride deemed so important previously.
Similar too ‘low income family’, a term that also lacks any of the relative comparability ‘working class’ duly affords. So while ‘working class’ can be compared with middle, upper-middle and upper class — all of which are known and variously used — the same would not apply to ‘low socio-economic status’: neither medium nor high being applied to ‘socio-economic status’ on the basis that all would infer greater wealth and thereby the notion of being ‘better off’, something few are likely to want to either identify with or duly advertise. From the point of view of those deemed ‘low income families’, reducing how they are identified and subsequently made known to income and wealth is far more problematic than referring to them as ‘working class’. This is because ‘low income’ is largely equivalent to ‘poor’, ‘deprived’ or similar. Ironic then that in my most recent conversations, ‘low income families’ was suggested as being less derogatory than ‘working class’.
The Root of the ‘Problem’
If none of the proposed alternatives are any better or more appropriate than ‘working class’, then why are some so seemingly intent on stopping those who want and are content o self-identify in such ways? While the reasons are far from clear, two factors seem to be important.
The first relates to how since the late 1970s, Britain’s political elites — spanning both the Conservative and Labour parties — have routinely stigmatised and problematised the ‘working class’. From Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme through Iain Duncan-Smith’s social mobility strategy to Angela Rayner’s proposed Social Mobility Commission, politicians have sold the meritocratic narrative that the ‘working class’ should aspire to be ‘middle class’. According to the narrative, so awful is it to be ‘working class’ that no right-minded individual would ever want to be — let alone remain — in the lower echelons of the social strata. As Cynthia Cruz puts it in “The Melancholia of Class: a Manifesto for the Working Class”, this is because the ‘working class’ are seen and understood as an undesirable monstrosity that has little value or worth.
The second relates to something I first encountered a few years back when I heard John Denham — the former New Labour minister — speak about social identity at Birmingham City University. According to him, not only do the liberal middle classes perceive the (specifically white) ‘working class’ to be lazy, uneducated, bigoted, racist and more but more importantly, they do not like them. Because today’s Labour Party is a political party run by the liberal middle classes for the liberal middle classes he went on, so it would struggle to retain much of its traditional support: the subsequent decimation of Labour support in its historical heartlands proving him right. What Denham inferred, Paul Embery made explicit. In his book “Despised: why the modern left loathes the working class”, Embery describes the liberal middle classes as an ‘arrogant elite’ that loathes the ‘working class’ and all that they are seen to stand for.
Fear and Loathing Among the Liberal Middle Classes
This is relevant to the ‘working class problem’ because as Embery goes on, it is the liberal middles classes who are currently at the forefront of ‘enforcing’ what he refers to as an ‘official orthodoxy’ about a whole range of social, political and cultural matters. Seen through this lens, not only is the notion of choosing to self-identify as ‘working class’ an anathema to the liberal middle classes but so too is it incomprehensible: why would anyone want to self-identify with something they perceive to be despicable and loathsome?
Weave in the meritocracy myth and the reason why the liberal middle classes appear content to tell the ‘working class’ how to self-identify when they wouldn’t dare contemplate anything similar in relation to any other marker of identity also begins to make sense. Put simply, this is because the liberal middle classes — the ‘arrogant elite’ — innately believe they know better than those they look down upon. So embedded and normalised is this, the liberal middle classes are unable to see that this is in fact the real problem here: hence why when the liberal middle classes are challenged about this, they respond with incredulity and dismissive confusion.
Given the where and why, conversations about ‘working class’ as a marker of self-identity are unlikely to go away any time soon. Likewise also, the ongoing quest to find a ‘better’ or ‘less derogatory’ alternative. Irrespective of when a solution is found, remember that whatever the newly anointed alternative to ‘working class’ might be it will only be ‘better’, more ‘appropriate’ and ‘less derogatory’ to the liberal middle classes. It is also worth noting that any abandonment of the term ‘working class’ will not mean that the ‘working class’ no longer exist.
Whether this results in those who choose to self-identify as ‘working class’ feeling any less marginalised or less discriminated remains to be seen. Personally — and professionally — I doubt it very much: changing terminology will do little to address the structural issues that underpin all forms of inequality and discrimination. But that has never been the reason for any of these wholly unnecessary conversations has it? It’s always been about loathing and despising the ‘working class’, nothing more nothing less. It’s a shame the liberal working classes are blind to this.