On twitter the other day Owen Jones started the tag #leftyancestors. The idea was that people shared their stories about the their ancestors involved in struggle. Lauris Penny made the comment heredity can be an unhelpful discourse on the left.
I replied to this that being working class is kind of hereditary and the that the “left” is working class struggle. I also accused her of being a tourist who’s playing at it. I apologised for this at the time, she’s not playing at it. Just because she doesn’t come from a working class background doesn’t mean that she is automatically irrelevant or wrong in any discussion. What she lacks, through no fault of her own, is experience of being working class.
The same is of course true for my ideas about feminism. I’m on the outside looking in, to say I’m opposed to patriarchy and sexism is fine but I lack the experience of being on receiving end of this particular injustice. This is important. I don’t experience it so who am I to identify the problems and to devise strategies and take a leading role in the fight against it? I’m a man, it would be a strange feminist movement that’s framed and led by me and other men.
I could also mention racism or disability and make the same points but my argument is that things all these things have in common – sexism, racism, disability – is that they are secondary to person’s class background. Class is the factor above all else that defines a person’s life. Laurie almost makes the same point in an article for the Independent Women “having it all” is a middle class myth
Usually, it’s poorer women being paid to do the domestic work, the “women’s work”, that those in high-salaried, full-time careers no longer have time for – and nobody asks whether it’s possible for a nanny or a cleaner to “have it all”.
The middle class woman has no more escaped patriarchy than the working class cleaner or nanny but her experience of it is very different. A working class disabled person is no more or less physically disabled than a middle class person by virtue of their class but their experience of life is likely to be radically different. Does it need to be said that the experience of a working class Asian immigrant working as say a taxi driver in Birmingham is going to be completely incomparable to that of Lakshmi Mittal?
Class is not simply a question of material wealth, there’s a cultural component that is equally, if not more important. The connections that a person makes growing up, the networks their families belong to which they can benefit from are largely a product of their class background. These connections are largely unavailable to working class people regardless of how well they do in terms of wealth accumulation.
The connections and the resources you have access to make you who you are – We’re a product of our material and social conditions.
There’s been a lot said lately by liberals (of the Libdem variety and others) about falling levels of social mobility. Crudely put, social mobility is people from low income working class backgrounds going to university, making connections, getting professional jobs and generally being better off than their parents. The important thing to bear in mind is that the current fall is not the anomaly, the high levels of social mobility seen during the post war boom – roughly 1945 to 1970 – were the anomaly. What we’re seeing now is a return to historic norms. During the 400 or so years preceding the post war boom social mobility was the exception, people died in the class they were born, father to son, mother to daughter expectations of life were the same. Right now we’re told that the young people can expect to be poorer than their parents.
The point of this is that the “left” if it means anything at all is the struggle of working class people to throw off the yoke of capitalism. The problems that we face as a class need to be defined by us, the struggle to improve our conditions must be led by us. Yes, we’re a diverse group but our class more than any other aspect of our identity makes us who we are, letting ourselves be divided along the lines of race, gender or sexuality only serves to weaken us just as we were weakened by the idea that a mortgage to buy a council house made us middle class. It didn’t, it trapped us in a whole new way.