Class Identity in England

Class identity can most simply be understood by looking at how we percieved our heritage and surroundings in the first few years of our life. It is widely agreed that the human personality is largely formed before the age of seven. This underlies any change of lifestyle we may take on later in life.

At the deeper levels of our identity we need to look at our predominant influences and experiences up to, approximately, age seven. Usually this is the employment and lifestyle of our parents and guardians. In the present, we may have employment or other life conditions which demand a quite different identity. This contemporary identity overlays, but does not replace, the early life structuring.

Surveys on class do not tend to differentiate between these two levels of class identity which may be quite different, or even painfully in opposition; as in the case of the working class youth who is suddenly packed off to a private school. The best survey of recent sociological research I found when doing this book is by Fiona Devine.

"People have many different identities, including a strong class identity, which co-exist at the same time. That said, their class identity is the most important influence on the formation of political perspectives" (Devine, 1992, p.229).

This summary is based on the findings of two major research programmes. Marshal et al (1988), and Saunders & Emmison & Western (1990). Devine finds that these two surveys both collected similar data though they differed in its interpretation. I would add that people can also have two class identities which co-exist at the same time although this often leads to confusion and a subsequent denial of class identity.

Family and language groupings, and occupational groups, might be identified with more readily than class, but 60% of the survey sample thought that they belonged to one particular class, 75% believed people were born into a particular class and tended to stay there, and that class is an inevitable feature of society. Half the sample agreed that there is an economically and politically dominant class and a subordinate class.

This is backed up by most recent Economist survey reported in The Independent (19.12.92) with the headline 'Oxbridge Men Still Dominate Top Jobs'.

"Two-thirds of the people in Britains's most senior posts are the products of public schools"; "Class and gender play as much part in career advancement as they did 20 years ago"; "Only 11 had no higher education, compared to more than twice as many twenty years ago, leading the economist to comment that 'the day of the elementary-school-boy-made-good has gone'".

The people interviewed did not tend to make a distinction between working and what is now commonly called middle class. They pointed out similarities of income and standard of living of people in both classes. Life styles and leisure pursuits were not seen so rigidly linked to class as they used to be. There is more flexibility here and this was considered a good thing.

I would comment that this is true only in a crude way. For instance' although 'anyone' plays golf nowadays, if you look at the clubs there is still a class hierachy. The respondents seemed to be over optimistic about attributes like accent. This may be due to the location of the survey, in which conflict with 'received English' was not an big issue. Certainly a cockney or Birmingham accent will still reduce your social mobility drastically.

"They now enjoyed homes of their own, cars, and an array of domestic appliances. They enjoyed holidays abroad, they bought fashionable clothes and spent money on leisure activities. Their parents had never afforded such luxuries which had been the preserve of the middle class in the past. As one interviewee suggested:

'I think I'd class myself as middle class although I'm probably not at all but things have changed from what we've got and what I had when I was a child. I've definitely come up a rung since then. We've got possessions, we go abroad on holiday, we own our own house although everyone seems to do that now. We might be all in the same class with the working class. There's this group all lumped together.'
In many respects it seemed as if the interviewees were aware of absolute changes in income and standards of living, enjoyed by almost all since the Second World War, while recognising the persistence of relative differences between the classes.
Class distinctions, therefore, were less distinct and more subtle than they were in the past, especially in the domain of consumption, yet, at the same time, the interviewees knew that they were working class as well" (Devine, 1992).

Mind you, some people observed these differences even before the consumerist proliferation since the last World War.

"We must recognise that our working-class is semi-bourgeois and neither ignore the fact of its being bourgeois nor that it is only semi. Anyone with an appreciation of social forces will at once see how immensely important it is that there should grow up in the decline of capitalism a class that possesses some of the cultural advantages of the bourgeois without having to pay for them by allegiance to a bourgeois conception of society. The appearance of this class is of vast significance. It may yet give to the Anglo-Saxon countries the lead in the establishment of Communism" (Common, 1933).

Working Class Identity in the USA

"Professionalisation has largely replaced entrepreneurship as the basis for the widespread view, even among the popular left, that America is a middle-class society" (Aronowitz, 1992).

This illusion is fostered by the media where working class identity is denied any existence. For most of the young a working class identity is no longer a viable option. There is a false equation of class and status. So if the unskilled becomes skilled, if the manual worker moves to intellectual work, if a lay person becomes a 'professional', then they succeed in not being working class. The middle class label can even be earned through consumption of the right things such as home ownership and of course, within my lifetime, most Westerners have become much richer in terms of gadgets.

Set against this change of labels is the reality that there is an increasing proletarianisation in which more than 80% of the employed US population is now reckoned to be working for large corporations.

Historically immigrants to the US preserved their existing class status in the new country. The resulting ethnic hierachy continues to the present day:

The North Europeans come out on top (mainly Germans and Irish);

the East Europeans come next (peasant stock);

the Southern Europeans next (mainly from Sicily and Greece);

the Blacks (Africans, Caribbeans, Native peoples, Mexicans etc) come last.

Although equal opportunities and the civil rights movement have created a class of black professionals, they have done nothing for the black poor who still suffer at the bottom of the working class heap. As the professional blacks are visible in the media it gives the impression, that the condition of blacks is improving. The theory is that black self-esteem will rise and allow upward mobility. It is more true to say that it increases expectations but not numerical access. It is also contradictory to raise black self-esteem but not to raise working class self-esteem. In reality the two are meshed so that 'raising Black self-esteem' comes to mean, raising middle class black self-esteem. The same is true for the Italians, who are not much better off. Italian sterotypes rarely go challenged in spite of Scorcese's pioneering work with Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellows.

The traditional organised working class was finally destroyed in the USA, in the fifties, by the House Un-American Activities along with the FBI (see The Un-American by Emmanuel Fried, Labor Art Books, 1992). This whole era of repression, which was incredibly vicious, destroying many lives, has largely been covered up. But as Stanley Aronowitz points out, more US people now work for massive corporations than they ever did. So the proletariat, by this classic definition, is larger than ever. The gulf between rich and poor is also wider than ever.

Class Identity in Germany

President Hoover described the situation in Western Germany in 1947 as having sunk to the worst level of destitution seen in Europe for one hundred years. The emphasis for most Germans was on basic survival. Old class networks were active on a social level but they were invisible politically.

Official images of West Germany have been marked by an absence of any reference to class divisions. However, academic studies show a quite different picture. Germany is perhaps remarkable for the extent to which the population keeps up a pretence or delusion that class does not exist. The Nazis had forbidden any discussion of class and this could not change in the climate of the cold war in which it was clearly best for the Germans to keep their heads down and be as politically liberal as possible. The disastrous consequences of authoritarian regimes had left the Germans with no stomach to admit to any dominance and subservience in their society. At the same time it is endemic to the structure of capitalism -- so it has to be hidden.

Studies show figures of between 1 and 4.6% to be in the 'upper stratum'. At both ends of the social scale there is a sense of achievement in hiding your class background. The common idea that the 'worker is stupid' is a frequent self put-down. The educated white-collar working class feel culturally and socially superior even when they actually earn less.

The myth that everyone is equal, that the good things of the dominant class are available to all, and that everyone can begin to be an 'owner', is rife. Ascent up the social scale is still based to a large extent on social background. But this is hidden "out of consideration for the unions and works councils" (Marwick, 1986, p.148).

Due to a long tradition of private rented housing the division of class along the lines of public housing was never an issue as it was in Britain. In the eighties the lower 50% of the population were represented by only 3% of the parliament, although the next 25% of the working population (salaried/educated etc) had about 25% representation.

Although accent is not such an issue as in Britain due to the diversity of acceptable regional accents there are still linguistic and cultural codes, which act as social filters. This is one of the factors that prevent working class students entering university. Although it is going up slowly since the war only some 15% of students had working class fathers in 1978, lagging considerably behind Britain.

Germany has a similar class structure to all capitalist countries but it has been terrorised out of awareness. Unification and economic strength could provide the independence and security to allow class awareness to flourish, but surely it will be hard fought.

So roughly the same thing is happening in Britain, USA and Germany apart from the surface differences. There is a new 'middle class' identity which has been taken on by salary earning white-collar brain workers. In the main this is not the culture of the original 'bourgeois' middle class although it apes and parodies it in a few ways. This tends to distort the basic reality of a vast majority of people employed by a very few rich people. The basic mechanisms of exploitation, oppression and good taste have remained the same.