Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

The Condition of the Working Class: what’s changed?

Filmmakers Mike Wayne and Deirdre O’Neill discuss their new Engels-inspired documentary, The Condition of the Working Class, with Clive James Nwonka

May 21, 2013
9 min read


Clive James Nwonka is a British screenwriter/director


  share     tweet  

In 2012, a group of working class people from Manchester and Salford come together to create a theatrical show from scratch based on their own experiences and Engels’ book The Condition of the Working Class in England. They have eight weeks before their first performance. This film, The Condition of the Working Class, follows them from the first rehearsal to the first night performance – and situates their struggle to get the show on stage in the context of the daily struggles of ordinary people facing economic crisis and austerity politics.

The people who came together to do the show turned from a group of strangers, many of whom had never acted before, into the ‘Ragged Collective’ in little more than two months. The film, full of political passion and anger, is a wonderful testament to the creativity, determination and camaraderie of working people that blows the media stereotypes of the working class out of the water.

What was the motivation for this documentary?

The idea for the film originated a few years ago. We were working for a year in Venezuela. We read Engels’ book The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844, while we were there. We were struck by how relevant it remained at a time when the UK was dismantling its welfare state and returning to an unbridled 19th century capitalism where politics serves the rich. What’s changed? Some things have. When Engels wrote his book, working class political consciousness was very high and there was a thriving and independent working class culture. Today working people and their organisations in the UK, and especially England, have been broken up by years of attacks by neoliberal policies. We wanted to bring back a little flavour of that revolutionary spirit that was in Engels’ book and which we also found in Venezuela.

What was the production process like?

We issued an open call in the Manchester and Salford region asking for volunteers to take part in the project. The aim was to get people to devise and perform a play based on their own experiences and Engels’ text – so two things would follow. One, they would make the connections between Engels’ work and their own lives and two, they would tell their own stories. The idea was for the film to follow this process of bonding, of collaboration, of creativity, of storytelling and bring issues of class to the fore. At the same time we contextualised what was going on within the rehearsals with a wider look at austerity politics today as well as a historical look at the condition of the working class in the past, using archive footage and Engels’ words.

Documentaries, particularly ones with a fly on the wall aesthetic, often have an observational style that leads towards impartiality; you have a definite perspective on the issue. Was it always the intention to allow the actors to articulate their own experiences and interpretations of the book?

The whole idea for this film required setting up the situation – so we were never impartial observers who had stumbled onto something that would have been happening if we were not there. In that sense the film is in the tradition of cinéma vérité, which is often confused with observational cinema but is actually very different in that it allows for the filmmaker to take an interventionist position. This tradition has also resurfaced in a corrupt form in those TV documentaries where protagonists are set competitive tasks or goals by the filmmakers. The difference with our film is that we wanted people to work together (not against each other) on a political project.

Do you think that the times require a film or documentary culture that actually asks the big questions about British society?

There is a massive transformation in British society going on and the mainstream media are simply not covering it. The welfare state, which was established to provide some protective barriers between people and the market, is being dismantled. We are returning to the sort of laissez faire capitalism of the 19th century – which is another reason why we should also return to Engels today. There’s a corporate coup going on in this country but virtual silence from the mainstream media. The times themselves are producing a documentary culture that is asking the big questions.

The aim of the film was to draw parallels between the present situation and 1844. What are those parallels?

There are striking parallels between what Engels found in his examination of England at the start of the industrial revolution and today’s unleashed capitalism. The poor still work for subsistence wages, they still live in substandard housing, they are more unhealthy, they die younger, there is little social mobility, education is designed to prepare them for a life of servile jobs while the law, as Engels put it, ‘is a rod which the bourgeois has prepared for them’. Take for example what Engels says about the link between inequality and crime, and then think about what the representatives of the bourgeoisie said about ‘the sacredness of property’ after the riots that shook English cities in 2011. David Cameron described the riots as ‘criminality, pure and simple’.

How relevant do you feel Engels’ book is in the present day?

What is so powerful about Engels is that he cuts through to the fundamental power relations of society by writing about class. This is the category which politicians will not talk about, or have substituted with the prejudices of a out of touch elite, with talk of ‘scroungers’. The media meanwhile recycles one-dimensional stereotypes of class and much of academia has declared class to be an archaic concept. And yet the reality is without the category of class we literally cannot grasp the fundamental drivers of social change and endemic social problems. Engels’ book is thus not a historical curiosity but a reminder of what we have forgotten: that class is still relevant to understanding today’s society.

How much do you think that documentary practices can work as social practice, in terms of influencing society?

All cultural practices are social practices. Our cultural practice was different because of the way we worked. It was central to the project that working class people told their stories in their own way. The stories of the working class are not usually authored by the working class and that is the big difference. The domination of the media by a middle class increasingly remote from the lives and experiences of the working class means that those stories are filtered through an alien class prism. In order to influence society in a progressive direction, it is important to take account of the process of production and not just the final product. Within the traditional media the process of production is a hierarchical one, in which, when working class people are approached by the media, their images and words are expropriated, manipulated and distorted to fit a pre-existing narrative.

The interview with the young woman in the shoe store in Moss Side is a very emotional point in the documentary. But it also displays a multi-racial, collectivised working class experience.

One of the problems with the group of self-selecting people who came together to do the theatrical project is that they were all white. Initially around 30 people showed an interest in the project but that number halved once people realised the scale of the commitment that was required. There were some black and Asian people who were part of that initial group but they were among those who we subsequently lost. What we did not appreciate, as Londoners, is how much more segregated Manchester is in terms of the different communities that live there. So that is a problem insofar as the film is about this group of people doing the show, the film reproduces a problematically homogenous view of the modern working class. So we knew we had to try and correct that in the film. We went down to Moss Side and initially got little joy from potential interviewees, who when we asked them which class they belonged to, declared that they belonged to the ‘hustling class’ and would not speak on camera to us. Then we came across Angie and she gave us this incredibly powerful interview which we knew we wanted to use and ends up being a centre-piece moment in the film. We did find that a lot of people were angry; there’s this frustration and pain bubbling away underneath the surface, and you can see that in the course of the interview with Angie. This emotional and psychological dimensional to class oppression is very important. It is not just about ‘economics’ or ‘society’ as an abstraction, it is about the real costs on the lives of people.

The Condition of the Working Class will be screened in these venues in 2013. All screenings will be followed by a Q&A with the film’s directors.

May

Saturday May 25th: LA CASA, 2pm. 29 Hope Street, Liverpool L1 9BQ.

June

Thursday June 6th: The CLF ART CAFE, 7.30pm. 133 Rye Lane, London, SE15 4ST.

Friday June 7th: THE WORKING MEN’S COLLEGE, 7pm. 44 Crowndale Rd, London, NW1 1TR.

Tuesday June 11th: THE HOUSE OF COMMONS (GRAND COMMITTEE ROOM), 7.30pm (This is a public screening, but please allow 20 mins to get through security).

Wednesday June 12th: METAL AT EDGE HILL STATION, 6.30pm. Tunnel Road, Liverpool www.metalculture.com/

Sunday June 16th: UNOFFICIAL HISTORIES CONFERENCE. Details to be confirmed.

Saturday June 22nd: THE NEW THEATRE CONNOLLY BOOKS, 2pm. 43 Essex Street, Dublin.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Clive James Nwonka is a British screenwriter/director


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


134